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Helpful vs. Unhelpful Advice for New Lawyers

Someone, generally a young lawyer looking for advice, raises a totally reasonable and valid concern - say, for example, that law firms aren't particularly hospitable places to work - and gets this response:

Suck it up. Stop whining. It's your fault if you can't handle the hours/the pressure/the come-on from that inappropriate senior associate. You just need to be more driven, more ambitious, and more resilient, and this won't be a issue. It's your problem, and I don't want to hear about it. (Oh, and by the way, if you quit over this, you're failing women everywhere who don't have your options.)

Helpful, right? Yeah, not so much.

The interesting part is who this stuff is coming from. To put it delicately, it's female lawyers, generally current or former BigLaw partners, of a "certain age," who are ostensibly trying to be helpful and supportive to younger women.

So, taking that at face value, I want to talk about exactly why this approach is wildly unhelpful and offer a few suggestions that might facilitate a more productive dialogue.

Why "Get Over It" Isn't Helpful Advice

Think of the last time you were afraid to do something. I mean really afraid, not slightly nervous.

For me, it was a ski trip a few months ago, where I found myself on the side of a steep hillside, halfway down, with no prospect of going any further without making a turn. (I was literally staring into a crevasse, so I didn't have any good options.)

Now, I don't generally ski. (I snowboard.) I was way beyond my ability level, and I had absolutely no business being on this run. So I was pretty freaked out.

As I'm standing there surveying my options - which basically came down to "make a turn or wait for the ski patrol to notice you're stuck when the lifts close in five hours" - my friend who's with me (who happens to be an excellent skier) starts yelling:

"What's taking so long? Just make a turn! Just do it! Come on! It's easy, I did it." My reaction: "F**k you. Leave me alone. This is totally unhelpful, and I don't want to hear another word from you."

Given that I'm here to tell you this story, obviously I got down the mountain. How? I thought back to the instructions I'd been given by my helpful and patient ski instructor a few weeks earlier.

"Skiing isn't that hard," he said, "you just look where you want to go. Your skis turn themselves, and you end up where you're looking."

So, after making sure my friend was nowhere in sight, I psyched myself up, and I did it. I looked down the hill where I wanted to end up and - sure enough - my skis started sliding in that direction. (Of course, I flipped out as soon as I picked up speed and crashed in a heap at the end of the turn, but it didn't matter. I made the turn!)

What's the moral of this story? Just telling someone to suck it up and get on with things isn't effective. No one likes to be belittled, or to be told that they're incompetent for not being able to handle a challenging situation. What does work is providing actionable suggestions, and breaking the problem down into manageable chunks. You know, being supportive instead of domineering.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I really do think most of this Type means well. They've got a ton of life experience, and they worked hard (and suffered innumerable indignities) to get where they are.

So what would be helpful?

  1. Acknowledge the problem. At its root, a lot of this behavior seems to be about avoiding having to acknowledge real and serious problems in the legal profession. If the solution is "Just suck it up and be more ambitious," it's easy to ignore the fact that law firms are terrible at managing talent, for example. (Hey, even the Harvard Business Review agrees.) So step one is simply saying, "Yes, I understand your concerns. Let's talk about them."
  2. Make a genuine attempt to relate. Of course this won't be possible in all cases, but if you've had a 30+ year career, chances are good you've faced a similar set of problems at some point. Share that story: "You know, this reminds me of a time when I was a young lawyer. Here's what happened..." Keep in mind that you're trying to relate, which requires a bit of humility. The story you opt to share will be more effective if it was a situation where you were genuinely uncertain about what to do. And it goes without saying that it shouldn't be self-aggrandizing!
  3. Offer practical, actionable solutions. The reason my ski instructor's advice was so useful was because it was easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to put into practice. He didn't just say "Skiing is easy." He explained why it's not that hard, in a way I could understand. So, if someone asks you, "What can I do about a client who thinks I'm coming onto him when I ask him to go a baseball game?" answering "Just make sure he doesn't think that" isn't useful. Instead, offer some possible solutions: "Have you considered asking other associates to come along? What if your secretary reaches out to his secretary? Could you invite his kids to come, too?" Now we're getting somewhere.
  4. Evaluate your own choices, and share what you've learned. The most compelling advice is often the hardest won. Lawyers are so afraid of showing any weakness or vulnerability that they'll go to great lengths to avoid admitting mistakes. But saying, "In the situation I described earlier, I tried [whatever], and it wasn't as successful as I'd hoped. Here's why," is far more effective, ultimately, than saying, "Oh, you should definitely do this. It's guaranteed to work." Really? Promise? Somehow I have my doubts.

There you have it, in a nutshell. If you really want to help the next generation of female lawyers, stop telling them they're the problem. Then maybe we can all work together on some solutions.

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. A 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School, she was a member of the Columbia Law Review, a Civ Pro Teaching Assistant, a Kent Scholar, and a Stone Scholar. After law school, she clerked in the District of Massachusetts and was a BigLaw patent litigator for two years. Now she helps other aspiring lawyers get into law school, get through, and stay true to themselves in the process. 

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