Being Treated Differently

Humans will be humans. They will make terrible mistakes and bad choices. And sometimes, even “good” people make bad choices about the things that they say or choose to believe. These thoughts are often unconscious. Habitual, automatic thinking.

These automatic, programmed thoughts and ideas don’t make them a bad person it just means that they have bad thoughts that they haven’t examined through the lens of implicit bias….the jokes that people make or that people laugh at, the automatic judgments they make about others without questioning those judgments. The reason this matters is because those small actions, those unconscious reactions, and judgments are what are keeping so many segments of our society from moving forward. It’s not necessarily explicit hatred of another group but it is implicit bias masquerading in a prettier outfit.

Most of us have our own experiences being treated differently. I remember a few years ago, I was attending an early morning meeting where I was the only woman. As background, I have two white Shiba Inu pups and anyone who knows anything about dogs knows that a person who owns more than one Shiba Inu is a masochist. A masochist who loves having dog hair all over every article of clothing they have as well as in their icebox, refrigerator, underwear drawers, deli meat, and attics. I ALWAYS have dog hair on me.

On this particular day, I was wearing a long black pencil skirt. As I approached the breakfast bar to grab some coffee and a bagel, I felt a presence close behind me. Then I heard an older gentleman speaking in a low, private voice right into my ear, I think your dogs left you a present on your skirt this morning. Embarrassed and confused, I turned to look and saw that my backside was covered in the white hair of my beloved pups. As I thanked him and turned to leave the room to redress the situation he smiled and said you have no idea how much I wanted to wipe that off for you. You just have to let an old man have his fantasies.


I was immediately floored by his comment but I told myself He’s harmless. He’s a goofy old man who doesn’t think before he speaks…I was so shocked and startled and I wasn’t sure how to respond but I knew I didn’t want to make a scene at 7:00 o’clock in the morning in a room full of men.

After the meeting wrapped up, I went back to my office and tried to put the strange encounter out of my mind when I heard a knock at my door. I looked up and found the same old gentleman standing sheepishly in my doorway and waiting for me to notice him standing there awkwardly.   This time he was apologetic and thanked me for not getting upside with him, “just an old man,” and the “stupid things” that he says. He begged me to tell him if I was upset by what he had said. I brushed it off, told him it wasn’t a big deal, and we moved forward with the relationship and our days.

At the time, I found myself confirming that, if someone else had made the same comment, someone that I thought intended to be suggestive or probing, I would have reacted very differently. I was so focused on the individual and my knowledge that he didn’t mean anything by it….he was a kind and goofy old man with no malice. But why did that matter?

Through this work, I now realize that my response is part of a larger problem. I was focusing on the intent driving the individual to act that way, allowing space for his ignorance. People’s actions are just as important as their intentions. This gentleman did not intend to sexually harass me but the fact of the matter is, his conditioned thoughts and his words went there. He was thinking of me and my presence in a way that was not acceptable or safe. Even if he wasn’t seeking anything out of line, his words communicated to me that as a woman, I will always, in part, be seen as a sexual object. By brushing it off and not acknowledging the problem with his words, I was trading his discomfort for my own. To avoid making him feel uncomfortable by calling out his actions, I swallowed the pill and felt uncomfortable enough for both of us.

I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable but it was okay for me to be uncomfortable.

Why? Because my predominant thought was “Let’s not make this a big deal….I don’t want you to think I’m overly sensitive or can’t take a joke.”

But the truth was, it was a big deal. The fact that I can still recall that moment so vividly and point to it as one of the many moments when I knew I did not belong is significant.

Those thoughts did not serve me at the time and they are not serving any of us today. Anyone who acts or speaks in a way that indicates you are not an equal in the workplace is a problem. It is not acceptable to stifle our concerns in favor of not making waves.

Instead of retreating in fear of confrontation and drama, I could have made better decisions and clung to better thoughts.

I want to feel angry when I feel like I am being discriminated against. I do not want to feel like “It’s okay.” I want to be open to the discomfort that comes with taking a stand and speaking my peace. These are essential emotions. I don’t want to feel good about these circumstances. I don’t want to pretend to be okay to avoid these negative feelings.

In those moments, I want to believe: This is an opportunity for me to be honest and develop my relationship with this human. I am not a victim, I am simply shining a light on the situation.

I am not trading my truth for your comfort.

