By Denise A. Robinson
“What now?” That’s what I imagine my brain says in response to all of the high-tech induced stimuli coming its way. Email alerts while I’m trying to work. Text messages and endless group chats. Notifications from apps I’m pretty sure I asked not to notify me. ‘Breaking news’ that never takes a break. And this deluge of information is compounded by distractions of the no-tech variety: the chatty colleague who loves to stop by your office; working on one task while worrying about another; or that Starbucks run that just can’t wait. And that’s just in the office!
Among other things, these constant demands for our attention have a tremendous impact on our productivity and energy. To make matters worse, our brain chemistry – which reacts favorably to the possibility of new information – can make these interruptions hard to resist. So, what can we do to stay focused on what matters?
While we can – and should, on occasion – turn off our phones or close the office door, shutting down the source of the stimuli is only a temporary solution. Regaining and maintaining control of our focus requires that we practice observing and responding, rather than reacting, to the persistent buzz around us. One way to cultivate this approach is to practice mindfulness, which is to attend, without judgment, to what’s happening right now. Somewhat paradoxically, mindfulness helps to keep us from being pulled into distractions by raising our awareness of them. Often, we go through the day not even noticing the various demands on our attention, but when we don’t notice, we can’t make a choice to be pulled in or not. Mindfulness allows us to pause to observe what is happening – both internally and externally – just long enough to make a conscious decision to continue doing what we’re doing and let go of whatever ‘alert’ has come our way, or go with it. Practiced over time, we can even begin to perceive various stimuli as a request for our attention, to which we can say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or even ‘not now’, rather than a demand that must be obeyed.
What’s your approach to staying focused on your focus without shutting down the world around you?
Spruce Up Your Personal Brand for Spring!
By Onika K. Williams
Spring has officially sprung! If you need any confirmation that spring is in full bloom, feel free to search for cherry blossom photos on Instagram…and the growing allergy aisle at your local pharmacy! With spring comes new beginnings. This is an excellent time to re-evaluate what you have done this year and what you hope to accomplish in the next year. Was there something you were hoping to accomplish this year, but have not been able to start? Did you want to take a language course? Need new headshots? Want to work on your LinkedIn page? Want to exercise more? Now is the time to do it!
However, before plunging head first into sprucing up your personal brand, here are few tips to make sure you are doing so efficiently and for the right reasons:
- Ask yourself why you are hitting the “reboot” button: While spring is an excellent time to re-evaluate where you are in your goals, make sure you are not starting new endeavors just to check off a box. Yes, getting new headshots this spring would be great, but if you got new headshots in January 2017, do you really need new headshots? Remember to ask yourself if the activity you are about to engage in is necessary to reach your goals.
- Do you have time to engage in this new activity? During this time of year, many bar associations are completing their bar years and preparing for executive board elections. Are you looking to get more involved with your local bar associations or become more involved with a national bar association? This is great! Being involved in bar associations illustrates that you are willing to volunteer and take on leadership opportunities. Additionally, participating in bar associations allow you to network and learn new skills. But, is it not necessary to be president of every bar association that ever existed all at the same time? Likely no. Make sure you do not take on too much at once.
- Do something new! Once you have figured out whether you are hitting the “reboot” button for the right reasons and that you have time for a new activity, try something new! Want to volunteer more? Join a volunteer-based organization and sign up for shifts! Want to visit more museums? Become a member at a museum and receive the opportunity to attend more museum programming. Want to take on a new leadership role? Run for a leadership position in an organization that you have been involved in.
In sum, spring is an excellent time to re-evaluate your goals and spruce up your personal brand. If you find that you want to engage in an activity and have time for the activity, go ahead and try something new!
The Embodied Lawyer
By Denise A. Robinson
I’ve been a runner all of my life. Figures, given that my late dad was a track coach and my mom regularly does two-a-day workouts at nearly 70 years old! I used to run for physical fitness alone, but as I encountered challenges in law school and later as a practicing lawyer, I started to notice the psychological benefits of a good run as well. In particular, if I had a difficult decision to make or a complex matter at work, I found going for a run consistently helped me work out solutions to the problems at hand. I’ve since learned there’s science to back up my experience, including research showing the cognitive benefits of increased blood flow to the brain during exercise. In addition, if that exercise takes place outdoors, safe exposure to the natural world has been associated with a decrease in the body’s fight or flight stress response, which corresponds to an increase in the brain’s executive function.
