Helping, Not Hazing: Sharing Our Stories of "Grit" as Authentic Allies
By Jennifer DeMay and Lisa Frye Garrison – March 9, 2015
Picture a women’s conference. A moderator is leading a panel discussion about how women can achieve success in the legal field. One panelist, T. Rielle Blaizer, is a 60-something litigator. She shares some “war stories” about overcoming the odds to reach the highest levels of her profession, including anecdotes about being advised by men on how to dress, being expected to cancel vacations when she didn’t have “kids to run home to,” and working on a motion until 2:30 a.m. while pregnant and ending up in the hospital for weeks. Her intention in sharing these stories is to inspire and educate listeners to stick with their professions, show grit and determination, and become successful, fulfilled leaders.
In the audience, a 20-something litigator, Melanie Ahl, is impressed by Rielle’s “war stories,” but finds them more frightening than inspiring. She thinks, “Yikes. Is this what it takes for me to be a successful litigator? I was hoping to be inspired. Now I feel minimized.”
Next to Melanie sits Jen Exer, a 40-something partner from Melanie’s law firm. Jen thinks, “It’s great to hear how far we’ve come. I’m so glad that I didn’t have to face those types of problems, especially when my kids were little.” Smiling, Jen turns to Melanie and whispers, “Isn’t she an incredible role model?” She is surprised to see a look of horror on Melanie’s face.
Same story, three perspectives. As lawyers, we understand how different people’s perspectives may be. We face diverse perspectives when we wait on a deliberating jury or try to convince a client that the other side’s position is not ridiculous. The question is, how can we, as women lawyers from different generations, get past these distinct perspectives and remain allies?
The stories of what other women litigators have gone through, as they blazed the trail for the rest of us, are important and worth sharing. Indeed, we all understand the inherent value of storytelling. Stories stick with people. Consider the images conjured when one refers to “crying wolf” or “splitting the baby.” Even MBA students are learning the art of storytelling these days. See “Leader as Storyteller,” Wharton, (last visited Feb. 9, 2015).
Sometimes, though, our stories turn off the very people they are intended to inspire. If a story includes only the courage and bravado, and none of the vulnerability, it can feel to some listeners like soft hazing. How many times have you heard someone tell a “war story” without offering the lessons learned? How many young lawyers have suggested that a “war story” made them feel alienated from the speaker, rather than a bond with her? Add to the mix that many millennials don’t view “work-life balance” as a woman’s issue anymore, and you may have a skeptical listener indeed. See Families & Work Inst., 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce: Times Are Changing: Gender and Generation at Work and at Home (2011) (finding increased levels of work-life conflict, higher rates of men taking childcare responsibility, and other evidence that the gender divide on attitudes toward work and family is disappearing among millennials).
Fortunately, stories can overcome skepticism. As Shauna Neiquist writes, “when you listen to a story, you have to give up your stereotypes and your labels. Because stories crawl out of the boxes every chance they get. Because stories zig when we think they’ll zag.” “Foreword,” in Nish Weiseth, Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World (2014). So the question for women litigators is this: Can we learn to share our stories in a way that builds connections, makes us allies, and leads more women to success?
To answer that question, we asked Sonia Escobio O’Donnell, a shareholder and an accomplished appellate litigator at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Miami, Florida, with over 30 years’ experience, and Ariel Harris, a second-year associate at Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP in Charlotte, North Carolina, how we can share our stories in a more authentic, effective way across generations.
Sonia, as an experienced litigator, what role do you think “war stories” play in educating or mentoring less experienced lawyers?
I think “war stories” can help the younger generation see how it was, how far we’ve come, and maybe even how far we still have to go. When I started law school, graduating women had been subjected to “shuffling of feet” at the law library by male law students, an effort to get them to study somewhere else. At my first law firm, the women had not been allowed to sit at the business section where many of the major firms had tables reserved for lunch. I was from the jeans and long hair, peace and love, generation that believed women were equal. I was horrified to hear the stories of women who came before me, but they were important in understanding what I was facing and the issues that remained and are still embedded in the profession. I think the same holds true for newer attorneys. By hearing our stories they learn, even if what they learn is that they don’t want whatever came before, or want to forge their own path.