The fear-based, glossing-it-over approach is not working. What does work is looking at people’s actions and challenging those actions where you see them. Rather than focusing on the person’s intent and formulating thoughts from there, shift your focus to the larger goal. I can address this and be honest with this person about what I think about what they’ve said or done. Demeaning words and actions, even ones that lack explicit malice, are indicative of tired thinking that begs to be challenged. If we keep condoning the actions and focusing only on the intentions, we sacrifice diversity of thought. We sacrifice honesty in our relationships.

In my experience, none of the people I have worked with were intentionally sexist/racist/homophobic. However, in my experience, many of those colleagues made sexist/racist/homophobic comments. They did not harbor hate but they did harbor ignorance and unacknowledged bias.

As humans in this world, we all have a role to play in fostering the evolution of thought. While that might mean we have to place ourselves in uncomfortable situations and call out actions that we know are not mal-intended. Unless we’re honest with people about how their words or actions impact our abilities to show up, to stand up, to speak up, we will never make the progress that our world so desperately needs.

Having trouble finding the words to speak your truth? Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Develop the tools to stand up for yourself and those around you. Coach with me and let’s make this journey together.

We need in every bay and community a group of angelic troublemakers. The proof that one truly believes is in action – Bayard Rustin

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Do You Have “It”?

I was recently coaching a new client and I was explaining to her why I do this work. For those of you who have not heard this rambling, let me summarize. When I was at my first, nationwide law firm out of law school, the shine eventually wore off. I was working all the time, struggling to find balance, and I became incredibly unhappy. At the time, I didn’t have the tools that I have now and I didn’t understand how to “fix” my situation. So I left. I cracked open the exit door just a few inches and I was quickly drawn out by another opportunity. I was hired by a rival firm to build a practice group from the ground up.

At that time in my life, I was roughly 29 years old. I had been practicing for about four(ish) years. I had a solid foundation and I knew enough to be dangerous but to start a whole practice group–pure silliness. What kind of maniacs would take that risk on me?! Despite it all, I sold them on the idea and I gratefully leapt from the arms of one task-master to another.

As I settled in and started to take an inventory of everything that went along with “running” a practice, I realized that I was going to need some support. I already felt myself bristling at the tired mentalities and structures that I disliked at my last firm and I could tell that many of the challenges I had run away from at my last firm would be waiting for me in this new place. So I hired a coach–a female attorney who had successfully built her own firm. I wanted someone who got it. I wanted someone who understood the subtext, the struggles, and the environment without my having to explain it.

(If you are interested in that kind of support, grab a free session now.)

In working with her, I was able to see and deconstruct many of the patterns that were following me into my new firm. I was able to shift into a different mentality — a space of confidence and unwavering belief that I COULD do it. That I did have what it takes. We worked through the imposter syndrome that many of us carry with us especially those of us that didn’t come from professional, college-educated homes.

Working with my coach, I was able to build a practice that was bursting at the seams within one year. Within one year, I had so much work and garnered the confidence and trust of so many large and demanding companies that I was drowning in billable hours. We hired two partners from opposing firms to come and join me…partners that were 20 and 30 years my senior and had been practicing for many years to great success without the oversight and wisdom offered by this 30-something little girl. So naturally, with that change, came all sorts of new challenges.

During that time, I was traveling all over the country selling our services to clients. Every day, my calendar was jammed with breakfasts, lunches, and happy hours where I was selling and schmoozing without end. I was asked to teach at a business school and then to also teach at a law school and I was constantly presenting at one conference or another.

My practice was thriving and I had done what I set out to do. I loved every minute of it.

The last time I related this story to a client, she asked me whether I thought my success was attributable to skills I had developed or whether I just had “it.” “Do you really think that is something I can do? I just don’t think I’m the type,” she explained.

This, people, is why I do this. There is nothing magical about my success.

“I am nothing special, of this I am sure.” – Nicholas Sparks

The only reason people aren’t going out and creating the life of their dreams is that they believe they can’t do it. Because they, like this client, allow themselves to consider that there is some innate “it” and you either have it or you don’t.

Let’s level set here. I am an introvert and I do not love to speak publicly. Prior to joining that firm, I hadn’t spoken publicly since COLLEGE. At my prior firm, I wrote the speeches, I prepped the slides but I was the silent partner — speaking was never permitted for associates. I was good at my job but I was not (and am not) any kind of a legal prodigy. Aside from leading bar crawls during my sorority days, I had never “led” anyone other than a secretary and a paralegal. I had no idea how to set budgets or project income, how to “sell” legal services, how to talk to partners who weren’t pulling their weight, and the idea of presenting my business plan to a Boardroom full of men made me sick to my stomach.

If there was some special “it” that made this stuff easy, I didn’t receive that gift.

