Am I Neurotic, or is the Whole World Crazy?

EmpowermintsThat’s a rhetorical question. Don’t answer! (And it’s probably a little from column A, and a little from column B.)

But I’ve been feeling a little nuts all day about something that’s ostensibly a “good thing,” and — as I mulled my reaction over — I realized it links back to some other things floating around in the ether as of late. So, here I am, writing about it.

If you have a low tolerance for navel-gazing, I’d suggest moving on…right about NOW.

Still There?

Whew, they’re gone. Anyway, I found out yesterday that I was a finalist for the “Most Likable Lawyer” on the internet. That’s amusing, right? I have no idea how I was selected, but it seemed fun and entertaining. I replied back to them on Twitter saying thanks and didn’t think much about it.

At some point later in the evening, I checked out the other finalists, and OMG! Not only was I competing against super-Internet-famous law people like David Lat, but Barack Obama was a finalist in the Most Likable Politician category!

It was exactly like walking into the first day of my Honors Calculus class in high school.

I walked in, looked around, saw a bunch of dudes, and — for pretty much the first time ever — thought, “Man, I really don’t belong here. What am I doing?!?”

The Power of “I Don’t Belong Here”

Luckily, in that case, the teacher was a woman, and she talked me into sticking around. (And I did really well in the class, so there was no reason whatsoever for me to have been concerned.) But that initial feeling of “I don’t belong” never quite went away.

And I think about it when I read studies suggesting women aren’t talking “enough” in law school classes, or aren’t advocating for themselves in the “right” way, or aren’t making partner, or becoming judges, or whatever the concern-of-the-day is. Don’t get me wrong, those are all real and valid concerns, and I want people to talk about these things and try to #ChangeTheRatio as the hashtag says.

But, somehow, underlying all of this stuff, I sense that same I Don’t Belong Here feeling. And I think that’s what makes some of the proposed “solutions” to these problems seem judgmental, and not all that helpful.

This Stuff is Complicated

Sure, it would be great if female law students everywhere suddenly decided they were going to speak up equally, and insist that their voices be heard, but it’s not that simple.

As I wrote about recently for Ms. JD, women are treated differently when they speak out regularly in class, and there’s a reason only the most confident/foolhardy/determined/whatever women keep talking.

  • I totally get why a lot of female law students don’t want to put themselves out there, and sit quietly in the back of the room.
  • I also understand why that might limit their options going forward — when the professor has no idea who they are, and can’t, or won’t, write a letter of recommendation or pick up the phone about a potential job opening.

But I don’t think it’s helpful to be judgmental about the choices women make every day, as they try to navigate some fairly tricky waters.

Instead, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned over the last six months or so about what it’s like to put yourself out there, when you’re way out of your comfort zone, and don’t really know what’s going to happen.

What I’ve Learned Since I Launched The Girl’s Guide

Number one, a lot of the stuff I worried about beforehand hasn’t happened.

Stuff I Wasted Time Worrying About

Based on the comments on various message boards and other legal websites, I assumed I’d spend a large portion of my time fending off misogynistic trolls. Hasn’t happened. At all. Crazy, huh?

Maybe they’re just allergic to pink and can’t stand to read the site, but I haven’t had to delete a single comment since the site launched.

I also haven’t run out of things to say, and there hasn’t been a single day when NO ONE visited the site.

There have been a couple of times when people said mean things to — or about — me, but not many. A few people have unsubscribed from my mailing list. One person asked for a refund. Whatever, it happens.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the stuff you’re worrying about — the things that are holding you back from doing what you want to do — probably won’t happen, and, if they do happen, they won’t kill you.

Stuff I’ve Learned

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I’m really, really uncomfortable with self-promotion. (I didn’t even want to put up an About page, and hid it as long as possible, until one of my friends made me put a prominent link to it on every page. He was right — it’s one of the most popular pages on the site.)

The interesting, and possibly helpful, thing here, however, is that I have no hesitation whatsoever promoting my awesome friends and partners. So, as long as I can link myself up with one of them (Thanks, Lee!), promotion becomes a lot easier.

