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March 09, 2015 Articles

Overcoming Economic Obstacles to Reach Your Professional Goals

By Nubia Willman

It happened at my first networking dinner as a 1L. A very nice attorney struck up a conversation with me and my fellow students, and soon it seemed as if everyone began trading stories recalling their trips to Europe. As someone who had only months before barely scraped together enough money to pay for my law school deposit, I sat in silence listening, but inwardly panicking at the realization that I had just stepped into a world well beyond my means.

All lawyers come with diverse personal experiences; however, it is no secret that this is still one of the most prestigious and privileged vocations, and the majority of our members come from very privileged, if not prestigious, backgrounds. Those backgrounds are what make it possible for many of us to clerk for judges without pay, or travel abroad for long stints of time without worrying too much about making rent. However, there is another group of us who had to overcome more than our fair share of social and economic obstacles in order to reach our professional goals.

For those of us who have climbed up the socioeconomic ladder to become attorneys, the transition can be jarring. We are frequently exposed to a community that has access to so much more than we are accustomed, especially during rounds of networking and socializing. This can leave us feeling out of place, and that feeling of disorientation can soon plant seeds of self-doubt in all areas of our practice.

Unfortunately, this self-doubt isn’t irrational. For example, how can I aim to make partner if neither my family nor I socialize with the right groups to help generate business connections for my firm? How can I feel comfortable at meetings when fellow attorneys judge the bad decisions of their poor clients—without disclosing that the clients’ decisions and behaviors are very similar to how my family sometimes behaves? Or even simpler, how could I, during my 1L dinner, have networked properly even though I felt as if I had nothing to offer while everyone told their European tales?

In situations where our lack of belonging is evident (even if it is only evident to us), it is normal to feel disconnected and withdraw. It is easy to let the culture shock take over and, instead of being active participants in our own careers, become passive observers. However, it is during those moments of self-doubt that we should instead lean on our strength of perseverance and determination in order to succeed in our careers and improve our professional community.

Learning how to assimilate easily may seem difficult, but it is possible to acclimate quickly to the legal culture, regardless of your means or background; it just requires a few extra steps:

When Facing a Disadvantage, Think Creatively to Solve It

Acknowledging that you are at a disadvantage does not mean that you give up and go home. Rather, knowing that you may lack the same resources as your wealthier peers should be a catalyst to research those resources and try to learn alternative ways to access them. A friend with a new solo practice wanted to build her business relationships, but knew that would require participating in golf—a sport she had never learned. As a young attorney, she could not afford to pay for both lessons and equipment. Instead, she did the best she could with what she had. She began watching free golf lessons online to learn the basics. She learned enough to feel capable while playing, and she never hesitated again when it came to networking with other golfers. This shows that creative solutions are almost always possible, and innovative thinking can help open doors to more opportunities.

Learn to Ignore Negative Thoughts

I look back at my 1L dinner and think of all the things I could have done that would have created a better connection with my dinner companions. For example, instead of worrying that I had no Europe story of my own, I should have quieted my panic and simply conversed with others about their trips. But I did the opposite and botched an opportunity to grow and expand my network because I let the feelings of self-doubt take hold of me. Others have had similar incidents that have left them hesitant about attending future events lest they have nothing to add. If this has happened to you, vow to do better, and do not deny yourself future opportunities simply because you fear that you won’t belong. Instead, when you are attending an event that is likely to include discussions about subjects that are beyond your means, calmly remember that even if you cannot share a comparable story, you can still build rapport with others. Your worth and ability to build connections is not based on your financial means. Let go of the negative thoughts and decide to participate actively whenever you can.

Become Comfortable with Setting Your Own Standards

After experiencing the beginning of this culture shock, some will try very hard to assimilate. Many of us even go into debt in order to show and feel as if we belong to this profession. However, for many that type of assimilation does not feel right. Maybe many of your peers seem to be spending hundreds of dollars to attend events, or to purchase expensive accessories and electronics. Maybe you are even at a place where you can afford those items, but you feel guilty spending that much money because you have an aunt, a sibling, or even a parent who struggles to make it week to week. In those situations, do not freely assimilate to the status quo when it feels wrong. Aim to belong only in areas that feel right for you. After all, no one said that just because the prestigious and privileged run the legal community that everything they do is correct. Know when you are willing to bend and where you draw the line.

Now, will every networking event, social interaction, or meeting at work entail rich lawyers talking about their moneyed ways? Of course not. However, it is disingenuous to act as if we do not work in a wealthy and privileged profession. The discussions often swirl around topics that require wealth and resources. Thus, instead of allowing this culture shock to fuel a lack of confidence, speaking openly about these potential problems will allow attorneys from less privileged backgrounds to prepare to overcome yet another obstacle.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, grit, young lawyers, professional development, culture shock

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