At a law school graduation ceremony, Deborah Epstein Henry once watched the female valedictorian of a class accidentally cede her spot at the front of the line to a male student.
He crossed the stage before the other students, and received the ovation intended for the valedictorian.
Speaking at the Penn Law Women's Association Annual Dinner, Henry said she "wanted to throttle that girl" for giving up her place in line. It was at that long-ago graduation ceremony that Henry first realized something had to change about the way female lawyers are treated and treat themselves.
Law students are "zealously trained to advocate for our clients, but we sometimes forget to advocate for ourselves," said Henry, founder and CEO of Flex-Time Lawyers, a consulting group that promotes the advancement of female lawyers and advises lawyers and employers on work-life balance. "There are intangibles to success, and something's going on here where women are not succeeding."
Statistics back up her claim. Nearly half of all law school graduates in this country are female, Henry said, but only one out of every six law firm equity partners is a woman. When it comes to associate partnership at firms, however, women are overrepresented.
According to one study Henry cited, having a child increases the chance that a female lawyer will leave her firm – but has the opposite effect on male lawyers. Henry encouraged female lawyers to make more use of the flexible work arrangements offered by most firms, which let lawyers work from home more easily and, she said, are "making work-life issues gender-neutral and mother-neutral."
While salaries are more equal across the genders now, Henry said, bonuses are not. "Men have been negotiating for those bonuses behind the scenes while women just accept theirs."
Women need to promote themselves more aggressively to keep up with their male colleagues in the legal profession, Henry said. She suggested that women keep a "brag memo" of their achievements to share with their supervisors, solicit mentoring from women in senior positions, and join the influential committees at their company.
Recruiting committees "are not where the power is at a firm," Henry said. Instead, women can boost their standing at a firm by joining committees on executive management, compensation, or promotion.
"You have to chart your own way. Be involved in promotion, find out what they're looking for," she advised. "Networking is so integral to our success."