The Art of the Game and the Rules We Try to Learn

The following article was submitted by a WLMP Alumna, who requested to remain anonymous.

Learn to play the game“Learn to play the game or someone else will play it for you.” That simple sentence fundamentally changed my perception of the practice of law at a large firm.  This advice suggested calculation, persuasion, and execution. It was a male mentor who had given me this advice, and at that time — I rejected it.

Now, as I mentor junior lawyers and work towards partnership at that same firm, I realize that learning the rules of “The Game” is the essence of survival in the practice of law: big firm or not.

When I use the term “The Game,” what I actually mean is a law firm’s individual culture. Each law firm has its own way of determining what behavior is rewarded and what is punished. Unfortunately for junior lawyers, there is no handbook. No guide is handed out to us during the law firm’s orientation. Nope. That advice, for better or worse, is held by the Partners.

What does it mean to play “The Game”?

I think to play “The Game”, a female lawyer must:

  • Persuade someone in power to give you the rule book. This requires authenticity, grit, good work, and yes – some business acumen. It means having a legal mentor that gives you something more than advice over coffee. They give you time. They shortcut the time required to learn law firm culture on your own and they also give you time by telegraphing warning signs for you to leave.
  • Get the rule book early. Although there is nothing wrong in taking the time to find the right legal mentor (I cannot stress this enough), it is still important to know and to learn the rules early. As they all say, “first and early impressions matter.” This is of course true in the practice of law – both for the law firm and also your assessment of your future within that firm.
  • Ask that strong legal mentor to back you up when you play the game. When I decided to actively participate in the politics, culture and leadership of my firm, I needed that mentor right next to me. They had to do more than backseat drive. They had to visibly be in the front of our journey with me – in all its shame, joy, failure and thrill.

My reluctance to label law firm culture as “The Game” flows from the fear of labeling strategic thinking, especially in women, as “not nice”; this comes from the perception that there is something wrong with persuasion, planning, and execution.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things. In fact, as I become a more seasoned lawyer, I encourage junior lawyers and students-at-law to cultivate opportunities and have discussions with senior lawyers about “The Game”.  After all, if you don’t master it, someone else may master it for you.

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