It’s the American way: work hard, become the best at what you do, and you will reap the rewards.
Sorry to Burst Your Bubble
Realistically, that has not always worked out for people of color, women, and people without the right family or school connections. Perhaps not surprisingly, politics and profit have a role. So what can you do if you are starting from a couple of steps behind?
Here are a couple of pragmatic suggestions.
You Need a Rabbi
No, you don’t need to convert to Judaism. A rabbi is a colloquial term for your sponsor, your champion.
A mentor talks to you to help guide your career. Some law firms with mentor programs purposely pair a beginner with a mentor who cannot directly reward the mentee. A rabbi, or sponsor, on the other hand, talks to other people about you. A rabbi is your advocate in a way that a mentor is not. Sylvia Hewlett, the founder of Coqual, explains the difference in her brutally practical book “Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career.”
Here’s an example. The specialty section of your state or local bar association may have a steering committee that meets periodically. These positions are coveted because they provide access to powerful processes, such as recommending legislation, and premium networking. Pre-pandemic, the meetings may have occurred in deluxe settings with all or some of the expenses paid. You can find the application for one of these limited seats on the bar association’s website. But regardless of how many times you apply or how many conventions you attend, without a rabbi your chance of getting on the committee is small. You need a rabbi who can appoint you or who has sufficient clout with the person who makes the appointments.
Rather than wait to be noticed, find out who has the power to give you what you want.
A direct approach is unlikely to be successful as there are many other people also trying to gain attention. A better way is to volunteer for jobs that will have you working with the desired rabbi or at least are sure to come to that person’s attention.
Frankly, there is a bit of luck involved as well. If you are fortunate enough to make a connection with a powerful person, find a way to explain your goal and ask if the person can help you.
And then there is bad luck. You might learn that you unwittingly offended someone who blackballed you. This is hard to get around because your would-be sponsor may understandably not want to risk his or her own position of power on your behalf. Ideally, your rabbi would be more powerful than the blackballer. Otherwise, you may be stuck waiting for the blackballer to leave the scene.
This paradigm can apply in many situations, including gaining access to a person who can direct business to you or an award you thought for sure you would get.
Pay to Play
Legal marketing experts unanimously counsel lawyers to raise their profile by speaking and writing. Yet, all you see from the various organizations where you have submitted cutting-edge speaking proposals and brilliantly-written articles are rejections. Look carefully, and you may see that the speakers and published authors work for organizations that advertise in the publications, sponsor the meetings, and exhibit at conferences.
Before you submit that next speaker proposal, talk to the marketing arm of the organization. Explain that you are interested in advertising, sponsoring, or exhibiting, but you also want to speak or get an article published. This can be a delicate conversation with some nuance between the lines. It may be best undertaken by your marketing person.
The target organization’s salesperson needs to bring in revenue, and the organization does in fact need speakers and authors. So, this generally turns out to be a one-hand-washes-the-other arrangement. Once you become a benefactor, the sales division will continue to solicit you. If you did a good job the first time you spoke or wrote, you can turn that into a continuing outlet. Or you may decide to turn your efforts elsewhere, but now you are the one making the decision.
You’re good, but so are a lot of other lawyers, lawyers who may be better-connected or in wealthier firms. Understanding how the real world works can be your entrée to leveling the playing field.