Susan Letterman White

Find Yourself a Living Metaphor

Ed. note: Susan Letterman White is a legal industry consultant. Prior to consulting, Susan managed her own solo practice while raising children and then joined Hepburn, Willcox, Hamilton, & Putnam in Philadelphia as an associate, became a partner, and then the managing partner. In addition to her J.D. (from Loyola Law School), Susan also has a master's degree from American University in Organizational Development.    

There is no one right way to be a successful lawyer and there are many definitions of success.  I am a 51 year-old former litigator and law firm managing partner, divorced mother of 2 grown children, who took up rock climbing in her 40s.  Now I am a strategy consultant, with a deep interest in helping lawyers to have effective conversations and make changes in their law firms that will make firm better places to work.

I think of myself as successful. I am always preparing to face the next seemingly, overwhelming challenge, like getting law firms to make the changes suggested in NAWL’s 2008 “Actions for Advancing Women into Law Firm Leadership.”  I was asked to write this post and wondered, “What’s the best advice on achieving success that I can give a woman law student or lawyer?”  And, I came up with this. Find a living metaphor to energize you in the face of an enervating reality. I have my own living metaphor. It gives me the desire and energy to keep going and not let failure get in my way. I want you to find yours and this is why.

Jack Welch says that women can’t have it all.  Elizabeth Wertzel is embarrassed that some women leave the practice of law.  We debate the decisions women make to have children and after having a baby.  Self-promotion is a key skill for developing a book of business and appropriate power within one’s law firm. When it comes to self-promotion, women are placed under the strictest scrutiny on how we present ourselves. Many of the conversations about being a woman lawyer are hypercritical and exhausting debate.   It’s no wonder that we hate making mistakes.

Now remember that all this extra debate is superimposed over the fact that practicing law is just plain hard - the long hours, the emotional toll of zealously advocating on behalf of someone who is counting on you, and the pressure to be competent, which we tend to define as a bar that keeps getting higher the closer we get to it.  It should be obvious that as a woman lawyer, we routinely come up against challenges that seem overwhelming.

But, as long as there is something that’s calling you to the practice of law, all you need to do is ask yourself, “How am I going to get there and what is it going to take?” The problem that most women face is the context in which they practice law.  Law firms, in particular, are in dire need of the changes identified in the NAWL report. Until we (and in particular women of color) see those changes, coming up against seemingly overwhelming challenges is just part of the deal. So, back to my advice.

Metaphors create mindsets for seeing the world and making decisions. Today, mine is rock climbing, from which I’ve discovered three mindsets. First, it’s possible to take on a seemingly overwhelming risk with the right protection in place.  Second, mistakes are opportunities to improve and third, I can lead with a unique style and be effective, which is good because as a woman my style is different from most law firm leaders.

Common lawyer mindsets that tell us to come to a judgment as quickly as possible, avoid mistakes, and that the truth will be revealed through vigorous debate are helpful in court or when drafting a contract.  They are obstacles to developing effective strategies and skills for building a book or business or being an effective leader.  Okay, onward to my living metaphor.

A few weeks ago I was rock climbing at the Gunks.  I wanted to lead a route above my comfort level and was doing so.  I placed nuts and cams along the way for protection in the event of a fall; but, then reached a 20-foot section of rock that lacked places for protective gear.  This meant that I was risking a fall of up to 40 feet, assuming my gear placement was solid.

I was anxious about falling.  I also was well balanced as I scoped out the moves I would need to make before I reached the next spot where I could stop.  I took a deep breath, envisioned the next several moves and tried to imagine what they would feel like.  I was focused on my strategy, my action plan, but also told myself that I could make adjustments, in the moment, as I climbed.  Then, I made a decision to go.

I know myself, my level of climbing skill, and I committed.  I knew I could fall; I told myself that I would not fall. Self-talk followed as I moved my body. “Keep climbing; don’t stop.”  It is exhilarating to take on any risk and succeed.  Of course, risk is a matter of perception.  What felt risky to me is a piece of cake to many other climbers.

So, what feels risky to you? Forget about the debates about whether women can have it all. What do you want? Whatever it is, take the risk with the proper protection in place, an action plan, a willingness to adjust in the moment, and while telling yourself to keep climbing.  Building a book of business and developing power within your law firm are two excellent goals, both with an obvious risk of failure and criticism.  Why not start there?

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