Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Women in Transition: Deciding to Decide, Stepping Up & Your First 100 days & Beyond

Alumna, Nikki Alderson (Jurisprudence, Balliol College) works as a specialist Corporate and Executive Coach.


Nikki Alderson


Time to read

6 Minutes
Deciding to decide
Time and again my amazing, competent, capable female lawyer clients say that any minute they’re going to get found out, that they aren’t good enough for the next promotion or position. Imposter Syndrome is real. It can keep you “safe”, but have you ever heard the saying that when you push beyond your comfort zone, that’s where the magic happens?
I can understand for career break returners, confidence may be at a low ebb. You may want to get back into the swing of things, at a pace you find manageable. I’m all for getting all your ducks in a row. But whilst you’re getting organised, fully competent, and doing all you can to turn uncertainty into certainty, truly, aren’t you procrastinating and letting others, often men, elbow ahead? 
“The key to success is to start before you are ready”. Marie Forleo’s great advice not only got my coaching business off the ground but catapulted it beyond expectation, simply because I let go of the feeling that I had to know all the answers. Women in law could adopt a similar approach in the face of research shared at the Temple Women’s Forum “Applying for Silk” Workshop. Of applicants for silk, men were 90% sure of success, women only 60%. You may never feel it’s the right time. Success can’t always be guaranteed. But how would it feel then to know that in not “going for it” you’ve ended up standing in your own way?
If you don’t step up, who will? How will you feel when others overtake you? A dear friend of mine in Chambers took this advice some years ago before applying for Recordership. Seems it was enough to jolt her into action. If it’s what you want, what’s to stop you? She’s now a Circuit Judge, so testament to what’s out there for you if only you dare.
Stepping up
So you’ve decided to step up. Ask yourself what success looks like to you. Success can mean many things to many different people: Being a silk, a judge, a law firm equity partner OR, none of the above. 
Strategically engineering a method by which to make the job work more effectively is essential - even if this means progressing your career, whether legal or otherwise, in a way that is individual to YOU rather than in line with what others expect. What success means to you will be influenced by your values/ beliefs, goals/ ambitions. These are personal to YOU, and shouldn’t be influenced by others. 
In a world where “wellbeing”, “life balance” and “flexible working” are all important buzz words, think of the Millennial definition of success as opposed to the  “expected” route to success through Partnership in a traditional, hierarchical law firm.
For colleagues in Chambers who would moan about hating the job, but “what else could they do?”, I always thought, with their many cross-transferable skills, they could perhaps be a bit more precise, honest even, about their drivers: What they actually meant was “what else could I do that pays X amount of money?” 
In her autobiography, Becoming, Michelle Obama’s searing honesty about this might resonate: “I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it. This was a distressing thing to admit, given how hard I’d worked and how in debt I was. In my blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong path”
Find a way to fall in love with law again, or if not, make plans alongside it, to improve it – by tweaks, to establish clear boundaries, perhaps by resolving not to work past X time at night; by bigger adjustments like re-training in a  different area of specialism; or by going all out for whole scale career change.
As Michelle Obama eluded to, it’s so easy to get caught up in life’s busy-ness, working hard to climb the ladder of success, only to discover that all this time the ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall. As Steven Covey said in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, put the ladder against the right wall before start climbing. That wall has to be the one that represents an authentic you, otherwise things will always keep coming up short
So how do we settle on a forward trajectory? I am a big believer in Covey’s Second Habit: Start with the end in mind. Be clear and honest about your goal, visualise the end-point then, working backwards, put plans in place to get there. Everything you do thereafter will be “on purpose” towards that outcome. 
Beyond your First 100 days
So you’ve secure your next promotion. You’ve asked for and been given the best pay cheque. You’re suited and booted ready to take on this next important challenge. You’ve dived right into your stretch zone. What next then to hit the ground running and navigate your steepest learning curve to date?
First 100 Days: Support of yourself and from others
Firstly, have confidence in yourself that you are up to the job. You may not be the best YET, but you are in position, and bring to the post all your previous experience and strengths together with all your future potential. It’s good to remind yourself of what you do well, and what have been your past successes: you can absolutely do this! 
And it’s also good to keep your sense of humour and stay humble, by being self-aware. You’ve already identified the stuff you do well but by conducting a SWOT analysis for example, will also have the opportunity to acknowledge and, more importantly, work on the areas where you have to dig that little bit deeper. What challenges do you need to work on to support your own learning, or as a way of upskilling? This might include gaps around technology, leading a team and also knowing your own limits. I’m thinking here about your ability to set boundaries and, where necessary, say no. 
Moving away then from self-reflection, turn to those around you. What courses or other external support do you need to utilise? Who or what else needs to be involved? How do the logistics at home need to function to support you? Put yourself in the best position to make yourself invaluable to your seniors.
Slow down to speed up. Take your time to find your feet in the new role before introducing any wide-spread and unsettling or controversial change. That said, don’t hang back from the quick and meaningful wins. Take the lead in meetings. Take the opportunities to show your boss they chose well, and your team that you are more than capable; you are on it.
Day 101 and beyond: Maintaining Forward Momentum
Now you are conducting yourself effectively as the leader you are meant to be, and you are increasing your qualities and skills daily, how can you maintain this over time? 
Firstly, don’t forget to document, “shout” even, about your success: update your social media to reflect your new position and skills set.
Secondly, the importance of relationships cannot be underestimate, both in terms of building/ developing them, then in terms of maintaining a supportive team. As Zig Ziglar said, “If people like you, they’ll listen to you; If they trust you, they’ll do business with you”. It’s certainly been my experience that the more people know and trust you, the more likely you are to hear of the next opportunity. References for future positions are a great example of this. 
A supportive team having your back cannot be underestimated. Without, communications can breakdown and effectiveness/ productivity nose-dive. Choose your circle wisely. I’d always recommend quality over quantity. Given it is said that you become the sum of the parts with whom you mostly spend time,  remember the saying: “Eagles don’t fly with pigeons”. I know which one I’d rather be. How about you?
Finally, remain authentic. Being passionate about your role and your career calling will give you longevity and an edge. I’ve always advocated the Bronnie Waring approach. She was a palliative care nurse who did extensive research in to the top 5 regrets of the dying. Simply “Live a life true to yourself, not the life others expect”.
Nikki Alderson is a former criminal barrister, now Corporate and Executive Coach supporting law firms and Chambers to attract and retain female talent within the legal profession and empowering female lawyers to achieve career ambitions whilst creating congruent lives. Having gained great insights into the responsibilities, pressures and “expected” career paths of those, particularly women, working in law, Nikki sees a challenge within the profession, which she hopes to address through coaching, of retaining talented women role models, given the dearth of women in senior partnership roles and within the judiciary.