But that only works for so long. Sometimes, as today, I run right up against the question I hate: Am I obligated to promote myself for this?

Am I Failing Womankind?

So, after I got over the shock of being in a list near Barack Obama (trust me, I totally have a screenshot of that), my rational mind went to work:

This contest is amusing, but you’re never going to beat David Lat. His website has orders of magnitude more traffic that yours (and he’s probably more likeable anyway). Regardless, Lee Rosen deserves to win, because he seems like a really nice guy from his emails, and, critically, appears to be an actual lawyer.

Based on this analysis, I put up a joke about the nomination on my personal Facebook account and went to sleep.

When I woke up, I realized that some of other guys who’ve been nominated (they’re all guys) were seriously competing for this!

Crap, does this mean I have to compete, too, or I’m a bad feminist?!?

This is the question I’ve been mulling over all day.

Is There Any Point to Competing When You Know You Can’t Win?

So, here’s what I’ve been trying to figure out: Is there any reason to compete in a contest you can’t win?

Anyone looking logically at the amount of reach I have, versus the reach some of my competitors have, would pretty quickly conclude I have no real shot at winning. (Seriously, I’m not just saying this to be modest. We’re talking 30,000 Twitter followers vs. 1,000. Or hundreds of thousands of page views vs. hundreds.)

In a sense, it’s like being a female associate in a large law firm. You know the odds are stacked against you as a woman. You know the odds of anyone making partner are vanishingly small.

At what point is the rational decision just to walk away, and figure out something else to do?

At what point is the whole charade just a waste of your valuable time?

Are you “taking yourself out of the game” unnecessarily, or are you responding rationally to the actual odds of a particular event occurring? (I guess that’s what drives me nuts about the Sheryl Sandberg advice to “lean in.” Sure, lean in. But what if it turns out you wasted some of the best years of your life working 80 weeks for assholes who never had any intention of promoting you to partner? Maybe you’d have been better off realizing that before they tossed you to the curb.)

Obviously this is just a silly internet contest, and I don’t care if I win. (Or do I care? Should I care? Must I care? I think my head just exploded.)

But these underlying questions:

  • How to deal with that I Don’t Belong Here feeling (which, frankly, might be entirely justified)?
  • How to evaluate when it make sense to compete for something that’s highly unlikely?
  • When do we have no choice but to suck it up and self-promote?

These aren’t going away any time soon.

Give ’em some thought, and let me know what you think.

For now, I leave you with this:

I Belong Here

Oh, yeah. If you’re so inclined, feel free to vote for me for Most Likable Lawyer on the internet!

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  1. First off, I just voted for you. Second, I think this is a great post and you raise a lot of really important and difficult ideas to deal with. I too have struggled with self promotion. I got more comfortable with it when I started having to promote a non-profit I work with (Yay GirlVentures – Then I had a moment — why can I promote this organization and not myself? And yes, it is easier when you have a partner (Yay Law School Toolbox) but to me it is also easier when you feel like you have a community behind you. And to be honest, one thing that has struck me in this whole business thing is that I feel like we are in an incredible group of women (and men too, but right now I must confess most of my cheering section seems to be women) who are trying to change the legal landscape. And I love talking to them, and brainstorming with them, and seeing how we can change our little corner of the world. But none of that can be done without – self-promotion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts today!

    • I think you’re absolutely right, and the community aspect is so important. It’s good to have that voice in the back of your mind saying, “If I don’t do this, what will Ms. JD think?” Or any of the other awesome people and organizations I’ve met because of this website.

      It’s ironic that that was my absolute most primary concern when I set off down this road (that I’d be fending off mean trolls all the time), and the reality has been exactly the opposite! I’ve met lots of really awesome, totally nice people — and on the Internet, even. Who’d have thought?

  2. Congrats, Alison, on being nominated (right next to Barack Obama!)! I just voted and posted on FB. So exciting!!
    The self-promotion thing is a toughie for me and so many women especially. It is also intricately linked with how much we feel we can charge for our time (another topic perhaps). I agree it’s a complicated series of mental maneuvers to get comfortable with it. I try not to think of it as boasting or bragging or tooting my own horn, but simply in presenting facts. There must be some Eastern philosophy that could help here, but I trust someone else is better equipped to provide that. Again, congrats on the nomination!

