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June 2, 2011In April, Catalyst’s Brande Stellings and I went to the 2011 Women’s Power Summit on Law & Leadership at University of Texas School of Law. Following the success of the 2009 Summit and creation of the Austin Manifesto, this year’s conference focused on the theme of power. As Brande makes clear in today’s guest post, we all have power—whether we know it or not. The question is how to use it to reach our goals.—Ilene H. Lang

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When I was in law school, a professor told us that associates in law firms could be subversive by not laughing at the senior partners’ jokes. At the time, this advice seemed wholly inadequate on so many levels, but I found myself thinking about it while at the recent Women’s Power Summit on Law & Leadership.

Over 100 leaders in the legal profession and corporate world gathered to consider what it will take to achieve the ambitious goals set forth for the legal profession in the Austin Manifesto. Among other things, the Manifesto pledges to reach 30% women equity partners by 2015 and 10% women of color equity partners by 2020.

At first, I couldn’t help but feel that these were unrealistic goals. Like the progress of women in the C-suite, the progress of women in the legal profession has stalled. Women’s increased representation in the partnership ranks is measured in tenths of a percentage point each year.

But if there’s any group that should be able to make change in the legal profession, it’s this one. As you might expect at a “Power Summit,” the attendees were a high-powered group: firm chairs, general counsels, judges, thought leaders. They affirmed that while we may feel discouraged by the glacial pace of organizational change, we have the power to reach our goals.

For example, Harvard Business School Professor Robin Ely posed a simple question, “Power for what?” It is important to define your purpose, she said, as clarity about your purpose will help in surmounting barriers.

UT Professor Christine Williams also spoke to us about personal power. She highlighted Debra Meyerson’s research on “tempered radicals,” who are “people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations.” In other words, tempered radicals rock the boat—without falling out.

The Summit’s takeaways were clear: Set a purpose. Get power. And if you do not feel you have meaningful institutional support or clout, mount your own gender equity campaign: Refer business to women, mentor a man, or become a role model for other women.

At the end of the three-day conference, I thought again about that advice I received in law school. The point is not whether you smile at the senior partners’ jokes, it’s that you have the power not to.

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Brande Stellings, J.D., leads Catalyst's efforts to advance women and promote inclusion within the legal profession. She serves on the Board of Directors of Legal Momentum (The Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund), on the Honorary Advisory Board of Pace Law School's New Directions Program for lawyers returning to practice and formerly chaired (2007-2010) Women in the Profession, a committee of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Ms. Stellings practiced law for more than 12 years within a large corporate law firm and as in-house corporate legal counsel. At NBC Universal Inc., where she served as Vice President, Litigation, Ms. Stellings was co-leader of the award-winning New York/New Jersey chapter of the GE Women's Network and a member of NBC Universal's Affinity Council. Prior to NBC, she worked at Cravath, Swaine & Moore as a litigation associate. Ms. Stellings received her J.D. cum laude from the Harvard Law School and graduated magna cum laude from Yale College.