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Can Searching for the Rules Steer You Off Course? (February 2007)

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Can Searching for the Rules Steer You Off Course?

Issue # 46
February 2007


When you live in a world of contract law, tort principles and civil procedure, it's easy to expect that there must be a rule for most things in life. Certainly, living can seem simpler when there is a clear-cut "right" and "wrong" to guide you. Ambiguity creates discomfort. Conventions allow us to feel more in control and make the world seem more orderly.

But sometimes our wish to find "the right way" to do something can steer us off course. Often, the women lawyers I coach describe their experience of the legal workplace as akin to having entered a milieu where everyone else knows the rules - and they don't have a clue. Their confusion is more complex than finding out how to get copies made or where the mail room is.

Rather, they have a sense that there are particular ways to successfully negotiate the system and someone forgot to give them the code of conduct. It's an experience most people have when they are members of a minority group trying to navigate through the majority culture.

It reminds me of the first time I attended a Catholic mass. Not having been raised Catholic, I froze when the person next to me tried to steer me toward the priest to receive communion. What should I do? If I "faked" it, wasn't that sacrilegious? On the other hand, trying to sit quietly in my pew made me painfully conspicuous.

But my situation was a short-lived challenge. I wasn't trying to convert - and if I had been, they would have given me a rule book.

In contrast, many women attorneys have to adapt to a culture designed by men. The behavioral norms reflect traditional male mores. There's plenty of lore about those women pioneers who learned to "act like men" in order to gain acceptance and succeed professionally. Many younger women don't view the women who forged the way as models they want to follow.

Consultants vs. Coaches

In an effort to help women advance, many legal workplaces now hire coaches and consultants to assist them in adapting to the culture. But exactly what are women lawyers learning from us?

I became concerned with this when the members of a panel on which I participated asked me if I didn't agree with the "rule" that women lawyers should not be "too nice or empathic." Of course, I knew exactly what they meant - women who come across as warm, sensitive to others' feelings, who manage indirectly rather than by issuing directives, and who often follow their well-informed statements with tag questions like "don't you agree?" do not match the stereotype of a law firm leader. The adjectives that "leader" bring to mind overlap with the male gender stereotype: strong, dominant, competitive, assertive, independent. Leaders, like men, ostensibly speak with authority. They get down to business rather than attending to a subordinate's feelings. They give direct orders. There is no tentativeness in their speech.

Of course there is merit to this argument. Women - and even more so women of color - typically do not benefit from the presumption of competence that male lawyers - particularly white ones - receive. They need to prove that they are smart, strong and tough enough, based on the belief that these are necessary traits for competent legal practice. I'd agree with the "smart" part - we all want the people who help us, be they our doctors, lawyers, or other advisors, to be knowledgeable and incisive problem solvers.

But are "strong" and "tough" truly job requirements? During my last physical my physician told me I was his last appointment before he was scheduled for surgery. He'd been biking cross country and had fallen and broken a finger. Not wanting to lose time, he decided to forego medical care. Naturally, the bone had re-set itself in a very odd position and he now needed surgery to re-break and then re-set the bone. "You know how it is," he said, speaking to me as a colleague. "Your patients need to see you as invulnerable." I told him that I certainly didn't need that from him and that he might want to reconsider that assumption.

Similarly, assumptions about how lawyers should act and speak often reflect the fact that men have been behaving this way for many years more than they reveal some true requirement for competent legal practice.

In our efforts to promote diversity in the profession, we need to take care not to inadvertently promote conformity and homogeneity. A significant part of my coaching practice is devoted to coaching women attorneys who feel uncomfortable about marketing to discover and develop their business development strengths. A number of participants in these coaching groups have already participated in "coaching" programs provided by their firms. They blame themselves for failing these programs because they couldn't follow the "rules."

"I just couldn't call three people a week. The phone is not my best way of connecting with people. I'm shy - I don't just call people I haven't seen in a long time and ask them for business," confessed one woman lawyer. Another said that she'd followed the rule to "just ask for the business" from an in-house attorney with whom she'd been friends for years and her friend felt so offended she ended their relationship.

Women lawyers need clear information about whether the person hired to train them is a coach or a consultant. Consultants present themselves as experts - they have "the answers." Coaches, in contrast, encourage their clients to develop their own answers. And women lawyers may find that resisting the urge to find out "the right way" to talk to their assistants, to develop business, to chair a meeting, or to negotiate a contract, although uncomfortable, may actually allow them to discover their own way.

After all, whether you're dealing with a client, a subordinate or a manager, you're dealing with a relationship. There are no "one size fits all" rules for relationships. Some people respond better to direct instructions; others cooperate more when their input is solicited. Some friends would love to give you business; others find the idea of mixing business and friendships an affront.

If you can tolerate the ambiguity, listen carefully to the person with whom you have the relationship, and know and use your own unique strengths, you're likely to be successful. And then we might actually achieve the ideal of a diverse profession.

A version of this article, entitled "Don't Follow These Laws!" first appeared in the Women Lawyers Journal, a publication of the National Association of Women Lawyers, Vol. 92, No. 1, Fall 2006

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