By Jennifer Guenther • May 23, 2010•Writers in Residence, Careers
It has often been said, and allegedly supported by statistics, that if you are taller, more attractive, and have a better physique, you will go further in life.
In elections – the taller candidate almost always wins, right? Television is rife with attractive, successful people – has any member of “The Apprentice” been homely?
And there is more than one blog out there discussing how ‘attractive young girls are getting ahead while the older (seriously, when did 30s and 40s become “older”) women with telltale “mom” bodies are shunted aside, ignored and isolated by this young stiletto crowd.’
Well, it is true – there is a new breed of women entering the legal profession – ones who come from being a gender majority in law school, who come with little question that they will have at lease a competitive chance in this old boys club we call the law – a sense of entitlement, if you will, that is more foreign to anyone who has been practicing more than 10 years, or perhaps even five, in a profession which can place the livelihood, and even the lives, of individuals in their very hands.
While the stiletto heels give the appearance of an edge – it is really this sense of confidence that gives the edge – not their looks or their fashion sense. It is their ability to believe that stereotypes are a thing of past generations and will not be a factor in their careers and future success. A belief that they can make a difference and mold the path that they want to take.
For some, this confidence can be intimidating or seem slightly rude or overbearing. But really, is it not that same sense of confidence, perhaps naiveté, that we admire so much in other aspects of our lives? Do we not have wonder at the very same thing in our children when they gaze in awe at something we have taken for granted for years? Do we not feel proud of, and take a sense of pride in, those we honor at luncheons for boldly taking on difficult tasks to make our communities better? Do we not cry for the loss of those qualities every time we hear of a young soldier’s death in a far away land, a soldier who is there because they are bold and believe they can make a difference in the world?
As a child, I was tall and gangly, often very shy and easily intimidated. But as I grew, I knew these things would not last and so powered on. The same could be said for early in my legal career. But again, as you grow and learn as an attorney, you become both empowered and more cognizant of the fact that you have a great responsibility to your clients and specialized knowledge that truly impacts their lives.
By the time you are 20, most of us have known someone who has passed away- perhaps a grandparent or a distant relative or even friend or parent. And with that passing comes the first hint that life is fleeting. Having children magnifies that fleeting feeling as each year seems to slip by faster than the last. It is for this reason you often hear: “Enjoy every moment, for they grow so fast…” And, as parents, we try to do just that.
The question is, then, why don’t we take the same care and precautions in our profession—to enjoy every moment, to understand that time is fleeting and that we only have so long to make our mark on the world, or in the community, or in our offices. Rather than be intimidated or look down upon the boldness of new attorneys coming in, we should instead take heart that such courage still exists and do our best to guide those attorneys in their careers and assist them to avoid as many pitfalls as we can.
We can also borrow from their boldness, the same as we do from our children, to see the world anew. To take the time to look within ourselves and decide if we are where we want to be in our professions. At the same time, we must also look in the mirror- to determine who it is we want to be and who we want to be known as. For the most part, the legal community is very small and reputations grow easily, for good or bad. We may not have control over much of our lives, but we always have ultimate control and decision-making abilities over how we present ourselves and where we go in our careers.
For me, the ten years I have been practicing have brought incredible opportunities, moments of doubt, frustration, excitement, and a clear idea of who I am as a person and as an attorney. I also see how long this journey is going to be and how much further I have to go. While I am I not sure what I ultimately will grow up to be, I am beginning to understand that success is measured not in terms of ultimate goals, but in the day-to-day practice of law and life.
In the legal profession, there are three things needed to be successful:
1. Excellence. You must strive to be good at what you do—setting your personal standards as high for yourself as you do for others. Set your sights on where you want to be in a week or a year and understand that no one else will help you get there unless you take the first ten steps yourself.
2. Confidence. You must exude enough confidence to make your clients, partners and colleagues believe you are a good lawyer. I often hear other women talk down their own accomplishments—when you work hard, be proud of what you have done. If you are the team leader and someone compliments your success, say “Thank you. I led a great team!” instead of “I couldn’t have done it without my team” or “They did the heavy lifting”. Giving credit where it is due is different than giving all the credit away. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by a cranky judge or aggressive opposing counsel, or by an underling who is testing you. You are in the position you are in for a reason.
3. Professionalism. Be polite, always, but don’t mistake being polite with being “nice”—as an advocate, it is often our jobs to say “no”. And in our careers, we also must advocate for ourselves. Be respectful- everyone has something they bring to the table and, whether we ultimately use it or not, it is almost always in our best interest to take the time to find out what that is. But that doesn’t mean you allow others to disrespect you in the meantime. I have, on more than one occasion, written a short letter to opposing counsel stating: “While I respect that you must represent your client’s position, I request that you please maintain a level of professionalism in doing so and reframe from ...” And regardless of your personal feelings, an office is not a daytime talk show where all your grievances are aired to the world. If you are willing to gossip about others, you must assume they are doing the same about you as you have essentially given them permission by telling the first tale.
Being a good lawyer is not just working insane hours. It takes a dedication to the profession to do a good job, research thoroughly, think ahead, and provide concise and clear guidance that solves more problems than it causes.
As to confidence, well there are moments it will come naturally, and moments you have to fake it. Not all situations will be comfortable, but remember you are there to represent your client, or your firm, or yourself. Never let them see you sweat. And while looking “put together” plays a part in that (of course – it is much easier to feel confident in a beautiful suit), if your coffee tips over in the car going around a corner or that pigeon on the courthouse steps has good aim, it doesn’t change the job you have to do. If you decide it doesn’t matter—ultimately so will everyone else. (And then there are those other moments where no one tells you your skirt is tucked in your pantyhose or you have half a banana stuck to your pants, but what can you do…).
As a lawyer, you are necessary only for the information you impart, and for convincing others to rely on that information. While inter-office or courthouse politics can sometimes seem petty, and cliques similar to those we all endured in high school may form, in the end it is only those who are good at what they do and good at conveying that message who will move to the front of the class.
For those who feel like one of the unpopular kids – get over it. You are not in high school anymore. Take the high road and be professional. For time is fleeting and our careers are passing before our eyes—and hopefully growing up into something we can be proud of.