The relationship between my runs and problem solving is just one example of connecting the body and the mind for professional benefit. While lawyers and other knowledge workers are hired for what’s in our heads, the reality is that we are more than our thoughts, which offer an evaluation on what’s going on within ourselves or out in the world. We also have physical sensations, which offer us information about what actually is happening. Tapping into our sensory experiences is referred to in contemplative studies as embodiment, which encourages us to understand our bodies and minds as mutually beneficial. This runs contrary to our cultural norm, which is to subordinate the physical in favor of the mental, but the tide is turning. For example, a book published by a medical doctor in 2016, The Mind Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health, explores the connection between the microbiome in the digestive system and the brain, bringing new meaning and credibility to the “gut feeling.” Consider also the example of prominent trial lawyer David Boies. As described in Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Boies attributes his success in part to keen listening skills and an exceptional memory developed as a result of having dyslexia, which made acquiring information through reading difficult. Tuning into to his sense of hearing gave him access to information that others miss, and information is power for lawyers and others who solve problems for a living.
How might your career benefit from tapping in to your senses?
I, for a long time and much like many others, hated rejection. In fact, I feared it. During my high school years, in fear of a boyfriend dumping me, I would beat him to the punch. During my college years, in fear of not being selected for the elite dance team on campus, I opted out of the auditions. I would rather take myself out of the running – that is, remove myself from the sheer possibility of being blessed above and beyond anything I could even ask or think – than stand to hear the word “no.” However, once I decided to pursue a career in the legal profession, I had no other choice but to face, get comfortable with, sleep with and play with the word that I had dreaded for so long: “no.”
Perhaps it first started to become the new normal to hear “no” in the law school admission process. Despite having a strong academic record, too many extracurricular activities to fit in the appropriate box on the application, and demonstrated commitment to the public service, I had a LSAT score that was less than stellar and turned out to be my one grim remark. Not too surprisingly, I received plenty of rejections the first time around. But, I was determined to achieve my dream of becoming a lawyer. So for the first time I received the “no” that I received from those schools and said, “I’ll show you.” I took a year from graduating undergraduate school and worked for Americorps. I used that year to build my resume, retake my LSAT, revamp my personal statement and ultimately get admitted to my top law school choice. This experience set me on a path of fueling the “no” into its rightful place in the big picture.
Throughout law school and embarking on my first full-time job out of law school, the “no’s” came faster, harder, deeper and more frequent. I was excelling in so many ways in law school by leading several student organizations and getting hands-on practical legal experience. But, when I tried to convey all of these formidable experiences to why an organization should hire (ahem, pay) me fresh out of law school, I received so many variations of “no” it became disheartening and so discouraging. The difference was that, now I had the wisdom of what “no” truly meant for me. Rather than a road block, it was just an answer. An answer that could mean that this particular opportunity might not be the best opportunity for me. This answer could just be the answer today and could very well change the next day. This answer could be the door that closes just before another window is opened. Or, this answer could simply be the stepping stone leading me to exactly where I am supposed to be. Regardless of the reason, I knew that at the end of the day, I only needed one “yes,” so who cares if there were dozens of “no’s” before that? And the only person who had the capability of keeping a track of the “no’s” was me. The hiring manager or recruiter had no idea who I previously met with, networked with or how many other interviews I had lined up. Holding on to faith and that mentality, I applied to over 150 judges across the country for clerkships, fellowships galore and any and every entry level attorney position that paid a living wage from the summer of second year of law school through to six months upon graduating law school when I finally got my “yes” for a public interest fellowship with the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia (“OAG”) – an agency that gave me my dream job. Had those judges, hiring managers and recruiters told me “yes” for the plentiful other opportunities I had applied for, I wouldn’t have been in the position to accept this opportunity to place my foot in the door at my dream agency.
We all are too familiar with the challenge of getting your first job out of law school if you do not have something sewn up before you graduate. We are taught that the hardest job to get out of law school is the first and once you have experience, you can virtually chart your own course. Yet, close to three years at the OAG, a promotion and one divisional move later, I was surprised to learn that rejection is still alive and well. However, it changes form at this stage in your career. It is not uncommon to apply for internal vacancies within other divisions, and lose out on the opportunity to someone with less experience and qualifications. It is routine for many to apply to positions externally for which they are certain they have the requisite experience until they discover that they were one of the thousand applicants that had impressive qualifications, but were just not selected for that particular opportunity. Or many have challenges within their working groups where your colleagues are or stepping over you to get to their goal or your boss can care less about your career development. These experiences are yet another reminder of the endless rejection that we are sure to face as we continue to climb. The difference between letting it defeat you and catapult you lies in what you do with it.
