Partnering with the Dallas Women’s Foundation and the Dallas Women Lawyers Association, the Dallas Bar has created the new program, Women Empowered to Lead in the Legal Profession, or “WE LEAD” for short. Some of the female lawyers in the inaugural class come from firms like Norton Rose Fulbright, Jackson Walker, Sidley Austin, Jones Day and Haynes and Boone.
Dallas Bar President Michael Hurst created the leadership program, which aims to address the challenges women face in the law by empowering and educating them to make their law practices more successful and prepare them to be leaders.
Texas Lawyer spoke with program chair Shonn Brown, partner in Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas, to discuss background around the new program. Here are Brown’s answers, edited for brevity and clarity.
What are the reasons why the Dallas Bar wanted to create this program?
First of all, women are the majority in law school: they are 50 percent in most law schools and a number of the first-year classes of lawyers, when they start out, are majority women. There are a number of programs focused on helping women to succeed in the firm or corporate environment for the first one to five years. There are a number of programs that speak to women on the cusp of partnership. But there weren’t any programs we were able to identify that spoke to the unique issues of women who have made partner—eight to 15 year lawyers—who need to additionally succeed in developing their business plans, leading within their organizations, and pushing up in the next level of leadership.
The inaugural class of 24 women are coming from some big, prestigious law firms. How did you pick them? What qualities are you looking for in participants?
We were looking for women who had practiced for some time, either in their community, firm or organization. We also wanted to make sure we had a diversity in terms of practice: We wanted some big firms, some small firms. We wanted some in-house. We have a woman in education. We wanted transactional, litigation, real estate intellectual property. In addition to the skills they learn in the class, it’s important for them to create a cohort for themselves, so they can have a network.
What are the challenges that these women are facing in the legal profession?
Business development is always a challenge: how to develop business; how to make the connections. Communication is a large part of our first session: how you present yourself in a unique and different way, using the talents specific to you and your skill set and tool kit. Having a meaningful role to serve clients—not just being “on the team,” not just being a worker bee, but truly being someone at the top of the pyramid, helping to make strategic decisions and doing so with confidence and ability. Also, balancing the many different hats that women wear: oftentimes, family obligations, personal obligations, and things that do take us outside the business of the practice of law. We have to be very efficient with our time.
What’s an extra challenge that female lawyers with eight to 15 years of experience are facing?
At their level, they are in the minority. They are learning at their level how to integrate themselves in the team, and add value and also lead in an environment where they slipped from being majority to minority. They’ve gone through law school, and all this time, and been above 50 percent. Then all of a sudden, the ones who pushed through end up less than 20 percent.
Why is it so important that women lawyers become leaders in their firms or companies?
Studies have shown or it’s often talked about that having diversity of thought on your team is important—it produces better results; it produces richer discussions. We are in the services industry, and all our clients are selling some sort of product. Whatever our clients are in the business of, they also speak to a diversity of individuals. It’s important to have our voice at the table, because rich discussion is created when we are there.
Getting down to the nuts and bolts, how does the program work? What does it do?
There are four modules we have come up with. The most recent module was how to tell your story, how to market yourself, tell what you do. We talked about the differences in how you communicate, depending on who your audience is. We also had a specific discussion about business development. We will have a catch-all, which includes work-life balance, the business of the practice of law, and how to get origination credit. In between the classroom modules, there’s homework. After this most recent session, the women will write down some pieces of telling their story. They will have small mentor groups that will go over with them what they wrote down. They will have to create a business development plan for one homework assignment.
What do you hope these women will continue doing for networking after they’ve completed the program?
I hope they will have an alumni group and a network of women on whom they can call and bounce ideas off of and rely on. I think part of the experience of being at that level is you feel that no one is going through what you are going through. You don’t have people who have a shared experience to talk about and work through issues. I hope they themselves will come through this with some success in a tangible sense from their business perspectives and have success stories to share for other women who will come behind them.
How long will the Dallas Bar put this program on?
It is a presidential initiative, but often, the Dallas Bar has presidential initiatives that become banner programs. It could continue and I don’t know what that looks like: it could be annual, or something every other year, or something that doesn’t come back. I’m hopeful it does. We had over 80 women apply for 24 spots—so there was a great need!
Angela Morris is a freelance reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @AMorrisReports