Grit & Focus: Women at the Top

By Katherine Mann '19

Features Editor

Serena Williams is one of the most successful tennis players in history. With thirty-nine Grand Slam titles, she is ranked third on the all-time listof all players, not just women. If you ask most people what makes Serena special, the first answer you might hear is “talent.” 

But according to Dr. Milana Hogan, Chief Legal Talent Officer at Sullivan & Cromwell, Serena might point out the thousands of hours of pure hard work she has put in during her career. “If we only tell one side of the story, then we don’t really appreciate the efforts of hard work.” Hogan spoke last week at Women at the Top, an event sponsored by Virginia Law Women. The focus of her talk was the concept of "grit", which she defined as the behavioral persistence in the face of adversity. There is no doubt about Serena’s talent, but her passionate pursuit of her goals, even when facing difficulty, sets her apart from her peers.  

Hogan recently published a book called “Grit, The Secret to Advancement,” which details the work of the Grit Project, an ABA initiative to find out what makes women lawyers successful. The idea is to uncover and teach relevant traits to women starting out in the field in order to increase their advancement, and her focus has been on the impact of grit and growth mindset on the success of women lawyers. 

The concept of grit is closely related to having a growth mindset. Hogan set out a spectrum to illustrate this concept. A person might have a “fixed” mindset, in which they believe that their inherent ability, level of talent, or intelligence is fixed, and that it can’t be improved through any kind of practice. People with a growth mindset, however, don’t believe in any ceilings for themselves. “They believe in the power of effort,” she explained. Her research showed that women lawyers fall about in the middle of this spectrum.  

Research into intelligence measures, such as SAT or LSAT scores, has shown that intelligence is far less fixed than we used to believe. Furthermore, “we’re finding that these tests are not very good predictors of success,” she said. While they can illustrate your intelligence at any one time, your mind is like a muscle. “If I decided to improve my IQ, I could,” she said.  

Hogan views mindset as a huge opportunity for improvement for advancement for women in law. For example, she noted that women react very differently to performance reviews than men do, while acknowledging that this is a generalization and that individuals are different. One of her colleagues told the story of having an overall positive review from her evaluators, but on hearing that her writing was “pretty good,” she started catastrophizingmentally spinning out scenarios where a single remark led to a career disaster. “If you don’t digest feedback in a healthy way, you’re in trouble,” Hogan said. People who are more growth-minded can resist the urge to take feedback personally and, instead, turn it into an opportunity for learning and success.  

Grit, and its focus on overcoming adversity, goes hand-in-hand with having a growth mindset. Hogan studied women in all areas of lawnonprofit, government, in-house counsel, solo practitioners, judges, and law firmsand found a statistically significant relationship between grit and various measures of success in all these domains. It is closely related to overall quality of work. She also found that while many highly successful women lawyers display a growth mindset when facing challenges, there is room for improvement. Judges have a slight edge when it comes to grit, and nonprofit lawyers have a slightly higher growth mindset than those at law firms. She also found that growth mindset is also a good predictor of seniority within an organization. 

She ended her discussion by talking about strategies for women lawyers entering the workforce. “Get comfortable with failure,” Hogan advised, even if that means hearing supposedly negative feedback in a new way. Reframing the phrase “pretty good” as an opportunity for learning allows you to improve your work product. She also encouraged women to inspire criticismin other words, to have a positive reaction to criticism in order to ensure that you continue to receive feedback. It’s important that your superiors know you want feedback so that they will freely give it to you. She also encouraged the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” strategy. Just pretending you don’t have a personal ceiling can allow you to go further. Finally, she stressed the importance of finding meaning in your work and focusing on long-term goals. She noted that if women don’t find meaning in their work, they are much more likely to leave their job. “Passion is the lynchpin of grit,” she said.  

Retention and promotion are still issues for women in the legal field. Firms and other organizations have begun to implement programs to address these needs, but women can use the strategies suggested by Hogan to complement these programs. It’s fair to say that only very few women will be able to win the Australian open while eight weeks pregnant. But women in the law should feel free to work without a ceiling.


Katherine Mann