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Sapere aude - dare to be wise
Thursday, March 24, 2005
Practical Advice for New Female Attorneys
Posted 10:16 AM by Kelly
I had the good fortune a couple weeks ago to attend a luncheon sponsored by our Democratic Law Society and the Women's Caucus in honor of National Women's Month. There was a panel of 4 women: 2 Marion County Superior Court judges and 2 partners from 2 of the big 3 firms in Indianapolis. The panel shared their thoughts on 'women and law' and offered practical advice to new female graduates. (Most, if not all, of the advice is also applicable to males).

Find a Mentor. Find someone in the legal community who can serve as your mentor. It may be a judge or attorney you have already met in your law school endeavors. Mentors can serve as role models, function as sounding boards for problems and conflicts that will be novel to new attorneys, and will often alert mentees to opportunities for their careers of which they would otherwise have not been aware.

Set Boundaries. Don't take on too much in an effort to please superiors or out of the misconception that setting some boundaries is not an option. If faced with a new case or assignment on top of an impossible workload, say "I'm doing A and B and C - help me prioritize so I know what you want done first." New attorneys are reluctant to admit when they are overburdened but need to remember that honesty up front prevents a superior from being inconvenienced later if the work does not get done - or gets done sloppily.

Include Your Family. Talk about work with your children (keeping confidentiality in mind, of course). Broad conflicts that you encounter can be understood by even young children. They might learn some life lessons about conflict resolution and working with others, but most importantly they will feel included. As one panelist put it, "it's not your work life and your home life; it's your whole life." Indeed, as the practice of law can be demanding, having a 'whole life' mindset might help provide some perspective.

Take Control of Your Career. Don't just sit back and let things happen to you. Form a plan, or at least a direction, or else projects will simply come and go and the years will fly by before you've formed a game plan for your career. Take the initiative; be assertive.

Ask for Feedback. Ask your superiors how you are doing and in what ways you can improve your performance and work product. One panelist mentioned that many years ago as a new attorney she requested monthly lunches with her supervising partner for the purpose of assessing her work performance. She found the feedback to be immensely helpful and she continues the monthly lunches to this day.

Don't Burn Any Bridges. This should be self-explanatory. Treat everyone you meet with the level of respect and professionalism you would want in return. This includes the obvious judges and other attorneys, of course. But law students don't forget - your fellow students will for the most part be practicing in your legal community; they are soon to be your colleagues. Respect is key in all interactions. You never know when that person you ticked off in law school will one day be across the courtroom from you or in charge of hiring at the firm to which you wish to transfer. This advice applies to all public interactions, as well. One panelist told of cutting someone off in traffic only to learn later that day it was one of the partners at her new firm.

Don't Take Things Personally. This corresponds to treating everyone with respect. Panelists agreed that they often see attorneys become personally angered or offended by the outcomes of the legal battles they wage. Remember that opposing counsel is just zealously advocating for her client, as are you. Be professional.

Put Family First. Kids will only be young once. Make every effort to attend school programs, sports events, etc.... (This advice was offered by one of the judges on the panel and she didn't offer any examples. While it is excellent advice, I tend to think this is easier said than done depending on the demands of your particular job.)

Be Open to Experiences. Both of the judges on the panel indicated that they did not set out intending to become judges. For one of them, who was in private practice, a local judge requested that they fill in as a commissioner during a temporary absence; this was her first exposure to the possibility of becoming a judge. Be open to such unexpected opportunities.

Break Out of Your Shell. Make an intentional effort to make contacts with others in the legal world. Yes, this means attend functions in the legal community and mingle. It also means call colleagues with whom you have not spoken in a while. Stay in touch with your current classmates; you will be referring clients to these future attorneys and hopefully vice versa. Get involved in your community; serve as a role model for citizens in your area.

As seen in the
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