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Be Your Own Best Advocate

Kori Michele Cooper


  • Women, especially women of color, face significant challenges in the legal profession, including barriers in hiring, promotions, assignments, and compensation.
  • Self-advocacy is crucial for overcoming obstacles; it involves learning to say no, setting boundaries, and prioritizing self-care to prevent burnout.
  • Building a supportive network or coalition is essential for navigating difficulties, finding mentors, and gaining opportunities.
  • Owning and advocating for one's accomplishments helps counteract the under-recognition of women's contributions and opens up new opportunities.
Be Your Own Best Advocate
Jacob Wackerhausen via Getty Images

Being a woman in the legal profession can be challenging. Being a woman of color in the legal profession can be especially challenging. When I am in conversation with other women about problems going on in a relationship, at work, or at school, I often hear statements like “There is nothing I can do except get through it.”

I’ll sometimes respond by saying, “You could do that, but you might be surprised what happens if you explore what else you can do.”

Women and people of color in the legal profession continue to face barriers in hiring, promotions, assignments, and compensation, according to a study released by the American Bar Association, You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession (2019). The traditional mantra to American women has been to enter the workforce and “lean in,” but the historical reality for many women is that we have had no choice but to work and fight for some semblance of equality in the process. Self-maintenance, friendships, romantic relationships, and nurturing relationships in our personal lives take up a lot of our time and energy as well. So what do you do when it seems like your best effort simply isn’t enough to take care of yourself and those you care about? Or to get to that next stage of life or next step in the career path? What do you do when you feel powerless to change an environment that is limiting you? 

Learning to be your own best advocate will allow you to prevent problems, find ways around potentially difficult situations, and put your best foot forward. I am a law student at a university in New York—not too unlike those featured on shows like How to Get Away with Murder—and I have found that while developing self-advocacy as an everyday practice will not magically erase obstacles, it will give you some skills that will help get around them. Whether you head your own law firm or are the only black woman in your department, whether you are single or in a relationship, whether you are in law school at a historically black college or university or a historically white institution, here are a few tips that can help you get what you want, get that next opportunity, strengthen that relationship, and take stress off your plate.

Get Comfortable Saying No

I’m sure all of you have a person in your life who leaves you wrung dry emotionally each and every time that person comes around. Sometimes it is a bunch of people who are dragging you into some drama, making demands, or being a great, big wet blanket on your plans. Maybe a family member has tested and manipulated you until you’ve had enough. As someone who dislikes conflict, I know how hard it can be to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t spend the entire week celebrating your birthday,” and then turn your phone off. However, I promise you that it will become easier once you get in the habit of rationing out what you give to other people.

Another way of saying no is cutting your losses once you’ve noticed a pattern of negative behavior being directed toward you by certain people in your life. A relationship that is toxic or unbalanced will steal all your time and energy if you let it. While chaos may be fun to watch on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, you don’t want to live that way. If you did not sign up for a one-sided relationship, it may be time to have a conversation or just move on.

As women, we often feel we owe people an explanation for why we are no longer putting in emotional labor. Please stop thinking that way. Setting up boundaries is not a way to emotionally nickel and dime your loved ones; it’s just a way of saying you matter too and are just one person. And, contrary to popular belief, when you feel good about yourself because you are well rested and organized, you are able to be more gracious toward others. Trying to carry a whole team of people on your back will just make you tired.

Build Your Coalition

For women especially, this is a delicate art. Call it coalition building, call it networking, call it whatever you like. Making and maintaining relationships properly is probably the most important skill to learn, no matter what stage of life or situation you find yourself in. Build relationships with people from across the spectrum based on your interests and your goals. Make sure you surround yourself with people who inspire and encourage you. Getting people around you whom you can rely on, talk to, and be mentored by will help you navigate a lot of difficult situations better than you would have alone. It won’t happen overnight, but with persistence, integrity, and attentiveness, you can build a coalition around you that will allow you to feel more secure in whatever you choose to explore and to get help when you need it. 

Always be sure to follow up with other women you know who have shown themselves to be open to getting to know new people and with whom you feel you have something in common. It is not unusual for people to seek friends and mentors who understand them and thus can help them learn how to find success and avoid mistakes. In the legal world, some of my most insightful and helpful mentors and friends are other black women. That said, not every attempt to connect will be successful. Sometimes there is a tendency among us to see competition where there actually is none, because our society is overly competitive, as well as often racist and sexist. Do not let the bad experiences discourage you. The “there can only be one” mentality is shared by many, but don’t let it be your attitude. We are stronger together. 

Generally speaking, if you meet someone who expresses interest in your ideas, or you just want to get to know that person better, it is OK to send an email about grabbing coffee. Please don’t agonize over whether it is socially acceptable to say hello to someone you’ve met or to ask for advice. If you get a sour response, it says more about that person than it does about you. The important point here is that you should be willing to go out of your comfort zone and reach out to people not only when you want something. You do not necessarily need to share the same life experiences or characteristics with a potential mentor in order for the relationship to be beneficial. Also be sure to keep any promises you make and be willing to offer any support you would want offered to yourself. People will be able to tell if you are just being mercenary, rather than genuine, in reaching out to them. In all likelihood, you will not get help if you make your presence known only when you are in a crisis or so that you can ask someone to write you a reference letter. If you invest in people you like, they invest in you right back. 

Lastly, let’s address the fact that you have no control over others’ color, body shape, and gender biases. No matter where you live, these obstacles may present themselves. Nevertheless, that does not mean you have to stay in the box or category others have put you in. There are too many fish in the sea to let one person’s projected feelings influence how open or closed you choose to be toward others. 

Own Your Accomplishments

We all know the proverb “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” And, of course, it is important to be humble, thank others, and avoid hubris. That said, no one else can be a better advocate for you than you can be. Most importantly, if you do not advocate for yourself, it is difficult for others to do so on your behalf. People cannot share what they do not know about you. It is no secret that women, in general, receive far too little credit for our contributions at home and at work. One of the ways we can push back against unfair distribution of credit is by not being ashamed of saying, “I did a good majority of the work on this project and I’m very proud of it.” That isn’t being “uppity.” To put it another way, if a man isn’t afraid to take pride in something as simple as doing laundry or taking care of his child, there is no reason you should not give yourself a pat on the back for great work on a brief. 

The better you get at advocating for yourself, the better you will feel and the more opportunities you will gain. Opportunities can take many forms, such as getting to know new people, new ideas, and new places. Be open to deviating from the path you thought you were on in life and pay attention to what’s actually in front of you. Do not self-select out of a chance to apply to study abroad or put yourself forward for a position because you feel what many call imposter syndrome. Owning your accomplishments also means saying, “I know there is something I can bring to the table” in every new venture, even if you don’t know all the details yet. 


There is no one-size-fits-all approach for achieving success. Each person must build his or her own toolkit of rules and principles that work for him or her. I hope these three tips prove helpful additions to your tool kit, or at the very least useful reminders of the importance of setting boundaries, building a coalition, and owning your accomplishments. Whatever tools you choose, do not be afraid to start being your own best advocate today.