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Laura had done her best to fit in with the rest of the practice group, all sports fans. She had read up on the baseball series and nervously invited herself to lunch once or twice. But everyone seemed to be talking an entirely different language: “sports speak.” The guys briefly asked her about her interests, and then moved swiftly on to an animated discussion about the sports event du jour. Laura felt more out of place at the sports bar with these guys than she did eating alone at Starbucks. She really didn’t care, except that she was getting passed over for all the interesting, challenging work. That part was worrisome because lately there was less work to go around. Associates were held accountable for not billing a high number of hours, despite a shortage of work. Laura had tried to bring in some business through friends from college who had started their own company years ago, but they could not afford her firm’s rates. Laura was also worried because she would soon be considered for partnership. She didn’t hold out any hope for making partner, but if she didn’t progress she might lose her job. That would be a disaster, because she loved her work. Five years ago, Laura was certain that she had picked the perfect law firm. And for about three years, she had been happy there. Over time, however, an evolution of roles and a shift in power occurred as the practice group partner became more detached from the daily routine of the associates in the group. The partner had delegated the job of distributing work to Josh, a rising star. This senior associate was a masterful politician. He ate up long hours and begged for more. He persuaded the practice group leader to entrust him with greater power. Soon Josh was handing out the work assignments and influencing the choice of new hires. He filled the group with like-minded men, and by her fifth year, Laura was the only woman left on the six-member team of wise-cracking, sports-loving pals who seemed to be cut from the same cloth. Not long after Josh ascended to his powerful role, Laura also noticed a subtle change in her work assignments. She began to get less-challenging work. By the time we met for career counseling, she had been relegated to a supportive role that was one step above a paralegal. She still enjoyed the work because she liked research and writing more than appearing in court or doing depositions. She actually dreaded courtroom antics and posturing, and thinking fast on her feet was not her greatest talent. No doubt, Josh had sensed this hesitation on her part. But she knew that to grow as a lawyer, she needed to develop these skills. At first, Laura had denied that she was becoming a second-class citizen. Work was slow for everyone, she reasoned; that’s why she got less-challenging assignments. But eventually she could not deny that the younger male associates were entrusted with more interesting and complex work, and her original rationale fell apart. She wondered whether her work product was at the same level as that of her colleagues. She decided that her innate lack of ability must be to blame. This negative view of herself was painful and depressing. She soldiered on, trying to do her best and hoping that her situation would improve — but it didn’t. One day, she had the opportunity to read over a lengthy memo that Josh had written. She was surprised to realize that her work product was superior to his. She could see that Josh had failed to identify certain key cases, and that his writing was less articulate and grammatically sloppy. So why had he become the star? That’s when Laura came for career counseling. CAN THIS JOB BE SAVED? We needed to figure out whether Laura could salvage this job and make it work for her career goals. There was so much she loved about her work! If only she could find a way to progress as an attorney, she was willing to put up with the social isolation that came with this practice group. When it comes to a mismatched workplace, knowing when to “hold ‘em or fold ‘em” is one of the toughest decisions a lawyer can face. Even if the culture of the workplace does not match your needs perfectly, you may decide to stay and work harder to change your image and your level of responsibility. On the other hand, that tack could be a serious mistake if you are unable to progress as a lawyer because of the culture of your workplace. How do you know you are in career quicksand? The answer is complex and depends on the particular facts of your situation. A lot depends on the personalities of the people involved, including your personality, and your ultimate career goals. Laura’s case was fairly clear. Although she loved her work and got along well with the rainmaking partner, we also knew that the key to her success lay with Josh, and that Josh was marginalizing her and favoring his buddies. What were her options to try to rectify the situation? 1. Could she talk with Josh? Would a heart-to-heart with him do any good? 2. What about the partner? Should she try to talk with the partner about the problem she had with Josh? Could she ask the partner directly for work? 3. Was there something about the way she came across to Josh or to others in the group that contributed to the problem? If so, would she want to try to change her behavior? 