Your Voice

A letter to young women lawyers about 'SADNESS' in the law

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Samantha Divine Jallah. (Photo by Geoff Shearer/Camera Box)

My dear sister (in law), welcome to our profession of stress, anxiety, depression, negativity, endangerment, sickness and suicide (also known as "SADNESS"). In addition to the SADNESS, many of us carry secrets, scars and an insatiable longing for change. They all dishearten, discourage and divide us in devastating ways. Yet you can prepare for and overcome them.

Our profession is demanding, inspiring and humbling. In it, you will face the limitations of independence or feel the limitlessness of interdependence. How far you go will not be determined by you solely. You will want to be excellent at what you do, but striving for perfection will burn you out.

I want you to win, to find your fulfillment in law as long as you choose to be a lawyer. I know that is possible because I have loved the law as a practicing attorney in government, private practice and in-house. I have found much meaning and fulfillment in it. And I have been honored not only to stand on the shoulders of many before me but also to be held up by the investments of many. This fall will mark my 10th year of practice, and I have learned some things that may be helpful to you as you navigate your career in our noble profession.

Prioritize and commit to your most important thing

If it is work, be honest about it, and put nothing before it. If it is family, treat that as the highest priority. Knowing your most important thing will allow you to make decisions that best align with your priorities when conflicts arise. Our priorities should be more like commitments than intentions.

To play off a Eugene Peterson quote, Our priority “intentions must mature into [priority] commitments if we are to become persons with definition, with character, with substance.” Prioritize what is important, in thought, word and deed; be intentional about having wholeness with your intentions, commitments and actions. Remember, you can always reevaluate and reposition priorities as seasons change.

Invest in a community that invests in you

If you plan to stay in this profession without falling prey to the SADNESS that abounds in it and the burnout that results from it, join and participate in a supportive community. When you build that community and lean into that tribe, you will never face our profession’s (or life’s) obstacles alone. The quality of your life will be directly proportional to the quality of the relationships you invest in that invest in you.

Be a trailblazer

Since graduating law school, I have been the only Black lawyer on all my work teams. I have been the only woman of color. I have been the only woman lawyer. I have survived, gained professional experience and acquired great stories. Yes, there have been distractions—the ones that women, mothers and the marginalized face in trailblazing and nontrailblazing legal roles. Yes, they hurt more than I can express.

Yet, as a rule, I do not allow the absence of people who come from backgrounds like mine to stop me from exploring professional opportunities that benefit me and my career. My comfort and discomfort, at times, are less important than my goals.

How do I make this work? I have an indispensable community of people who understand and ground me, personally and professionally. They challenge me to focus when the distractions come, encourage me to keep going when I feel exhausted, and strategize with me when it is time for change.

Find your allies

A white male sponsor planned my career trajectory since law school. He has walked with me through every job opportunity that I have considered in the last 10 years. His presence in my life has not eliminated my need for the invaluable presence of others who also have made deep investments in my career journey.

Yet our profession has more white men in leadership and highly compensated roles. If we only befriend the marginalized, we could miss out on opportunities to learn from (and about) the key constituents at the top and rob ourselves of career opportunities that may come from forming relationships with sponsors at the top.

Plan your end

My imaginary law tombstone will read: “Here lies a woman who became a lawyer without allowing a lawyer to be all she became.” I know that seems weird, but we have to have the end in mind at all points of our career. I see lawyers who would choose death over retirement. Law is either their idolatrous identity or their costly handcuffs.

In the former sense, they would rather die than find other selves within themselves. In the latter sense, professional ambitions may have robbed them of relational and financial wealth. They have other things they would love to do but are working to pay for failed marriages or expensive divorces.

We may not be near retirement or see ourselves becoming like these lawyers, but the choices we make now matter. How we manage our lifestyle and relationships matter. Maintaining a lifestyle that allows you to quit a job when you must is critical for living with options. It is easier to not compromise our relationships, integrity and values when we have options.

In that way, options equate to power. We should not delegate our power to any employer anymore than we should relinquish our identities to any profession. Similarly, we should be careful not to allow the quest and acquisition of the dreams (dream house, dream cars, dream children, dream vacations) to rob us of the reality of our options and power. Freedom is always more important than status. So plan your end even while you stay the course.

Parting words

My dear sister, despite the SADNESS, secrets and scars there is much to love in law. I do not imagine that it will ever be a perfect profession, but even now, it is a profession that gives hope to its clients, purpose to its own and possibilities to our world.

It may seem boring to prioritize your essence, your relational wealth and your health in an enticing world that prioritizes external status symbols, perfectionism and martyrdom. But please do not buy into that. Remember all the boring things, like reading archaic cases and studying for the bar, that have gotten you where you are now. Choose to live intentionally and fully, even if it looks boring to the observers.

As for the state of our profession, realize that sometimes we fight what seems like losing battles because fighting is more important than winning in the short term, fighting reflects our conviction, which like a river, with time, weathers a great immovable rock. May our collective stories be the river that breaks down and sculpts our profession’s immovable rock into something more conducive for the marginalized.

In solidarity, Samantha.

Samantha Divine Jallah is an assistant general counsel at Geisinger Health Plan and founder of Radical Bench, a coaching and consulting company. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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