Five Lessons Lawyers Can Learn from Lean In

Vol. 3, No. 3

Sharolyn C. Whiting-Ralston is an attorney with McAfee & Taft in Tulsa, OK. She can be reached at 918.574.3035 or sharolyn.ralston@mcafeetaft.com.

 

  • What pieces of advice are particularly relevant for lawyers?
  • Is this just a book for women, or can men profit from reading it?

Earlier this year everyone was abuzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.  Much of the buzz wrongly surrounded the ever-present question of women in the workforce, aka the “mommy wars.” Well, the book has nothing to do with the question of whether a person (man or woman) 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. While Sandberg initially describes this book as dealing with feminist issues, she ultimately concludes, and rightly so, that the issues (and her advice) are applicable to both sexes. Being a woman, I highly recommend the book for newer female lawyers; however, I also recommend the book to newer male lawyers, as the principals are the same regardless of your gender.

Here are five important takeaways from the book:

  1. Fake it ‘til you make it.  OK, Sandberg didn’t really describe it as “fake it ‘til you make it,” but that’s the bottom line.  Being an attorney can be daunting, especially for a newer lawyer.  After all, we work really hard just to get to be called a lawyer; actually doing the job adds a whole different level of stress.  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 rather from the 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.  In Lean In, Sandberg discusses the difference confidence (or the appearance of it) can make in one’s career. 

    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 opportunity 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 in the background.  Remember, clients and fellow attorneys want to, 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 “one” self.  Traditionally, lawyers were a profession of men wearing dark suits, white shirts and blue ties who worked too much and were all business. Let’s face it, many of us graduated law school thinking 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, more productive, and happier lawyers (and people).

    I am very fortunate to work at a law firm where I genuinely like the people with whom I work, 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 had ideas or thoughts about strategy or positions 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.  And, I promise, clients notice that sort of teamwork.

  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, corporate or not.  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.  As a young lawyer, keeping your eyes open and taking advantage of the varying opportunities can make a real difference in how you are able to serve your clients, and how you feel about your career 10 years down the line.  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.  Rather, 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.  As a female, I found this part of Sandberg’s book especially interesting and incredibly accurate, and I have been encouraging every young woman in my life to read Lean In, if only for this part.  Sandberg describes how women have a tendency 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, etc.  So, Sandberg asked the woman if 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 even dating anyone at the time.  As Sandberg pointed out, the young woman was jumping the gun, “big time.”  This young woman had at least a couple years to start making decisions about scaling back on work.  I have seen women do this so many times. 

    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/if you need to take some time or make some adjustments.  In other words, because you have continued to move forward you are more valuable to your organization; and, you are more likely to want to come back to work because you like your job.  Everyone has to make the decisions that work best for them, and I certainly do not presume to tell people what that is, but Sandberg makes an excellent point.  Don’t leave before you leave.  

  5. Ask for criticism, and listen to it.  One of the themes in Sandberg’s book is an ongoing desire to be better.  However, 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 Mark Zuckerberg would provide her regular feedback so that she could address issues or concerns in real time.  He agreed on the condition she do the same for him.  So it began, and we all know how that turned out.

    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.

I have highlighted a few points in Lean In that I believe every lawyer should consider.  As we move through our careers, whether as new attorneys or seasoned partners, at some point, we all need to be reminded to “lean in.”

 

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Law Practice Today.

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