Why “Get Over It” Isn’t Helpful Advice

SkiingIf you spend time in discussions about “women in the law,” you’ll pretty quickly run into a particular Type, which, frankly, I’ve had about enough of. I’m not naming any names, and it really doesn’t matter exactly who any of this is based on. Imagine it’s an amalgamation — because it is. I’d never kiss and tell.

Anyway, here’s the situation. Someone, generally a young lawyer looking for advice, raises a totally reasonable and valid concern — say, for example, that law firms aren’t particularly hospitable places to work — and gets this response:

Suck it up. Stop whining. It’s your fault if you can’t handle the hours/the pressure/the come-on from that inappropriate senior associate. You just need to be more driven, more ambitious, and more resilient, and this won’t be a issue. It’s your problem, and I don’t want to hear about it. (Oh, and by the way, if you quit over this, you’re failing women everywhere who don’t have your options.)

Helpful, right? Yeah, not so much.

The interesting part is who this stuff is coming from. To put it delicately, it’s female lawyers, generally current or former BigLaw partners, of a “certain age,” who are ostensibly trying to be helpful and supportive to younger women.

So, taking that at face value, I want to talk about exactly why this approach is wildly unhelpful and offer a few suggestions that might facilitate a more productive dialogue.

Why “Get Over It” Isn’t Helpful Advice

Think of the last time you were afraid to do something. I mean really afraid, not slightly nervous.

For me, it was a ski trip a few months ago, where I found myself on the side of a steep hillside, halfway down, with no prospect of going any further without making a turn. (I was literally staring into a crevasse, so I didn’t have any good options.)

Now, I don’t generally ski. (I snowboard.) I was way beyond my ability level, and I had absolutely no business being on this run. So I was pretty freaked out.

As I’m standing there surveying my options — which basically came down to “make a turn or wait for the ski patrol to notice you’re stuck when the lifts close in five hours” — my friend who’s with me (who happens to be an excellent skier) starts yelling:

“What’s taking so long? Just make a turn! Just do it! Come on! It’s easy, I did it.” My reaction: “F**k you. Leave me alone. This is totally unhelpful, and I don’t want to hear another word from you.”

Given that I’m here to tell you this story, obviously I got down the mountain. How? I thought back to the instructions I’d been given by my helpful and patient ski instructor a few weeks earlier.

“Skiing isn’t that hard,” he said, “you just look where you want to go. Your skis turn themselves, and you end up where you’re looking.”

So, after making sure my friend was nowhere in sight, I psyched myself up, and I did it. I looked down the hill where I wanted to end up and — sure enough — my skis started sliding in that direction. (Of course, I flipped out as soon as I picked up speed and crashed in a heap at the end of the turn, but it didn’t matter. I made the turn!)

What’s the moral of this story? Just telling someone to suck it up and get on with things isn’t effective. No one likes to be belittled, or to be told that they’re incompetent for not being able to handle a challenging situation. What does work is providing actionable suggestions, and breaking the problem down into manageable chunks. You know, being supportive instead of domineering.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I really do think most of this Type means well. They’ve got a ton of life experience, and they worked hard (and suffered innumerable indignities) to get where they are.

So what would be helpful?

  1. Acknowledge the problem. At its root, a lot of this behavior seems to be about avoiding having to acknowledge real and serious problems in the legal profession. If the solution is “Just suck it up and be more ambitious,” it’s easy to ignore the fact that law firms are terrible at managing talent, for example. (Hey, even the Harvard Business Review agrees.) So step one is simply saying, “Yes, I understand your concerns. Let’s talk about them.”
  2. Make a genuine attempt to relate. Of course this won’t be possible in all cases, but if you’ve had a 30+ year career, chances are good you’ve faced a similar set of problems at some point. Share that story: “You know, this reminds me of a time when I was a young lawyer. Here’s what happened…” Keep in mind that you’re trying to relate, which requires a bit of humility. The story you opt to share will be more effective if it was a situation where you were genuinely uncertain about what to do. And it goes without saying that it shouldn’t be self-aggrandizing!
  3. Offer practical, actionable solutions. The reason my ski instructor’s advice was so useful was because it was easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to put into practice. He didn’t just say “Skiing is easy.” He explained why it’s not that hard, in a way I could understand. So, if someone asks you, “What can I do about a client who thinks I’m coming onto him when I ask him to go a baseball game?” answering “Just make sure he doesn’t think that” isn’t useful. Instead, offer some possible solutions: “Have you considered asking other associates to come along? What if your secretary reaches out to his secretary? Could you invite his kids to come, too?” Now we’re getting somewhere.
  4. Evaluate your own choices, and share what you’ve learned. The most compelling advice is often the hardest won. Lawyers are so afraid of showing any weakness or vulnerability that they’ll go to great lengths to avoid admitting mistakes. But saying, “In the situation I described earlier, I tried [whatever], and it wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. Here’s why,” is far more effective, ultimately, than saying, “Oh, you should definitely do this. It’s guaranteed to work.” Really? Promise? Somehow I have my doubts.

