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I have been dying to weigh in on the historic campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but until now I have stayed out of the fray. But now that this Blog has changed direction, I feel as though the time is right to comment. No doubt both of these campaigns are historically important, but as a woman of color I find Barack Obama's campaign very intriguing not because of the historical significance of electing a black president. I find it interesting because of what it says about the political maturation of the black electorate.
My husband and I were having lunch in a local restaurant today and an older gentleman struck up a conversation with us. He started to tell us how the hospital where his mother worked for more than 30 years used to have a separate door for him and all other blacks marked "colored." That of course, is not shocking. This is Birmingham Alabama. What was intriguing to me was what he said after that. He said that if you had ever before told him that a black man who was not "from the hood" and not a member of the clergy would be a serious candidate for President of the United States who would never have believed it.
His words made me think that perhaps the reason he is a serious candidate is because he is not from the hood and not a member of the clergy. Simply put, Barack Obama is indicative of a new class of blacks who are redefining how they will interact with the larger society. Until now, the old guard of black leadership consisted largely of members of the clergy and some politicians who used the rhetoric of the church to dictate policy to the mass black electorate. As the civil rights era ended and blacks began to leave the vestiges of Jim Crow behind, this old paradigm began to shift and with it the role of the old guard is becoming less prominent.
In response to the shift many of the old guard took the position that those who did not come from that tradition were not black enough or had forgotten where they had come from. The old guard perpetuated the stereotype of black voters as a monolith who would tow the party line if a politician came to the black church and said that they felt the pain of the black masses because it perpetuated their power and access to the people who were really in power. But with Barack Obama, the old guard has been upended by their own failure to believe in his potential to shift the paradigm of racial politics. As a result, now we are seeing a schism between the so-called leadership and the masses they purport to speak for. Who knows how it will all shake out but these are very interesting days indeed.
It has been a while since I have posted on this Blawg. While I have not been posting lately, I assure you that a lot has been going on. I relaunched my static website at www.thefonteneaufirm.com . I also launched Alablawg which will focus on issues of Alabama law. With that change, I have decided to change the direction of this blawg just a bit to focus more on diversity, current affairs and other issues that interest me. I think dividing the two will allow me to address more of the topics that are of interest to me with a minimum of "scope creep" I hope you will enjoy the new focus.
My good friend Susan Cartier Liebel is hosting blawg review this Monday and she sent out a request that several bloggers post their advice to those who are new to the profession. So here is my take on the things every new lawyer needs to know.
Dear New Lawyer,
Welcome to the practice of law. The journey you have just begun is one of the most challenging you will ever undertake. However there are great rewards along the journey. Hopefully, law school taught you how to think like a lawyer. Now you will learn how to act like a lawyer. As a third year lawyer, I am not so far removed from where you sit that I do not understand what you are going through, so I will attempt to share with you a few lessons I've learned along the way.
1.Big law has its place, but it may not be the place for you.
I still remember feeling nearly worthless when October of my third year came around and no big firm had offered me a position. For three years l had focused so heavily on getting a job in big law that I allowed that to be the barometer of my worth. I never really thought critically about whether I really wanted the big law lifestyle. When I finally got the job I thought I wanted, I felt as though my existence had been validated. I was wrong; and what followed was the worst career experience of my life. I learned a great deal at the firm, but it simply was not a good fit for me. If you find you feel the same, do not hesitate to change your path.
2.Go to court and watch, listen and learn.
Make time to go to court and learn by watching what others do. You can learn so much by seeing how the process works. By watching you will learn how the good attorneys conduct themselves and how the court system works. You will also meet the judges and begin to form relationships that will help you when you do have cases set in court. Do it.
3.Read the rules, research the law and don’t assume that more experienced lawyers are correct.
One of the most important things you can learn as a young lawyer is that the experienced lawyer does not always win. A few months ago opposing counsel in a federal court case filed a motion to dismiss against my client. When I first read the motion I thought all was lost. It was well written. It cited to cases and I immediately thought that not only was the court going to grant the motion, the client was going to sue me for malpractice. Although I thought about just handing the deed to my house over to my client, I knew I had to respond to the motion even if it was a loser. So I started to dissect the brief. There were three issues largely rooted in confusing bankruptcy law. I pulled up the citations in the brief and realized that opposing counsel had misread the law completely on all three issues. I drafted my response, filed it and low and behold, the Court ruled in my favor.
