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FAQ on Being a Young Lawyer (Perspective)

June 28, 2016, 9:25 PM

Editor’s Note: The author is a lawyer at a large law firm.

I became the first woman corporate partner at Debevoise in 1985 and am currently a retired partner and of counsel at Debevoise, as well as a Visiting Professor of Practice at Cornell Law School and a founder of BigLaw Coaches, a mentoring and coaching firm for recent law school students and graduates.

Over the years, I have often been asked for advice from lawyers just beginning their careers, many of them young women. I’m sharing a few of these questions below, and I want to emphasize that one piece of constant and universally relevant advice for young professionals is to act engaged and interested, project self-confidence and learn the workplace culture.

How do you make a good first impression at your law firm? Does the advice change if you are a woman, person of color or LBGT?

Act engaged and interested, project self-confidence and learn the workplace culture. Lawyers and their clients want to work with younger lawyers who are engaged and enjoy their work. Even if your initial assignment is not as intellectually stimulating as you’d like, make an effort to show that you appreciate being part of a team. If you learn something about the client and its industry, you’ll be able to put your work in context, and it will automatically become more interesting. Ask informed questions by reading the trade press or even the business sections of the newspaper. Learn the culture of your workplace by watching others who are well regarded. In some workplaces, it is considered unfriendly not to nod or say hello in the halls. In others, an overly warm greeting may be considered intrusive. Figure out what is considered normative social behavior in your particular work environment and emulate the aspects that are right for your personality.

How do you find and build a relationship with a mentor?

I recommend that young lawyers get advice from multiple sources rather than focusing on building “a relationship with a mentor.” Many successful people have had a number of mentors — some focused on professional development, others on subject matter expertise and exposure to community activities. I doubt that you can expect to have only one mentor or to find them immediately after starting a new job. If you are LBGT or from an underrepresented minority, you may benefit from having a mentor with a similar background who can relate more personally to your experiences. On the other hand, there is much to learn from a mentor with an entirely different experience base, but who is still committed to helping your success. While most experienced lawyers view acting as mentors to young lawyers as rewarding and gratifying, mentors do have a “day job.” Be respectful of their time and focused on how you ask for advice. Also, show appreciation for their effort and interest and try to be constructive to their work and personal life.

Are there any mistakes that you see women associates make that men don’t make as frequently?

Sometimes younger women don’t make eye contact during meetings because they are so intent on taking notes. While taking notes is a key role for a younger associate, appearing engaged in more than note taking is important for demonstrating your ability to move to more substantive roles. On the other hand, women are often better listeners than men and being a thoughtful listener is a valuable tool for a lawyer.

How do you navigate working for a partner or other senior attorney that you think is less accepting of your ideas than he or she is of similar ideas coming from male coworkers?

First, I hope that the workplace has evolved so that there are very few partners or senior attorneys who are less accepting of ideas coming from women than from men. Whether or not that’s true, I recommend that all lawyers rehearse expressing their ideas orally and concisely. You can record yourself on your phone and listen to how you will be heard by supervisors. Think of it as if you were a news reporter — use the inverted pyramid approach. Get the punch line out at the very beginning and then go into the details. Many young lawyers — and not just women — are too focused on the details and not on the big picture. Clients and supervising lawyers want answers first and then explanations and caveats about the advice. One of my favorite pieces of advice for young lawyers is to read their work out loud. If you need to take a breath in the middle of the sentence, the sentence is probably too long and the words you’ve used are too big. Remember the KISS principle — Keep it Simple Stupid.