By Kendra Beckwith • April 01, 2014•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Issues, Other Issues, Features, Myths & Truths
In an era when we are told to lean in, I found value in leaning back. Early in my first year of practice, my impatience for success hindered my ability to actually succeed. Rather than assess what really stood between me and my goals, I transformed one negative experience into an excuse for everything. It was not until I slowed down, leaned back, and took a breath that I was able to see the forest for the trees.
It is a tough time to be a professional woman. Sheryl Sandberg advises us to Lean In. Lois Frankel tells us Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. What no one—at least since our moms—tells us is to be patient. The value of taking a step back has been lost. But in an increasingly intense profession, patience is vital to a young lawyer’s development.
When I started practicing over four years ago, I was not patient. I allowed an instance of not being selected for a prime assignment to infect my worldview, both professional and personal. I let that experience become a reason I would not succeed, rather than using it to prompt self-evaluation. The result was self-sabotaging and unhelpful.
WAS BEING A WOMAN A HINDRANCE?
I had been on the job just over a month when my firm was named one of two firms nationally to handle over 400 arbitrations in seven months for one client. I felt certain my “first-year goals” would come true—I would get to prepare witnesses, take depositions, all the things every first year litigator imagines she is capable of tackling. After a couple of weeks, though, it became clear that my role would be solely to support other attorneys—all of them men. That frustrated me.
It frustrated me because I grew up in an era where I was told I could have it all—somehow, I was going to be capable of being a full-time mom, have a fulfilling full-time career, and be a fantastic wife. There would be no gender disparity; instead, I would be valued on my merits as an individual and immediately welcomed to the proverbial “table.” Instead, I felt like I was being asked to sit in the back of the room.
From my perspective, I saw a male peer getting opportunities I so badly wanted. He took witnesses at the actual hearings, prepped experts, and directly advised the client. My colleague and I did the same kind of work and had similar legal experience. I could not fathom why he, and not I, was getting the opportunities. It was convenient—and ultimately self-sabotaging—to believe the reasons were gender based. Once I let that line of thinking develop, I began to use it to explain what I perceived to be happening to me, whether based in reality or not.
I recall one day, early on, when a partner advised me I needed to start acting like my male colleague. He pointed to my peer’s work ethic as a model of what it took to succeed at the firm. From my perspective, it felt like the partner mentored and provided my colleague with opportunities I would never have. I asked for opportunities, and asked, and asked again. Nothing materialized. I began to feel like a failure—I had not even taken a deposition. I was frustrated, impatient, and concerned. It was the first time since becoming a lawyer that I felt being a woman might be a disadvantage. And rather than consider other reasons for missed opportunities, I grabbed onto the gender-based explanation and ran with it.
WHAT I TOLD MYSELF
I let my negative attitude permeate the remainder of my first year of practice. I relentlessly compared myself to other attorneys in my associate class, both male and female. How many depositions had she taken? How many cases was he handling? Which partners was he working for? Of the four of us that joined the firm within six months of each other, I believed I was always at the bottom of my class. After two years, my peers had multiple depositions under their belts while I had just one. One of my peers second-chaired her first trial before I even saw the inside of the courtroom. Another peer was enjoying dinners with partners before many partners knew I even existed. I allowed myself to assume—without any evidence to support it—that I was deprived of opportunities because I was a woman. I became extremely negative.
As this negativity overwhelmed me, it colored my personal worldview. I badly wanted to take depositions, go to trial, and develop relationships with partners. But the harder I reached, the further away those opportunities appeared. I initially blamed being a woman, but then realized other women were getting the opportunities I wanted. Then I blamed having the wrong educational pedigree, but colleagues from similar schools were getting those opportunities. I ultimately ended up blaming myself: clearly I was not smart enough, or talented enough, or articulate enough to handle the experiences I wanted. This was the most damaging explanation.
Finally, I became aware of the self-destructive cycle I had created for myself. I realized I needed to fix it. So I did something about it: I leaned back.
STOP MAKING EXCUSES; TRY PRACTICING PATIENCE
I did not check out completely—I still continued to develop as a lawyer. But I took a step back and tried to observe things with an objective approach, rather than a negative one. And I realized two things—attitude is everything, and good things do come to those who wait.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, a model known as the “cognitive behavioral triangle” suggests the following: how we feel affects what we think and do; what we think affects how we feel and act; and what we do affects how we think and feel. In hindsight, I realize that I let one negative experience affect all three sectors. That experience hurt, confused me, and sowed self-doubt on many different levels. Those emotions, in turn, affected how I thought about and interacted with everything in my practice.
To break the cycle, I had to take a deep breath. It was time to give up churning over the missed arbitration work and forgive myself for being caught up in trying to explain it. It sounds overly simplistic, but it is true. I paused and realized this one experience could not continue to define how I approached my entire professional career.
Not surprisingly, once I changed my emotional state, my professional satisfaction changed too. First, I realized I had been comparing apples to oranges—that is, I had been comparing my success and satisfaction to the success and satisfaction of people on a completely different trajectory. For example, my immediate colleagues all practice in the areas of product liability and personal injury defense; I enjoy doing largely appellate and complex commercial work. There are no depositions on appeal, and what few depositions present themselves in my commercial practice are of such importance that no client would accept a first- or second-year attorney handling them. When I stepped back, I realized it was largely the type of work, and not my gender, that was driving my professional development experiences. That enabled me to reframe my prior negative experience and focus on what success needed to look like for me, in my practice.
Second, I realized I had become my own obstacle to success. So, I spent time defining what success looked like for me and how I was going to get there. Success would not be measured in how many depositions I took, or the number of partner dinners I attended (although those things remain important). Instead, it would be measured by achieving outstanding results for my clients. I stopped using gender as an excuse and tried to make it an asset. Put another way, I stopped worrying about everyone else and just focused on me. Once I did, professional opportunities started materializing. My job satisfaction and attitude improved dramatically. And I started developing the mentor and sponsor relationships I have discussed in a prior posting on this blog. In short, by first leaning back, I was able to successfully lean in later.
Ultimately, I have realized that patience—with our careers, our colleagues, and, most importantly, ourselves—makes all the difference in how we approach our professional careers and the obstacles we are sure to encounter. We have our entire careers to lean in; wisdom lies in knowing when to lean back.
Kendra Beckwith is an attorney at Wheeler Trigg O'Donnell in Denver, Colorado. Her practice emphasizes complex commercial litigation and appellate matters.