[For Women’s History Month, we invited some of our alumni to provide their reflections as guest bloggers of the month. This post is from Lynne M. Halbrooks, L’88.]
In the three decades since I became a Marquette Lawyer, I have had the opportunity to cross paths with dozens of woman lawyers early in their careers. I have mentored, hired, and worked with tremendously talented young women who have had diverse and amazing professional experiences. I watched them struggle, overcome obstacles, and excel in their jobs. The same is true for my law school friends and women I had the privilege to work for over the years. My experiences as a government lawyer, in private practice, and now as in-house counsel have introduced me to women lawyers working in a wide variety of jobs across the legal industry. The following five tips for a rewarding legal career are based on my own experiences and my observations of how successful women lawyers have navigated their careers.
1. Work with people you like. You will spend a lot of hours at work, especially if you’ve chosen a career in private practice. There will be teamwork, meetings, lunches, and maybe even travel and dinners together. It is important that you like your supervisor and your colleagues. There may be one or two jerks around, but you should feel comfortable with the culture of your office and the people you spend most of your time with. You want a supportive work environment where you can grow and where people are invested in each other’s success. This matters even if you’re not working in a traditional office or traditional office hours. Liking your colleagues will make it easier to communicate and collaborate remotely. I once mentored a young woman who teleworked and was convinced a colleague was undermining her with her boss and stealing the best work. Navigating those types of workplace issues is complicated; avoiding them by working with mature professionals would be preferable.
2. Find a mentor. I’m sure there is data (that I won’t cite here) demonstrating the value of a mentor to women lawyers’ career progression. Anecdotally, I am confident that it helps. This doesn’t have to be a formal relationship, although some workplaces will offer a structured program – take advantage of it if they do. I have had several mentors throughout my career, but I never expressly asked anyone, “Will you be my mentor?” Sometimes it just happens. Your mentor doesn’t need to be a woman. There may not yet be enough women in your field to show you the path. Finding a mentor in the workplace may take some time, but professional insights from someone who knows you, your values, and your goals will be invaluable.
3. Do work you enjoy. Even if you graduated law school knowing what type of work you want to do, that could change once you are actually doing it. After I started a litigator’s dream job as an Assistant United States Attorney, I realized I didn’t like being a criminal prosecutor. The heavy responsibility of taking someone’s liberty away weighed on me. I gravitated toward civil fraud enforcement and loved it. Figure out what you like to do and find the opportunity to work with other attorneys who are doing that type of work. Realistically, your first legal job may be more a result of what’s available than a choice to do work you enjoy. Law firms make offers in areas where they need associates, for example, and it may be worth giving something a try. But, the trade-off is likely to be advancement. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re less likely to be great at it or passionate about it, and less likely to advance in your career. My shift in focus to civil cases in the U.S. Attorney’s office led me to develop an expertise that eventually brought me to Washington, D.C., where I continued to enjoy every job that I had at the Department of Justice.
4. Distinguish yourself. Once you figure out what you love, become an expert in that area of the law. Find a way to build your credentials. Write a law review article or participate on a local bar association panel. Similarly, look for the chance to distinguish yourself at your office by asking for opportunities to contribute and learn. Ask to argue the motion you helped draft, attend a hearing, or participate in a client briefing. By volunteering to undertake what may seem like stretch assignments, you will become known as someone who is interested in the work of the office and who is confident in her own ability and expertise.
5. Don’t be afraid to pivot. Even if you try to follow the advice above, you might end up not enjoying your work or not liking your co-workers. As you learn more about the law and yourself, you may wish you’d chosen differently. Circumstances may change; you may need to step back from your legal career at some point or move to a different part of the country. Don’t be afraid to embrace change. If a change you make doesn’t work out, just make another one.
As lawyers, we are trained to give well-reasoned advice to others. Give yourself the benefit of that same wisdom as you embark on an exciting, unpredictable career in the legal profession.