There you have it, in a nutshell. If you really want to help the next generation of female lawyers, stop telling them they’re the problem. Then maybe we can all work together on some solutions.

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  1. I think your take on this topic is really thought-provoking. The main difference in your example of skiing despite fear was that you had tools to draw on (your ski instructors’ mantra that popped into your head). I can also share from experience that when you are facing problems in a law firm, it is likely that NO ONE with power will be willing to talk to you about it in a meaningful way, so it feels stupid to even raise the issue. I think a major reason so many Millenials get frustrated and leave law positions is the lack of communication around goals, challenges, and problems that they face. Add on top of that a challenge that only female lawyers are facing in your firm and you are likely to feel so lonely and helpless that entering the job search may be more appealing than fighting an uphill battle the rest of your career.

    When Boomers are willing to extend a hand to the new generation of female lawyers and act as “instructors” to help us navigate this crazy world, things will start to change. If you saw my recent piece (http://hgl.me/JDappreciation), I do challenge lawyers to “get over it” – but I raise this challenge in relation to things outside of their control, such as the state of the economy and the wave of negative press around the job market. When there are NO tools available to change the status, I see no point in dwelling on the negative and abandoning the powerful tool of gratitude, which can stunt progress towards goals and success on a new path. But in your examples of real challenges faced by women lawyers trying to make their jobs work, there SHOULD be pathways to change.

    I hate when firms who are not making any effort to make it work for female lawyers blame the lawyers themselves – after 5 top quality female lawyers leave a firm, the “it’s not us, it’s them” mantra repeated in partnership meetings becomes a bit unbelievable. SO when facing a challenge in a job setting, that feels like skiing towards a crevasse, your choices become dig deep and try to make it work, or stop. My hope is that the new generation of lawyers takes on tools to navigate these options in a way that causes meaningful and positive change in our profession. We’ll see…

    • I think this is an excellent, and very helpful, distinction to draw. Of course we all play the hand we’re dealt, and I’m a big fan of not wasting time and energy worrying about things you can’t change (like the overall economy). But, if you ARE in a position to make positive changes, and chose not to do it, that’s a different story!

  2. I think that this is great commentary. I believe the best thing that mentors and successful women lawyers can do is help young women develop the skills necessary to be successful. They key being “develop” and not just tell us to develop them. It sounds like such an easy solution — just identify the problem and it can be fixed — but fixing the problem is much more complicated. And of those attorneys don’t think it is their role to help in this development, then they should identify people or programs that can and support young women attorneys (and support young women in attending them). Not being able to quickly fix something shouldn’t be a weakness. The weakness, in my opinion, is not getting the type of training or coaching you need to build those skills (or admitting that training or coaching is what you need).

    • That’s true! There are so many excellent programs springing up to support younger lawyers, and it’s kind of a bummer that firms don’t necessarily see the “value” of letting their people attend. Hastings, for example, runs a Leadership Academy for women law firm partners, and it seems like it would be SO useful for junior partners to go. But in talking to some people who want to go, they’re running into resistance from their firms, on the price, the time commitment, etc. Just strikes me as short-sighted…

  3. Yes! Excellent!

    This is also why we need to stop talking about how to make it in the system – because the law firm system is sick and broken – and just dynamite the mother____ and start our own firms, leave, do other things. Firms exist to generate money based on human hours. Don’t like it – run like hell for the exits and get your life back. DO NOT think that you are the problem and try to break yourself to fit the mold!!!

    • That’s another aspect of this overall attitude that drives me nuts — the idea that only working in a large firm (or maybe in a Fortune 500 company) has value. That’s so crazy to me! If you can leave a large firm (or never go there to begin with) and make a nice life for yourself making as much money as you need and having total control over your time, why not do it?!? I think it’s a completely reasonable and rational choice, but it’s totally devalued.

      And don’t even get me started on this “you’re failing feminism if you quit BigLaw” stuff. I get that one not infrequently, and it just makes me laugh (after I get over being annoyed). Whatever. The whole point is you get to choose!

  4. The next generation of female lawyers is not the problem. They will play a significant role in the solution because they are willing to ask for help. Like me, most of the Boomer female lawyers in my BigLaw firm thought we had to be perfect to succeed. We thought we had to project a macho “can do” image and were reluctant to ask questions even of each other.

    Unfortunately, the current state of BigLaw is so toxic that the solution requires not only questions about practical matters but also questions about reshaping the very nature of legal practice.

    • Personally, I’ve always been a fan of asking the obvious questions, but that might explain why BigLaw didn’t work out so well for me!

  5. Any setting in which you practice law that you enjoy and provides an income you can live on is terrific. That is a good choice for those who aren’t trapped by needing the approval of others who think a prestigious position is the only worthwhile one.

    The notion that a woman who leaves BigLaw has failed feminism represents a misunderstanding of feminism. A key tenet of feminism is the ability to choose.

    One analysis is that women in BigLaw are like the canaries in coal mines. (Caged canaries were kept in coal mines as an early warning to miners that the atmosphere had become toxic.)

    • Yes, I love the canary analogy! That is what it feels like sometimes, when you’re left wondering if you’re the only one noticing the air getting a little hard to breathe…

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