4.Look and act like a lawyer at all times.
I am not telling you to go to the gym in a suit. What I am telling you is that as a lawyer you are held to a higher standard. What’s more, your image is a big part of your brand. Never forget that. You never know where you will meet your next client or who is watching you. It should go without saying but particularly when you are in the courthouse, be well dressed even if you do not think you will be encountering a judge. For attorneys of color and women it is particularly important to be mindful of this advice even if other lawyers take a dressed down approach.
5.Exude confidence around your clients, the court and other lawyers.
There is a difference between confidence and being pompous. Know the line between the two and never cross it. Understand that you have a place at the table no matter how new you are or what your background. Even if you are not actually confident in what you know, being confident in your demeanor will go a long way.
6.Only associate with reputable attorneys.
This was my first hard lesson. It is hard to know which attorneys to stay away from as a new lawyer. Never link yourself publicly with a lawyer who has a checkered past. Be particularly careful of attorneys who suggest that you bend ethical rules or laws. If you hear a lawyer saying “I know what the ethics rules say, but this is how it really works.” Proceed with caution. No. Run the other way.
7.Ask questions when you do not know.
No one will fault you for being a young lawyer. Everyone will fault you for being an arrogant, new lawyer who thinks that they know everything. Ask the stupid questions and don’t be afraid to admit you do not know. This advice is particularly helpful when dealing with court clerks, secretaries and paralegals, but will also gain you the respect of your clients and other lawyers.
8.Believe you can do it.
I know it seems like everybody else has some secret book with the answer key and you don’t. It may also seem like there is a great deal riding on your performance. You are right about that. Sometimes you may be so overwhelmed that it may seem like you are trying to drink from a fire hose. But the reality is that everyone in the room started out just as clueless as you did. Some of the people who have been practicing for years are still just as clueless as you are. Give yourself a break and understand that if you are a good lawyer you will probably learn something new every day for the rest of your career.
Carmen Van Kerckhove over at New Demogrphic posted a great post on her Race in the Workplace Blog a while back. In her post, she explains that fear of being branded a racist causes people to say that they do not see the most obvious of physical features. She says:
Noticing a person’s race doesn’t make you racist. What does make you racist is if you make assumptions about that person’s intellectual, physical, or emotional characteristics based on the race you think the person is.
Yes, even if those assumptions you make are positive. Ideas about “strong black women” or “smart Asians” are still racist because they reduce human beings to two-dimensional caricatures and assume that race predetermines intellectual, physical, and emotional traits.
She is right, It is time for our society to begin to get comfortable acknowledging differences rather than marginalizing those who are not members of the majority.
A few weeks ago I posted about some of the reasons female minority lawyers are dissatisfied with the law firm environment. Well yesterday, I was watching Saturday Night Live's annual commercial show and this sketch, while funny hit on some salient issues.
One of the things that made me most proud of my grandmother was that she did not have believe that there were any limitations on what she was able to do with her life. Growing up in the early 20th Century, it would have been easy to accept that her life was somehow limited by her skin color. But she understood what all successful women should, your potential is only limited by your desire and willingness to work towards your dream. Billie was never afraid to dream or to work towards making dreams reality. It was that spirit that led her to leave home and pursue a career in dance and later to become an entrepreneur. Billy had an internal drive that pushed her to achieve, others need a little help from others.
I can remember when I was think about going to law school. I had gone to a career counselor because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The first time I went to see the counselor she asked me what I wanted to do when I was a child. I told her that when I was a little girl I wanted to be a lawyer or a journalist. In college I focused on journalism, but discarded the idea when I realized the starting pay for a young journalist was very low. But somehow, I never got back around to the law. After graduation I took a job at a bank and began to work like many people do. After a couple of years, I realized that I was not going to be happy at the bank for the rest of my life but I could not visualize any other path. I found myself settling for the opportunities my superiors saw as good for me rather than pursuing the options that were interesting to me.
