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A Lawyer’s Letter to Her Younger Self

April 15, 2021, 8:01 AM

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “you wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” Remember this, repeat it, and stop living for the approval of others. You will never be able to please everyone.

If only I knew when I started my legal career in 1998 what I know now. It was a time when working 13 billable hours a day was not enough, sleeping under your desk was expected, and going home was a reward.

It was a time when you worked so hard you couldn’t see straight, but as junior associate, you had to fax closing papers to 100 parties and one incorrect number meant starting all over again. Remote work and smartphones did not exist.

Most of your work life will bear little connection to what you learned in the classroom. Exposure to “real world” skills, like the business of law firms, client service, time management, innovation, deadlines, and billing was few and far between. If only I knew then what I know now!

My Own Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t worry about making a mistake. Own it, seek feedback, and move on because you will do better next time.

Do know you will have hard days, sleepless nights, lost friendships, and missed holidays. Appreciate that it will build endurance, stamina, and dedication to this profession.

Do voice your opinion, particularly when you find yourself in a room full of men (trust me, that will happen—often). Speak up and always bring your A-game, you have a valuable perspective that can make a difference.

Don’t fear failure. Fear the regret of not trying something new, not raising your hand for a project, not trying to land a client that others thought wasn’t possible. Seek those who share your passion and commitment.

Don’t be deflated when women who are supposed to be your role models seem more critical than supportive. Remember, these amazing women also had to earn success against enormous odds and with minimal support. It wasn’t an easy path for them, and they may hope you take some tough turns to appreciate how hard it is to stay in the game. Learn from their perseverance and intelligence and know they really are your champions, advocating and cheering you on even if it’s not always visible.

Do expect that you will work with people you sometimes don’t understand or appreciate; neither will they understand nor appreciate you. Each time is an opportunity for growth, learning different styles and perspectives, and potentially finding new friends, mentors, or mentees.

Don’t dismiss important words of wisdom from family when you find yourself running across the street from your office to cry on your late brother-in-law’s shoulder or call your mom at 2:00 a.m. looking for someone to say quit. They never did. One day you will wish you could find those moments again.

Don’t assume your career and life are over when you are diagnosed with an autoimmune condition and take a leave of absence in your second year of practicing. When you return and struggle to work day and night, hiding your pain, don’t be discouraged. Instead, know that you are only pausing for a few months to fight with grace before returning for another 18-plus years of a pretty awesome career.

Do know that despite the difficult illness, pregnancies, bed rest, and hospitalization, you will survive, and that it is okay to embrace your newborn child without holding your Blackberry in the other hand.

Do realize some clients will become lifelong friends and the authentic “you” is what binds you. Remember who you are, wherever you are, whoever you are with, and in whatever situation you find yourself.

Don’t make excuses when you’re appointed leadership roles. Embrace the opportunity and thrive. You are where you’re supposed to be.

Do believe you will make a difference. Always be there for someone struggling, someone who may need advice and sponsoring, just like you did. Take the time to embrace it, as mentoring and sponsoring is one of the most rewarding parts of your profession.

Don’t forget to live. Enjoy this crazy life of sometimes feeling as if you’re on a never-ending hamster wheel of deadlines and airplanes to time zones you have never been before (crippled with a silent fear of flying), away from home for weeks on end. But, when you can, take the opportunity to travel with your family. Show them your work life and the amazing people you have met.

Do sit at your sick family members’ bedsides when they need you. You will not regret missing work or missing what little “you” time you have.

Finally, don’t expect it to always make sense. There will be times when being a lawyer is hard; when life is messy and unpredictable and you will question it all. But you are much stronger, more resilient, and wiser than you know. Don’t you ever forget it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Nicole Janigian Simonian is co-chair of Crowell & Moring’s International Trade practice and International Employment and Global Mobility lead. She counsels companies on cross-border movement of people, goods, and services and global business expansion throughout the world.

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