    • Thank, Kristin! I like the “just the facts” approach. And, don’t even get me started on all the mental gymnastics one has to go through with pricing! I know people who actually make a living, advising other people on this one topic. Crazy!

  3. It’s true that you can go crazy over thinking things like this, but rest assured it’s a very good sign you’re doing something right when a group of people you don’t even know, to whom you don’t even appear to be obviously connected, decided to put you on a fairly prestigious list! Bravo! Vote early, vote often 🙂

  4. I feel like I don’t belong at my school. It’s less about being a woman and a lot more about race for me. It would be different if I were doing well, but so far I’m really not. I have a great scholarship too, while some of my friends (who are doing far better than me) don’t have a thing. I carry around a lot of guilt.

    I will try to vote for you later but their cumbersome captcha box system doesn’t work at all on mobile iOS. The pop-up box keeps jumping out of reach.

    • That’s a bummer, that you feel guilty about your scholarship! I get where you’re coming from, but as long as you’re working hard and doing your best, I don’t think you’ve got anything to feel guilty about. Presumably you bring more to the table than just your grades, whatever they might be.

      You might find this article interesting: Why Women Need Women-Only Networks. It’s written by a minority woman, talking about how she often feels like people are questioning her right to be where she is.

      Oh, and thanks for your attempt to vote! I’ve fallen down on my promotional efforts, and haven’t even been voting myself lately. Bad!

  5. OK, you are awesome – if for no other reason than sharing discomfort with Sheryl Sandberg’s talk. It drives me absolutely nuts too – what if I don’t want to lean in to “this” (boring law firm job)? We don’t have to lean in to odious things to be good feminists, do we? Because if we do, f that.

    I was voted onto a state “best lawyers” list in my area this year and laughed. I’m very conflicted about doing this work at all and would love to never see it again – and I’m voted a “best?” Srsly?? Can I be best at something I like instead? Guess that’s life…

    • Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, or something like that? Congrats on being “the best,” in any case!

  6. I know this was last year, but I can entirely see how you achieved this accolade – it was well-deserved.

    For what it’s worth, I think judgmental solutions and advice are called for in the context of women not feeling comfortable speaking up in class – but that they should be directed at men, not women. Men are the ones creating that environment, and nothing that puts the burden completely on women to solve this problem can possibly work because this is not a problem women have created. Personally, I think it would help for male law students to be encouraged to think, before they criticize or react negatively to a female colleague’s class participation, whether they would react the same way to a man doing the same thing. It wouldn’t solve all these problems by itself, but I think it would help.

    • Interesting point. I’ve been thinking a lot about this sort of thing lately, and am definitely coming around to the idea that most of this stuff can’t be changed without the participation of those who hold the upper hand…i.e., men. Getting people to recognize their own entitlement issues isn’t easy, but — in the end — I think it’s potentially better for everyone. (How many men really want to work 100 hour weeks in BigLaw with no end in sight? Not many, I’m thinking.)

  7. Congrats on making the finalists, I will definitely vote for you. It is always awesome to see more women standing up to men and taking on the world!

  8. I am so SO happy that I read this just now. I just got out of my civil procedure class where I’m not sure if I just “got it” or if nobody read. I’m going to go with the latter. Anyway, I kept raising my hand and answering most of the questions for one case and I felt self-conscious. I felt like I shouldn’t be talking so much, like I had all eyes on me as I spoke and that perhaps my classmates were getting annoyed by my participation. I particularly felt self-conscious because my section is mostly guys. Thank you. Thank you. THANK YOU! I just saved the picture ” I am supposed to be here.” Something so little helped a great deal, specially around finals.

    • Nice! I think this whole “it’s weird to volunteer in law school” thing is ridiculous. As long as you’re not telling the 47th story about “your time on the Hill,” go for it. You’re pretty much doing everyone else a favor anyway! And you’re paying a lot to be there.

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