By Claire E. Parsons • September 18, 2018•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Other Career Issues
In my practice, I routinely ask for—nay demand—things on behalf of my clients without a second thought: produce the documents, dismiss the complaint, find in my client’s favor, etc. But, when it was time for me to take a step forward in my own career, I was startled to see how hard it was to ask for things for me. To be honest, it felt downright unnatural.
This had always been a problem for me. I remember as a kid getting jealous when my mom came home from the store with a purchase for my sister. With rather sage advice and only a little exasperation, my mom explained that she had thought to buy something for my sister because—wait for it—she had asked for it. Despite this early life lesson, it was still a struggle for me even as I moved into my own legal career. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was able to dodge this issue for the early years of my practice because I never had to ask for a raise.
Then it happened. At my Firm, if you want to make partner you are expected to ask to be made partner. As a result, my choice was to remain an associate forever or to learn how to ask for something for myself. I ended up asking and, I guess my mom was right, because I ended up getting what I had asked for: I made partner. How did I do it?
It finally occurred to me that I asked for things all the time on behalf of clients and had no trouble. So, what if I pretended that I was my own client? What if I could build a case for myself? That’s what I did and it really helped. Here are the steps that I took.
1. Reviewed and Gathered the Facts
The first step to building any solid case is gathering and learning the relevant facts. In my own case, this meant figuring out why I deserved to be made partner. I gathered the data on my billable hours over the years I had worked at the firm and reviewed my contributions internally via service on committees and other projects. I also knew that I had to demonstrate promise in my ability to originate work. To support this element of my argument, I reviewed the ways I had helped to solidify relationships with current clients and attract new ones, as well as how I had made an impact in the community, including service on boards, my efforts to build my reputation via writing and speaking, and the awards and honors I had attained.
2. Wrote My “Brief”
After gathering the facts, I decided to put it all down in a condensed memorandum, which I referred to in my own mind as the “List of Reasons Why I Am Awesome.” My assistant, perhaps more appropriately, titled this a “List of Achievements.” Either way, it was critical to put the information in written form because my ask was only going to be made to the management committee at my firm and not all of the partners who would be making the decision. In other words, the only way that I would have a voice in the room where the decision was being made was to provide a written document to send into that meeting. It was important to educate all partners about my practice and accomplishments because, like many attorneys, I didn’t work closely with all of the partners at my firm. Moreover, from a psychological standpoint, I found that drafting the list provided a huge confidence boost. Seeing an organized list of reasons why I should get what I wanted made me feel more confident about actually making the request.
3. Prepared for Argument
After I compiled my list of reasons, I tried to consider how I would present the information in person. I prioritized the points to emphasize most and I tried to consider things from the perspective of my audience. I tried to tailor my request in a way that was geared to help my audience achieve their own objectives because it increased the likelihood that I would get what I wanted. In addition, as with any oral argument in court, I identified the potential counterarguments or concerns that might be raised and I tried to account for them. In doing so, I was cautious against negative self-talk and the voice of doubt, which would derail my goal to appear confident in making my ask and undo all the good work that my “awesome” list had done. In other words, I set aside the vague and all or nothing thoughts that suggested I wasn’t “cut out” for partnership or would “never” get it, but acknowledged and tried to account for practical concerns that had an objective and factual basis in the real world.
If your legal career goes on long enough, you are eventually going have to learn the skill of advocating for yourself. Unfortunately, women still are not socialized to do this automatically and research indicates that women professionals are still unfairly penalized and judged when we advocate for ourselves. Despite this, women lawyers develop many skills in their practice that may help them successfully advocate for their own interests. I say use those skills to your advantage. Treat yourself like your own client, build your case, and go win.