Ann Lawrence never expected to be working at a law firm. From a young age, she had her mind set on starting a business. She had grown up watching her father run his own company and was filled with her own entrepreneurial ideas. She went to Columbia for law school, but only because she thought it would help her as an entrepreneur.

But Lawrence fell in love with the law and how she could use it to help companies succeed. She is now a partner at DLA Piper, one of the world’s largest law firms, and Global Co-Chair of its Retail Sector practice. Along the way, she started to notice other women weren’t enjoying the same success. So she tapped her entrepreneurial side and set out to make a difference for other women in law and beyond. Her passion led her to launch Pink 51, an organization that promoted businesses owned and led by women.

Here, Lawrence shares how she built a successful law career and found ways to promote other women along the way.

FINDING MY OWN PATH

When I graduated and started working at a law firm, I was told to specialize. At the time, specialization was all the rage. People told you to become a tax lawyer or, better yet, become an international tax lawyer! That was the fastest way to increasing your hourly rates.

But that didn’t fit with who I was. I looked around at my peers who were hyper-specialized and asked myself: who among them could work with a company holistically? Who understands the big picture — which specialization to call on when? I loved business. And I wanted to be the lawyer who could walk into a boardroom and strategize with the executives and board of directors.

“We wanted to put pressure on businesses to include more women in their leadership structures, but we wanted to do it in a positive way.”

I think sticking to my own path was my first entrepreneurial act in my career. It was a risk that meant, initially, I wouldn’t be able to charge the same high rates as some of my peers. But I made a bet on myself. Over time, I built my reputation as being someone who could collaborate with clients. I didn’t expect things to come to me, but rather went out there and hustled for business like I was the CEO of a startup. And all that hard work has paid off. I am now Global Co-Chair of my firm’s Retail Sector practice, and have built an incredible team that advises retail brands on “bet the company” issues, and strategic transactions all over the world. I rarely have to hustle new clients anymore because companies find me, and my hourly rate is higher than many of my peers.

LIFTING UP OTHER WOMEN

I’ve had a lot of success, but, unfortunately, not all women lawyers can say the same. Many struggle in law firms and end up leaving the firm before making partner. The legal industry is particularly tough for women. When I was in law school, we were told that the reason there weren’t very many female partners was because fewer women had gone to law school — so there was a “pipeline issue.” But my generation saw an equal number of men and women entering the law firm pipeline, so I was complacent on gender issues for much of my career because I thought that the imbalance would just work itself out in time.

When I realized that wasn’t the case, I knew I had to do something. It’s not just that women are opting out, but also that they’re running into the glass ceiling. Because if gender imbalances were just because women were deciding to stay home with their kids, that should mean that women who don’t have kids and dedicate their lives to their jobs would be running a lot more law firms and Fortune 100 companies right now.

That’s why a group of my friends and I started Pink51, to encourage more companies to put women in positions of power. We formed a company to promote businesses that were either 50 percent owned by women, or whose executives or boards were at least 20 percent female, by creating an online list so that it would be easy to buy from them. We wanted to give consumers the power and the knowledge to support businesses that include more women in their leadership structures, but we wanted to do it in a positive way. Rather than shame companies, we wanted to reward those who were already including women.

The number of businesses joining the site grew into the thousands and we quickly realized that it required full time attention. And I realized that I had to choose between continuing to grow it or my law practice — and my law practice is my passion. Ultimately, we decided to wind down the business. It was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make because we loved the mission of Pink51 and our team so much. But that is also a key to being entrepreneurial, sometimes the best decision is to prioritize and I learned that shutting it down wasn’t a failure, but a necessary learning experience that has made me a better lawyer and strategist. I love seeing how many women are becoming advocates for each other — and I love that my law practice allows me to feed my passion of supporting other women by mentoring them and actively speaking up to recommend them for jobs, build their brands and grow their companies.

PUSHING FOR CHANGE

I’m also pushing within organizations I work for and with, for things like equal maternity and paternity leave and policies that deal with unconscious bias. I also speak up and have uncomfortable conversations with people in power in order to make a difference. For example, I joined a club that up until a few years ago didn’t allow women to be members. People asked me why I would join such a club, but if I stay out, then I’m not forcing that conversation around inclusion. Those conversations don’t happen unless women are in the room.

I feel lucky to have made it to where I am. There were plenty of people (men and women) who helped me along the way. If using the power that I have as a successful attorney to push the conversation a little further helps other women, then I want to keep on doing that.

When other women ask for career advice, I always recommend that they try to balance being entrepreneurial in their careers with helping other women. There are so many ways to stand up for women in business — by supporting their careers directly through mentorship, by promoting other women or by pushing for changes that will make it easier for women in the workplace. I know that if I really want to make change, I’m not going to make it by myself. For real change to happen, there need to be more women in the rooms of power leading the conversation.

Ann Lawrence is a client of Northwestern Mutual and works with Wealth Management Advisor Curtis Estes.

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