The truth is: there is a teaching moment with each rejection. One day, I was venting to one of my mentors (which, by the way, are a mandate for anyone who ever wants to advance in life) about my frustrations of constantly hitting walls professionally. She told me the importance of “growing where you are planted.” She advised me to use every experience as a stepping stone, but not be too rushed to move to the next season because in our ambition and goal chasing we often miss what is meant for us to have in the present one. Come through, words of wisdom to live by!
Whether you are close to finishing law school, recently graduated and looking for the first open door, newly in your career and searching for the best fit, or having many years of practice and looking for advancement opportunities, I implore you to thrive on rejection. I encourage you to take each rejection experience, learn from it, and receive the wisdom that is born out of it. The most mentally strong (and often successful) view rejection as evidence that they are pushing their limits. Never be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone and push for more. Let them tell you “no.” I dare you to turn it into the perfect “yes” that is waiting just for you.
Signs that a Law Firm Truly Values Pro Bono
By: Resident Blogger Jamila McCoy
There is a LOT going on these days with regard to social justice issues. Maybe you told yourself before you went into law school that you would work a corporate law job for a few years to pay for your degree and then you would go back to trying to save the world. Maybe you just want to do more with your law degree to help communities in need. After working in Big Law for a several years, I realize how important it is to maintain an active pro bono practice if you want to transition to a public service career. The key is to choose a firm that embraces pro bono (and doesn’t just tolerate it). It is much easier to engage in pro bono when you are at a firm that values community service and encourages associates to participate. The hard part is finding such a firm. Almost all large firms mention pro bono on their websites and in their marketing materials, but any Big Law veteran can tell you that this marketing is often smoke and mirrors.
So how do you sift through the sales pitches to find a firm that is actually committed to pro bono? Here are a few tips based on my experiences and observations at law firms:
1. Look for firms that give full billable credit for pro bono hours, or at least have a high number of pro bono hours that count towards billable requirements.
It becomes very difficult to take on meaningful pro bono work if you are only permitted to credit 50 or 60 hours of your time to pro bono matters. A high cap, like 100 or 200 hours helps, but an unlimited hours policy is a true indicator that a firm values pro bono work.
2. Look for firms that have full time pro bono counsel (bonus points if this person is a partner!) or a pro bono department.
Firms that invest in an attorney who spends all of his or her time sourcing and working on pro bono matters do generally this because they want to encourage their associates and partners to engage in pro bono as well. It helps to have a person at the firm who stresses the importance of pro bono work to management as well as assists and advocates on behalf of associates who engage in pro bono.
3. Look for firms that sponsor a fellow or an externship with one or more nonprofit organizations or have partnerships with nonprofit organizations.
Like hiring a full-time pro bono attorney, sponsoring an attorney who forgoes billable work to donate their time to a nonprofit organization is an institutional investment that demonstrates a commitment to community service. Sometimes these programs are open to young attorneys who have just graduated from law school, but some firms save these opportunities for mid-career attorneys. Participating in a fellowship or an externship is a great way to establish connections in the public interest sector.
4. Look for firms that have signature projects or themes in pro bono work.
Some firms have signature causes or projects, such as death penalty appeals, local government reform, even social media “revenge porn.” If a firm advertises that it has a signature project, especially one, like a death penalty appeal, that requires a large amount of associate and partner time, it demonstrates that at least someone at the firm has a commitment to pro bono.
5. Talk to current employees and alumni about their experiences with pro bono work at the firm.
You should never consider joining a new firm without speaking to current and former associates! Some firms advertise that they encourage pro bono, have pro bono fellowships and the like, but in reality the pressure is on to bill 2,600 hours at the expense of doing pro bono, or perhaps the firm advertises pro bono fellowships, but are likely to ask an associate to leave the firm after she participates in a program. If pro bono matters to you, ask these questions early and often in the interview process or behind the scenes with other current or former associates.
“The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the positions of GWAC.”