Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Daily Tip

For my law students, during every class we meet, I give them a "real world" tip for surviving in a law firm. I have no idea if they are even helpful tips or if they will be dated and quaint by the time they graduate in 3 years, but I do it anyway, because it's good for my soul to share what I have learned.

Initially, each tip I shared was about the mechanics of surviving at a big law firm. I imparted such gems as 1) never give an original document to someone senior to you; give senior people copies of originals and give the actual original to your paralegal. I based this tip on my personal experience that the more senior someone is in the law firm, the LESS likely (exponentially so) he or she is to keep track of "very important" documents, such as, say, a signed contract or an original deed. Do I really need to explain why that could be disasterous for a lawsuit? By the same token, the paralegals I worked with were well trained on this same theory, so they knew not to give me (or any other attorney) an original unless we had a really good reason as to why we needed it. I never got any originals from a paralegal; I am led to believe that I would have had to explain that Justice Souter wanted it for my oral argument in D.C. if I wanted an original.

I also told my law students to get to know their professors. Any of them. Why? Because inevitably somewhere down the road law students (or former law students) need reference letters and or recommendations from law professors. While they may be bogged down in final exam preparation or making outlines, they should be warned that they will be very sad if they miss this chance to get to know professors who will be the only ones who can help them get judicial clerkships, fellowships or scholarships down the road.

On and on, I have regaled them with advice and little mini-war stories (don't save your angsty love letters on the firm computer system AND do not close the door and throw your stapler when you are angry if your next door neighbor is a psychopath who hates other women). But, there is one thing I want to tell the 5 women in my class that I haven't found the words for. (I actually don't know if I am allowed to give advice just to the women of the class, but I am DYING to give them a semi-precious gem).

Here's what I want to tell my female students:

Look. I know you may not like volunteering to talk in my class. You think I can't see you hiding behind your computer screen, staring intently, hoping that I will call on someone else. You know, you are only about 4 feet away from me. You can't really hide. I know you don't want to tell me the facts of the CBS case or explain the reasoning of Tumbarella. I get it. You want to just sit and listen to me and your classmates for 2 hours a week and then go home, write a great paper for me, and earn an A to match all the A's you made when you were in undergrad at UCLA or University of Michigan. I see your body language, and it says to me: "Don't call on me. Don't look at me. Let me just sit here, take my notes and not have to speak. Please. Call on her over there. If we all wait long enough, John will say something because he is in the National Guard and speaking in a law school class is nothing to someone who leads 30 soldiers in his spare time away from Con law."

I know. I was there too.

And, then I found myself at a Big Law firm and on a daily basis my superiors (the partners, the senior associates) were asking me what I thought about our case, or what I thought about the SEC's latest letter to our client, or what the documents suggested about our next strategy. Mr. McPartner looked at me during every team meeting (which, in the heat of an SEC investigation occurred on a thrice weekly basis) and said, "Christie, what do you think?" There was no hiding. I couldn't possibly hid behind my computer screen, especially since my computer was in my office, which was down the hall from McPartner's office.

I had to think and then I had to speak. I had to tell him and my team what I had found in the documents I was reviewing. For 18 months, three times per week I would sit in a room with McPartner (male) and 5 other male associates and 1 other senior female counsel member and use my voice to explain to them all 1) what I had been doing, 2) what I was seeing, 3) how 1 and 2 fit in with our overall case strategy and 4) what I thought the SEC's next move would be.

No one else could speak up for me because no one else was doing what I was doing. No one cared that I was scared of speaking up or that I felt unprepared because I didn't know I would be on the spot. By month 3, there is no way I could pretend that McPartner surprised me when he put me on the spot by asking for an update from me.

I wished that I had taken the very cushy 3 years in law school to practice speaking up and talking about my ideas and legal theories in front of my peers. I want to tell my students that if you are too scared (or bored or lazy or indifferent) to speak up during your 2-credit writing class, then you better find a way to get over it before you practice because people paying your salary 3 years from now won't care if they are boring you or keeping you from your riveting Angry Birds game (is Angry Birds a game? I have no idea. whatever it is, I suspect some of my students do it during my insightful lectures) or your IM session with your long distance boyfriend who is studying public policy in Boston.

Here's the real dirty secret: If you don't speak up, someone else will. It will probably be a man. There's lots of research out there about gender and class participation. Let's just talk about this little corner of the legal landscape. The men talk about 10 times more than the women in this class. Guess who my best writers are? Yep. The women. My top 4 writers are women. My 2 worst writers are men. By far. This is including the young man for whom English is not a first language.

There are only 10 people in my class.

The men aren't talking because they know more about writing. Because, after grading 5 papers, I can tell you that they categorically do not know more about legal writing. They also are not talking because they are kissing up to me, because class participation is not part of the grade. Now, granted, I am a very hot teacher, but that hasn't provided an incentive for the men to write better papers, so I can't conclude that winning my affections motivates class participation.
I can't say exactly whey they talk so much more than you women do. I assume there is a cultural expectation or social pressure or plain old habit that contributes to the dynamic. The reasons why are not as important to me as how simple it is to alter this reality.

Ladies, you need to start talking. You need to practice speaking authoritatively, even if you think you haven't prepared enough. Listen, it hasn't stopped the men. They speak even when they are not prepared. I can tell. Can't you? Stop waiting to be perfect to open your mouth. Stop expecting the fear to go away before you can speak. Build that muscle. Jump to the edge of the limb and see what happens. I know there are invisible, potent forces that make it seem impossible to open your mouth and contribute to the discussion. Guess what? Too bad. Talk anyway.

I am coming for you. Next semester I am going to call on you one by one, over and over again, because now I am mother and I can't inflict things on you in the name of "your own good." I am going to get you talking even if it's to say, "I don't know." That's better than hiding behind your stupid laptop or staring at your Tory Burch sandals. Yes, they are cute, but look at them on the train home, not during my class.

Don't miss this chance because the stakes get higher from here.

1 comment:

  1. I think you have the words, right here. I BEG you to tell them, I implore you, I insist!!!

    I don't know whether you are allowed to do it, but do they come to office hours? Hand them a copy of this.

    Srsly. This is the awesomest.