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How to Be a Successful Tech Lawyer (Even If Youre Young. And a Woman.)

Lindsey-Shannon O'Brien Lee

How to Be a Successful Tech Lawyer (Even If Youre Young. And a Woman.)
Koh Sze Kiat via iStock

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The technology industry is a pioneer’s playground. Industry descriptions elicit a variety of pithy (or droll, depending on your pessimism level) designations such as “cutting edge,” “advancing at breakneck speed,” etc. Regardless of the description, we can all agree that keeping up with the industry’s trajectory is not easy.

To be a competent tech lawyer, you are expected to master two industries: law (which includes honing your analytical skills, remaining attentive to detail in the tightest of deadlines, knowing your clients’ and stakeholders’ desires and risk tolerance, navigating internal corporate department politics, etc.) and technology (now try juggling those challenges while simultaneously gaining engineers’ and innovators’ trust, knowing the lingo, and staying current on trends).

If you are reading this, you likely face the unique set of challenges ascribed to young attorneys who make up anywhere from 13 to 26 percent of the profession. Thirty-six percent can add the additional element of being a female in a male-dominated profession. Notably, both industries receive failing grades for notoriously slow growth in gender equality.

As young lawyers, we exit the bar exam facing another uphill battle: law practice comes with a deeply ingrained age stratification. This age or experience disparity is based on logic and reason; we are less seasoned and, thus, have less value to offer. Unfortunately, a young female lawyer in the tech industry has no guarantee that putting in 5,000 hours allows her a seat at any mahogany table.

Fortunately, the keys to success in law as a woman are comparable to those necessary to succeed in tech or generally and are, therefore, easy to learn and apply.

Stay Informed

Sign up for industry newsletters or alerts from entities such as Bloomberg’s Fully Charged, Axios’s Pro Rata, Stratechery’s Daily Update, and CB Insights. These newsletters provide in-depth stories and major headlines and can help you develop the fluency necessary to join crucial conversations.

Be a Duck

If there is a lesson to be learned, learn it on the fly. Be a duck; let it roll off your back and paddle like hell underwater. At a conference, a law school professor wowed the majority-woman audience with data that reinforced what we females already knew: We like to prepare. By and large, we prepare more than our male counterparts and beat ourselves up more severely after delivering a superior product.

Find a Mentor

You’ve heard it before, and it’s particularly germane to conversations addressing inclusion in the tech industry. If you are new or trying to break into the industry, you may not be surrounded by candidates. There are many organizations that offer mentorship programs, such as Women in Technology. When I first started practicing, I was under the mistaken impression that a mentor should be a glimpse into your future—an exact version of who you wanted to be, benefitting from the same path you wanted to travel to get there. I was way off. It will serve you well to branch out.

Remain Vigilant and Stay Professional

You are still an officer of the law, you have duties, and you need to keep your guard up. Before confessing that you thought SaaS was a funky way of spelling sass, gauge your audience. Remain truthful, but follow the sage adage: fake it ‘til you make it. You may end up on the other side of the negotiating table from someone you went martini for martini with at a networking event.

Don’t Get Hung Up on “Failures”

You are here. You have worked hard and deserve accolades. You have been zealous in your advocacy thus far but will likely say something stupid at some point. You will falter. You will forget to hit the mute button. (Hopefully, you use fewer expletives than I do when stressed.) These transgressions are minor. No matter how hard the other side tries to highlight them, do not let them see you sweat. Illegitimi non carborundum, ladies. Like any performing artist, continue the routine without skipping a beat. Continue like your delivery was seamless, and your audience will follow your lead. Redirect and remain unflappable. In the interest of an expeditious closing, I once shared that I would seek perspective on a particular issue from an interested colleague. Seeking vengeance, my adversary was quick to volunteer, “[i]f not you, is there someone else I should speak with?”

Let Them Underestimate You

My mentor calls it “playing Colombo.” If you’re not familiar with the show, the long and short of it is, act as though you need a guide to get through the lightest of intellectual mire. Whatever disadvantage they may think you suffer, use that misconception to your advantage. I know how some gentlemen (some who have practiced as long as I’ve been alive) may view me at first blush. I look young, I’m 5’2” if I’m standing tall, and I laugh easily. Adversaries don’t cower in my presence—but ask my husband if I can chill a room with my silence. Hopefully, you will have the pleasure of knowing when adversaries and colleagues alike may underestimate you.

Remind yourself as often as you must that you are outnumbered (be it because you are a different age bracket or gender) not because you are unworthy or undeserving but because you are ascending to greatness, and the climb can be lonely.