Sarah Villanueva

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Last month I ran the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco.  You learn a lot about yourself over 26.2 miles.  You learn what motivates you, how determined you are, and how strong you are over those 26.2 miles.  (Not to mention, all the aches and pains that develop; and who knew skin chafed so dang easily??)

When I started at my law firm, my mentor said to me, “Sarah, the one thing you have to remember is that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”  I heard his words, nodded in agreement, but did not truly understand him. I just celebrated my one year anniversary with the firm, and have now run two marathons in that same time frame. And I think I’m starting to get it.

I came into the practice of law with high expectations; not only for myself, but also for my working environment. And – as I think anyone who reads my blog regularly would agree – I have not always been happy about what I’ve found. And I thought I could be that catalyst and start the chain reaction to alter everything right away. But, just like in a marathon, you may want to cross that start line with a bang, but if you do you will inevitably hit that wall at mile 14, 18, or 22 and wish you had started out slow and steady at a pace you knew you could manage.

I’m finally realizing that things are not going to change overnight. Just like I’m not going to learn how to be a great lawyer overnight, we are not going to change the practice of law overnight. But we can, one baby step at a time. All those steps do eventually add up and will make one hell of a difference.

Another thing I learned this race that also applies to the practice of law – especially for women – is you have to run your own race. So much of my energy is spent comparing myself to others: Why haven’t I billed as many hours as she has? Why did that partner ask him to work on the project and not me? Why does she always look so put together all the time?  Why? Why? Why? 

The same thing happens on race day.  Once you’re out there, it is impossible not to think, “Why can’t I pass her?  She’s taking in fuel, should I?  Why does she look so great at mile 24?”  Over the course of the race I had to keep reminding myself to run my own race. I was out there doing what I knew I could do, at a pace I knew I could do it in, and on the race plan I knew was tried and true. No matter what anyone else was out there doing, I had to run my own race. 

The same applies to law practice.  There is no one right way to do it.  We all must find and forge our own path.  We can learn from others and take those bits and pieces that work for us from that, but no two paths will ever look the same. And that is okay. We need to start focusing on ourselves instead of constantly comparing ourselves to others.

The last lesson I took away from my race is that no one can do this alone. Although it inevitably is you that needs to put in those miles, put in the work, and run those 26.2 miles come race day, the support from people around you in invaluable. I would not have been able to get through those last three, painful miles without my husband by my side. And I know I would not have gotten through these last six years without him – and countless other people – either. It’s knowing who your support system is, who you can count on, and not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. Once we learn to rely on those support systems, we can all be successful.

If we all can remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint, to run our own race, and to ask for help when we need it, we can – and will – cross that finish line together.   



Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sarah.  I have so enjoyed your blog over this last year, perhaps because I too am in my first year of practice and can identify with your quick out of the gate mentality.  I have often found that there’s a belief in law that we do not have much to contribute as young women early in our careers.  There is a steep learning curve in law and because so much of what we do is about judgment, it takes time to learn the nuances of being a successful lawyer.
While there is a lot to learn, I believe that change for our profession will come from our generation.  I believe that primarily because the strategies that have been employed up to now, while successful on an individual level, have not been successful in moving the needle beyond the same numbers: 15% equity, 50% graduating, etc.  We still see the same exodus of women at the mid-levels of our profession.  The question is what can we do to fix it?
I agree that we have to run the marathon but I hope we will all remain committed to these issues and tackling them with the same vengence that we came into practice with.  I also hope that we will grow to use our improved judgment and our ability to lean on one another to brainstorm new ideas and then look at them together, with improved judgment, to see if they will work. 
Lawyers are almost always inherently risk averse and I think we are often the first to say “that won’t work and here’s why” because our job is often to tear down another’s argument.  Perhaps our quick out of the gate mentality will help us try a few things that people who are at mile 15, 20 or 24 of this marathon might not be willing to try.  So let’s focus on baby steps but keep that same vivacious (and perhaps a little naive!) approach to change in our profession.  I think it will serve us well at miles 10, 15, 20, and 24 of our own marathon!


I really like the marathon/sprint analogy for the practice of law and I think you’ve done a great job exploring lessons learned in this post.  I’d like to add one counterpoint—not so much to the points you’re making but to the inference that success is slow and steady in private practice.
Big firms are jungles, political mine fields.  It’s tricky to get yourself on the “partnership” track before you get put on the “great-associate-but-not-partner-material” track.  Here are a couple of tips from one associate at one firm that has watched many an associate, particularly female, leave due to limited opportunities:  (Caveat: ignore if partnership is not your objective)
1.  Start fast; finish faster.  You have to spend the first few years in a law firm building your reputation by sprinting.  That reputation should be one of competence, attention to detail, professionalism, and work ethic.  Your first few years as an associate are a balls-to-the-wall grind.  Once you have the reputation you need, you can sit back and enjoy for a few years before you ramp it back up and sprint to the finish line in the few years before your PNC meets. 
2.  Smile for the cameras.  Have you ever run a marathon where it seemed like every .33 miles there was a guy with a camera taking pictures of your agony to post on the internet for all eternity?  For a while you smile or try to look carefree but after the 1/2 marathon mark you say “eff this” and let him take pictures of you walking.  That’s how big firm practice is.  Somebody is always watching and will be there to capture you at your worst.  Attitude means a lot and you need to keep a great (or, in the least decent) attitude at work among your co-workers and a solid cheery attitude with your clients at all times.  Being successful at a firm means, in large part, being successful on a team.  If you let them see you walking, you’ll forever be the girl who walked, regardless of how fast you ran at other times.
3.  Run because YOU want to run.  Partnership is a long haul.  Make sure that the finish line means something to you.  If you don’t, when you get there, assuming you can get there at all, you’ll look back and the effort will not have been worth the reward.  It is okay if what means something to you is the money, the “power”, the prestige or the corner office.  Hey, that’s what men are doing this for. There is no shame in that.  There is also no shame in saying “I have no desire to run a marathon at all.”  If that’s you, however, please stick around to cheer on the other women that will be very tired at the end of their marathon.

Sarah Villanueva

Thank you so much for the great comments!  I love the smile for the cameras analogy—and you are so right.  Thank you for the different perspective!

Sarah Villanueva

I should say, thank you both for posting!  I love the different perspectives and this is a really important discussion that I hope we can continue!  Thanks for reading and posting

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