Journal of Leadership and the Law

Gender and the Practice of Law:
A Comparison of a Female Law Student's Experience with the Experience of Female Lawyers

Janean BryantBy Janean L. Bryant L’15

The theme for the fall 2014 edition of the Journal of Leadership and the Law is wholeness. In conjunction with the theme of wholeness, this student note was written to compare my experience as a female law student with the experience of female attorneys.  How do female attorneys define success? What skills are particularly important for female law students and attorneys to have? What are strengths that many female attorneys bring to the table? How important is having a work life balance?

As a female third-year law student, I have considered how gender impacts female attorneys in the legal profession. Over the last two years, I have had the opportunity to explore different practice areas from a corporate counsel experience at The Fresh Market, Inc., to a federal government experience with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Through these experiences, I have interacted with a number of exceptional female lawyers. As role models, I often consider whether they share my questions about how gender impacts one’s legal career. 

For my student note, I decided to research and analyze the experiences and insights of female attorneys in my personal network along with my experience thus far in law school.  In preparation for this student note, I interviewed seven female attorneys from different practice areas, including: private practice, government, corporate counsel and public interest. This student note will explore definitions of success, key skill sets for female law students and lawyers, some advantages of being a female attorney, and the importance of having a work life balance.

Success can be a difficult term to define, and success is largely subjective depending on the individual. When I asked the attorneys how they each defined success, the responses I received varied largely. Five of the seven attorneys agreed that success in their legal career was not based on their identity as a female, but rather success was based on their individual goals. According to Attorney Imogene Cathey[1], success “in the legal profession is a personal and subjective thing. Everyone has different goals, priorities and motivations.”  Attorney Ashley Canupp[2] stated, “Being a success, as it relates to my career, means being happy with the work I am doing each day and being able to review my accomplishments and see that I am growing and becoming a better professional over time.” Many of the attorneys agreed that success involved enjoying their work, and making a difference in the lives of their clients.

From my perspective, success is a determination made on an individual’s set of goals and accomplishments in life; therefore, the meaning of success can easily vary from person to person. Using my summer internship at The Fresh Market, Inc. as an example, this eight-week internship evolved into a paid part-time internship throughout my second-year of law school, based on my work performance and the needs of the legal department. Having this offer extended to me was a symbol of success, or a job well done.

While success may be a subjective concept, many of the attorneys agreed on the important skills needed of female law students and lawyers. When asked what skills female attorneys should develop, the responses I received were very similar. Attorney Kim Gatling[3], stated, “…it is important for female law students to develop confidence and learn professionalism. Women attorneys need to exude confidence in their skills and need to show the ability to take command of an issue and find a resolution.”  Kim Gatling’s statement is a sentiment shared among five of the seven attorneys interviewed. It is important for female law students and attorneys to present a confident and self-assured persona when interacting with other attorneys, judges and clients.

Attorney Tiffany Atkins[4] suggested that female attorneys should especially develop strong negotiation skills. Tiffany Atkins stated, “…women should learn to negotiate, to be a zealous advocate and to be stern with other attorneys. Negotiation skills have benefitted me the most [in my career].”  This can be challenging for women, as we are often taught to stay quiet or to be more reserved when expressing what is important to us. However, I would argue that these skills are necessary of all law students and attorneys, regardless of gender.

Many of the attorneys agreed that the valuable skills needed to be successful attorneys are the same between women and men. Attorney Angela Gray[5] suggested the importance of being a good listener and paying attention to your client’s needs. Ashley Canupp also recommended a number of skills for attorneys to develop such as: “(a) the ability to clearly and concisely articulate thoughts, both verbally and in writing, (b) the skill of tact, and (c) the ability to spot issues and properly analyze the issue and consider alternative solutions, etc.”  Maintaining strong interpersonal and analytical skills are important to all law students and attorneys.

