Advice for New Black Attorneys
At this time of year, those who graduated from law school in May are anxiously anticipating two things: getting their bar results and starting their new jobs. Law school is an excellent training ground, but even the best law schools can’t fully prepare you for the reality of legal practice. The realities of this profession are even more stark for attorneys of color. To guide you as you begin your career, consider this advice for new Black attorneys.
Before we begin, note that most the advice here applies to newly minted attorneys working in large or medium law firms or government agencies. If you plan to go solo, never fear. Our previous entry on solo practitioners was written with you in mind.
Tip#1 – Learn the Game. Play the Game.
Many new Black attorneys make the mistake of thinking that keeping their nose to the grindstone and billing hours will be enough to succeed. It isn’t. Law firm promotions and assignments aren’t just about the person who works the hardest. They are also, unfortunately, about politics. Your relationships with others matter just as much as your work product – if not more. Given this reality, as soon as you walk into your new firm, you must make it your business to learn how to succeed at the political part of your job. You’ll need to know who makes the final decisions personnel matters. You’ll also want to know if there are any unwritten rules at the firm. Every firm has its own game. Learn your firm’s game immediately.
Tip #2 – Get a Mentor
If your firm’s politics are the game you must play, your mentor is your coach. While an increasing number of firms have formal mentorship programs, if your firm does not, you may need to seek your own mentor or group of mentors. Your mentor will coach you on the firm’s unwritten rules. Your mentor can also give you advice or help you through sticky situations. You need a mentor, so don’t be afraid to ask for or seek one.
A quick note: In a perfect world, you and your mentor would share the same demographics. However, this world isn’t perfect. Perhaps there are no Black partners at your firm. Even worse, your firm has Black partners, but they are unwilling to help. If you find yourself in this situation, reach out to whomever is the most qualified – and the most willing – to help you succeed, no matter their race.
Tip #3 – Join an Affinity Group
What’s better than a mentor? A group of mentors! Firms and agencies that take diversity seriously have taken several initiatives to create more inclusive workplaces. Affinity groups are one of the more popular programs. Affinity groups give attorneys from underrepresented groups the opportunity to share concerns and support one another. These groups are a valuable resource for new Black attorneys. If your firm has an affinity group for African Americans, be sure to join it.
Tip #4 – Be Sociable
As previously stated, very few people make partner on merit alone. In firms and large agencies, relationship govern who gets great assignments and who gets stuck with the grunt work. Therefore, your success at your firm will depend as much on your happy hours as your billable hours. It’s not fair, but it is the reality.
Attorneys of color often feel uncomfortable attending social events with co-workers. While white associates look at these events as an opportunity to relax, attorneys of color feel pressure to be “on.” Work through the discomfort. Moreover, all new attorneys, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, resent wasting precious billable hours on social events. However, try not to think of these events as wasted time. Instead, view them as opportunities to impress your coworkers. So, as you plan your day, week, or month, schedule time to make yourself known to the people who control your career advancement.
Tip #5 – Keep Your Head Up
Working for a large legal organization is stressful under the best of circumstances. However, for new attorneys of color, particularly women of color, it is an ordeal. First, know that you are not imagining things. Implicit bias in the legal profession is very real and causes very real harm. Second, know that you cannot control whether this bias will impact your career. However, if you build a strong support system inside the firm – mentors, affinity groups, peers – you may be able to weather the storm. While there are no guarantees, having a strong team behind you will make your stronger.
As you embark on your new career, remember that by graduating law school and passing the bar, you’ve already accomplished a great deal. You will accomplish a great deal more in the years to come. If you need a mentor or looking to connect with attorneys in a new city, use The African American Attorney Network. The Network was designed to connect African American attorneys and allow them to support each other professionally. Join The Network today to enhance your support network.