As lawyers, we are trained to represent the interests of others. In representing our clients, we listen to them; we plan and strategize with them; we assist them in developing and implementing legal and non-legal options that best serve their interests, personally and professionally. However, when it comes to ourselves, who advocates for each of us? The ABA Law Practice Division’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee coined the term, “MELawyering,” in 2008 to describe self-advocacy with the same fervor lawyers demonstrate in representing and advocating on behalf of clients. During the Spring 2009 joint meeting of the Law Practice Division and the Young Lawyers Division in New Orleans, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee held a session with a small group of lawyers that produced the following takeaways:
- You are the best person to learn about and advocate for yourself.
- Those who have a clear sense of their personal identity have a career advantage over those who don’t.
- There is an advantage to the unique diversity that you bring to your personal and professional environs.
- It’s not for others to discover your unique advantage; it’s up to you to demonstrate that advantage in how you represent yourself in your personal life and in your professional life.
- The better you know yourself, the more confident and competent you are in advocating your position to those around you.
Learning how to capitalize on this unique advantage is at the core of MELawyering. Authentic self-advocacy requires that you know your unique purpose and passion, so that you can take charge of your personal destiny and advocate for who you are with your purpose and passion in mind.
So, what is your purpose and passion? Do you have a clear sense of your personal identity? Two types of students attend law school: those who know they want to become a lawyer and practice law, and those who see a career in law as one of several paths that could provide them with a satisfying employment opportunity. The typical course for both types of law graduates has been the acquisition of a position as a legal practitioner, with the opportunity for lifetime employment in the legal field.
The current shortage of employment opportunities in the legal field, however, has resulted in both types of law students having to consider alternative career options. Financial urgency is driving many law graduates to jump at the first available job opportunity without much thought on the long-term ramifications of the choice. Even in these times of perceived scarcity of legal jobs, those with legal training should not be distracted from their purpose and passion, but instead, develop short- and long-term strategies regarding the attainment of employment relevant to personal and professional goals.
The law graduate who always wanted to practice law, or the outplaced lawyer who wants to continue practicing law for that matter, should seriously consider what alternative job opportunities provide the best preparation for an eventual (re)entry into the practice of law. While a position close to a substantive legal area might seem preferable, an equally appealing position might be one that allows the graduate or outplaced lawyer to develop skills that law firms are beginning to appreciate as important competencies. These skills are not within the sole province of legal employment, but can be found in non-legal employment as well.
Jordan Furlong, a legal industry analyst, wrote that in addition to the traditional core competencies of analytical ability, attention to detail, logical reasoning, persuasiveness, sound judgment and writing ability, today’s attorney should also have the following skill-set: collaboration skills, emotional intelligence, financial literacy, project management, technological affinity, and time management. Accordingly, those interested in staying in the legal profession should consider alternative employment that facilitates their growth and development in this set of skills. Skill development by itself, however, is not sufficient; marketing yourself, i.e., self-advocacy is required. Marketing you requires that you understand what law firms and legal departments want and need, and that you demonstrate the value that your mastery of a certain set of skills benefits them in terms of time, money, quality, quantity, safety, or compliance.
If you are an outplaced lawyer or recent law graduate who attended law school because you thought law presented a viable career option, you might want to take a personal assessment test, such as Meyers-Briggs or DISC©, to gain insight into what career options might be suitable for someone with your profile. If you are exploring alternative careers, why not choose one that is aligned with how you think and do things? Don’t think that you have to stay in law because you have a law degree. Having graduated from law school need not be a lost cause. Many employers consider a law degree as a job enhancer. Just make sure the enhancement is not you providing legal advice while occupying a non-legal position and/or outside your state jurisdiction. Such is unethical and your exposure to liability is high.
In sum, the slowdown in legal employment opportunities is an externality. For the purpose of MELawyering, your focus should be on internalities rather than on externalities to carry you forward. Externalities can be subject to the whim and control of others. Internalities are under your control. Your purpose and your passion are uniquely yours. No one can change them. People may distract you and prevent you from seeing clearly, but they cannot change your purpose and passion. Neither can you. It requires you, however, to discover you unique purpose and passion. Once you discover it, you are then able to be a MELawyer—an advocate for who you are with your purpose and passion in mind to guide your course.
About the Author
Joan R.M. Bullock is Associate Dean for Teaching and Faculty Development and Professor of Law T Florida A&M University College of Law. Joan can be reached at Joan@ReformedLawProf.com.