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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I recently started practicing at a firm. I am finding that people don’t take me seriously because I look too young. Is there anything I can do?

A: Of course this “problem” will resolve itself over time. But that does not help you right now. Here are some steps to consider:

It may not be all about you.

Except for those who pursued law as a second career, everyone in an entering class often looks young to the senior partners. Each entering class can remind them that yet another year has flown by. In other words, the reactions you are sensing may not be just about you.

It may not be all about about age.

Think about the reactions and the specific words involved. Did they expressly relate to your appearance? One lawyer in his twenties mentioned that a partner recently asked if the young lawyer could change his profile picture on the firm’s website before the partner included that lawyer in a proposal for new work. “The photo makes you look so young,” the partner lamented.  

Comments like that are frustrating, because you can’t do much to change your appearance. And you want other lawyers (and clients) to focus on your brain. Was the partner suggesting a photo with harsh lighting?

The primary concerns extend beyond age. Age can be a proxy for a host of concerns that senior lawyers may have about entrusting new lawyers with work. Will you be careful? Will you meet deadlines? Will you be responsive? Will you take ownership? Will you make good decisions?

An assumption that you may make poor decisions as a young lawyer can even be engrained in the evaluation process. For example, some firms consider “maturity/judgment” to be a single evaluation criterion.

The good news is that there are things you can work on that are more important than changing your looks. Mark Herrmann sums this up brilliantly in The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, my second favorite career advice book for new lawyers. His Dress for Success chapter reads in its entirety:

I don’t give a damn what you wear. Just make sure the brief is good.

Winning over the skeptics.

Prepare. One of the best ways to win over skeptics who may not think you know what you are talking about is to prove them wrong. Here, preparation is your best weapon. Prepare more than you think you need to, and try to become an expert on a particular topic.

Ask questions. If you are prepared, asking questions can demonstrate that you are conscientious and want to learn. Inane or irrelevant questions can have the opposite effect. But asking sensible questions can make you seem smart. People often love to talk about their work and expound on their opinions. If you express genuine interest, it will be harder to dismiss your perspective.

Get to the point. You will gain credibility with concise, direct answers that you are ready to defend. Rambling answers provide tangible proof that you aren’t sure about what you are saying.

Build trust. Gaining credibility takes time. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, says the recipe for trust is: “Do hard things well. Repeat.” That is your goal as a new lawyer. If you consistently tackle thorny legal problems and provide prompt solutions, you will build trust over time.

Get an endorsement. If you performed a miracle for one lawyer and that lawyer tells others, you gain credibility.

Be conscious of body language. Be aware of your body language and the impression it leaves. For example, fidgeting or being hesitant when you answer both betray uncertainty. Slouching can convey lack of interest.

Fix verbal tics. Certain verbal tics, such as constant interjections of “like” can make you seem frivolous. Or they may just be grating, like the undulating creakiness known as vocal fry. Either way, try to identify tics and banish them. Because people are often unaware of their own tics, Deborah Atlas, Director of the Career Services office at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, counsels students to check with close friends to see if they notice verbal tics.  

Dress for success. Yes. Attire and hairstyles can make you appear more or less professional and credible. Dress like those who are where you want to be. Darker, more conservative attire may make you seem less green. Glasses may also make you look older. But now I am about to get out over my skis. Here are some more tips for women from the experts at Corporette and Levo League.

Good luck!

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

 

 

 

 

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