By Noha Sidhom • April 16, 2009•Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
This Week's Superwoman JD Diana Mercer: Diana Mercer, Esq. is an Attorney-Mediator and the founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services in Los Angeles, California (http://www.peace-talks.com). A veteran litigator, she now devotes her practice solely to mediation. Outgoing and down-to-earth, she makes clients and attorneys feel at ease in solving family and divorce disputes. She is the co-author of Your Divorce Advisor: A Lawyer and a Psychologist Guide You Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce (Fireside 2001). http://www.yourdivorceadvisor.com She’s an Advanced Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) and is admitted to practice law in California, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and before the Supreme Court of the United States.
1. How has being a woman affected your career or legal education?
When I got started in 1988 there was more sexism than I’d ever imagined. I pretty quickly got pigeonholed into the pink collar ghetto that is family law. Fortunately, it turned out to be a good match for my skills, interest, and personality. Fortunately, I never let that bother me, either (that I was in the pink collar ghetto).
I think that sexism is less and less an issue all the time.
The new issue seems to be work-life balance, and I realized I had a problem when someone asked what my hobby was and I said “marketing”. So I’ll let you know when I figure out the balance thing.
2. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started practicing law?
This is great advice I actually got, which I’d love to pass along: Beware the golden handcuffs. Don’t go buy an expensive house, car and have kids until you’re sure you’ve made the right career and job choice. There may be temptation to take or stay in a high paying job because you like the lifestyle the money can provide, but if you end up hating it, you’ll be trapped, unable to change your direction and unable to live your dream. So be sure before you buy into a lifestyle.
3. What do you think the legal profession can do to increase the number of senior level females?
Women need to be comfortable with who they are and how they do business. Play to your strengths. The Old Boys Network types are on their way out and if women cultivate a network of women attorneys and business owners, the OBN will just be forced into irrelevancy that much faster.
4. Being a first year attorney anywhere is tough. How do you think young attorneys can really hone their skills in their first few years?
Ask for opportunities. Hustle. Don’t just do what’s expected---make yourself indispensable and take on the next challenge. You’ll stand out in the crowd, learn a lot, and move up the ladder or create your own opportunities.
Ask a respected partner “what does it take to win in this firm?” meaning what does one do to stand out and thrive. Then do all of those things….or find another job. Fit is important.
5. Our profession is male dominated. How can young women balance being feminine and professional at the same time? I meet many women that simply act like one of the boys; I do not think that is the solution. Do you have any advice for handling social situations, outings with clients, etc.?
You’re right—being one of the boys won’t work. It’s not any fun, anyway. Women and men do business differently. Network and socialize with women and with men who enjoy working with women. Ignore the haters. They won’t send you business or share knowledge with you anyway, so don’t spend any time worrying about them or trying to change their minds.
6. There is a perception that senior female attorneys think that they had it tough and so should you. Do you think that this sentiment is true? If so, do you think there is value in figuring things out on your own like women before you had to?
I think the opposite is true. Women are more helpful to one another than ever before. Of course there’s value in learning your own lessons, but you’ll learn plenty of lessons even if you learn from others, too.
If you run into a senior female attorney who operates this way (scarcity, so I’d better knock you out before you knock me out) just head the other direction. You’ll never change her outlook so instead cultivate like-minded women who enjoy helping other women move up the ladder.
7. What advice do you have for young female attorneys looking for a mentor? Do you feel that there is added value in finding a female mentor? What should they be looking for in a mentor, and what can they do to make themselves someone you would want to mentor?
If you have hustle and you look for opportunities, you’ll find a mentor. Keep looking. A woman would be great, but don’t pass up a male mentor just because he’s a man. There are some terrific male mentors who are looking for someone who has the drive to excel.
8. We all have to make sacrifices for our careers, what sacrifices have you made and which would you make again?
My husband and 2 dogs and I lived in a 750 square foot condo so I could start my business. By avoiding the Golden Handcuffs, I bought the freedom to create my own enterprise.
9. What is your favorite thing about being a lawyer? I am sure you have a moment of achievement that made the sacrifices seem worth it. Can you tell us about a highlight in your career?
The highlight of my career was when I opened the first box of advance copies of my book, Your Divorce Advisor. That was really exciting.
10. Men still get paid more and get promoted faster. What advice do you have for young women to help them accelerate their careers?
Decide what it is that you really want to do. That’s how you’ll excel, and when you excel, the money follows. There’s no faster route to failure than just taking a job because you need a job. Follow your passion and career acceleration will come.
11. What are your interests/hobbies outside of the legal practice? How important do you think those interests/hobbies have been in maintaining some work life balance?
Ha ha ha! My hobby is marketing so I don’t really have work life balance. But being an entrepreneur is a hobby of sorts. Finding what’s wrong with the system and figuring out a way to fix it is a really interesting hobby. That said, it’s important to take time off and make yourself stop working. It makes you more productive in the long run. See? There’s no work life balance for someone who owns their own business!
12. If you could go back, what would you have done differently in how you approached your legal education and career?
I would have stayed in school 1 year longer for a combined JD/MBA degree. I was in to much of a hurry to be a grown up.
13. What is one change you would like to see in the legal profession in the next 20 years?
Lawyers need to learn new problem solving skills. “We’ll go to court” is not a problem solving skill. Part of the solution will be multi-disciplinary practice, with CPA’s, therapists, attorneys and other professionals working in the same office to optimally help clients.
14. If you could give one piece of advice to new female lawyers, what would it be?
Hold out for your dream job. Don’t just take the first job that comes along because you want to start working. You’ll have 40 years to work. If it takes 6 more months of living with 5 roommates or in your parents’ basement, it will be worth it when you find the right fit.
A Message from the Author: This column is a Q&A with senior level female attorneys offering advice and mentorship to young female lawyers. The questions below were sent to the interviewees and responses have not been edited for content. The advice, experiences, personalities, and approaches of these women are extremely diverse and more importantly very useful to future generations of female attorneys. I hope this column will offer helpful advice, and inspire healthy discussions. I have an exciting lineup of female leaders in the profession, but if you have someone you would like to nominate, or you yourself would like to be interviewed, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Bio for the author of the column: Noha Sidhom is a proud graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law. Before attending law school, Noha interned on Capitol Hill for the Honorable Charles Timothy Hagel and went on to campaign for Senate candidate Peter Ricketts. During law school, she clerked at Husch Blackwell Sanders, formerly Blackwell Sanders. She also did an internship at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Enforcement and an internship at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where she is now an attorney in the Office of General Counsel. Noha is licensed in New York and New Jersey, and currently resides with her husband in Washington, D.C.