Tell Me No…I Dare You!

By: Guest Blogger, President-Elect Janea J. Hawkins, Esq

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.