Updated: Jan 8, 2021
Male-dominated professions have been defined as professions where women make up 25 percent or less of the workforce. Since 2017, women have made up half of law school graduates, yet men continue to make up the majority of active attorneys, especially in private practice. A recent survey by Law360 found that only 21 percent of equity partners are women. and only 12 percent of private practice attorneys in firms’ highest leadership roles are women. Here in Colorado, a recent study found that women comprised less than 40 percent of private practitioners, with even fewer women at the top. Similarly, in energy, women make up less than 35 percent of the workforce.
But, within the legal energy community in Colorado, there are many women with thriving careers. I recently interviewed one of them, Caitlin Shields, a partner at Wilkinson, Barker, Knauer, LLP, who specializes in energy regulation and litigation. She discussed her career path and experience working in an oftentimes male-dominated profession and gave advice for women considering a similar path.
Q: What was it about energy law that sparked your interest? When did you feel like this was the right path for you?
A: I’ve always been interested in energy and environmental issues, so I knew when I went to law school that this was the area that I wanted to practice in, generally speaking. I wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on society, and perhaps in some way change the world for the better. I grew up doing backcountry trips and had a deep connection with the outdoors, which inspired me to go into a field that would help protect it for future generations. A lot of my work today involves working with utility companies that are interested in setting aggressive carbon-reduction strategies and transforming the way energy is generated, transmitted, consumed, and managed. It is a very exciting time.
Q: Numerous studies posit that people often perceive female advocates, such as lawyers, differently than men, and how women speaking to a male-dominated audience need to strike a balance between being seen as “too soft” or “too aggressive.” Similarly, other studies suggest that some women believe they need to act “like a man” to gain advantage in traditionally male-dominated professions. Have you experienced this issue, and if so, how do you tailor your presentation to a male-dominated audience without compromising your authenticity?
A: That’s a tough question. Every day, I think about the way that I present myself, in every interaction, especially because when I interact with clients, I know how I’m perceived is the number one determinant of whether I’ll be successful, be heard, add value, and continue to get work. It’s a balance of wanting to interact authentically with the client but also to represent them fiercely and accomplish the objectives that they’ve hired you to accomplish. In litigation, you want to demonstrate that you’re firm, not soft, and that you can be aggressive when you need to be, but that you’re not an obstructionist, which is often easier for men to do without being perceived in a negative way.
In every single meeting, I pay attention to the gender balance, and often I’m the only woman, but I try not to read too much into gender dynamics. Just because I’m the only woman in the room doesn’t necessarily mean I need to change the way I’m presenting myself; gender doesn’t always play a role. But, you may have to present yourself differently based on your audience. I often focus on personalities rather than on gender. And while I often feel more comfortable and at ease with women, that is not always true. A situation is not necessarily easier if there are more women present. Instead, I think it’s more important to focus on the personalities in the room, where gender may have influence, but gender may not be the determining factor in how I present myself.
I’m very perceptive to how my clients and colleagues present themselves, and in some ways, it’s important to emulate others that are perceived well, but you cannot emulate everyone, and it can be difficult for females to emulate men and be well-received. I think the most important thing is staying true to yourself and having confidence in your own education and experience to offer an opinion or recommendation and engage with people in a way that is true to yourself and what you have learned.
In the space that I practice in, more and more women seem to be entering the profession, and while there are still not many women at the top, there are more women present in day-to-day decision-making. I have worked hard to build relationships with these other women, to connect with them professionally and personally, to build relationships over time, and as a result, I have a community of women that support me and respect me, so even when we’re on opposing sides, they often advocate for me indirectly. For example, a female colleague will reach out to me rather than a male colleague at my firm, or a female colleague will go to bat for me, even when they don’t have to, because of the relationships I’ve built with them. And similarly, I will also be a fierce advocate for them. It’s good for me, it’s good for the women I work with, and it’s good for my clients.
Q: What are the biggest obstacles you have faced as a female attorney in this space? Has your response to those obstacles been different at various stages of your legal career?
A: My priorities have changed over time. In the beginning of my career, I was focused on building my knowledge base and building my reputation. But that eventually transitioned into making partner at my firm and building business. I was always asking myself: Am I keeping up with colleagues? Am I doing the right thing?
Today, my biggest challenge is trying to balance being a mom, a partner, a wife, all while being present in the community and building business while also finding time to take care of myself, whether through exercise or other down time. I have to figure out where to put my time and how to be most effective because, while I want to do it all, I can’t. Finding balance is a constant struggle that I don’t ever see changing. As lawyers, we tend to be perfectionists, so I think the greatest skill is learning what imperfections you can tolerate in your personal life and career — and still sleep at night.
