Allies, Amplification and Assertiveness: How to Earn and Keep Your Seat at the Table

By Brandon Vogel

February 19, 2021

Allies, Amplification and Assertiveness: How to Earn and Keep Your Seat at the Table


By Brandon Vogel

Sometimes the very thing that people will try to cut you down for is actually your greatest source of power.

When Columbia Law Professor Alexandra Carter competed in the semi-finals of the Stone Moot Court Appellate Competition as a law student, a member of the mostly-male panel told her she was too aggressive, she had cut off her male counterparts too much, and that her voice didn’t match her body type. A flabbergasted Carter had kept score and found that she was disproportionately cut off instead.

Upon advancing to the final round, other people told her her commanding voice was her secret weapon.

Shortly after the competition, Carter cold called one of the female panel judges for feedback who told her, “Alex, that was bunk. Next time you deal with a man like that, my advice is to use your powerful voice and throw on the smile every so often. Sometimes, that will placate folks like that and they’ll hear what you have to say better.”

Carter and several of her law students offered tips and strategies to help lawyers master the ability to successfully negotiate on the recent webinar, “Her Seat At The Table: Women In Negotiation And Self-Advocacy.”

“Regardless of her race or ethnicity, where she comes from, her sexual orientation, every woman is able to claim her seat at the table,” said Carter.

It’s Not Just Numbers, It’s About Meaningful inclusion

The 2019 Inclusion Blueprint Report set target thresholds for equity partners in firms – 30% representation of women lawyers, 15% of racial and ethnic minorities, and 5% of LGBTQ+ attorneys. The survey revealed that just 7% of firms met or exceeded the equity partner threshold, while 43% met the non-equity threshold. Firms did perform better on an associate level with 80% hitting the goal for female associates.

Jeyoon Chung said, “While there undoubtedly has been progress, women and particularly minority attorneys have yet to break into equity partner ranks at meaningful levels. We know that this is partly due to the fact that women have traditionally lacked access to opportunities and building a book of business.”

The study also found that among the firms, the least tracked inclusion activities at the leadership and partner levels were non-billable hours, origination credit and pay equity.

Chung said that women partners often do double or triple the amount of non-billable work that is incredibly valuable to firms, such as recruitment and mentoring new young attorneys, but these activities don’t get credit towards compensation in the same way that business origination does.

“While there is representation at the lower levels, women are still only involved in ways defined by the old guard: representation without actually hearing their voices without the actual respective opinions,” said Chung. “That representation does not mean having a seat at the table. This lack of meaningful inclusion can actually create an impasse to systemic change.”

Cory Steinberg said that at top levels visibility is important. Visibility of women of people of color at the high levels, in popular culture and in the political landscape, has a cascade effect on society as a whole.

“You know the young people in our society, looking up and seeing ‘Oh, I can be in that position one day and I’m going to keep pursuing this position because I see people at the top that looked like me and have the same values as me, and they were able to get there,’” said Steinberg.

In the legal profession, Steinberg said, women in 2018 made up about half of the workforce and only around a third of the legal profession.  Compensation remains disparate as the top 10% of male lawyers averages more than $500,000 a year, while the top 10% of female lawyers averages around $300,000 annually.

“You know it’s better than it was in 1960, it’s better than it was in the 1990s, but we’re not there, we are not at equality,” said Steinberg. “Yes, we’re going in the right direction but clearly we have a long way to go.”

The table is the first step

Susannah Price noted that women lawyers are more likely to work as an in-house counsel or in part-time or contact positions, where job security is fragile. A lack of reliable, affordable childcare remains a barrier as well.

Simply having women in the room is not enough as barriers at the table exist. Price said studies have shown that women who speak up during workplace meetings are not perceived as men who do the same. In one study, male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10% higher ratings of competence, but when females did the same, they were given 14% lower competence ratings.

“Women who worry that talking too much will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid or being too sensitive. They’re often and unfortunately right,” said Price.

Finding your voice is essential to success at the table.

Daimiris Garcia said that, as a woman of color, she was just happy to be at the table so she never spoke up. She would leave frustrated with herself for not saying something.

An attendee noted that she tells stories to explain her cases, but that in very finite negotiations, adversaries tend to get agitated, but it’s the best way she knows how to communicate for herself.

Kelly Jines (Sapir Schragin) noted that the way an adversary communicates is not the way she communicates. “I have to be true to myself and communicate for myself. That tends to ring true and allow me to be a more effective communicator.”

Oluwatumise Asebiomo recalled the case study from the first term of the Obama White House, when two thirds of his aides were men. Female staffers complained about having to force their way into meetings and were often unheard when in meetings. Asebiomo said they adopted a meeting strategy called “amplification” where one staffer would make a point and the other would repeat it with clear support and credit to the source. This forced the men to recognize the contribution and denied them the chance to claim the women’s contribution as their own.

“In practicing it and using the person’s name and saying what they said is so powerful, especially for the person contributing,” said Asebiomo. “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.”

Anne Xie pointed out the importance of recognizing your own assumptions such as when you say things like “I know what you meant by that” or “You meant to make me feel this way.” Assumptions should always be avoided.

“Being aware of these common pitfalls is especially important as recognizing these biases and asking for clarification can help parties better understand each other and keep the conversation going, which is key in negotiations and self-advocacy alike.”

Aita Seck noted that many women do not feel the same innate confidence as their male peers.  “Women frequently say ‘we’ when talking about something they personally have done, while men use ‘I’ for something they are not personally responsible for.”

The right questions

Questions can bring direction to a conversation so that parties can make progress and be effective, said Oliver Kwon. Open-ended or window questions help you build trust and gather valuable information.

For example, asking the other party what’s concerning you about this proposal invites the other party to give more information and it builds trust.

“Asking the right questions is so valuable, as it will strengthen your voice and presence during these negotiations,” said Kwon.

Brigitte Atchekzai said that allyship is a great tool that everybody can use to promote gender equality. It is understanding the imbalance in power and opportunity and actively working to correct it.

An ally is a person that belongs in a dominant group who challenges the status quo and actively promotes and aspires to advance culture of inclusion through intentional positive and conscious effort.

Example include men being allies to women, white people being allies to people of color, straight people being allies to the LGBTQ+ community.

Atchekzai said research shows that when men invest in the dignity and well being of the women in their workplace, that support leads to higher rates of employment for diverse candidates. Specifically in law, women mentored by other women report more career satisfaction, are more likely to continue to practice law, and have more of their professional expectations met.

Professor Alexandra Carter concluded, “When we claim our seat at the table, because that seat that comes with a microphone, we can use it to amplify the people who are coming up behind us.”

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