YourABA: December 2013
YourABA December 2013 Masthead

5 lessons lawyers can learn from ‘Lean In’

Earlier this year, everyone was abuzz about Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In." Much of the talk wrongly surrounded the ever-present question of women in the workforce, aka the "mommy wars," said Sharolyn C. Whiting-Ralston, an attorney with McAfee & Taft in Tulsa, Okla. "Well, the book has nothing to do with the question of whether a person should stay home with their children if the opportunity arises, but rather has everything to do with making smart choices about your professional and personal life," she said.

In the latest edition of GPSolo eReport, Ralston shared five important takeaways from the book. Below are excerpts from Ralston's article.

  1. Fake it 'til you make it. OK, Sandberg didn't really describe it like this, but that's the bottom line. Being an attorney can be daunting, especially for a newer lawyer. Since I have been practicing, I have seen new lawyers, myself included, suffer from a lack of confidence. The issue does not generally come from a lack of confidence in ability but from a lack of experience, the knowledge that your client is really counting on you to get it right and the fear that you don't know what you don't know.

    What is Sandberg's advice? First, don't hedge. When you are asked to give a legal opinion, give it without hedging. You did the research and you worked hard on it, so give your findings with the confidence you deserve. Second, "sit at the table." When you are at a client meeting, be present — don't sit off to the side. You may not have a lot to say at that particular meeting, but this is your chance to be in front of the client and the other lawyers. You want them to begin noticing you and trusting you as an integral part of the team. They cannot do that if you fade into the background. Remember, clients and fellow attorneys want and need to see and feel confidence from their lawyers. Even if you don't yet have confidence, pretend like you do — eventually you will get there.

  2. Be authentic. In the chapter titled "Speak Your Truth," Sandberg discusses the old myth that you should have a "work" self and a "home" self and suggests that you will be more productive, more successful and happier having just one self. Traditionally, lawyers were a profession of men wearing dark suits who worked too much and were all business. Let's face it, many of us graduated from law school thinking that we needed to fit into that stereotype. While our job continues to require a lot of work, I agree with Sandberg's suggestion that being authentic makes more successful, productive and happier lawyers.

    I am fortunate to work at a law firm where I genuinely like the people I work with, which I believe is a reflection of the fact that we are encouraged to be authentic and bring to the game whatever is unique to us. Each of us has had ideas or thoughts about strategy or positions that we may want to take in a case, and we are encouraged to use that voice. Your colleagues have to trust you before they will listen to you, and that means letting them know who you are — authentically.

  3. It's a jungle gym, not a ladder. Sandberg discusses the "jungle gym" concept in terms of the corporate world, but it applies to legal careers as well. Statistics show that people no longer spend their entire careers with one organization, climbing up that ladder. Rather, people are seeking different opportunities throughout their careers, which sometimes means different employers and sometimes means a different job altogether. One great thing about the legal profession is the many different types and fields of law that one can practice. Many of the fields overlap one another.

    Sandberg cautions readers not to shy away from projects or jobs just because they don't meet all the particular criteria or possess that particular expertise. She encourages readers to stretch themselves and go for that job or project that may feel a bit out of their reach. She's right. Stretching and moving around helps us all move up the jungle gym.

  4. Don't leave before you leave. Sandberg describes how women tend to scale back their careers in anticipation of having a family long before they need to do so. She tells the story of a young employee who was asking her about work/life balance and how she manages it all. So Sandberg asked the woman whether she and her partner were planning to have children soon. The woman said no, and in fact, not only did she not have a partner, but she wasn't dating anyone at the time. As Sandberg pointed out, the young woman was jumping the gun, "big time."

    Sandberg offers a different approach. She suggests that women "lean in" and pursue their career goals in full force, until they have to consider other obligations. The result is that by the time you have a child, you are in a better job where you are more satisfied, which gives you more options when and if you need to take some time or make some adjustments.

  5. Ask for criticism and listen to it. One of the themes in Sandberg's book is an ongoing desire to be better. But it is often difficult to get better if you don't know what you are doing wrong. Sandberg tells the story that when she went to work at Facebook, she accepted the job on the condition that CEO Mark Zuckerberg would provide her regular feedback so that she could address issues or concerns in real time. He agreed on the condition that she do the same for him.

    Feedback, or criticism, is one of the most valuable things a young attorney can use to get better and be successful. No question, criticism is sometimes difficult to hear, but taking it in and responding will undoubtedly be a good thing.

GPSolo eReport is a publication of the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.

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