Choose your role models

Vivien Holmes

Indeed, most of what you learn in your first years of practice will be from observing, and talking with, other lawyers. So it’s worth thinking about what the lawyers in your practice are modelling.

As paralegals and as newly minted lawyers, you’ll be influenced by other lawyers. Indeed, most of what you learn in your first years of practice will be from observing, and talking with, other lawyers. We all learn from working with others, and it’s clear from research that the practice style and habits we adopt as lawyers are largely influenced by the lawyers with whom we interact. 

So it’s worth thinking about what the lawyers in your practice are modelling. Are you comfortable with the values they express? Do you like the way they interact with clients/ talk to their colleagues/ relate to the non-legal staff? Do you respect the way they deal with ethical problems – do they in fact ever mention ethics? How do they cope with stress? Do you want to be ‘like them’ in a few years, or do you want to do things differently? If you don’t want to be ‘like them’, how are you going to ensure you don’t absorb their way of being a lawyer ‘by stealth’- can you find other mentors? 

A few years ago I interviewed a young lawyer who was not happy with the values of the firm she was working in.  She had this advice for junior lawyers:  

Be thorough in your vetting process: not only are they hiring you, you are hiring them as your employer, and you have every right to be treated properly and be in an environment that you feel is safe, comfortable and what you’re looking for. There’s no shame in being a square peg in a round hole…, but you should be paying more attention to what kind of hole you’re jumping into. [Finally], I don’t think that you have to be a prick to get ahead. 

In doing your own ‘vetting’, you will be choosing your role models. The importance of role models is brought home in the reflections of Sally Yates, who was US Deputy Attorney- General under the Obama Administration. When Trump was elected, Yates stayed on as Acting AG until the new Attorney General could be confirmed. During this period, Trump issued an executive order restricting travel to the US from several majority Muslim countries.  Trump’s order was challenged in the courts, which meant that Yates had to decide whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) would defend the constitutionality of the order by arguing that the order had nothing to do with religion and was not discriminatory.  

Yates directed the DOJ not to defend the order. She later explained to a Harvard Law School Graduation ceremony1 that she did not make this momentous decision in the 72 hours from the time she heard of the ban until the time she gave her direction.  Rather: 

[that] decision was the result of what others had taught me over my entire 27 years with the Justice Department. I drew on the lessons from my mentors …who instilled in me a reverence for … upholding the law and the constitution; from the judges who rightly expected DOJ lawyers to adhere to an even higher standard of conduct than lawyers representing private litigants…; and from my interactions with the people whom I served who had time and again made clear that they were counting on the DOJ to protect people’s rights and stay true to our founding principles. 

Yates’ reminds us that  

The time for introspection is all along the way, to develop a sense of who you are and what you stand for. Because you never know when you will be called upon to answer that question. 

Choose your role models wisely. 

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  Director, GDLP/Page Contact:  Program Coordinator, GDLP