When silence isn’t golden: Finding your voice as young women lawyers
“Feel empowered. And if you start to do it, if you start to feel your voice heard, you will never go back.” Mary Robinson
Since International Women’s Day 2017, a movement has erupted of women finding their voices in hashtags and allegations, newspaper articles and letters to the editor.
#MeToo sprang out of nowhere for some and was a long time coming for others. The ripples continue outwards. Some tidal waves like Catherine Deneuve et al’s letter in Le Monde criticising the #MeToo movement and other, smaller everyday drips like my male friends’ horrified realisation that almost every single woman of their acquaintance had a #MeToo story to tell.
We need the big headline splashes, but it’s the gradual accumulation of the relentless tiny trickles that will wear down the walls of inequality and produce lasting changes.
Finding your voice as young women lawyers
How can women, specifically young women lawyers, find their voice in what remains a male-dominated environment?
In press coverage of Time Magazine’s recent ‘Person of the Year’ article, which bestowed its accolade on the ‘Silence breakers’ (the women prepared to speak up about previously hidden, accepted but unacceptable events and actions), they spoke of small acts of courage, of each voice added to the chorus, one woman’s story empowering the next to share her own. It’s in this spirit that I offer these suggestions for making your voice heard at work. It really does have an impact on those around you.
Saying: “I don’t know”
I remember being in a meeting as a trainee listening as a female senior partner, upon being asked a question by another partner answering clearly, “I don’t know. It’s not my area of expertise, but my suspicion is…” and thinking, “Oh wow. She just said, ‘I don’t know’ and not only doesn’t look stupid, she sounds even more assertive for saying it!” Until that point I hadn’t realised that could be done.
Or take the female QC I encountered recently who asked the presenting economist to explain and explain again his point to be sure she caught the nuances. She only looked braver and more in control for her deeper questioning. She was comfortable enough in her expertise and intelligence to be fine with her ignorance in this other area.
I know there have been occasions when I too have been the only one in the room brave enough to ask the question everyone wanted answered. And I know that I felt empowered in that instance from witnessing these other women being confident and self-assured.
4 ways to speak up
It’s taken me a few years to get to this point, though, so if you’re just starting out, here are some ways to ease into having your voice heard:
1 Set yourself speaking goals
‘I will say at least one thing during this meeting.’
‘I will have at least one opinion on this draft.’
‘I will offer to present a case update to the team at least once a month.’
‘I will ask at least one question about a presentation my colleague has just given.’
These goals might seem small to the point of insignificance, but baby steps over time is the best way to build confidence. I know the sting of sitting there, willing myself to talk, only to watch the appropriate moment pass by or hear someone else raise my point. But if you say one thing, and it goes ok, you’ll feel more able to add to the discussion next time around. Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that men get just as nervous about saying the wrong thing, but they do it anyway.
It’s important as a junior lawyer to demonstrate you are fully involved and invested in your matters. A partner said to me recently that he actively encourages his juniors to speak up during client meetings to show the client that they are a valuable member of the team and not merely a timid note-taker at the far end of the table.
2 Use time before the meeting and afterwards
If it’s a meeting to discuss a certain agreement or specific matter, then it’s easy to plan what you want to convey in advance. Even better, see if you can find time to confer with a colleague and check your understanding is correct. Often, we (and this includes men) don’t speak up when we’re unsure of ourselves. This can’t always be helped, but where it can be fixed, fix it! Go through your points with someone you trust, so that during the meeting, you can feel confident about your ideas.
If you weren’t able to ask a question or share a point in the meeting, you could go to your instructing partner after the meeting. This will help build your confidence that what you have to say is worthwhile, and it will also show them that you were switched on, despite not yet feeling comfortable contributing to the group.
3 Eliminate the words of weakness
Every time you find yourself writing the word ‘just’, as in ‘I was just thinking…’, ‘I’m just wondering if…’, delete it. It’s a word that undermines you and makes what you have to say seem less significant. See how your sentences sound without it. I’ll bet it’s stronger and more assertive.
The same goes for any kind of equivocation before you speak – ‘I’ve only just started to think about this, but…’, ‘You probably know much more than I do about this…’. It’s a protective barrier between what you’re saying and any criticism that you might be wrong. I get it and I’ve certainly done it, but we must stop.
If you’re wrong, you’re still wrong and those few words won’t change that, nor anyone’s perception of your mistake. (it’s also ok to be wrong and make some mistakes). But if you’re right, you’ve just totally undermined yourself and your own opinion for no good reason. Even if you aren’t sure of yourself, don’t let everyone else know!
4 Politely refuse to be interrupted
There are plenty of studies about how men disproportionately interrupt women while they’re speaking. This can be a real issue, especially if you are already feeling unsure of yourself, or if the man in question is in a position of authority.
Obviously, don’t blithely shout over the managing partner if he interjects during your piece, but for regular interruptions, you can prepare for how to handle them. It is ok to, calmly and in a measured way, say something along the lines of, ‘Let me finish up my point and then we can get to yours. Thanks.’ Smile and be gracious. There’s no reason to be rude or make the other person feel bad for interjecting. But equally, it is perfectly acceptable to stand your ground and finish what you were saying.
How men can help
To the male lawyers reading this, help your legal sisters out! Don’t interrupt your female colleagues when they are speaking. And back up any woman who needs to request she not be interrupted, as per point 4 above. Pay attention to your current trainee/NQ cohort. Are the men generally more vocal than the women? If you do notice your female trainees or NQs aren’t as comfortable speaking out as their male counterparts (accounting for personality, of course), talk to them about ways they can be more involved in meetings, and give them this post to read. Make sure they feel supported and, above all, heard.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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