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Top women in the legal industry discuss the right time to “lean in”

Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” is just one of the many topics that will be discussed at the upcoming Women, Influence and Power in the Law Conference.

Sheryl Sandberg, Photo via Women 2.0

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg recently made a splash with her new book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” In it, she discusses the barriers that women face in the corporate world and how to overcome them. Sandberg says women need to “lean in” to overcome societal gender roles, working as hard as they can to climb the corporate ladder, even with families and other obligations.

If nothing else, the book selection has created dialogue from women all across the business world. That includes the legal arena, where women are increasing in number, but still not yet on equal footing with men. At the upcoming Women, Influence and Power in Law Conference in Washington D.C., four top women in the legal profession will engage in a panel to discuss Sandberg’s work as well as its message: How can women rise to the top of both the boardroom and the legal space?

Ahead of the conference, two of the panel’s speakers, Rebecca Bortolotti, vice president and chief technology counsel of ConAgra Foods, and moderator Marcia Barnes Goffney, president of Shared Vision Associates, former general counsel of Yazaki and author of “Corporate Road Race, 12 essentials for managing yourself, your boss and your co-workers to achieve career success,” agreed to speak with InsideCounsel on some of the topics they plan to touch on. Our full exchange is below:

IC: So what do you think that Sandberg is ultimately saying in her work? Is she saying that women need to stop making excuses, or is it more positive?

Rebecca Bortolotti: I’m not sure this is the message that Sheryl Sandberg was conveying. I think her message was one of courage and a recognition that woman should not define career success based upon traditional notions or believe that there is only one path to a rewarding career.

Marcia Barnes Goffney: Personally, I don’t believe that most women in the workplace are making excuses. The assertion that women need to lean in more may apply in some work environments but, for the most part, I think each workplace environment is different and broad assertions are difficult to make. Women do need to support each other more, talk with each other more and be more strategic in coming up with specific solutions to address the impediments to obtaining leadership positions in their respective job category.

IC: What was your most difficult challenge when rising up through the ranks?

RB: Getting comfortable with ambiguity. As we learn and grow in life, relationships, and career, frequent periods of uncertainty and ambiguity arise.  Embracing those times, and approaching them from a position of curiosity, allows for greater growth and achievement.

MG: Early in my career, my most difficult challenge was being heard when I gave my opinion. It takes time to build trust. However, often men (and sometimes women) will assume that a female lawyer (especially an African-American female) cannot possibly have the logic, legal skills and business savvy of her male counterparts.

IC: When is the right time to start a family for women in the legal industry? Is there a right time?

RB: There is no magic time for family – it’s really a personal decision. And even when you “decide” it’s time, nature may not be on your side.

MG: There is no universally “right” time. Again, one size does not fit all. I started my family early in my career because I had support. Women have to determine their personal priorities. I know some women who would rather be working than raising children.

IC: In your experience, how have you handled the line between family and work?

RB: I recognize it is very difficult to draw a “line” between family and work – the key is flexibility. I am a mother of three children – ranging from ages 14 to 4.  We are planning for homecoming, attending preschool, and everything in between. I have an incredibly supportive husband that is a true partner in raising our children. Does he clean? No, but he’s an amazing husband and father – and that’s what is truly important.

IC: What is your best advice for women looking for career advancement opportunities?

RB: Get as much experience today so that when the advancement opportunity arises, you are ready to cease it!

MG: I could give my best advice only after a conversation with the particular woman seeking advancement. However, generally, my advice always includes: Know yourself. Be fully aware of your skills, strengths and weaknesses; observe and learn what skills successful people/leaders possess; work diligently; totally visualize yourself as successful; and be involved so you can be noticed.

The upcoming Women, Influence & Power in Law conference offers an opportunity for unprecedented exchange with women outside counsel. The event, which runs from Oct. 2-4, will be held at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Contributing Author

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Zach Warren

Zach Warren is Assistant Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, where he oversees online content submissions and administers InsideCounsel's enewsletters. Zach specializes in new media and multimedia...

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