Onward! How Not to Let A Bad Review and An Absent Mentor Stop Your Progress
New York Law Journal Magazine
I am a female mid-level associate at a large law firm and a graduate, Order of the Coif, from a top tier law school where I was on Law Review. I’ve been at this firm since graduation and have always received positive reviews, especially about my diligence and writing skills. I was thus stunned when, during this year’s formal review, I was informed that several partners saw me as lacking in confidence and needing to behave “more professionally.” A woman partner with whom I’ve become close has advised me that negative impressions are impossible to overcome so I’d better start contacting recruiters. Especially given the economy, I’m panicked. Am I really likely to get fired after so much positive feedback about my work product?
Given your academic history and junior associate reviews, it sounds like you don’t have much experience with defeats so I can understand why you’re very shaken. But breathe slowly, stop predicting your ruin and try asking yourself these questions:
If getting fired is the worst case scenario, how likely is this to happen? What’s the best possible case and how probable is that? Now ask yourself what the most likely outcome of your review is and what steps you could take if that occurred. It’s all too easy to assume that the thing we most fear is the most probable conclusion, but that’s rarely the case.
Receiving a message that you’re lacking confidence can easily raise your own concerns about your competence, creating a selffulfilling prophecy; you certainly wouldn’t be the first woman lawyer to experience this. But panic will only reinforce the perception, whether or not it’s correct, and fulfill the prophecy. The problem with trying to prove that you’re confident is that the harder you try, the more self-conscious you become, making the most likely result the opposite of the one you intend.
Try not to let this most recent feedback obscure your memory of all your prior successes; this issue is about managing perceptions. It’s possible that you’ve had your nose so close to the grindstone you forgot to attend to the impact of your behavior on others. Try to learn what you can from your review and use the information to influence how you’re perceived going forward.
Although it’s often the case that early judgments about associates tend to stick, that’s more likely when the problem is seen as a fundamental lack of competence. Partners share their perceptions with one another and the rumors make them less likely to give the associate good assignments, thereby resulting in the absence of an opportunity for the individual to develop, much less demonstrate, her abilities.
In your case, all indications are that your analytical and writing skills are evident and valued. If you’re still being asked by partners to work on their matters it’s doubtful that you’re on your way out the door.
In order to move forward toward success, the first thing you need is more information. Consider who might be able to give you straightforward and concrete feedback about the meaning of “lacking confidence.” Be prudent about whom you ask; don’t discuss this with people likely to see the question as evidence of insecurity. It’s important to maintain a calm stance and simply request some clarification. Don’t bother asking the partners who evaluated you. If they’d felt comfortable talking to you about these issues they would have said something directly to you. Certainly such timely feedback would have been far more useful to you, but this kind of avoidance is all too common among law firm partners. Instead, consider senior people whose judgment and discretion you trust.
Regarding the professionalism issue, start with some self assessment. Do you dress differently from other women at your firm? Are you more emotionally expressive? Every firm has its own culture and if you want to stay you have to fit in. If self-observation doesn’t answer your questions you might ask someone in professional development.
My concern about the advice you received from your senior colleague is that it presumes a catastrophic outcome and has you running scared. Consider how good a source of information she is. Although I’m sure she means to be helpful, you need to discern whether she’s sharing solid insider information, or her advice is more a reflection of her own anxiety.
Finally, use this setback as an opportunity to develop your resilience. People who bounce back from setbacks remain optimistic and focused on their goals. They build a bridge in their minds from where they are to where they want to be. This should remind you that your job is not your career. Keep your sights on your reasons for choosing law as your profession— and never stop developing your network. It is the only assurance of employment security anyone has.
My firm has a formal mentoring program and I have an assigned one but I’m not getting any help. My mentor took me out to lunch during my first month at the firm but we haven’t spoken since. Mentors are supposed to meet at least monthly with mentees but mine travels so much it’s hard for me to imagine getting the help I need from him. I don’t want to be viewed as a “whiner” but how can I get someone to show me the ropes at the firm?
You’re ready to learn the first rule of associate success in a law firm: Take the initiative. You don’t need to leave all of the responsibility for the relationship up to your mentor. Why not ask him how you might work together given his travel schedule? You don’t need to complain at all. Just see if you can negotiate something that works for both of you and, if not, ask him what he advises you to do. Hopefully, if he’s too busy or not interested in mentoring, he’ll encourage you to request a different mentor.
Regardless of his answer, work toward creating your own “personal advisory board.” These days most law firm partners are simply too busy to take on a protégé. You’re likely to be more successful if you consider the things you’d like to learn and identify different individuals to help you in achieving each learning goal.
A mid-level or senior associate should be able to show you the ropes, telling you what it’s like to work for different partners, how to be successful working for them and how to get good assignments.
As you work with different people, consider how they use assignments to help you develop your technical expertise. As you increase your rapport with someone who seems interested in using work assignments developmentally, an informal mentoring relationship is likely to evolve. Make sure you understand what your mentor expects from the relationship and communicate what you’d like to learn. You can’t shy away from asking questions, so make sure to choose someone you feel you can trust. If work/life balance is important to you, keep an eye out for someone who seems to share your values and has been successful. She or he need not work at your firm. You may find your best role model at your bar association.
As your career advances and your needs evolve, consider changes in the composition of your advisory board. For example, you’ll need an advocate to help you advance to partnership and someone to teach you business development. Take the initiative to identify the best advisors for you, negotiate effective relationships with them, and you’re far more likely to succeed in your career.
Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist, consultant and certified coach, is the founder of Lawyers Life Coach, a firm providing executive coaching services to attorneys and consultation to legal employers. She can be reached through http://lawyerslifecoach.com.