As a young lawyer, advocating for yourself can be tricky. Figuring out when and how to stand up for yourself—while also developing your practice and becoming a reliable team player—is often more complicated than it seems. Here is some advice from seasoned attorneys to help you navigate the dos and don’ts of starting your legal career.
Did you encounter any situations as a new lawyer where, in hindsight, you wish you would have advocated more for yourself?
Yes! Too many times to count. Several factors probably explain why I didn’t. But as Maya Angelou taught us: when you know better, you do better. I know better now, and I continue to be intentional about advocating for myself and others around me. I also encourage newer attorneys to develop the mindsight and practice of advocating for themselves early on in their careers. This is true in many areas and particularly around mental health. I remind myself and others to guard our mental health because nobody else will do so for us.
—Roula Allouch | Of Counsel | Graydon Law | Cincinnati, Ohio
It’s not so much advocating more for yourself, I don’t think, as it is smartly advocating for yourself. As an associate in a law firm, part of your advocacy to the partnership is providing excellent “client service”—being on time, polite, etc. As a partner, part of your advocacy to the community for your practice and your firm is explaining how you can help people with their legal problems. You address many different audiences in law practice. Whenever you move to a new audience, you need to fit all your communications into an overall view of where you are trying to go in your relationship with that audience.
—David Coale | Partner | Lynn, Pinker, Hurst & Schwegmann | Dallas, Texas
As a young lawyer, I forgot something I learned in law school: you become the expert on the narrow issues of law that you are asked to research, and it becomes your job to teach the issue to your boss, the client, or the judge. Early in my career, I let older lawyers’ statements that there should be a clear answer on an issue sidetrack me for hours, going back over the same case law I had already read. Instead, I should have been more assertive in the fact that the law is unsettled on a point.
—Richard Rivera | Partner | Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP | Jacksonville, Florida
I cannot think of a particular situation, but I definitely had some imposter syndrome when I started. As a result, I’m sure I didn’t stand up for myself as much as I would today or as much as I’d advise others to do. It’s a tough needle to thread. On the one hand, you are new, and you do want to make a good impression while showing appropriate deference to those who’ve been practicing longer. On the other hand, you’re not an indentured servant, and it’s easy to forget that, especially when you’re put on a large, time-intensive case. If I had it to do over, I would be more protective of my time. It’s possible to be a team player without killing yourself for the case or the client, who—let’s be honest—likely won’t even know a young associate’s name.
—Lindsay Sestile | Columbus, Ohio
Yes, when I was a younger lawyer, I thought that my voice did not matter. I remember one situation where I was blamed for a more senior associate’s mistake, but I chose not to correct that. In hindsight, I wish I had simply stated the facts but emphasized that we are a team and could move past the error. No matter how junior you are in an organization or law firm, your voice matters, but use it wisely.
—Mary Smith | Immediate Past National Secretary, American Bar Association | Past President, National Native American Bar Association | Vice Chair, VENG Group | Lansing, Illinois
Yes. As a new lawyer, I was viewed as the energetic young talent in the office. Because I took pride in being considered competent and dependable by my colleagues, I did not pay much attention to the fact that my workload was at times double or triple that of my more senior colleagues. In a way, I viewed the extra work as a testament to my colleagues' confidence in me. I actually saw it as a compliment. However, it was a compliment without compensation. It got to the point where I began sacrificing other important activities to ensure that my disproportionately high share of the work got done. In hindsight, I should have advocated for myself to ensure that my workload and compensation were equitable.
—Daiquiri Steele | Assistant Professor of Law | The University of Alabama School of Law | Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Fortunately, I cannot remember a specific time I wish I had advocated more for myself. Either by inherent nature or because I was a few years older than the average new lawyer, I have always been fairly comfortable advocating for myself when I felt I needed to. I think it is critical to be an effective advocate for yourself as well as for your clients. The same basic principles are helpful in both situations. Have a clear idea of what you are advocating for and whether your goal is even attainable. Be clear and have realistic expectations. Consider how your request sounds from the decisionmaker’s perspective. Think about what they need to hear and how they need to hear it to give you what you want. Be firm and project confidence but don’t be pushy or demanding. And above all, have the courage to speak for yourself. If you don’t, who will?
—Marty Truss | Office Managing Member | Dykema Gossett PLLC | San Antonio, Texas
As a new lawyer, I traveled a lot with a senior partner who did everything at the last minute. We had to be in court in a town roughly 90 miles away, and he was supposed to pick me up two hours before the hearing. He showed up an hour late and drove more than 100 mph to get there on time. I had young kids and should have let him go alone. However, I drove myself and told him I would meet him at the courthouse, avoiding unnecessary stress!
—Neil Westesen | Partner | Crowley Fleck | Helena, Montana