Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer

By Grover Cleveland

© 2016 Grover E. Cleveland, reproduced with permission from Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer(2 Ed., 2016); swimminglessonsforbabysharks.com; with thanks for Milana Hogan and Katherine Larkin-Wong for their invaluable insights.

Grit refers to perseverance and passion for long-term goals; individuals with grit perform in ways that science has shown support success in the legal profession. These behaviors include demonstrating persistence, resilience, and diligence. Think of these as skills because with effort you can become more persistent, more resilient, and more diligent. You first work to make them habits, and over time they become part of the way you learn and improve. Of course, if you don’t believe you can improve, you won’t improve.

While studying for her Ed.D., Dr. Milana Hogan researched characteristics that help women succeed in the legal profession. She found that both grit and a “Growth Mindset”—the notion people can change and improve their skills with effort—were strong contributors to success as a lawyer.

The research led the American Bar Association’s Commission for Women in the Profession to launch the Grit Project to support this strategy for success.

Gaining Grit

Here are some ways you can adopt a Grit and Growth Mindset:

  • Nurture a Growth Mindset. Regularly remind yourself that with effort, you can and will improve. No one expects you to perform like a partner from day one. Partners have honed their skills over many years of practice. When you start out, it is okay not to know. But it is not okay not to learn. Ask (sensible) questions, and make a concerted effort to enhance your skills. If your self-confidence waivers, remind yourself of things that used to be challenging for you that are now effortless.
  • Don’t get in your own way. Negative thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Confidence—or at least the appearance of confidence—is an essential trait for a lawyer. Acting confident will help you feel more confident.
  • Turn anxiety into action. Remember that it is normal to feel overwhelmed when beginning to practice law. If you get anxious, work to channel that energy into concrete actions that will help you learn and improve.
  • Just keep swimming. Often, the essence of a lawyer’s job is to overcome adversity. You can’t let your own setbacks derail you. Obstacles are the starting point, not the end.
  • Learn from mistakes. View mistakes as opportunities to learn and to show that you can take responsibility. Early in your career your documents may bleed with tracked changes from senior lawyers. Do not despair. Everyone has been there. Use the red to learn and to understand the other lawyer’s preferences. Breathe—and shoot for less red in the future.
  • Don’t melt. Lawyers in your office may ask tough questions about your work. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong; it means they want to make sure it’s right. Anticipate questions, and be prepared to defend your work calmly. Prepare—and then stick to your guns, within reason.
  • Take initiative. If you need training or something else to enhance your skills, you need to ask. Remember that no one will care about your career as much as you do.
  • Work hard. The first few years of practice can be difficult because there is so much to learn. Seize the opportunity. The more you work, the more you will learn. Don’t duck. Challenge yourself. It will help you grow.
  • Treat feedback as a gift. At the end of projects, ask supervisors to identify your “opportunities for growth.” This can help you get concrete, constructive feedback to help you become a better lawyer. Even if you think the feedback will be negative, seek it out and use it to make changes.
  • View mentoring as thanks. Law firms are busy places, and expressing appreciation can fall by the wayside. If you get more work from a lawyer and the lawyer shows an interest in helping you improve, that’s your thanks—along with your paycheck. You can make it more likely that you will get a “thank you” if you express appreciation to senior lawyers for giving you work.
  • Do what you love. Seek out the kind the work that interests you most and that uses your natural abilities. If you are passionate about your work, you will do better work. Act from a position of strength. Finally, when you have the option to respond to a situation in various ways, work to act from a position of strength. Take the course of action that demonstrates the most courage, the most responsibility, or the most verve—within reason. The title of this book is not, after all, Swimming Lessons for Baby Rabbits.