4. Most important of all, what were her goals and priorities for her career? Could she fulfill them at this firm? Would she need to do a search for a work environment more conducive to her professional development? We explored the idea of talking with Josh. If Laura could tell him in a direct, nonaccusatory way that she was ready for more responsibility, she might help him to view her in a more positive light. It is possible that he avoided giving her work because he believed that she was not up to the challenge. Laura agreed that she often appeared to be quiet and reserved compared with the others in the group. Josh may have mistaken Laura’s sense of reserve for a lack of initiative, for timidity, or for an inability to advocate. Perhaps she could set the record straight by boldly asserting her request for more challenging work. Laura considered this idea, but was doubtful that she could change Josh’s attitude. She believed that given the chance, she could handle herself in the courtroom, or deal with difficult clients; after all, she had been a teacher for many years. But she was also certain that even if she made a strong case for herself, Josh would still favor his buddies and deal them the better hands. What about talking with her partner about Josh? The practice group leader had probably already had the opportunity to learn of Josh’s shortcomings. He had chosen Josh as his second in command despite that knowledge. If Laura attempted to discuss her problems with Josh’s leadership, complaining about his unwillingness to give her good work, she would risk being seen as jealous or troublesome. She could, however, try to have a heart-to-heart with the partner to request more challenging work without any finger pointing. However, given the dwindling amount of work in the group, we were pessimistic about the effectiveness of this strategy. What was Laura’s contribution to this problem? Was she behaving in a way that invited discrimination? It is true that she had not really worked too hard to learn about sports. She might try harder to learn “sports speak” and join in. “But,” she told me, “I have no interest in that. I’d be faking it to try to get on Josh’s good side. That’s just too manipulative for me. Besides, I don’t even think that would work. I just don’t feel really comfortable with these guys. To tell the truth, I’d rather not spend time with them at all.” The mutuality of that sentiment was highly likely. These guys were not reaching out to her and probably didn’t miss her company either. On a deeper level, Laura may have been hurting her career by giving off a scent of nervousness about the very tasks she needed to master to progress further professionally. Josh may have responded to her uncertainty or reserve by letting her do the tasks she seemed to enjoy most. It was hard to know whether Josh harbored a prejudicial motive, even though the ultimate effect on Laura’s career was prejudicial. COMPATIBLE CULTURE That brought us to the crux of the matter. What were Laura’s career ambitions? She wanted to develop expertise in her practice area. Eventually she wanted to go in-house or become part of a consulting group. She wished she could work with people who liked and accepted her. After reviewing her goals, it became more clear to us that she was more likely to further her goals if she moved to a different firm. The key was to find a firm where the fit of personalities and the culture of the firm would tend to advance her needs. People usually excel in workplaces where they are respected and trusted by their colleagues and bosses and are able to do work they enjoy. It may not be possible to have a perfect work environment, but a workplace culture that inhibits career potential and is unlikely to permit a lawyer to advance to new levels of challenge should be scrapped. The search for a better environment can take place over time by networking carefully into the hidden job market, using highly ethical recruiters (if you are in a position to do so), and avoiding blind ads and mass mailings. Laura conducted an extensive search over a three-month period. She did not find an in-house job, but she did locate and land an excellent opportunity at another large law firm with a practice group that she believed would be a better fit for her. She located this job through her friends at the bar association. After a few months, I called Laura to see how she was doing. She reported that not only is she assigned challenging work, she feels accepted by the group: “They laugh at my jokes, and we recommend books to each other.” Lunchtime has gotten a whole lot better. Sheila Nielsen is a nationally recognized career counselor specializing in attorneys. A lawyer and a social worker by training, she counsels lawyers on a wide variety of issues, as well as those changing jobs or careers. Her business, Nielsen Consulting Service, is located in Chicago. She can be reached at (312) 616-4416. Clients discussed in this column are composites, and all names have been changed.

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