Stop apologizing for who you are
Making It Work is a new column in partnership with the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women initiative in which lawyers share how they manage both life’s challenges and work’s demands. Visit workingmother.com for more.
Seemingly endless numbers of articles have been written about the keys to a successful legal career, each with a twist but many, many commonalities: embrace hard work, find a mentor/sponsor and make yourself useful to him or her, specialize in something strategic and valuable, build strong relationships with your clients, etc. Those are all very valuable pieces of advice. But I wanted to write about something slightly different—something that, when I reflect on my own career, was critically important not only to advancing my career and building my practice but also to keeping me sane and, most of the time, very happy in life.
I had to learn to stop apologizing for who I am and stop trying to fit a mold that didn’t work for me.
As an example: When I was coming up for partner, I had a baby and a toddler at home. My husband and I had just relocated our family to the suburbs and decided to try having him stay home with the kids full time. To be able to get home in time to see my young kids and help with the chaos of dinner and bedtime for kids that age, I had to leave the office at 5:15 p.m. every day. I did that, for nearly two years, with very rare exceptions. I am not suggesting this is an act of bravery by any stretch, and it is a small point. But in New York City, that is pretty much midafternoon for most senior associates coming up for partner. But I knew that was the right choice for me. Lots of well-meaning people told me that was a huge mistake, and that I would never be considered dedicated to my practice and, therefore, could not make partner.
I was willing to take that risk, because I was not willing to miss out on those fleeting early years with my kids. And I knew the work would get done; it just might need to be after the kids were asleep. I respect that people make different choices about how they want to design their lives and where they draw a line in the “balance” between work and life. I’m not advocating one choice or another; my point is only that if your choice looks a bit different from whatever the “norm” is at your firm or company, don’t shy away from that. Be confident in your own choices. To be successful in the long term—because it truly is a marathon and not a sprint—we have to design our careers in a way that works for our lives, not the other way around.
In addition, a useful byproduct comes out of being honest about what matters. You find out quickly who is truly supportive of your success and who is not. I had the great fortune of having mentors who continued to give me prominent roles on cases despite the fact that I happened to be out of pocket for a few hours in the early evening. And I had a firm that recognized at the most senior levels that many people—both men and women—needed this kind of flexibility at some point in their careers. There were certainly detractors. And some more passive-aggressive partners would make a habit of calling me about 5:14 every day with an “urgent” request. But if I had not had the supporters, I would have left. And I would be writing this not as a partner at Vinson & Elkins but as a part of another firm or company. Because it still would have been the right choice for me.
No one succeeds in this profession on their own: no one. We need the support of others—from clients to those senior to you to those junior to you, staff, everyone—so be kind to them. And where you can, be real with them. You will build more meaningful connections and, therefore, true support, which we all need in this challenging profession. When you build those connections and the trust that comes with them, you can succeed without apologizing for who you are.
Hilary Preston is a partner in the New York City office of Vinson & Elkins. She is co-chair of the firm’s intellectual property practice group and a member of the firm’s management committee.