Women in the workplace have been a hot topic lately, and yet it is still not an easy subject to broach. Suggesting advice for young women in the legal profession is even harder, considering I am one myself. The legal field seems to be a world of its own at times. However, I do think that we can pick up some helpful cues and pointers from those around us.
There has been quite a lot of buzz in the media lately about women in the workplace, with Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s no-work-from-home memo for remote workers and President Obama’s recent comments about California Attorney General Kamala Harris, calling her "the best-looking attorney general."
Sandberg was on the cover of Time magazine in March and has been through a slew of interviews lately, with many naming her as the top advocate for women in the workplace. In her New York Times best-seller, Sandberg urges women to "lean in" by acting with boldness and confidence, by sitting at the table where decisions are made, by choosing supportive life partners and by not leaving the workplace for marriage or children before it is necessary to do so. Mayer, on the other end of the spectrum, recently caused a storm by deciding to end Yahoo’s work-at-home policy; this move was seen by many as a strike against work-at-home parents, especially women. Recently, speaking at a fundraiser in a wealthy San Francisco suburb, Obama praised Harris’ looks. His comments, while seen as harmless and playful by some, were criticized to the extent that White House press secretary Jay Carney called a press conference and announced that the president had apologized to Harris because of the distraction his comments created and because he did not want to diminish her professional accomplishments. The media frenzy surrounding professional women begs some commentary on how female attorneys are affected and what the future holds for young women in our profession.
If you look around at those in your field whom you consider to be successful and you ask them how they got to where they are today, you will hear a variety of answers, but similar themes and advice for someone trying to follow in their footsteps. Here are some helpful tips I’ve gathered from women I know and respect and also from successful female businesswomen, entrepreneurs and professionals who are putting their message of the road to success out there. These tips apply not only to young female attorneys, but males, too — actually, any young person looking to become successful in his or her chosen profession.
•Work on your confidence.
Don’t second-guess yourself. I’ve noticed that many friends and co-workers of mine habitually use rhetoric that lacks certainty and often expresses doubt. Try to work on limiting your usage of words that express doubt or uncertainty. Know your worth as an attorney and a person. One of your best weapons is your ability to contribute better quality work, clever insights and unique perspectives than your competition. Work smarter, not harder. Ask for feedback. Asking for feedback, both positive and negative, will help you address the areas where you are lacking and encourage you to make bolder decisions and further develop your strengths.
There is a difference between being legally chic and being sexy. The workplace is for work. It is difficult for women to escape the accusation of using sex appeal in the workplace, so aim for elegance and classiness rather than seduction. For the men, be sure your clothes are pressed, clean and sharp. The opinion of your peers and superiors is important. You’re going to gain the most respect and support by building good relationships with both the men and the women in your workplace.
•Set yourself up for success by having the right people in your corner.
As a new attorney, your success in your career will greatly depend on the support group that you have surrounding you. If you haven’t already found a life partner and are looking for one, look for someone who will support and complement you both personally and professionally. I cannot emphasize highly enough the importance of taking your time to select a partner who will both push you forward in your career and share the responsibilities that come with sharing a life together. Have the somewhat awkward conversations about money, domestic duties and expectations before you get married. You will appreciate it later.
•Look for a mentor.
While this is not a novel piece of advice, it is nonetheless an important task that can often take years. You need to find someone who has been down the road you are traveling. He or she should be a person you admire professionally, and someone who can provide you with much-needed career advice, especially at critical decision stages.
•Look for a sponsor.
I define a sponsor as someone who can open doors for you and provide you with opportunities that are not available to everyone. A sponsor is someone in a position of power who is willing to help you and take a chance on you by recommending you for a position, giving you a job or introducing you to opportunities you would not have had otherwise. Your sponsor should be invested in your development and success.
Finding these people will most likely only come through networking and developing relationships, both formally and informally. You need to make sure that your network includes powerful people — people who can actually help you. If you are lost and unsure of how to do this, I would recommend finding a person or colleague whom you respect who also appears to be a successful networker and then mimic his or her behavior.
Being a smart and successful young legal professional is powerful. Let’s celebrate this by setting ourselves up for the best chance of success by learning and listening to advice from those who have paved the way for us.
Priscilla E. Jimenez is an associate at the Locks Law Firm in Philadelphia and works on personal injury, pharmaceutical litigation, products liability and medical negligence and malpractice cases. She can be reached at 215-893-3420 or email@example.com.