I created my success because I INVESTED in myself. I put in the work. I allowed my coach to push me to do things that made me very uncomfortable. I got really good at uncomfortable conversations, I got really practiced at humility, and I learned how to “sell” myself authentically. Does it come easily now? No. It still doesn’t. But I have done it so many times despite the discomfort, I understand now that’s just part of the process for me.

I came to understand that in order to create a different career for myself, I had to do things differently. I had to take time to actually work on myself and that meant I had to get comfortable spending my hard-earned money on the fluffy stuff. I had to invest my money differently. I needed to acknowledge that, in order to create a different future, I was going to have to completely revamp my approach to practicing and that meant getting a coach on my team.

She pushed me to do things I didn’t want to do; things I WOULDN’T have done but for my respect and commitment to her. She helped me to see things about myself that were holding me back and she helped me to find my voice in a world where many of us just put our heads down and “accept” the legal profession with all its warts.

I wanted to share this with you today because I want to dispel this notion that we can’t all have the lives of our dreams. There is no magical “it.” You have what it takes and we have to stop considering that we aren’t enough. Instead, I implore you to consider —

What if you are wrong — what if you have EXACTLY what it takes?

Other Humans – How to Deal

So many of our day-to-day problems and stressors all boil down to one nasty little word: SHOULD. I should be nicer to my spouse. I should answer my phone when my brother calls. My boss should be more appreciative of me. My husband should take out the trash. My parents should respect my approach to parenting. I am willing to wager that if each of us could cut that nasty word out of our lives and changed nothing else, we would be markedly happier.

Where do these “shoulds” come from?

Is there some universal guidebook out there that dictates how our family members, significant others, or friends should act? Is there some instruction manual that everyone else has but me? How does everyone know how they are supposed to act or what they should do in any given situation? Did someone forget to give me my copy?

The truth is that these shoulds are all just thoughts. There is no requirement that you must answer every call from your family member in order to be a good sister. There is also no requirement that your boss respect you or appreciate you or even give you credit for your work.

Every adult human being on the face of this planet has the absolute right to act any way that they want.

Their “shoulds” probably don’t match your shoulds. They are not going to act how you want them or expect them to act, no matter how hard you try.

Despite this truth, we spend so much time and effort being frustrated and irritated that our husband isn’t taking out the trash or that our friend never answers her phone when we call her. Modern therapists will often tell you that you need to communicate your needs to these people so that they can rise up and satisfy your needs. While I agree that communication is essential for any healthy relationship, I also believe there is something much more nefarious about this approach.

Let’s be honest. The real reason we are so frustrated is because these people are not acting how we want them to act.

And even when we tell them how we want them to act, they don’t do it and then we really get pissed and the relationship tension skyrockets. The problem is that when we tell someone these are my needs and I would like you to satisfy them so that I can be happier with our relationship, we are giving them all of our power. If the theory underlying that request is true, we are all screwed because the only way we can be happy based upon that theory is if the other person does what we ask.

How has that worked out for you?

I’m guessing not very well. Humans don’t want to be controlled or manipulated so that others can feel a certain way and no one should have that much power over your happiness. When we take this approach, we are basically saying The only way I can be happy with our relationship is if you will change your behavior to align with my needs. This sure looks like manipulation’s closely related cousin. We are trying to change others’ behavior; we are trying to control them in order to be happy. That does not seem like a recipe for a healthy relationship.

The only person who can influence and control your happiness is you.

What is really swirling around in the background and driving these relationship disputes are a whole lot of shoulds. He should be more affectionate . . . my boss should be nicer when she gives me feedback . . . she shouldn’t talk down to me . . . He should know the trash needs to go out, etc. These shoulds form a framework, we call a manual. The reason we think all of these things is because we have a manual of how a husband/boss/co-worker/friend is supposed to act. We have all these expectations about how these relationships are supposed to work. What’s more is that we rarely communicate these manuals to the people in our lives.

One of the first things I recommend in order to improve your relationships with other humans in your orbit is to first be aware of all the shoulds passing through your brain. Write them down. Don’t judge yourself for having them – that’s really just another should prancing around: You shouldn’t be so critical/judgmental, whatever. It’s just not productive. Be honest and write down all those expectations and thoughts. Once you have a clear sense of your secret manuals, you can start evaluating whether or not each element of the manual is important to you. Is it really important to you to believe that your husband should send you flowers on your birthday? Why? What are you making it mean when he doesn’t? Are those thoughts valid? Are they serving you and your relationship? Do you like your reasoning?

