Using Pro Bono to Build Your Professional Confidence

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 5.55.21 PMCrystal Doyle, Esq, ‘09L*

“Your client is a [danged] liar. She is either manipulating you or you’re both just full of [malarkey].”

Those were opposing counsel’s charming—and edited—words as we sat together in the hallway outside of the Matrimonial Part of Bronx Supreme Court to negotiate a divorce settlement for our clients. I was a junior litigation associate at a major New York law firm at the time and had landed in divorce court after taking on a pro bono matter referred to me by Her Justice, a non-profit organization that connects low-income women in New York City with pro bono legal services. Contrary to opposing counsel’s view, neither my client nor I was full of [malarkey]. In fact, my client—Janet[1]—had survived years of abuse at the hands of her mentally unstable husband. If anyone was telling tales in court, it was the man who had broken Janet’s fingers, regularly threatened their older son with physical violence, and scared and confused their younger son by repeatedly telling him, “You’re not my son.” With all the police reports, recorded phone messages, and sworn affidavits supporting Janet’s story, I was outraged that opposing counsel would call my client a liar.

Don’t worry, though. I didn’t explode into a fury of expletives. That would not exactly be dignified—or the W&L way—and it definitely would not have helped to further Janet’s goals. Instead, I looked him in the eye, told him he was mistaken, and directed him back to the matter at hand: negotiating a settlement based on the evidence and not on his client’s wild and unfounded accusations. No big deal. In fact, on the surface, there was nothing interesting about this interaction beyond my surprise that anyone would speak like that in a professional setting. Internally, though, I was deeply disturbed by how uncomfortable I had felt telling opposing counsel that he was wrong. Despite all my righteous indignation, I actually felt like I was the one who had done something “wrong” by not being 100% agreeable.

This feeling puzzled me. I did not understand the disconnect between how I knew I should behave—and therefore forced myself to act—and how uncomfortable it felt even to be just a little confrontational. But, then I started paying more attention to all those articles and studies about how women are socialized from early childhood to be overly polite and accommodating.[2] That kind of made sense. I also read about how this can have a negative impact on our careers, as men are allowed to dominate conversations,[3] while women politely take seats on the periphery of the meeting room[4] and say “sorry” when their male colleagues interrupt them.[5] That sort of “polite” behavior can stifle women’s professional voices and make it hard for them to be taken seriously at the workplace.[6] That all sounded infuriating and scary—and about right. While there were larger societal forces at work that I could not control, I was certainly not about to let what I could control—my own behavior in reaction to this discomfort or socialization or whatever it was—impair my ability to advocate effectively for my clients, so I began seeking out more opportunities to build my confidence and become comfortable dealing with confrontation.

Over the next several years, I found that representing pro bono clients presented the best opportunity to overcome this challenge. Billable work did not offer good opportunities (yet) because my lack of seniority kept me relatively isolated from opposing counsel and other parties outside the firm. Representing an actual human being in a personal matter like a divorce or housing dispute meant that I was the lead attorney and empowered to go toe-to-toe with opposing counsel, court personnel, and even judges to fight for my clients’ rights. Correcting a new court attorney’s misunderstanding of procedure or informing opposing counsel that he had misread the statute was still not easy for me—especially when I had to insist that they were mistaken and wave around the relevant provision in their faces. I found that with practice my confidence grew and I am a better attorney for it. For this reason, I think one of the best things that junior attorneys, especially women, can do for their professional development is to take on a pro bono case early in their career. They may have to “fake it until they make it,” but it is a fantastic opportunity to find their professional voice and confidence while providing a vital service to a member of their community. Win-win.

***

Crystal Doyle, ’09L, is the Pro Bono Manager at Her Justice, a civil legal services organization in New York City that serves low-income women with family, matrimonial, and immigration legal needs.  Before joining Her Justice in 2013, Crystal was a litigation associate at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP.  Crystal earned her J.D. from Washington & Lee University School of Law and her B.A. from The Johns Hopkins University.  She is admitted to practice in New York and is a member of the Sex and Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association.

References:

[1] Name changed.

[2] Early Gender Socialization, Unicef, http://www.unicef.org/earlychildhood/index_40749.html, (last visited Mar. 25, 2015).

[3] Soraya Chemalry, 10 Words Every Girl Should Learn, The Blog, Huffington Post (Jun. 30, 2014 1:57PM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/10-words-every-girl-should-learn_b_5544203.html.

[4] Aimee Groth, This Was The Moment When Sheryl Sandberg Realized How Women Hold Themselves Back, Business Insider (Mar. 7, 2013, 4:17 PM), http://www.businessinsider.com/sheryl-sandberg-sitting-at-the-table-2013-3.

[5] Gwen Moran, Sorry, Not Sorry—Why Women Need to Stop Apologizing for Everything, Fastcompany.com (Jun. 19, 2014, 5:36 AM), http://www.fastcompany.com/3032112/strong-female-lead/sorry-not-sorry-why-women-need-to-stop-apologizing-for-everything.

[6] Soraya Chemaly, The Problem With Saying The Media Has a “Woman Problem,” Salon (Apr. 28, 2014, 12:35PM), http://www.salon.com/2014/04/28/the_problem_with_saying_the_media_has_a_%E2%80%9Cwoman_problem%E2%80%9D/?utm_source=huffpost_women&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=pubexchange_article.

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