ILTACON19 Women Who Lead panel: Brianna Leung, Melanie Prevost, Justice Tanya R. Kennedy, and Michele Gossmeyer

The legal industry is dominated by white men, although women and diverse attorneys are entering the profession in higher rates every year. The 2019 American Bar Association Profile of the Legal Profession reports that in 2018, women comprised over 52% of entering law school classes, and people of color represented over 27%. Despite that, 85% of the legal profession in 2018 was still white, with men outnumbering women by almost a 2 to 1 margin, and 80% of the federal judiciary was white (75% of which were men).

This disparity was readily apparent at the International Legal Technology Association annual conference (“ILTACON”) in Orlando a few weeks ago. While the majority of the attendees were not practicing attorneys, but rather the folks who touch technology throughout the legal industry — chief information officers, knowledge managers, information resources professionals, librarians, and of course all those pitching or selling technology to lawyers — one had only to look around the popular lobby bar in the Walt Disney Dolphin resort to see while the crowd was somewhat diverse, white men definitely made up the majority. To the association’s credit, I didn’t see nearly as many manels this year as at last year’s ILTACON (stand down, Gender Avenger!) Perhaps that was one reason this year’s Women Who Lead session and reception afterwards took place in a fully-packed room.

“Balancing Always On and How to Turn It Off” featured a great panel of women in diverse roles throughout the legal industry speaking about the importance of work-life balance and the measures they take to achieve it. Justice Tanya R. Kennedy of the New York Supreme Court joined Vinson & Elkins’s Director of IT Infrastructure and Technical Support Services Melanie Prevost, and GrowthPlay Principal Consultant Brianna Leung, with Dentons’s Global Director of Information Governance, Risk & Compliance Michele Gossmeyer moderating, to share their thoughts.

Women must follow the advice of flight attendants everywhere and “put your mask on first before attempting to help others secure theirs.” — Justice Tanya R. Kennedy, Supreme Court of New York

One of the key points that emerged was how often the women had not attempted a better work-life balance earlier in their careers, often feeling like they needed to prove themselves and work harder than men because there were so few other women in their workplaces and because the expectation in the legal industry has historically been that you are always “on” and available for clients or your constituents, no matter what your role is. In table discussions after the panel, women at my table agreed, noting that when they first started in their roles, they overcompensated and overachieved to “prove” they were as good as their male colleagues and deserved to be there. Imposter syndrome in the legal industry has been written about quite a bit.

Justice Kennedy also noted that she has always volunteered and accepted many opportunities handed to her, because when she was appointed as a judge, she felt like “the epitome of an ordinary person allowed to do extraordinary things, so with that comes a responsibility to give back.” But she noted that you can take so many volunteer positions on that you get out of balance and don’t leave time for yourself.

“Sometimes you can lead by being a rank and file member.” — Justice Tanya R. Kennedy, Supreme Court of New York

Women-we gotta stop trying to be the hero to everyone

The Superwoman archetype African-American women and Latinx often face was another point Justice Kennedy raised as a hindrance to achieving work-life balance. Women of color often take on many additional roles beyond the duties of their jobs, and give so much of themselves to their own detriment because society expects that of them. She suggested this happens despite the fact that all humans are nurturers and caregivers, no matter their sexual orientation, identity, culture, income level, job or address. She cautioned the audience that women of color suffer heart attacks and strokes at higher rates than other populations, so must ensure they’re keeping everything in balance and taking care of their own needs. Women must follow the advice of flight attendants everywhere and “put your mask on first before attempting to help others secure theirs.”

You can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself first.

One clear way women on the panel and in the audience learned to prioritize a work-life balance was recognizing the role they can play in their organizations’ corporate culture as leaders. Prevost noted that once she became a leader, she really became the student and learned from her younger team members with families that she needed to prioritize a work-life balance. She realized that if she didn’t do that, they might not think it was okay for them to do so: “If people at the top are putting in crazy hours and always working, people below think that’s what they need to do to succeed.” Another woman in legal tech in the audience noted that she learned as a leader she casts a shadow that direct reports will mirror.

“If people at the top are putting in crazy hours and always working, people below think that’s what they need to do to succeed.” — Melanie Prevost, Vinson & Elkins

In terms of specific ideas, the panel provided at least three strategies women can use to help achieve work-life balance. Leung recommended women think of all the people who want their time, whether colleagues or family members, as stakeholders and create boundaries to ensure they are fully present for whomever their current stakeholders are at any given time. For instance, when women are home with their families but need to take time to do some work, they can announce the amount of time to their families that they intend to work and set a timer for that exact amount, so their families can hold them accountable to that. Prevost suggested delaying delivery of any emails women prepare after-hours until the next morning during business hours so as not to interfere with team members’ family time. Justice Kennedy advised women to think through whether “urgent” emails and phone calls they receive off hours are truly emergencies and only replying to those that they deem truly an emergency.

A key strategy to work-life balance is to not automatically accept others’ definitions of emergencies that require immediate responses during your downtime.

Indeed, a young woman at my facilitated table discussion already seemed to have a greater handle on this last boundary than many of the rest of us — when she receives emails while on vacation urging for her advice on how to handle what she considers non-critical matters, she does not reply. When she returns and her team members ask if she received their emails on vacation, she responds “Yes, and how did you handle that situation?” My table agreed that this not only helps achieve work-life balance, but helps your direct reports both learn to take on situations that help them grow and gain confidence.

Even though there is clearly much work to be done in the legal industry to see equal representation for women, and related work-life balance clearly prioritized, this panel was a great step towards highlighting some of the unique challenges women face and steps they can take to alleviate the burden.

Women Balancing Work and Life: ILTACON19 was originally published in Paladin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.