While the attorneys discussed the important skills female law students and attorneys should develop, the attorneys were also asked if there are any advantages to being a female attorney. Judge Regina Stephens[6] opined that, through life experience, “… [many female attorneys] are good problem solvers and multi-taskers by nature.”  Judge Stephens further explained that:

“Women are [often] more empathetic. Women listen harder, and women tend to have more of a human touch. [This] is not a weakness; women are better at settling cases. Women are able to connect with clients at a human level to help them…”

During my internship at the EEOC, an administrative judge observed me during an initial conference. An initial conference consists of a telephone conference with the parties, in which we reviewed the preliminary information regarding the case; additionally, I was responsible for finalizing the scope of discovery in the case proceeding. In most of the initial conferences I conducted, the parties were amenable and the conferences flowed smoothly. However, in this particular conference, the parties struggled with defining the scope of discovery and tensions rose high in the conference. In order to move the conference forward, I acknowledged both parties’ discovery needs, and then I made a decision that would satisfy both parties. Once the conference ended, the administrative judge commended me for empathizing with both parties, and was impressed with my ability to resolve the conflict while remaining professional.  This is an example of the “soft skills” Judge Stephens referred to in her interview.

In addition, Attorney Sonny Haynes[7] shared the following during her interview,

“There are certainly advantages of being a female attorney. There are studies that have shown that people tend to trust women more than men. Whether that is true or not, the more different you are, the more people tend to remember who you are.”

While some attorneys believe there are advantages to being a female attorney, other attorneys disagreed. For example, Kim Gatling referenced her experience with clients, and she pointed out that “…most savvy business people just want a good lawyer, regardless of gender.”  The opinions largely vary regarding the advantages of being a female attorney; however, most of the attorneys agreed that there are strengths that many women bring to the negotiation table and to the general practice of law.

After discussing potential advantages of being female attorneys, I asked the attorneys about the importance of a work life balance. Six out of the seven attorneys agreed that having a work life balance was important. Ashley Canupp shared her opinion that, “It is also important to remember that work is not something that is separate from life, and that it is something that you will take pride in and it will be part of your definition of success in life.”  Additionally, Sonny Haynes provided a unique perspective when she stated,

“I do not think in terms of work/life balance, I would rather make the most of the time that I have doing what I choose to do. Where I can integrate activities, I do… I do not regard the time I spend working as somehow taking away from my personal time or vice versa.”

Furthermore, the majority of attorneys shared that it is important to spend time outside of the legal profession developing hobbies and spending time with family and friends. Angela Gray shared that it is important to have a work life balance, and that it is especially critical for women to have such a balance. Many of the attorneys agreed that having a family with children required making career decisions around personal obligations to their families. Hence, balance is essential; it is not necessary to give up career, family life, or personal interests.

Based on my experiences at The Fresh Market, Inc. and the EEOC, government attorneys, judges and corporate counsel alike, appear to maintain a strong work life balance. Maintaining personal interests, including familial relationships, while having a successful career, seemed to provide these attorneys with a sense of fulfillment. As a law student, the demands of course work and legal work through internships required me to develop strong time management skills in order to enjoy my personal hobbies and my family. Making time for both schoolwork and personal interests has enhanced my legal education thus far.  Therefore, I agree with the attorneys that a work life balance is essential to success in the legal profession.

In essence, my experiences compared to the experiences of female attorneys are as similar as they are different. The attorney interviews provided invaluable insight about the legal profession and the experience of female attorneys. The most critical point discovered by these interviews, is that many of the experiences shared by female lawyers and skills developed by these lawyers, are not necessarily unique to women.

Through these attorney interviews, I am encouraged that my experiences are not far removed from the numerous experiences of other women in the legal profession. Learning from the experience of successful attorneys and judges has been incredibly helpful in preparing me for the legal profession.  

[1] Imogene Cathey is the General Counsel of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

[2] Ashley Canupp is Senior Corporate Counsel at The Fresh Market, Inc.

[3] Kim Gatling is a Partner at Smith Moore Leatherwood, LLP.

[4] Tiffany Atkins is a Staff Attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina.

[5] Angela Gray is a Partner at Gray Newell LLP.

[6] Judge Regina Stephens is the Supervisory Administrative Judge for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission- Charlotte District.

[7] Sonny Haynes is a fourth-year litigation associate at Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice, LLP.