Social distancing is becoming the new normal. Yet, it was only two weeks ago that I attended an excellent program on women in the law where the common theme was supporting women lawyers so they can lead in the workplace.

The event was the Summit on Advancing Women in the Law, which was organized by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois. It was a great way to kick off Women’s History Month. I took away many valuable insights but want to focus on the last panel of the afternoon, which was one for the history books.

The panel consisted of four female chief judges, all of whom are the first to hold this position in their court.

  • Diane Wood, Chief Judge U.S. District, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
  • Rebecca Pallmeyer, Chief Judge U.S. District, Northern District of Illinois
  • Sara Darrow, Chief Judge U.S. District, Central District of Illinois
  • Nancy Rosenstengel, Chief Judge U.S. District, Southern District of Illinois

In addition, Hon. Virginia Kendall, U.S. District Court Judge, Northern District of Illinois, moderated the distinguished panel. It was striking how all five women emphasized that they would never be where they are today without others demonstrating the necessity of supporting women lawyers so they can lead in the workplace. The three main support systems for these judges included: (1) support of work/life balance, (2) great mentors and sponsors, and (3) reaching out to others for help and paying it forward.

Work/Life Balance Support

Judge Pallmeyer provided sage advice when she said, “Find a life partner who loves you and will care about your career as much as they do about their career.” The panelists agreed that they’ve been well-served by a supportive partner in things like parenting and household tasks. These shared responsibilities provided them more time to focus on their jobs.

The panel, however, was quick to point out that supporting women lawyers so they can lead cannot just happen at home. It must also happen at work. This requires that workplaces be creative and find solutions to integrate work and family. Judge Rosenstengel discussed how a male judge hired her to be his clerk even though she was 8-months pregnant. She felt supported both on her maternity leave and when she got back to the office. If she had to go home to a sick child, it wasn’t a problem as she could complete her work outside of the normal 9-5 hours.

Supportive Sponsors and Mentors

Everyone on the panel mentioned how lucky they were to receive support from both exceptional mentors and sponsors who helped move their careers forward. While mentors provide mentees with guidance on how to build skills, qualities, and confidence for career advancement, sponsors take it a step further, using their influence to connect them to high-profile assignments, people, and promotions.

In the recent American Bar Association study “Walking Out the Door, the Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice,” 43% of women said they didn’t reach leadership levels at their firm due to a lack of access to sponsors. This percentage was higher for women of color. In stark contrast, only 3% of men said the same.

In an article for the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, Andrea S. Kramer explained that women are “overmentored” and “undersponsored” relative to men. Men have mentors who are committed sponsors; they make sure they’re introduced to senior leadership and receive challenging assignments.

During the panel, Judge Kendall told the story of a law school professor who wouldn’t recommend her for a federal clerkship due to “family commitments.” However, when she applied for a clerkship on her own, she got several interviews. She recalled one with a male judge who recognized that her ability to excel in law school while juggling her home life lent itself to a busy docket. She worked for the judge for several years. He became a mentor and even encouraged her as she moved on to her next job.

Reach Out and Pay It Forward

Even though things are improving, women still get left out of firm networking and social activities. Women often feel that being left out of informal networks or social activities is a barrier to career advancement.

Therefore, the panel emphasized the need for women to look to others who are supporting women lawyers to lead. Judge Kendall said that she has received support from Judge Pallmeyer ever since joining the federal bench, and that it continues today with little things like a check-in email. In her courtroom, Judge Kendall pays this forward with actions like encouraging women attorneys to speak when, as is often the case, the male attorney on the trial team does most of the talking.

The League of Women Lawyers, started by Margaret Cassidy, is a great example of supporting women lawyers to lead. Members of this group realize that by supporting each other, they can get more done. The connections that are made and the ideas that are generated work to propel everyone forward. The person who asks for help in one instance may assist another on a separate occasion.

I saw the power of this type of connection at the Summit. The ability to meet new people, reconnect with others, and share experiences cannot be understated. Leadership cannot be done alone.

Our Reality

It’s hard to believe how much has changed in the two weeks since the Summit. Many of us are no longer going into the office or to networking events. Subsequently, we aren’t feeling the type of support and connection I’ve just expressed.

That said, what the coronavirus has provided some of us with is a little extra time. Our commute may be non-existent and most of our court appearances aren’t happening.

I encourage you to use this “extra” time to support and connect with one another. Maybe you can’t have coffee with your mentor or mentee at a local cafe, but you can spend time together through video chat. I talked with a wise 7-year-old yesterday who was preparing to have a playdate over the phone. Follow her example. Check in and connect, because supporting women lawyers so they can lead is even more critical during times like these.

Share ways you’ve been supporting and are being supported during this time of social distancing in the comments below.

Staying up to date on issues impacting the legal profession is vital to your success. Subscribe here to get the Commission’s weekly news delivered to your inbox.