By Noha Sidhom • February 19, 2009•Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
Bio for this week’s superwoman Jan Macpherson: Jan graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1978 and went to work in the Department of the Interior, where she worked primarily on surface mining regulation. In 1982, she came to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where she has worked ever since, mostly on electric rate regulation. She has been a staff attorney, a senior attorney, and an advisor to Commissioner Jerry Langdon. She primarily worked in the areas of corporate transactions under section 203 of the FPA and interconnection of new generating facilities to the grid. Jan is a true mentor and an exemplary public servant
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. How has being a woman affected your career or legal education?
When I first got out of law school, it had quite an effect. I went to work at an agency that had hired very few women. The agency thought it was being really generous, hiring women and minorities for the first time! However, we didn’t get promoted. I guess we were supposed to be so grateful for being hired at all that we wouldn’t notice. I was part of a class action sex discrimination lawsuit, which we won. Even after a lot of women had been hired, there was a lingering view that ok, maybe we could be good lawyers, but we really didn’t have what it takes to be leaders – kind of like the attitude in professional football that black men may be good players, but they can’t really be coaches or quarterbacks. However, where I work now, I don’t see much sexism. Maybe the sexists are just afraid of me!
2. Being a first year attorney anywhere is tough. How do you think young attorneys can really hone their skills in their first few years?
Young attorneys can learn the most by asking lots of questions; by bouncing ideas off those they work with and each other; and oddly enough, by reworking their writing over and over. Rereading what you’ve written and trying to make it more straightforward, simpler, and more understandable for the reader actually focuses your own mind very effectively. When you trim away the clouds of verbiage, you can see what’s really important in something you’ve written. Being as simple and straightforward (though diplomatic) as possible both in writing and face-to-face can help to immunize you from the atmosphere of bullshit that tends to permeate our profession – to keep you intellectually honest. It’s important not to pretend to understand something you don’t understand, and not to be ashamed of it. Bravado may impress people in the short run, but humility and honesty will in the long run make you a better lawyer (not to mention a better person) and will give you credibility.
3. 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.?
OGC at FERC isn’t male dominated! But I’m sure it’s generally true of the profession still.
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “femininity.” If you mean how does one keep from being dehumanized, I get that, but I’m never sure what people mean by the term “femininity.” I don’t find that the qualities often associated with that term are a lot more common in women than in men. The bad qualities that many people associate with femininity – submissiveness, coyness, etc. -- aren’t helpful to being a lawyer. The good qualities that many people attribute to being female – kindness, willingness to consider other ideas, working well with others – should be ideals for everyone. So I don’t see any conflict between being “feminine” and being professional. I also don’t think that being “professional” means being self-important or pompous or taking yourself too seriously. It means doing the work and being intellectually honest. The real challenge is to not let your work life dehumanize you -- make you narrow, mindlessly aggressive, or boring. Don’t let work (or anything else) take away your core individuality.
If what you mean is that you want to remain attractive to men, I don’t think we should worry about that. Lots of men can’t really accept that women are full human beings. They resent and/or aren’t attracted to women who are smart and who insist on regarding themselves as full human beings. But who cares about those men?
4. 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 don’t know of any senior female attorneys who say they had it tough so others should too, but some may think that, even unconsciously. Some people just don’t care much about others! And it’s easy for older lawyers to forget that young lawyers are vulnerable, that even the ones who appear to be self-confident need encouragement. (Come to think of it, I need it too! Probably everybody does.) I’ve heard that I scare people sometimes, so I try not to do that, but it’s so easy to point out what someone has done wrong, and not to mention what they’ve done right. It’s also very hard, as you gain knowledge about a subject, to forget what it was like when you didn’t know about that subject, so many older attorneys don’t explain background when they’re talking to young attorneys. I wish people were made supervisors based more on their ability to bring out the best in others, rather than just their expertise.
(Actually, the mental exercise of trying to remember what it was like when you knew nothing about a particular topic is very useful. It’s helpful when you’re talking to a younger person about the subject, of course. But it also helps attorneys at any age to write better. Because an order, or a memo, needs to assume that the reader doesn’t know all about the subject; it needs to set forth background and present issues in a way that can be understood by someone who hasn’t read all the underlying material. An order should be largely self-contained in that sense.)
And, of course, some supervisory attorneys are simply insecure and make it hard on young attorneys because it makes them feel better about themselves. Women don’t necessarily want to encourage other women, either
5. 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?