During my conversations with the career counselor, law school kept coming up. I had so many reasons why I could not do it, I would not do well on the LSAT, I could not afford to quit my job and the excuses went on and on. Finally, one day I went by the law school and I stood staring at a rack of LSAT registration booklets. As I stood there, paralyzed, a woman walked by and said, "Are you thinking of going to law school?, you should go." I was stunned and I told her I did not think I could afford it, that I had waited too long since undergrad and that I would not be able to quit my job. She looked at me and told me that she was 36 years old she had a 12 year old daughter and she was a full time law student. She assured me that I was making excuses because if she could do it I could do it. I picked up the book, but in the back of my mind I still did not believe that I could do it.
Well the woman was right, I could do it and by the next August I was a law student. I did it by setting incremental goals. Each time I would achieve a goal I would set another one until there was nothing else to do but go to school. The key thing is that each time I achieve a goal, I get a little more confident. Billie never doubted that she could make her dreams come true, she just took incremental steps toward making the dream a reality. It just goes to show that once you begin to change your thought process there are no insurmountable obstacles, only challenges that need to be methodically attacked.
A couple of weeks ago 60 minutes ran a story on the impact of younger workers in the workplace. The piece noted that younger workers have different expectations concerning their careers than older workers. According to the story, gone are the days of working your way up through the ranks. Younger workers are demanding changes in the terms of their employment and are less likely to remain loyal to an employer who does not grant them their requests.
While the story did accurately depict a change in attitudes among younger workers, it was off-base with regard to the causes. The piece pointed to baby-boomer parenting tactics that encouraged self worth over hard work and results driven praise as the cause of changes in the attitudes of younger workers . What the piece did not address was what role changes in employer behavior played in the change. Over the past two decades, younger workers have watched as their parents were laid off or had their salaries cut at the whim of their employers. This corporate behavior sent a powerful message to the children of the workers that there is no such thing as job security in today's workplace.
Simply put, the change in behavior is probably due at least in part to a recognition of the fact that the employer is going to make choices based on the bottom line. If the employer can and will make decisions without regard to the impact on individual employees,isn't it rational for the employee to demand all it can and vote with their feet if the company does not oblige?
On Tuesday, NPR reported on a Pew Research Center/NPR poll that indicates that the end may in fact, be near. The study, that looked at perceptions of issues of race among Blacks, Whites and Hispanics found that some 37% of the Blacks who responded indicated that Blacks could no longer be seen as one "race." We have talked before about how there is no such thing as physical race, but this poll is important because it talked about whether there is still a social race that predominates among people who share similar phenotypic traits.
We may indeed be at a tipping point in which values are more associated with class status than with traditional notions of race. This is important because the NPR story that analyzed the survey indicated that white and black values are in fact, becoming more similar as the gulf between lower-class blacks and middle to upper-class blacks grows. The gulf may be widening as people of higher socio-economic classes begin to try to shed the stereotypical images that seem to predominate the media's airwaves. Or perhaps the Gulf is a result of the simple economic truth that education and access to money have a profound effect on an individual's values.
For those of us interested in issues of diversity it means that perhaps it is time to re-examine the assumptions we make about race. Instead, maybe t is time for us all to take a long hard look at the class issues that are at the heart of the problems we all face.
I ran across this Law.com article this morning that reports a study of job satisfaction among mid-level associates. The article explained that a study of mid-level associates at law firms indicated that minority women were less satisfied with their firms than white men and men of color and were less likely to see a future with their current firms.
Frankly, as a firm dropout, this study did not surprise me at all. Earlier this year the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession published its own study that came to largely the same conclusions. From my perspective, the problems stem from partners' and coworkers' inability to see people as the individuals they are, rather than stereotype based on physical characteristics. For a woman of color, this inability can result in a double set of stereotypes that are hard to live down.
It is normal to notice the differences among us as long as we are sure we are noticing real differences and not presumptions based on misinformation and outmoded prejudices. If firms want to increase the feeling of inclusion among their associates, they have to understand that diversity is about nuance and balance and actions speak louder than words. It is simply not enough to publish policy statements about valuing diversity and recruit at minority job fairs. Firms have to think about what they will do with the candidates once they become employees. That means changing the firm's culture if necessary and confronting partners who refuse to get with the program. If your firm is having a hard time retaining double minority employees, perhaps the firm needs to take a look at whether there are institutional barriers to success that linger rather than writing it off as just another bad hire.