Why talk about power?

Power is part of leadership. Women comprise just 15 percent of equity partners and hold only 20 percent of the seats on the highest governing committees at the nation’s top law firms, according to the “Report of the Seventh Annual National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms,” a forthcoming study by The National Association of Women Lawyers and The NAWL Foundation.

Now, more than ever, as legal organizations adopt new strategies to deal with a rapidly changing profession, women’s voices are desperately needed at the table. Studies by Catalyst and other organizations show increased profitability and lowered risk with three or more women on corporate boards.

Power impacts success and satisfaction. The reality is that women succeed within their organizations when their ambition is fed, their contributions valued and their work-life balance manageable. Challenging assignments, equitable compensation and access to flexible schedules all flow from having power.

Power creates choices. Equity partners working part-time experience less stigma than fixed income partners, according to a September 2009 study for the Project for Attorney Retention, “Reduced Hours, Full Success: Part-Time Partners in U.S. Law Firms.” The power derived from having a book of business gave the part-time partners the ability to take lead roles in their cases, to structure the work on their cases in a manner consistent with their schedules and the work, to choose the attorneys with whom they worked and to negotiate for proportional compensation.

Power affects pay. The 2012 Partner Compensation Survey by Major, Lindsey & Africa found that the gap between women partners’ compensation and their male counterparts’ has grown to 46 percent. Male partners now earn an average of $734,000, while female partners are paid $497,000. Importantly, while origination fees may account for some of the disparity, a gap persists even when the findings are adjusted for comparable books of business.

A potential reason for this disparity may be inequities in the credit process, according to “New Millennium, Same Glass Ceiling? The Impact of Law Firm Compensation Systems on Women,” a July 2010 study for The Project for Attorney Retention and Minority Corporate Counsel Association. In that study, 55 percent of women partners reported being denied their “fair share” of credit; nearly 30 percent reported intimidation, threats, or bullying over credit; and 39 percent reported dissatisfaction with how disputes over credit were resolved.

Getting a critical number of women in positions to influence compensation decisions is crucial to eliminating real and perceived inequities in the compensation process.

Notably, the fifth NAWL annual survey on retention and promotion found that the few large firms that had three or more women in their top 10 rainmakers had eliminated the gap in male/female compensation.

Path to Power

Every woman lawyer can develop and use skills that produce power. Here’s how:

1. Get comfortable with the pursuit of power. Women may eschew power and the pursuit of it for a number of reasons. The idea of wielding power over others can be difficult for many women who have experienced the oppressive aspect of power. Some women find the pursuit of power unseemly or fear being perceived as manipulative, insincere or ambitious. Still other women may feel that they do not possess the skills or that it takes too much time to build power. By identifying the source of the discomfort with seeking power, women are able to address the discomfort and move beyond it.

2. Face fears.Risk-taking can take many forms, and oftentimes it is difficult to recognize when fears are holding a woman back from building power. Women should be on the lookout for thoughts such as “I don’t have time,” “I am not ready” and “I am not good at doing that,” which often are code for “I feel afraid.” When deciding whether to take a risk, women should determine the worst possible outcome and whether they can take steps to prevent that outcome.

3. Be intentional about goals. No one can do everything. Goal-setting and prioritization make it easier to meet the substantial and often competing demands in women’s personal and professional lives. Clarity of purpose is also motivating and sustaining, particularly in the face of obstacles.

4. Identify and build strategic relationships.Access to information and key people will determine whether a woman is positioned to reach her goals and how quickly she will do so. Asking for help is one way to build strategic relationships. People often perceive such a request as flattering. Another way to build strategic relationships is to create mutual benefit; a woman can focus on what the person from whom she’s seeking help needs.

5. Act with power.In “Power: Why Some People Have It — And Others Don’t,” Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer asserts, “In making decisions about how much power and deference to accord others, people are naturally going to look to the other’s behavior for cues. Because power is likely to cause people to behave in a more confident fashion, observers will associate confident behavior with actually having power.” Thus, coming across as confident — as well as being knowledgeable — is essential to building influence.

6. Don’t cede the hill.Persistence and resilience are necessary qualities for getting and keeping power. Setbacks and failures go hand-in-hand with the pursuit of power. Often, how one frames the setback makes a difference in the ability to persist. When faced with opposition and setbacks, women in the legal profession always should keep their end goals in mind. By focusing on the goal, marshaling resources and persisting, women can and will succeed in the face of challenges.

7. Practice.While reading about how to build and exercise power may be informative, it is not a substitute for actually getting out there and taking the steps necessary to build power.

Women will face push-back in their pursuit of power and will have to make sacrifices to achieve power. But attorneys must win this battle to create real change for women in the profession.