I’d just look for someone with whom you have a rapport, male or female. If a person has a mentoring (nurturing) personality – and, of course, is someone you respect – you’ll be able to tell. It can work both ways, too. The mentor sometimes needs support as well. That’s friendship! It’s important not just for practical reasons, but because friendship makes everything more rewarding.
6. We all have to make sacrifices for our careers, what sacrifices have you made and which would you make again?
The main sacrifice is time, of course. I didn’t want children, so I never faced the conflict most people think about, but work is what you do the most of with your time, and in that sense, it dominates your life. I have lots of other things I’m interested in, like piano, but when I get home from work, I feel pretty drained. And work takes emotional energy. Some days, when I leave work, I just feel I’ve used up all the self-control I have. We tend to give the dregs of our emotional energy to our friends and family.
7. 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?
I love the fact that being a lawyer, at least in the kind of law I practice, fits so well with the way my mind works. You need to have the flexibility to look at something from many points of view. In fact, you can’t really effectively counter an argument unless you’ve given that argument its full due – tried it on to see if it fits. And much of legal thinking is finding analogies and parallels to other situations, which I’m good at.
One of my favorite moments, and something that very rarely happens, was when a position that I believed was morally right and legally right actually won out after an initial loss. Most of the issues that I work on I don’t have strong personal feelings about, and usually there’s no clearly right or wrong answer legally, either. But on one occasion, the agency I worked for took a position on an environmental issue that was pretty clearly not what Congress had intended. I also thought the position was morally wrong. The agency reversed itself after political pressure and after the legal weaknesses of its position were pointed out.
8. 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?
I am primarily interested in my husband and friends, my dogs, classical piano, reading, gardening, and the outdoors. I decided early on that these things were more important than my job. It’s just a job; it needs to be done well, and I take pride in doing it well, but it’s just one part of my life. In some ways, I think that that sense of proportion has made me a better lawyer than I might have been if I had been a workaholic or very ambitious. When people do only one thing, especially if they do it frantically, they become very narrow, and while they get a lot of drudge-work done, they don’t put their imaginations and their esthetic sense to work. They become drones (not to mention boring). Not all legal jobs require imagination or an esthetic sense, of course!
Here’s where imagination comes in; I find that I have good ideas not when I’m sitting at my desk racking my brain, but when I’m washing my hair, or going for a walk, or discussing the case with someone else – when my mind is free-ranging. To come up with ideas and insights, you need to have a playful mind. You need to let things ferment for a bit, and during that time, your brain makes connections that you couldn’t arrive at through conscious thought.
The esthetic sense I’m talking about is the “elegance” that scientists talk about. It’s when something (like a piece of writing) is shapely, spare, unpretentious, and pleasing, rather than awkward and full of ugly bureaucratic language. That doesn’t mean you can’t be subtle or even deliberately ambiguous at times.
9. What has changed the most and the least since you started practicing law? How have these changes affected you?
One huge change is the new technology that allows so much research to be done so fast. And I haven’t kept up with that technology very well. I’m astonished by the information that young attorneys can come up with. The other really big change is the wonderful variety of people who work here now. I haven’t run the numbers, but it’s obvious that women working in OGC, including those above the staff attorney level, are at least half the work force. When I first got here, the idea of a female General Counsel or a female Chairman seemed so unlikely! And just a few years ago, this was a white bread place – now, the variety of ethnic backgrounds is just dazzling. That makes work more fun and more interesting, because people have such different backgrounds. And it makes work more comfortable. We all have ways in which we don’t “fit in,” and having a lot of other people around who don’t “fit in” in one way or another allows people to feel that there really isn’t a mold they have to fit into.
10. What is one change you would like to see in the legal profession in the next 20 years?
I’d like to see the profession become more humane. Too many lawyers are just nervous, aggressive drones, and too many become boring people. Competition may be good in a field where it’s possible to prove who’s better – the fastest person wins the race, and there’s no arguing about it. But when people are competitive in something like law, where no one can actually prove she’s better than someone else, a huge bullshit factor emerges. So many lawyers are insecure people who are always trying to demonstrate that they’re the smartest and the best. And in fact, that tactic often works! I know plenty of lawyers who are really only so-so at their work, but who are very successful because they throw around jargon very smoothly, and other people buy it, or because they’re bullies.
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.