When I started practicing law, firms were bastions for white men who had gone to Ivy League schools. My law school class was 20% women, and when I was hired at a firm, there were no women partners.
There was one female associate at the firm who told me she would have her secretary come into her office each morning to turn on the light, put papers around her desk and place a jacket on the back of her chair—so that the partners wouldn’t know she was home getting her three small children breakfast and off to school.
I had no interest in that approach and was completely transparent about what I was doing and when I was doing it. (Associates now have greater “freedom” and aren’t always tied to their desks, but the tradeoff, of course, is that they are never away from their email and phones.)
Whatever the context one faces in today’s workplace, I am a big believer in the importance of being authentic at the office—not just because it’s easier, but also because it is hard to be really engaged in your work if you’re expending energy hiding yourself. Moreover, authenticity is a key element of leadership; people admire and follow individuals who have a clear sense of themselves and let their values and passions show. And leadership qualities, or at least potential, are often a prerequisite for advancement.
At a firm holiday party one year, when my first child was a few months past his first birthday, a very funny partner handed out gag gifts. Mine was a picture of my son, to “remind me” of him. I had taken six months off after his birth but had returned with an intense desire to prove I still “had it”—and so was very busy since I’d been staffed on some incredibly challenging deals. In that moment, I thought my colleagues assumed I should feel guilty—but I didn’t. I was simply doing what felt right for me. (I’m happy to report that my two sons, now 30 and 26, seem pretty well adjusted. We have great relationships, and they see me as a career mentor.)
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Over the many years since that party, I have stuck with the strategy of simply being who I am and rarely worrying about how to fit the traditional definition of what lawyers are “supposed” to be like. This has served me well: I have developed deep relationships with my colleagues, my counterparts and, perhaps most critical to my professional success, my clients. They see me as a whole person, and that makes it easier to communicate, to connect, to engage and to work together effectively.
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In the early years, when things were so much more formal, my style might have been disconcerting, especially to older male clients. But working hard and being good at what I did seemed to overshadow whatever hesitations they may have had. In turn, that gave me confidence in my skills and my role and, ultimately, my power to achieve what I wanted from my life. More important, the relationships I built made it easier for me to feel good about the choices I made, and to integrate my personal life and my career into a unified path that worked well for me. Today, the relationships that began 20 or 30 years ago continue to bear fruit, generating a supportive network that I can ride through life’s inevitable ups and downs.
In the end, only you can define your career and how it will play out. If you are determined and stay true to your authentic self, you will likely find yourself happy with the tradeoffs and satisfied with whatever definition of success you decide to pursue.
Laura Hodges Taylor is a partner in Goodwin Procter’s business law department.
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