Q: As the sole female partner in your firm’s Denver office, how did you find your path when you had no example?
A: I realized early on that no one cares about my career as much as I do. Because no one else was going to do it for me, I had to be my own advocate. It is especially important to have this attitude in private practice or it will be difficult to find success and become partner and build business.
So early on, I made my game plan, what I was going to do to build my profile, my client base, my reputation — externally and internally — and I came up with a strategic plan to accomplish my goals. And most importantly, I shared that plan with firm management whenever I had a review. I would say, this is what I want, am I doing enough to achieve that goal? This put my reviewers in the position that they had to tell me what else I needed to be doing, if anything, to make partner.
This often requires what can feel like difficult conversations. People want to avoid being confrontational, but for me, the only way to get what I wanted was to be clear in what I want and what I want to achieve. Essentially, you need to set goals, execute those goals, and ask for feedback from others to ensure that the only option is for you to succeed.
Q: Why was it important to you to help form the Colorado Chapter of Women’s Energy Network, an organization that includes both attorney and non-attorney members working in energy?
A: From my professional experience, working in a field where more men were at the top and in decision-making positions, this made me passionate about empowering women, promoting equality, and creating a community where women who want fulfilling careers can elevate themselves to positions of power.
And from my personal experience, which originated from working at a summer leadership camp and leading outdoor trips that were focused on team building, these experiences encouraged me to find my own team. I’ve seen the difference in how a team operates when they’re getting along, appreciate each other, play to each other’s strengths, and how they can succeed so much better when working together, versus a team that can’t find synergy. When you realize what a difference it makes when you’re working as a team with the right people, you want to create that environment professionally as well.
I also enjoy that the organization includes not just attorneys because, by surrounding myself with women in other industry segments, I can learn from them, about how lawyers can improve their practice and how our business model can be better. The legal profession can learn a lot from other business sectors on how to adapt since the legal profession is often based on an outdated model that doesn’t work well for everyone and it doesn’t always adapt well.
Q: What are the top three pieces of advice you would give to women looking to work in this field, or a similarly male-dominated field?
A: First, taking ownership of your career and not expecting others to do it for you and finding the confidence to do so.
Second, being true to yourself, which might mean accepting that you need to be in a different role or doing something else, whether that is working in-house or obtaining a more flexible schedule, and not being ashamed of what you need, whether that is backing off from work or accelerating more into work.
And third, accepting reality, that you can’t do it all, and need to ask others for help. Build a community of people, internally and externally, that can help support you. Recognize that you have to rely on those people who know you and trust them to help you because you can’t get where you want alone, you need to have the right people along the way to help support you. Community is one of the most important things to success. That’s why, as women, we need to support one another, maybe not in all scenarios, but it’s important that we look out for each other and build a community. That doesn’t mean special treatment, but means we need to empathize with one another.
Q: What are your most valuable accomplishments? What do you still hope to accomplish?
A: Professionally, I am most proud of making partner and achieving a position where clients respect me and see me as a trusted advisor. I have put a lot of hard work into achieving both those things and seeing all my work having paid off, it’s really rewarding to now have the confidence that I can take on any case in any area in the energy space and do a good job.
Personally, I’m really proud of having a healthy baby, and a loving, caring husband who puts up with my quirks and supports me in attempting to have everything.
Going forward, I want to maintain what I have going, but I’m still figuring out my other long-term objectives. I am interested in going into public service one day or taking a totally different career path, maybe not even litigating. If I weren’t a lawyer, I would buy a ranch somewhere in the mountains, fill it with dogs and bikes and horses, and run a lodge.
 https://abovethelaw.com/2018/05/the-glass-ceiling-report-a-bleak-picture-for-women-in-the-legal-profession/; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/24/business/dealbook/women-law-firm-partners.html.
 http://womenlaw.stanford.edu/pdf/aba.unfinished.agenda.pdf; https://www.talentinnovation.org/_private/assets/Athena-2-ExecSummFINAL-CTI.pdf; https://hbr.org/2017/02/diversity-doesnt-stick-without-inclusion; Dilshani Sarathchandra, Kristin Haltinner, Nicole Lichtenberg, and Hailee Tracy, “‘It’s Broader Than Just My Work Here’: Gender Variations in Accounts of Success Among Engineers in U.S. Academia,” Social Sciences, vol. 7 (Feb. 2018).
Brittany Tyler is currently an appellate law clerk for the Honorable Terry Fox at the Colorado Court of Appeals, and a member of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association. Any views or opinions reflected in this publication do not reflect the position of the Colorado Court of Appeals or the Colorado Judicial Department.