Now, we are not preparing instructions for a mail-order human here; at this point we just focus on what is really important to us because once we know that we can decide how to communicate that to the people in our lives. That is why it is so critical to evaluate the importance of each element in your manual – if you are too embarrassed to communicate that to the person at issue, then it’s probably not that important.

Now, here is the really critical piece of it . . . if and when you decide to express your “manual” to the other person, that person has the absolute right to choose to meet those expectations or to choose not to meet those standards. That person has no obligation to change to fit into your manual.

As a human, they can choose to act in any way that they want to. Period.

At this point, the work begins: you must accept that this person can choose to disregard your manual and that their choice is their choice and does not mean anything negative about you. You get to choose to be happy about the relationship, even where the other person doesn’t fit your manual. You can choose to think that you spoke your peace and feel resolution in that regard but you must release any and all expectation relating to their actions.

You are responsible for your happiness. Not them.

Most people choose to express their needs and get angry when the other person doesn’t change to satisfy them. That never works out. If you don’t want to live your life experiencing that result over and over again, you must choose to be happy with the relationship as it is and accept the other person for who they are – not what you are desperately trying to mold them into. Think about it. How do you YOU feel when someone tries to get you to act in a way that you don’t want to or when someone tries to make you do something you don’t want to?

These “shoulds” are arbitrary and capricious expectations that we have created with our thoughts and that we can change.

For example, if you think My boss should not need to yell at me in the hallway in front of everyone. You can decide whether your expectations of your boss are important enough for you to discuss with him/her directly. Whether you have the discussion or not, just know that he does not have to change to fit into your model of a “good boss” and he probably won’t. He is acting just as he should – we know because that is how he is acting! He can choose to act in any way that he wants and he doesn’t need to change for your to feel better about your worth or skills.

The reason you feel crappy isn’t because of him yelling at you in the hallway. You feel crappy because of what you are making it mean when he yells at you. Because of what you are thinking about it – I am so embarrassed, everyone is judging me, everyone thinks I’m an idiot, I can’t believe he did that to me, everyone saw and is probably talking about it. Those thoughts are what are making you feel miserable. He can yell at you and you can have completely different thoughts that aren’t going to make you feel like crap – You must be a really sad human to treat other people like that . . . when I leave this firm, I hope you see how this played a role in my decision . . . you are just really stressed about your big client that just left . . . I am good at my job and everyone knows it . . . you are just being dramatic. The point is, you don’t have to make it about you and you don’t have to make it something negative.

If you can clean up your thoughts around other people and stop thinking about how they should be acting, you will stop caring so much about that manual. It won’t matter as much because you will find that there is nothing the other person can do that will impact your happiness – that power rests with you and you alone.

Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that you should just be a doormat and let other people treat you like crap. What I’m saying is that we need to clear all the shoulds and BS from our heads before can we can clearly evaluate a relationship and make a decision about whether we want that relationship in our life. If our discomfort around another human is all being driven by unspoken expectations and manuals, we have some work to do. This work will help you examine what’s really going on without all the drama. What is really going on with this person and why does it bother you so much? It is really that important? What am I gaining from maintaining that manual for this person? Are those expectations serving me and this relationship?

I promise you, the work you will do with the manual and other humans can transform your life and your happiness. Besides, it will absolutely be easier than trying to change everyone around you, right? We all carry manuals for the people in our lives. Work with me and let me break down those shoulds so your relationships can blossom.

Firms: Finding the Right Fit

In my legal career, I spent countless hours interviewing candidates trying to fish the good from the bad, and, in other instances, trying to “sell” them on the firm. Maybe we needed their specialty, maybe I wanted a fellow alumnae at the firm, maybe I just wanted another woman or a diverse candidate, or maybe I just really liked the person and wanted to hang out. Listen, hiring partners and committees make hiring decisions based upon a whole host of dumb, subjective reasons. Human beings will typically gravitate towards others like themselves and law firms are no different. Having worked at both a national law firm and a smaller, mid-size corporate firm, as well as handful of small 2-3 person shops, I have experienced countless strange interviews and had my fair share of bad hires. While I certainly don’t have the silver bullet for ensuring a good hire, I have more thoughts on what candidates should be doing to vet law firms. When I was teaching in a law school, the students often asked me how to know if a firm was a good fit.

How do you get your interviewer to pull back the curtain and tell you how things really work without all the sales-ey pitching?

Here are few suggestions from my own experience and from those candidates who successfully got me to “spill the beans”, so to speak.

