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INSIGHT: What I’d Tell My 25-Year-Old Self About a BigLaw Career

March 10, 2020, 8:01 AM

I will turn 50 this year. This impending mid-century celebration provided the revelation that I have been practicing law at a big firm (the same one) for half my life.

While I can’t turn back the clock (other than dyeing my hair more often), I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the relationships I’ve built. I hope that sharing my reflections provides some important insight and guidance for those who choose BigLaw as they start or continue their careers.

Above all, I hope that you too can find personal and professional satisfaction in a career serving clients you call friends.

Here are the top 10 things I would have told my first-year lawyer self when I launched my career:

Develop a work family. The people you work with and around can make or break your success and will determine your level of career satisfaction. I have worked with many lawyers over the years, but in the last few years, I have developed a deep appreciation for a team that is a true work family. It takes time to build these relationships and find the right fit, but I can confidently say that surrounding myself with people who make me a better lawyer and a better person is what keeps me sane and happy (along with some yoga and wine).

Build your own board of directors. Everyone knows that you need a mentor and a sponsor, but building a personal board of directors composed of people invested in your success and willing to provide candid feedback is invaluable. Your board should include lawyers at your firm, but also advisers outside of your firm, clients and those who can support you in your career and other professional interests, including non-lawyers (what other professional calls someone a “non”?). Plus, your board members do not need to look like you.

While super successful female lawyers have served as my mentors and sponsors, several men have also had an enormous impact on my career. When you find your board members, make sure they understand how much you appreciate their time and guidance.

You can step off and back on the ladder to success. I hope by now you are convinced that you can climb the legal career ladder in heels (I suggest multiple pairs), but it is not a straight ascent for many of us. Your climb can include temporary stops and changes in direction. As young associate aiming for partnership, I did not realize that I would be a single mom with two young children for most of my early partner years.

At various points in my earlier career, I decided to flex my schedule, work at home, minimize my bar association and board positions, and take myself off the equity partner track for periods of time. The ladder will be there for you to jump back on to the next rung and keep climbing when you are ready. As RBG (my idol!) recently said, “You can have it all, just not at the same time.”

You can stay in Big Law if you pick the right firm. While entering associate classes remain at 45% to 50% women, women only account for at most 20% of equity partners in large firms. While the statistics paint a grim picture, I can tell you that some of us stay. The right firm will support you and your career goals and professional priorities while allowing you the flexibility to live your best life.

Find a platform where the promotion of women is a priority. While I did not know to look for this 25 years ago, I had the support of Thompson Hine when I co-founded our Spotlight on Women® program over a decade ago with a mission to retain and promote the women at our firm and in the communities where we have offices. Remember, you can “be the change” in the right environment.

Your clients can be (and often are) your friends. I have clients who have become my friends and friends who have become clients. It is a myth that you cannot work with your friends. Because of these relationships, I am even more invested in their success and that of the businesses they support. Plus, it is much more fun to visit a client when you enjoy spending time with them. Relationships are the key to so many things in life and investing in the ones that matter can benefit all of us in so many ways.

Ask for what you want. I can cite numerous statistics supporting the fact that women do not negotiate or ask for what they want in the same way men do. I learned that asking to go to court or a client meeting or for other opportunities can change a career. Bigger asks like requesting a flexible work arrangement or a transfer to another practice group can be very daunting. But the quality of your work life will not change if you don’t try. Be strategic in how and when you ask, but do ask.

There is not always one right answer. While this is true in life, it is more often true in the law. I started my practice thinking I had to find “the” answer. Experience has taught me that it’s most important to understand your client’s business goals so you can find the answer that will work best for them. This also requires you to be a better listener. I now recognize that perfecting the art of asking the right questions and listening to the answers leads you down the path of delivering valuable legal services to the clients you serve.

Do not underestimate the value of a strong network. Long hours in the library (yes, we still had those when I started) or at the computer may be necessary as you begin your career, but getting out from behind your standing desk and developing a network will benefit you personally and professionally. Figure out where “out there” is for you. Nothing has proven to be more satisfying to me than when I can help someone in my network find a new position, a new nanny or even a husband!

Women helping women has been a theme I have developed over time, and it’s taught me that the sooner you invest in your network, the more value you will receive from it.

You be you. We often try to emulate those we admire. While I started my career boldly wearing pantsuits (yes, it was that long ago), I also initially attempted to support clients and interact with counsel and contacts as others did. A simple premise—be authentic—needs to be a cornerstone of your career development. While we can learn from others’ success and wisdom, I now understand that being myself in everything, from how I dress to how I communicate, allows me to embrace my style and feel comfortable in all of my interactions.

Don’t make big decisions during difficult times in your career. As a young partner, I spent three weeks trying an environmental case in a New Jersey state court near the Newark airport. Being away from my kids, combined with the stress of the trial and the “joy” of spending so much time at an airport hotel, almost drove me to change careers and become a yoga teacher (my current retirement plan).

A wise partner told me that “this too shall pass” and I needed to let it pass before making an impulsive decision. I am so glad that I followed that advice. There have been other hard times (both in my career and my life), but a little resilience and a lot of support from a great firm, a powerful network and the best work family got me through it and allowed me to meet my personal and professional goals.

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

Author Information

Heidi B. (Goldstein) Friedman is a partner in Thompson Hine’s Environmental and Product Liability practice groups. She focuses her practice on environmental, health and safety counseling in business, regulatory and legislative matters, environmental and toxic tort litigation, environmental enforcement actions, site remediation, product stewardship and compliance with environmental regulations.

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