By Alnisa Bell • March 05, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
A friend of mine introduced me to the HBO hit Insecure and it became my Sunday guilty pleasure. For those who have not seen it, Issa Rae stars as Issa, a black woman who works at a non-profit and spends most of the season re-evaluating her career and love life. Her best friend Molly, played by Yvonne Orji, is a black woman navigating Biglaw who is also struggling in the dating world. In one scene, Molly’s law firm partner approaches her about talking to the new summer associate who is an outspoken black woman named Rasheeda. The more seasoned lawyers have noticed that Rasheeda does not quite fit the firm culture -- she is not “prim and proper” and speaks loudly when having conversations with her colleagues. Molly tells Rasheeda that in order to be successful at the firm, “You gotta know when to switch it up.”
Quite taken aback, Rasheeda tells Molly that she did not “switch it up” during her interview with the senior partners or when she made editor of the law review. Molly then returns to the partner and tells her that she was unable to breakthrough to Rasheeda and perhaps the partner should have the discussion with Rasheeda, herself. Truth be told, Molly should not have been put in the position of having to police Rasheeda’s behavior. At best, it is awkwardly uncomfortable for both women. In a worst case scenario, the partner has pit two minority associates against each other.
In this scene, you have two black lawyers both navigating Biglaw in different ways: Rasheeda believes that she should be herself and that being herself has served her well and there is no reason to “switch it up” now that she is at the firm. Molly, on the other hand, believes that in order to succeed, she must be palatable at all times to her colleagues even if it means that she is not always being her true self. We can learn from both of these women.
The truth is, Rasheeda will not change the culture of the firm so she has to consider whether her gregarious personality is a “good fit” for a conservative environment. Unfortunately, she cannot say that she does not want to understand the law firm’s culture or that the firm has to learn to accept her -- it does not. If you are in a culture that is at odds with your personality and makes you feel like you have to be someone other than who you are, you will either need to adapt or leave. Molly perhaps has taken adapting to another level, but not an uncommon one for many women of color. She is in a precarious situation because she cannot be herself and that will inevitably affect her relationships with her colleagues and even more harmful, her own happiness. In Molly’s private life, she actually has much more in common with Rasheeda than she would probably admit, but in the office, Molly is embarrassed by Rasheeda’s speech, demeanor, and how she comports herself. Rasheeda is a constant reminder to Molly of how a black woman should not behave in the workplace.
The best advice I received when I started my legal career was: “You can only be yourself.” It is so simple, but yet so poignant. No matter how successful you are, you want to be successful on your terms -- not by being someone other than who you are (like Molly). However, unlike Rasheeda, you cannot be so oblivious to firm culture and norms. You have to strike the right balance in being true to yourself within the environment in which you operate and professional at all times.
To be clear, being professional does not mean you are “switching it up” and being less authentically you. Part of being a good lawyer is being perceptive and your advancement requires you to know and understand the office culture in which you operate; who the key players are and what has made them successful. It would be awfully hard to advance at any law firm without being attuned to the law firm’s culture. If it truly isn’t a good fit, you need to make that assessment early and develop an exit strategy.