Belief - There is only one right way to be an associate.
Have you ever read you firm’s associate competencies? You know, that list that describes a lawyer that’s a cross between Ruth Bader Ginsburg, WonderWoman and Steve Jobs? Right. Every time I read that list, my mind would go straight to the the words of Elizabeth Bennet, who upon hearing a preposterously long and hyperbolic list describing an “accomplished” woman, simply exclaims “I never saw such a woman.” And truly, have you ever seen such a lawyer? If you, reading this, consistently see yourself reflected in your firm’s description of an "accomplished lawyer” (and you’re happy about it), you should probably stop reading now. I have no wisdom for you. For the rest of you who read those lists and experienced something on a spectrum from mild concern/disdainful eye-roll to full-on panic-induced nausea, you may stay. You are my people.
For most of my legal career, I lived under the shadow of the belief that there was only one right way to be an associate. That “right way” was that I must at all times adhere to long list of performance indicators/qualities, including: always be available, be immediately responsive to requests or questions, manage up seamlessly, be two steps ahead, spot all the issues before they become “issues,” be ahead of the curve on all of your associate competencies, be super detail oriented but never lose sight of the big picture, and always be “busy.” If I “failed” to hit any one of these markers, or simply chose (out of necessity or otherwise) to deviate from them, I felt awful about myself. I thought it meant I wasn’t “doing my best” and that the people around me would be disappointed with me.
If you’re anything like me, something in the pit of your stomach might be squirming right now, wanting to burst out with, “But Jen, that is actually true, not just a “belief”…right?” Yeah, I see you.
So, where did my belief and the substance of my list actually come from? From everyone who had influence over my young career, and no one in particular. From the firm orientation program, from abovethelaw.com, from a senior associate, from a partner, from the competencies list, from my own type-A, law school educated brain. In short, from a context where all indicator lights are flashing “Perform! Perform! Perform! (and btw, that’s how we’ll judge you)” all of the time. Let’s face it, everyone around you at the firm appears to be marching in lock-step with these dictates, and partners are often not exactly shy about reinforcing “expectations.”
But let me be perfectly clear here: my mistake was not that I had high standards, or that I adopted my firm’s high standards. My mistake was believing that those standards were zero-sum, black and white: I either hit all of them, all of the time, and was therefore a “good associate,” or I didn’t and was therefore and doomed to have my portrait hung in the hall of “They That Could not Hack-eth It.”
Tough right? Do you see how this was catastrophizing my every decision as one between “good” and “failure,” leaving me with the perception that I had no choice in the matter? Ok. Whew. Let’s shake it out a little. Let our reptile brains calm down a bit. This is stressful stuff. Deep breath in, loooong breath out. Ok. Better.
A quick reality check: Just because this belief is not true does not mean that it was not temporarily useful or even reasonable. This was how I got it done. It kept me performing and available and managing up, etc. etc. etc., but it was also making me suuuuper miserable. Eventually, being miserable forced me to consider whether I was entirely correct that I could not possibly deviate from my standards without dire consequences - without being a “bad associate.” It forced me to consider changing a way of operating that I’d used protectively for a long period of time.
So, how did I come to learn that this belief was not entirely true? Well, I first had to identify it, and then I had to test it.
It took awhile to actually figure out what the underlying belief was that was driving me crazy. At first it just felt like a tyranny of endless performance demands and I spent long hours fixated on them as the culprits behind my suffering. If only I didn’t have to bill so many hours. If only the partner would respect my boundaries and not email me after 10pm unless its an emergency. If only the client would make more reasonable demands on my time. If only I had some help. Then, I thought, I might actually be able to live up to my own and the firm’s standards. But, slowly, I began to realize that all of these thoughts had a common root, and that root was my own zero-sum, black and white standards and assessments of myself.
Slowly, I also began to test my belief in the real world. I took small, relatively safe behavioral steps that challenged the belief (i.e. I did something differently). For example, I experimented with responding to partner requests differently. I also tried a different approach to after-hours emails. And then I watched what happened.
Right now, you’re probably desperate for me to just tell you what I did differently so that you can go ahead and do it and fix yourself already. But, if fixing this problem is that simple, wouldn’t you have already figured it out? How many people have given you advice about how to be good at this job? Dozens, I’d bet. You don’t really need any more advice like that. If I gave you a prescription here it would just be adding one more item to your “accomplished lawyer” definition - the same one that’s probably already making you miserable.
Ultimately, through this work, I was able to refine and re-define my perspective on what it meant to be doing my job well. And damn, let me just tell you, when I touched into that new perspective, one where I had choice, where there were more options available than the “right one” and total failure, it was fucking liberating.
If you’re interested in getting started on this work for yourself, I’d love to talk to you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the Schedule a Call link to schedule an initial consultation.