I sometimes joke that “Lawyer” was only one of the six careers I envisioned for myself at the ripe old age of six. The other five careers included “Barbara Walters” and “part-time orca whale trainer.” Unlike some of my peers, I had no idea where my future would take me, but I was eager to explore every opportunity that came my way.
It was no surprise that when I got to college, I threw myself into every activity I possibly could. Although I am by nature a somewhat quiet person, this never held me back from new experiences, whether it was leading a performance dance group, chasing down a story for an investigative journalism seminar, or plowing my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses. It truly felt like the world was at my fingertips, and I gave little thought to my future. It certainly never occurred to me that my gender could make any difference in my future career path.
It was not until law school that I caught a glimpse of the challenges that lay ahead. I vividly recall the day my first-year male Moot Court opponent—a tall, athletic, gregarious type with a booming voice—sauntered over my way, leaned into me, and towered a foot or so over my head. “When I found out you were my opponent,” he said, with a thinly veiled sneer, “I felt so afraid.” I was, to my surprise, both floored and angered by this comment. No matter that I had practiced my oral argument for hours in front of a mirror, or that I had pored over my brief with a fine-toothed comb. I spent the evening dwelling on my insecurities. I worried that my quiet demeanor or petite stature would place me at a disadvantage. At one point, I wondered whether my opponent’s disarming grin would win over the judges.
Soon enough, however, I put my self-doubt behind me and decided to beat my opponent at his own game. Instead of wallowing, I practiced. I stayed calm instead of simmering with resentment. Though quiet by nature, I applied my stage experience by standing tall and projecting my voice. To paraphrase a line I heard on my first day of law school, “I chopped the wood in front of me” and focused on the task at hand. In the end, I not only beat my opponent, I won awards for best brief and best oral advocate. Even more than the awards, I had the deep satisfaction of knowing I did not need to change who I was to win. I learned I could be tenacious and assertive by being calm and prepared, rather than belligerent and condescending.
Fast forward a few years, and I find myself embarking on my legal career, completely uncertain about what will unfold in the next few months, let alone the next several years. In law school, I assumed that women who wanted to succeed as lawyers needed to conform to a certain mold. This assumption was based on stories I had heard about women trying to fit themselves into a traditional “male” model to succeed.
But my experience has called these assumptions into question. The women attorneys in my firm have all taken a variety of different career paths. I have witnessed several women take extended maternity leave and return to work, picking up where they left off without a hiccup. Some women decide not to have children. Others decide to work part-time or go on secondment. Litigation styles vary among the women attorneys as well. Some women are soft-spoken, while others are naturally more forceful. Some are gifted writers, while others are born with the art of conversation.
The possibilities for women in my firm seem as diverse as the women themselves. In many ways, this feels liberating—the options seem limitless! But with options comes uncertainty. When I speak with my female peers, it becomes clear that for most of us, there are far more questions than answers. Do we want to have children? If so, when? How do we balance work and family? Should we be more aggressive? Do we have to tone ourselves down? Will our calm demeanor be perceived as weakness? Do we want to work toward partnership, or will we decide to take alternative career paths? Do we need to play golf?
One thing is clear: There is no right answer to any of these questions. The onus is on each woman to define her own path. Furthermore, different situations call for different approaches, and I am aware that what may work at one time in my life, may not work later on. Fortunately, the women attorneys in my firm have open discussions about these questions through our women’s initiative program, which provides a forum for discussion on all of the questions raised above. Young associates in particular are encouraged to begin thinking about their careers early.
Although I have not yet made any concrete decisions about my future, I no longer believe women need to fit some predetermined mold to be successful lawyers. More, I am optimistic about my ability to explore different career paths, make decisions about raising a family, and stay true to my personality. My hope is that my generation of women lawyers will continue to explore these broader questions, and constantly expand the definition of what it means to be a successful woman lawyer.
Sarah Woo is an a first year associate at Reed Smith LLP.