Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Dear Katie column / Life / Student life

Dear Katie column – How can I stay optimistic about a career in the law?

“How can I stay positive and optimistic about a career in the law, in the face of all the bad news stories that are popping up at the moment? There have now been a number of articles written by women who used to work in senior positions within the law, but who have jumped ship. The authors are angry, disappointed, and some even apologetic. I’m frustrated because I feel like I’ve finally found a field where I could thrive and would love to work, and yet the prevailing messages at the moment are that it will most definitely not love me back. If the system is to change, we surely need to keep encouraging young women to strive for success in the law (alongside changing male attitudes), yet these articles / reports / stories have me genuinely doubting my career choice. How can I be courageous and continue on this path?

Would much appreciate some advice.”

 

Sylvia, 22 y/o Law Student

 

 

Oh my gosh, please please please continue to pursue law.

I feel so sad that these articles would have this impact, but of course it makes sense. The thing is, few people who really love working in the law write articles about it. They’re too busy enjoying their lawyer work and doing high kicks. I try to coax them onto the podcast to enthuse, but I know the majority of coverage of what it is like to be a lawyer these days must give you pause.

The funny thing is, the fact that so many articles are getting written about how bad things are is evidence that things are already better. Looking directly at the problem might feel worse than not knowing the problem is there, but in fact the problem is doing its work either way. At least once we are looking it directly in its gnarly eyes we have a chance of dealing with it.

Let me illustrate the change briefly. When I was coming up through law school and early practice I was expressly told that women were equal now so we could all stop talking about it. Any discussion of one’s experience in law (or the world) began with a lengthy and desperate attempt to get your male listeners to believe that there was a problem, and most didn’t. Cut forward eight years to an article I wrote that reached the managing partners of a large firm, and I get a call from the male CEO asking what he should do about the issues I raised.

It’s not a comprehensive shift, and this change will be slow, non-linear and imperfect. That is the nature of change in a complex system, absent revolution. But it is happening, and the continual infusion of cool new graduate women lawyers (and leaders) like you speed things up, especially since the profession now knows it has a problem. We need you. We need you not to be discouraged from starting your career in law, and we need you to find your fit here. We need all women and minorities inclined to do law, but we especially need the ones who believe law might be their path.

Remember, we talk about “law” as if it is one thing. But of course it is not. You question whether the law will love you back, and the truth is that there are probably big bits of it that won’t. We are early in this moment of reckoning and change, and there will be backlash and hold outs and other gross things that get in the way of improvement. But there are undoubtedly also bits that will love you back.

I know that because I enjoyed a lot of being a lawyer, and I was someone who “somehow ended up a lawyer”, rather than someone who searched herself and found that law was the path that felt good to her. It turned out that law was a bad fit for me long term, but while I was in it the things I enjoyed included a sense of belonging, a sense of status, a constant stream of intellectual puzzles that engaged me, working alongside some wonderful people who remain strong friends, learning the skills of advocacy and being mentored in them by great advocates, feeling my competence grow and with it my confidence. Later, when I was working one on one with clients, I enjoyed feeling that my particular brand of lawyering helped soothe the distress and confusion of the lower-income lay people I served. These are big, beautiful, life-giving things that law gave me, some of them from status quo quarters and some from places I forged on my own.

You will of course be aware that there is a lot of variation in cultures within law, and even within firms. I worked in national firms whose cultures do need to improve in some big ways, but they were definitely better than the reputations of other firms in some even bigger ways. Similarly, I have heard tell of innumerable other people who worked in places with much better cultures than the firms I worked in. I will say that in most cases the firms in the latter camp were either led by women or were genuinely trying to improve the diversity of their leadership. They also tended to be smaller firms, often boutique firms run by ex-partners of national firms who wanted to do better than the status quo.

Which brings me back to please please please continue to pursue law. These articles you’re talking about are speaking to a general culture, an average of various cultures the authors have been part of. What is important to me in your question there is your mention of you, Sylvia, believing that law is a field where you will thrive and you want to work, and particularly your use of the word “finally”. That denotes a level of searching and casting about and knowledge about the person you are and the things you want to do. Please trust that. One of the most important factors in navigating a career path is knowing yourself. As in statutory interpretation, so in career design: the specifics (of who you are) trump the general (of what broader legal culture looks like).

Remember, too, that your career doesn’t happen all at once. You make your first choices and you see how those go, and you learn how it felt to be in that place doing that work under those people, and you bring in all that new data to make the next choices, and so on. It is worth having the courage to start, even if you find later that it is not the right long-term choice. You are not beholden to paths, but your best evidence right now is that a legal career path would be the right one to set off on.

As to how to maximise the chance that you will find a place to thrive, let me defer to the methods of the women I know who have succeeded in doing just that.

I have interviewed three young lawyers for the podcast (Anna, Sharon and Alice) who were all smart and capable, but chose their graduate positions on the basis of the individuals they would be working for rather than defaulting to the prestige of big firms.* These women love their work and the people they work with. They have been mentored and challenged and the enthusiasm they brought to the law was rewarded with respect and advancement. Their firms were flexible and did not prize presenteeism. In short, the law loved them back.

The articles you’re talking about may have opened your eyes to some of the darker realities of “law” as a whole. With your eyes so opened you might make different choices about where to place yourself within the behemoth of “law” (an act of leadership in itself). And once you make your choice I hope your eyes will remain open, particularly to things that bother you and things that people tell you not to be bothered by. Change requires ongoing conversation and leadership, and you will be a part of that.

But on my gosh, I am excited and optimistic that you, Sylvia, 22 year old law student, can find your place in it. I am rooting for you so hard.

 

* If you haven’t listened to their episodes before, I encourage you to do so; it is a lovely thing to hear people talk about work they love. (For bonus listening on the topic of lawyers who love their work, try the episodes with Nicola, Lisa Ferriss, and Justice Kós.)

 

 

If you have a query, please email learnlawlife@symphonylaw.co.nz, with your first name (or a pen name) and your age – these details, as well as information provided as part of your query may be published. Submissions will go directly to Katie at Symphony Law, who will review and select queries for future posts. Please keep in mind that unfortunately, Katie cannot answer every question, correspond directly with readers, or give professional advice.

 

Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at thenewlawyer.co.nz. Check out her website for more details at: symphonylaw.co.nz. Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.

 

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