DAYL President’s Page

Young Lawyer, Wash Your Face

November 2018

I’ve never really been one for self-help books or motivational speeches, but I recently read “Girl, Wash Your Face” by Rachel Hollis and I have become obsessed. I now follow her and her husband on social media (@msrachelhollis and @mrdavehollis on Instagram). I read her first novel (she wrote a series of novels before she wrote “Girl, Wash Your Face”) and have the next one in the series waiting on my nightstand. I started listening to the live stream she and her husband do each weekday morning on my drive to work. I even signed up for their Last 90 Days Challenge and committed to wake-up an hour earlier each morning, work out each day for at least 30 minutes, drink half my body weight in ounces of water each day, give up one food that is not allowing me to be my healthiest (goodbye, bread!), and write down 10 things for which I am grateful each day.

At this point, about a month after I finished the book, I am ALL IN!

I love the positive energy she brings to goal setting and making changes in your life. Her book communicates her motivational message by diving into a series of lies she has told herself in life and how she has shifted her thought process on each one to help accomplish her goals. As I have been ruminating on the lessons in the book, I have been thinking about some of the lies I have told myself in my legal career—especially in the earlier years. In no particular order…

1.  You Don’t Know Anything.

 When you are just starting your career as a lawyer, it is so easy to feel lost and led to believe (either by your own inner monologue or because the partner for whom you work keeps telling you so) that you don’t know anything. The reality is—yes, you have a lot to learn. But, if you graduated from law school and passed the bar, you have as much of a right to practice law as the next guy or gal. This is not to say that you are ready to take on complicated cases all by yourself in the early stages of your career or that you won’t need supervision. But, at the same time as you’re admitting humbly that you have a lot to learn, you have to feel confident in the skills that you have developed in law school and thus far as a young lawyer. You may not know everything, but you have the tools to figure anything out.

I cringe when I hear young lawyers say something like “I am only in my third year of practice…,” as if that were an excuse for not getting up to speed on some legal issue or trial skill. In fact, I have seen young lawyers become proficient in trial skills or certain areas of the law by their third year of practice, so limiting your expertise based on your legal youth is useless. You will soon learn, if you haven’t already, that more seasoned lawyers don’t know everything either. The good ones own what they know, understand what they don’t, and they aren’t afraid to ask for help.

2.  You Can’t Be Successful If You Are “Nice.”

Have you been opposite someone who insists on tacking a request for sanctions on every single motion without regard for when the rules say sanctions are appropriate? Have you had an opposing counsel who has repeatedly engaged in long letter writing campaigns to cast aspersions on you (not on the actions your client took or should have taken, not on the arguments you have made, but on you personally)? What about an opponent who raised his or her voice on the phone or in a deposition? Yeah, me too. I’m not sure what those lawyers are hoping to accomplish. For me, anytime I have an opponent like that, it makes me even more focused on the ways in which I can win. Believe me—there is enough to worry about in our profession without giving your opponent extra reasons to stay awake at night thinking about how to beat you.

I absolutely hate the idea that lawyers have to always be overly aggressive or hateful to succeed in this profession. I firmly believe in the need for maintaining civility and I believe I can balance my desire to be civil with my desire to zealously advocate for my clients. I believe it is possible to use your arguments and procedural skill to defeat your opponent without stooping to yelling, name-calling, or worse.

Please do not take this to mean that I’m recommending that you become a pushover. I absolutely believe there is a time to be an aggressive lawyer—I just don’t think you have to live in that place every moment of your practice.

 3.  You Are Too Young to Bring in Business.

 You are never too young to start building relationships that may ultimately lead to business, and while we don’t always know who will be in a position to send us business, you should be consciously working a business development plan from the very start of your legal career.  Waiting is dangerous. Developing business takes time, so theoretically, the longer you wait, the longer it will take you to start seeing your relationships result in legal work. You cannot afford to wait to focus on business development until you are up for partner because by then it will be too late.

I also firmly believe in allowing young lawyers opportunities to bring small matters in. Doing so allows the young lawyer to get experience running conflicts, drafting an engagement letter, reviewing a bill, managing a client, and other skills related to the business of law. Take advantage of these opportunities, if you can.

If you are the reason a matter came in, you need to fight to make sure you get credit (no matter how young you are in your career). I am not necessarily talking about tangible, immediate financial credit. But you should get some kind of credit. It is difficult to envision in your first couple of years of practice, but at some point if you practice in a  law firm setting, someone in your firm will be evaluating you to determine whether you should be elevated to partner. And you want to be able to show that you have consistently brought business to your law firm. Categorically, men do a better job of this than women do. Women need to take notes from the men on this one and stop being afraid to ask for credit, especially when you know the matter would not have come to the firm but for you.

4.  You Can’t Have It All.

This one has been rolling around in my mind ever since we found out we were expecting our first child in early 2016. The number one thing people have said to me in conversation this year is—“I don’t know how you do it all.” I never quite know how to respond to that because I think it assumes facts not in evidence (for example, that I don’t have a large pile of laundry waiting for me at home). So much has been written on this topic by lawyers and non-lawyers and I believe it is because most women (and men, perhaps to a lesser degree) constantly struggle with this idea of having it all. And, while I don’t profess to have this one figured out, I do have some thoughts that have helped me so far in my journey as a working mom.

When I first returned to work after maternity leave, I was discussing how guilty I felt about leaving my son each day to go to work with a female partner at my firm. I always love her succinct and straight-to-the-point advice, but sometimes it takes a few days for her words to fully sink in. In this instance, she said simply “guilt is a useless emotion.” Talk about powerful. For me, as I have let those words sink in during the past two years that my husband and I have been on this parenting experiment, they have only become more meaningful. And I have tried to let those words guide our family this year as we have continued to develop our work-life integration (not “balance,” as Judge Tonya Parker taught us during her Continuing the Conversation Interview earlier this year, because there is no such thing as work-life balance).

It is absolutely impossible to have everything all at once. I repeat—it is absolutely impossible to have everything all at once. You cannot be the PTA mom who brings homemade cookies and volunteers at your kiddo’s holiday party at the very same time that you are in court trying a case; you just can’t. But, based on my limited experience, I think it is possible to have everything (do great legal work, show up for your kiddo at a school event, have a date night, volunteer with a bar organization, and so on) over the course of a week or a month. I also think it is good for our children to not just look to one person to have their needs met. For example, during this year as DAYL President, there have been many nights when I have had events and have missed my son’s bedtime. As much as it killed me to miss reading to him and snuggling with him on those nights, I love that it gave my son and my husband some time to connect. And just because I missed one or two nights that week, it didn’t mean that my son suddenly didn’t recognize my face or that he only wanted his Dada at bedtime—he still reaches for me when it’s time to go to bed and he still hums along with me when I sing “The Eyes of Texas” to him as we rock.

Our work-life integration has not been easy this year, but I think I have gotten through it by understanding that I don’t have to be all things to all people simultaneously.

I’m not sure if these are the same lies you’re telling yourself at this point in your legal career. If they are, I hope my musings have been helpful. Regardless, I encourage you to think about the lies you’re telling yourself and how they might be standing in your way.

Good, Better, Best,
Jennifer Ryback