Ask about diversity and exit rates

If diversity and inclusion are important to you, and they should be, that is something you need to sort out before you take the job. Law firms are notoriously terrible at diversity and inclusion. Law firms are also notorious for having plenty of smart people who will devote time and energy into dressing up their warts. Most firms can easily tout their diversity awards and achievements and minority representation and show you a long list of “diverse” organizations they support and how much D&I training they spent loads of money on. That means absolutely nothing. Do not be fooled by the smoke and mirrors. The only way you will truly know whether a firm is a dinosaur promoting only like-minded individuals from the same demographic group is to start asking questions. Here’s a few examples:

In the last 3 years, what percentage of your attorneys who left the firm were women or minorities?

These numbers do not lie. If the rate is abnormally high, run. People leave firms for all sorts of reasons. In my experience, if there is a significant percentage of women leaving a firm, it is not because they all just “found the opportunity of a lifetime” or found an in-house opportunity they “just couldn’t pass up” or their partner found a job in another city. Those excuses and explanations are all break-up speak–“it’s not you, it’s me…” Those are things attorneys tell leadership when they are fed up and leave, because at that point, what good will it do to tell them the ugly truth? Besides, by the time you get to that point, you’ve probably already had the conversation 100 times and they ignored you each and every time. Why would they listen now?

Here are a few questions that might assist this evaluation:

Where do most of your candidates/new hires come from?

What law schools do you recruit at? Why or why not?

Where did most of your current attorneys attend law school?

See if you can find someone who used to work there.

You will have to lean on your network or your law school career center for this one. People who have left will be the only ones able to tell you if they truly took off because they found their “dream job.” Take them to lunch and explain your situation and any concerns you might have. If they know you are picking up on some of the firm’s true underlying issues, they will likely confirm or deny your impressions.

Meet separately with attorneys you can relate to

If you are still interested in considering the job, ask to take some of their female/minority associates to lunch or, ideally, drinks. Get them away from the firm and away from the partners/supervisors. Use this opportunity to see what their life is like, how the partners work, and how the firm operates. Ask them for recommendations as to who else you should meet with – other attorneys who have left or other attorneys currently at the firm. Get them talking. Questions to consider:

If you had the opportunity to work in (whatever practice group you are applying to), would you do it?

 Law firms are like small fiefdoms. Each practice group or office location likely operates pretty independently and according to its own norms. Most firms have a few practice groups that are notorious for destroying associates and churning through staff. Figure out which groups those are and ensure you don’t get stuck in one of those, unless you really want to learn some unnecessarily hard lessons.

Questions to consider:

In your experience, why have others chosen to leave the firm? Do you see any trends or common reasons?

What is one thing you think the firm needs to improve upon?

Have you found that people are willing to help you learn and guide your development?

Tell me about your typical day/month? When do you arrive at work and when do you leave? What about weeknights and weekends?

Do your diligence

Check online AND AROUND TOWN  for any reviews—social media or on other websites. Negative reviews of law firms likely signal a larger issue. Be sure to take all complaints with a grain of salt, but if your social media searches and casual inquiries reveal a barrage of negativity, be wary.

Check out the firm website. Is it up to date? Are the postings 3 months old? How about blog postings? How important is it to you to be part of a firm that has a sophisticated online presences? Not only will the website be your first introduction to your clients when you join the firm, but for now, it may indicate how much support you will get to market yourself and your business. Does the firm appear to have a strong marketing department and marketing presence? It may also indicate how much of your time you may be required to spend preparing blog posts for yourself or your partners (read: nonbillable time burdens).

Look at the attorney profiles. What is the attorney demographic like? Do they all look the same? Did most of them attend the same law schools? Do not be fooled by this. If the attorneys all seem to be the same person with only minor variations, and none of those attorneys are similar to you, take it as it is. No matter what they say they are doing on the D&I front, it is obviously not working. That indicates a MUCH bigger, underlying issue and that is likely a general lack of buy-in by the firm about D&I. Do not be persuaded otherwise and give some long and serious thought about whether you want to be the “other” and whether you believe this homogeneous group will truly be open to you (as a person) or your ideas (as an attorney).

In the end there is no perfect law firm and you will always find room for improvement. The key is being able to identify those shortcomings before you start so that you aren’t blindsided. The goal should be to find a firm whose shortcomings are ones you are willing to tolerate. In summary:

  1. Ask the hard questions
  2. See if you can find someone who worked there
  3. Isolate candidates that you can relate to
  4. Do your diligence:
    1. Check their reviews — online and around town
    2. Check out the firm website
  5. Do not seek perfection!

Are you looking for a new firm or your first legal position? Coach with me and lean on my years of experience working in and recruiting to large corporate law firms. Let my past mistakes benefit your future.