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Risk Taking 101 for Women Attorneys

By Teresa Beck – May 20, 2014

Like many women attorneys, I did not come from a family of attorneys, or even a family of business people. My father was a Navy chaplain and my mother was a stay-at-home mom until she became a teacher after my parents divorced. As a result, I was not raised to know anything about business, let alone the business of law. Many women lawyers find themselves in similar situations; it was only a little more than 40 years ago that women first started entering the legal profession in significant numbers. Our male counterparts, on the other hand, have had generations of training, both formal and informal, on how to advance in business. It is little wonder, then, that women attorneys need more information about the successful business behaviors that will help them advance. Taking risks is one such behavior.

As attorneys, we are accustomed to assessing risks for clients, and we understand intuitively that success often requires some measure of risk. Climbing out on a limb in our professional life, however, often seems unnecessary, and our cultural upbringing leaves us with a sense that there is no reason to travel into uncharted territory when we can stay where we are and play it safe. But risks are important for our personal and professional growth. Albert Einstein said, “A ship is always safe at the shore—but that is NOT what it is built for.” Similarly, all lawyers can easily stay at the dock and play it safe, but the real adventure—and what we were built for—requires risk taking, if we are ever to experience the rewards of our profession. Below are some examples of risks women lawyers might consider taking both to advance in the profession and continue to grow in our personal lives. Be aware! Taking risks is going to feel scary and strange! These feelings should not stop us from taking risks.

Take Stretch Assignments
Many attorneys tend to decline work with which they do not have a significant degree of familiarity. Often, there are good reasons for doing so. Certainly, we do not want to give legal advice in an area where we may expose our client to unnecessary risk and potentially expose ourselves to a malpractice claim. On the other hand, we are often presented with opportunities where we are called on not so much to take on something completely outside the realm of our regular practice, but instead to s-t-r-e-t-c-h to an area related or similar to an area we have practiced in before. Taking a calculated risk on stretch assignments can be hugely beneficial for women attorneys. When we stretch, we expand our knowledge base, our capabilities, and our horizons. As a result, stretch assignments are important risks to consider taking.

Make the Tough Ask
Another risk women attorneys should consider taking is making the phone call to ask for new business, or having the tough discussion about an increase in compensation. Regardless of the type of practice we have, every one of us has a potential new client or new case that could secure us further work and future advancement. While it is often terrifying to have these uncomfortable kinds of conversations, they are critical and important risks to take in order to build a practice and career.

Marketing experts often say that it takes up to seven asks to make a sale. As a consequence, we may find that we have to ask not just one or two times, but many times before we clinch the client or the raise we are asking for. The critical risk to take is to start that conversation.

Meeting New People
We often become very comfortable in our circle of acquaintances both personally and professionally. While it is nice to be comfortable, we can also become complacent and miss out on the opportunity to meet new people who have an unimaginable access to networks and other connections that can help us in our quest to advance. It is always a risk to take the step to introduce oneself to someone new, or to step away from the perimeter of the room into the middle of conversations, but these are also wonderful risks to take.

I have a personal story on this subject. I can still remember where I was (driving down Bonita Road in my hometown of Bonita, California), when I made the momentous decision to run for the Board of Directors of Lawyers Club of San Diego. This was a turning point for me because I had reached a point in my career where I was proud to say I represented the mission of Lawyers Club. Earlier in my career, I had concerns about what my colleagues and clients would think about my involvement with a women’s bar organization. Running for the board was a defining moment, one where I decided to take a step toward becoming deeply involved in this organization that I had always strongly supported from the sidelines. I did not then appreciate that becoming so much more intimately involved with the Lawyers Club’s ongoing operations would lead to my involvement with California Women Lawyers and later with the American Bar Association, especially the Woman Advocate and the Women Rainmaker’s Committees, all of which are wonderful resources for women attorneys. This is an example of how reaching out to make new friends is an important risk to take to broaden and advance one’s career, whether it is done by running for a board, volunteering for an organization, or in some other way.

Women lawyers should also consider risk taking by speaking on subjects within their practice or about which they are passionate. I have learned from male lawyer friends that they are often asked to speak on subjects they know nothing about, but they recognize that in preparing to talk on such subjects, they will learn everything they need to know to speak intelligently. Some of us, however, are unwilling to take the step of speaking on a subject unless we are already considered to be vastly knowledgeable. Such vast knowledge is not required. Even if it were, though, many of us can master the subject matter and have experience and skills that we can teach others—if we take the risk of speaking. This is beneficial not only because of the exposure that speaking on subjects brings, but also because we become known as experts in our field, which aids us in career advancement.

Another risk to consider taking is writing an article for a relevant legal or industry publication. If we are willing to put in the time and effort, there are many topics we can write on. The last interesting case we worked on and what we learned can be a source of content, as can commenting on current trends and case law development. We can also write to teach others about litigation skills, handling office politics, taking a deposition, making objections at trial—the list is endless. The buzz that is created by speaking, writing, and meeting new people helps us build the connections we need to advance in our professions to the next level.

Taking Smart Risks
While taking risks can boost careers, it is important to take only smart risks. A smart risk is one in which we have considered the outcome as if it were a chess game, anticipating the outcome of each move and the impact on others. Talking with one’s personal board of directors about taking specific risks is also beneficial. We all have such boards—those friends and confidantes we go to with all important life decisions—to talk things over with and reason things out. We should consider taking potential risky conduct to our personal board of directors to get input before going forward, and to make sure it is truly a smart risk.

May Your Risks Be Rewarded
Not every risk will be rewarded with immediate gratification. Taking small steps in the directions that seem right for you may not pay off right away, but consistent stretching to learn new things and take on new responsibilities, asking for new business and for better compensation, meeting new people, speaking and writing, and taking smart risks will undoubtedly result in rewards. These rewards may be financial but almost more importantly, we are rewarded with new and better assignments, increased confidence and stimulation, increased competence and reputation, and more. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” amazing advice from a woman who was involved in politics in the first half of the 20th century. If we take small risks every day, our careers are sure to reflect new levels of accomplishment. May your risks be richly rewarded in many ways!

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, career, business development, professional development, networking, risk taking

Teresa Beck is a partner in Lincoln, Gustafson & Cercos in San Diego, California.

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