Updated: Jan 9, 2021
This weekend, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel about women in the law at the University of Colorado Law School. Four talented women and I spoke to aspiring lawyers—high school and college students—about what it is like to practice law as women in 2019. During the question-and-answer session, one young woman of color raised her hand and said her favorite activity in high school was participating in a highly competitive mock trial team. Yet, she noticed that she received two pieces of contradictory feedback that were hard for her to reconcile. One, she has a very soft voice that is difficult to hear and can come across as weak when she is cross-examining a witness. Two, when she attempts to adjust her tone and volume, she sounds too aggressive and can come across as bullying. The litigators on the panel had some good suggestions for her but admitted that they too have struggled walking a tightrope between being perceived as “too soft” and “antagonistic.”
Women lawyers in general can experience these two extremes in response to the way they present themselves in professional settings. Studies show that women are usually viewed as competent or likable, but rarely both. Short of shattering the systemic bias that women face in the workplace, are there communication strategies that can help you enhance your presence and impact?
In Own the Room, authors Jen Su and Maignan Wilkins suggest addressing systemic bias by finding a consistent, confident leadership presence. While this may not change fundamental prejudices against women in the workplace, it can improve a woman’s performance as well as others’ perceptions of that performance.
According to the authors, leadership presence is comprised of three things: what one believes, how one communicates, and the energy one expresses to others. There are communication strategies that allow one to listen yet advocate in a way that creates an engaging and effective dialogue with the desired target audience. There are three essentials to achieving this goal: (1) provide context and framing for the message so that it is relevant to the audience; (2) deliver a clear and consistent message; (3) listen, engage, and connect with the audience.
The first step: Know your audience. Ask yourself the following questions: What is in it for the audience? What do they want to know? What do they care about most? What decisions do they have to make, and what issues will arise? Answering these questions will allow you to position your message in a framework that is most relevant to the audience.
Next, be clear on your message. What do you want to say? Are you sharing difficult news or making a request? What is the takeaway? Once you have identified your main goals and know what you want your audience to accomplish, give them the details necessary to act. Communicate the bottom line up front and support any statements with data and explanations. If you need to make more than one point, state all of them early so that the audience can follow the message, and then fill in the supporting information.
Finally, identify the desired outcome. When you are done communicating, what do you want to happen? Will the audience be ready to act? Do you need the audience to come to a particular decision or give you the permission to move forward on a project? Do you need them to give you more resources? Get your audience invested in the outcome.
One other tip is to listen and engage with the audience. If possible, ask open-ended questions of your audience. Listen not just to their words but also their nonverbal cues, such as body language, tone of voice, and mood. What keeps the audience up at night? Often the audience needs acknowledgment of their core motivations before they can receive a message or engage in true dialogue. Increase your connection to the audience so that you can inspire them to action.
Returning to the young woman’s question regarding moot court competitions and her tone of voice, one panelist’s advice was to be adaptive. All witnesses are not the same. Is the witness one that draws the sympathy of the jury? An 80-year-old grandmother is not the same as a trial-hardened expert witness. Do you need to use the witness to make a specific point, which may require you to show you are indignant? Or will an aggressive cross on the witness backfire and make you look like a bully?
In the end, whether in a courtroom or in life, try different techniques to find your voice and communicate your ideas in a way that will give you a consistent, confident leadership presence.
Veronique Van Gheem is Senior Assistant Legal Counsel for the Colorado Judicial Department. Ms. Van Gheem works in the Executive Division of the State Court Administrator’s Office providing general advisory counsel for the Colorado courts, probation departments and the State Court Administrator. She is a Chair of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association Publication Committee. She is also a member of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee, the CBA Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee and a Lead Attorney for the Project Safeguard Spanish-speaking Family Law Clinic. Any views or opinions reflected in this publication do not reflect the position of the Colorado Office of the State Court Administrator or the Colorado Judicial Department.