Career Advice: Sometimes You Just Have to Say “%^&* ‘Em!”

As a young associate, my supervisor was a stressed-out, unpredictable, yet unfalteringly transparent mid-level partner. I’d approach his office with the typical timidity of a newly minted lawyer soliciting input from an esteemed superior, praying my question was warranted and his mood would be receptive. Sometimes, we’d have spirited intellectual discussions, and I’d leave his office wiser and with a fantastic plan for tackling a tough issue. Other days, he’d peer up from his desk with an unshaven face, tousled hair, and bags under his eyes, apparently frustrated by my mere existence, and apologize because he didn’t have two minutes for anything. I never knew what I’d get, except for a phrase that reverberated through his advice repeatedly: “%^&* ‘em!”.

It initially shocked me that my mentor threw “the expletive” around with such apparent abandon. But over time, I realized he wasn’t using “the expletive” recklessly. He reserved it for times it was truly warranted (it just happened that in his practice, it was justified with relative frequency). Like when he was still finishing an all-nighter’s worth of critical work and the senior partner above us lambasted him for failing to file an hour-old e-mail in the proper folder. Or when he received “direction from above” to smile more frequently, because the perceived sulkiness he exhibited as a byproduct of his record-setting billable hours was bringing down office morale.

Our profession demands a degree of decorum, and my former mentor exemplified that professionalism. But when he let his guard down (and the expletive fly), he showed me in his uncanny way that it’s okay to be human. But more than that, his expletive became a tool that unwittingly guided me through countless situations.

When my evaluation included criticisms rife with gender bias, I admittedly cried for an hour – but then “%^&* ‘em!” popped into my head and I got back to work. When I received my own “message from above” that my chosen niche was a path to nowhere, I paused to consider this “input” – but then said “%^&* ‘em!” all the way to being one of the highest performing non-equity partners at my firm. When I decided to leave the firm and forge out on my own, “%^&* ‘em!” helped me ignore the naysayers and do what was right for me.  

I’m certain my old mentor would say he never intended “the expletive” to be something (like his infamous sulk) that other lawyers would etch in their psyches. But a simple “%^&* ‘em!” can serve as a subtle (or more pervasive) reminder to keep things in perspective. To prevent injustices from holding you back. To stick it out even when things get tough. To acknowledge discomfort but then set it aside.  To differentiate between critiques you should humbly process vs. unfounded criticism. To maintain your confidence even in circumstances that could easily derail you. Most importantly, “%^&* ‘em!” (or, if you wish, a more politely worded succinct mantra) can remind you to stay true to yourself.

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