I recently came across an essay written by a young lawyer, or “baby lawyer,” as they are called by more experienced lawyers, that reflected on the themes of diversity, inclusion, and finding your way in your new profession. It got me thinking about the advice that I would give to a young professional who is just getting started in their career. The essay, copied below, is entitled “Ain’t I a Lawyer.” The title is a play on the famous speech – Ain’t I a Woman – delivered by Sojourner Truth during the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, OH.
The Essay: In Her Own Words
“My dream of practicing law was like many other young lawyers’ dreams. I was eager to learn and grow as an attorney, be accepted and recognized for my work, and become very successful. I looked forward to the camaraderie that would result from being a part of this profession. After law school, I plunged headlong into my dream at a firm that, I would later learn, had not experienced the likes of me in its 100-year history.
Shortly after I started at the firm, a partner invited me to lunch. During lunch, the partner said, “How does it feel to be a trailblazer?” I thought I knew what he was talking about, but just to be sure, I asked, “A trailblazer?” He then said, “Yes. How does it feel to be the first African-American attorney to work at the firm?”
I did not know how to respond, so my only response was a nervous chuckle. At that very moment, I felt the great weight of peoples’ expectations, which had always been like my shadow, grow exponentially. It was hard for me to fathom that I was the “first” since it was 2002, not 1902 or 1952.
Not to dwell on a seemingly adverse situation, I set out to do the best that I could as a new lawyer at the firm. I was always searching for guidance, acceptance, and acknowledgment of my worth as an attorney. Yet, I encountered reluctance, distrust in my abilities, and a surface-level understanding of me as a person. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, and misperceptions punctuated my tenure at the firm.
However, the most complex and most surprising departure from my dream was the isolation that I experienced—an isolation occasionally so intense that it threatened to overwhelm me. This type of isolation occurs when you are repeatedly asked the same questions by the same attorneys countless times. “Where did you go to school?” “Where did you grow up?” “How do you do your hair like that?”
They aren’t asking because they care, but they do not care enough to remember the first ten times you told them. The type of isolation that occurs when you cannot participate in conversations because the small patch of common ground that you share with others is already overfilled. The kind of isolation that happens when you are the only “one at every function you attend.”
At my new firm, where I am not the only one, but instead one of two, you would think my situation had improved. Yet, sometimes I wonder.
Have things really improved when there are attorneys who will not even acknowledge my presence or deign to give me the most minimal of greetings when they pass me in the hall? Ain’t I a lawyer?
I passed my state’s bar exam and am currently in good standing. Ain’t I a lawyer?
I put in more than the requisite number of billable hours. Ain’t I a lawyer?
In addition to those billable hours, I volunteer in the community out of my own sense of community responsibility and benefit the firm. Ain’t I a lawyer?
I come in early, skip lunch, leave late and work on weekends. Ain’t I a lawyer?” That was the end of the essay.
Social Injustices With No Justification – We’ve All Experienced It
It is my understanding that as a result of this essay, the baby lawyer was criticized, ostracized, and subjected to punishment by some of the lawyers in her firm for expressing these feelings and trying to make sense of the profession upon which she was embarking.
As a mid-career diversity and inclusion practitioner, here are five pieces of advice that I would have given to her at that time or would provide to any other young professional, particularly young professionals of color, who may be feeling this way.
1) It’s usually not you; it’s them. When you have no ill intent in your actions and someone starts coming at you with negativity and telling you how you have wronged them, they are likely projecting their negative vibes and intentions upon you. If there was a genuine misunderstanding and you truly hurt someone’s feelings or offended them, then, by all means, apologize posthaste. However, examine the situation closely and make sure that that is what is going on. People will have you apologizing and feeling bad for all kinds of perceived slights that you shouldn’t even have to apologize for.
2) Find good mentors and allies and find them fast. There is nothing like having a work situation arise that you may not know how to handle and having no one to talk to about it. You end up deciding on how to proceed without the benefit of different, often more experienced, perspectives. A mentor is someone that will share their time with you and give you sage advice. You don’t have to ask someone, “Will you be my mentor formally?” Just ask someone to coffee or ask them if you can have 15 minutes on their calendar to talk to them. Ask them what they do and how they handle certain situations. Do this repeatedly with the same person or people, and before you know it, you will be on your way to forming a mentor-mentee relationship. Find mentors of color and those who are not because the more varied your network, the richer the experiences, and the better overall advice you will receive.
3) Build and cultivate a deep and vast network. In addition to mentors, get out and meet other folks from many different backgrounds, professionally and personally. Even in this socially connected world, real (face-to-face) relationships matter. Don’t just meet them once and be done. Try to stay in touch with them as well. Drop them a note checking in on them periodically—volunteer with them on boards and committees. Have many breakfasts, lunches, brunches, and happy hours with this network, because you see, there will inevitably come a time when they will be able to help you out, or even better, you will be able to help them.
4) Despite what anyone says or thinks, you belong right where you are. Wherever you may be on your career journey, you are there for a reason. Even when you are in the valley (unemployment, demanding boss, etc.) and things don’t seem like they will ever get better, you are there for a reason (maybe it is to learn patience, humility, or to meet certain people, etc.). When you get promoted or have a career win, and some people are hating on you (and there will be haters!), you are there for a reason, one of which is to shine and absolutely accomplish what you are more than capable of accomplishing.
5) Everything is going to be alright. You will look back on certain situations that seemed extremely difficult and challenging at the time and likely laugh or at least smile. The craziest of bosses won’t be your boss forever, and neither will the most simple-acting of co-workers. If you can remember this, you will make it through. Because when it’s all said and done, everything is going to be alright.
I wish that when I wrote the “Ain’t I a Lawyer” essay, someone would have pulled me aside and given me some of this advice. It would have allowed me to know sooner rather than later that “this too shall pass.” It would have shortened some of the years of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. It would have given me more courage and a voice instead of having me engage in self-censure and self-silence for far too many years. However, I ultimately grew from this experience, and despite the journey being a little bumpy, I am better for it, and you will be too.
This article has been reprinted with permission from Sheri Crosby Wheeler’s LinkedIn page.