Right now, it’s all pink all the time, and you can’t go anywhere without someone mentioning the “Barbie” movie. Although I had my share of Barbies growing up, I was mostly looking forward to my first trip to a movie theater since before the pandemic. The comfy reclining seats in a dark room with no cellphones for two hours sounded like a dream.
To my surprise, the movie is an inspirational statement about female empowerment and our ongoing gender challenges. It got me thinking: Barbie has evolved, but has Big Law?
(Caution: some movie spoilers ahead.)
Mattel, Inc.'s Lawyer Barbie doll is your standard Barbie in heels (feet formed to the heels actually), dressed in a skirt suit and holding a briefcase (putting aside Elle Woods Barbie or Judge Barbie, both of which are perfection in their own way).
This visual of Lawyer Barbie is built on old expectations that are important to acknowledge and address. The reality is that today’s Lawyer Barbie would likely be wearing sweatpants and sneakers with a ponytail on a Zoom call or sporting a hip pantsuit while stuck at an airport after her flight was canceled.
Just as Margot Robbie’s Barbie realizes her expanding choices in the film, today’s female lawyer doesn’t need to be the Barbie in a skirt suit holding a briefcase and wearing high heels. Instead, you can be the lawyer you want to be—even though you are a woman.
If you replace “Barbie Land” with “Big Law,” there’s an important message: You don’t need to be perfect—we all make mistakes.
Law is complex and nuanced and challenging, on top of changing daily. When you make a mistake, learn from it without letting it hold you back.
This holds true with creating the “perfect” work-life balance as well. When I was a single mom and my kids were little, I felt like a rock star if both kids got to school on time, dressed and with lunch, and I was in the Starbucks line at my office by 10:00 a.m. Most people may not call this a win, but lawyers need to make choices at each stage of their career that work for them and their family.
Prioritize yourself and make decisions that work for your life and career. Perhaps you need to reduce your schedule or put off partnership or work at home more or change practice groups. I’ve done three of those four things during my almost 30-year career.
People may not “like” your decisions, but as long as you’re providing great client service and a valuable work product, then you can show your needs are also good for the firm’s business. At each stage of your career, you decide the right balance by defining internal success while managing external expectations.
“I am a man with no power; does that make me a woman?” This may be the Barbie quote I’ve heard most often over the last few weeks. Too often, women don’t align themselves with the right individuals to support their career—people with power.
Men play a huge role in the equation. Many of my main mentors and sponsors inside and outside of my law firm have been men—several have been clients. While it helps to compile a “board of directors” to advise you on your career, some of your board members don’t need to look like you; in fact, it’s better if they don’t.
Speaking of power, the reality is at big firms, power comes with bringing in business. Despite the misconceptions, there’s no disadvantage for women in developing client relationships, even though men have been traditionally known as rainmakers.
If you ask me, women have a huge advantage. We are relationship people. We share doctors, recipes, and funny stories about our kids in our book clubs and on soccer sidelines.
Work generation is nothing more than prioritizing and building your relationships (after becoming a foundationally excellent lawyer). So many of my clients are dear friends who I enjoy being around, which makes solving their environmental, social, and governance problems even more fulfilling.
This is where female attorneys have an edge. Use that edge to build and nurture your relationships. You will build business in the process.
To paraphrase America Ferrera’s moving speech in “Barbie,” stop trying to be professional but not too professional, smart but not too smart, committed but not neglectful, a leader but not too bossy, a tough adversary but not too aggressive, a valued partner but not a neglectful mom, daughter, or spouse. Stop trying to be nice but not too nice or pushy but not too pushy.
Barbie had to choose between Barbie Land and the real world, and you too have a choice. I hope that like me, you can find Big Law to be a rewarding experience that doesn’t take over your life. So, pull out your Birkenstocks and know that you are “Kenough” to be a true success in Big Law as long as you shape it to fit your life.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Heidi B. (Goldstein) Friedman is partner at Thompson Hine, founder of its firmwide women’s program, and co-chair of the firm’s ESG collaborative.
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