Ariel, when you are engaging a more seasoned attorney, particularly a woman, for career advice, how valuable do you find “war stories” to be?
All stories have some value. Even “war stories” provide great lessons if (1) you can extract the lessons, or (2) they are told in a productive and honest way. Personally, I have been around these “war stories” all my life—my mother was a single mom—so they are not new for me. The message that I receive when a more seasoned attorney shares such a story is that women of that time were strong and determined to make their careers and their personal lives a success, even when the world was a few steps behind. A direct result of that strength and determination is that my peers and I now have more opportunities to litigate without being questioned about our commitment to the legal profession. We are just as strong and determined to obtain success, but we realize that our success doesn’t have to materialize through the same grit, obstacles, and even discrimination experienced in the past.
Sonia, looking back on your own experience with prior generations of women lawyers, what did you learn from their stories? How did they make you feel? Did you feel hazed?
I’ve always used the stories as lessons. For example, the woman partner who was not allowed to sit with the rest of the partners at lunch was also a brilliant appellate lawyer who never argued an appeal. The male partners always argued the appeals she wrote. I was told, although not by her, that she liked only to write them and chose not to argue them. I don’t know if that was a true choice. But, I was the generation that got to sit at the table once reserved only for men. And I have always argued my appeals. These stories are not meant to intimidate. I think shared stories of past experiences help shed light on the issues faced today, even though those issues have evolved. Rather than feeling “hazed,” I always felt that stories gave me a helpful perspective of what came before, and I liked hearing them.
Ariel, when you hear stories that should not be replicated [bad acts by bad actors in a time when that activity was condoned], do you feel you are being hazed? Is there any value in hazing in the legal profession?
Maybe soft hazing is a good descriptor. As a former competitive athlete it is tough for me to use the word hazing, because it often looks different in athletics. There is value in initiating someone into a group. How you approach and implement the initiation can directly affect success, camaraderie, longevity, happiness, etc. One thing is certain; “war stories” can be a great tool if they are told with the right intentions and if those intentions are revealed during the exchange.
Ariel, how often do you engage the storyteller during the exchange? Does that enhance or enrich the dialogue you have?
As a recently licensed attorney (2013), I have encountered many “war stories” in a short time. They have often been frustrating because they depict a life that I have little interest in living. Through a recent meeting with a general counsel, though, I realized that my frustration was driven by unanswered questions. Engaging in a conversation reduced the feeling of being “talked at,” as if I wasn’t as determined or as strong unless I experienced these types of challenges. Ultimately, when I engage the storyteller in a dialogue, rather than simply accepting someone’s seemingly over-the-top monologue, I leave with a better understanding of the profession, my role in it, and the voice that I want to have when it comes to work-life balance.
Sonia, how do you feel about the experiences now, looking back, when you are telling your stories? Has that changed over the course of your career?
When I look back and tell my stories—like the one about helping my daughter put together her 50-state project for school the night before argument in one of the most significant motions of my career—I laugh. I shrug off the one about the federal judge who always called me “honey,” even while I was presenting drug cases against serious criminal defendants. I attribute that to a generational thing. I don’t know if things have changed a whole lot over the course of my career, but I started in government, which is a great equalizer. I have seen more issues later in life than when I started practicing, because I moved into private practice. I think there is still work to be done in the way women are treated and perceived in firms. But many of my stories are of good people: mentors who fought for me, judges who taught me, and attorneys, both male and female, who became friends. I never felt they saw me any differently from how they saw my male colleagues. I have been lucky in many ways, and looking back I am thankful. But I still recognize that things can and should be better.
Ariel, how do those stories of challenge and in many cases overt discrimination make you feel? Do they speak to you in a practical way? Do you and your peers feel those issues are relevant?
Sometimes it appears that these stories are held as a badge of honor. That frustrates me because I saw the difficulty that my mom endured while juggling her career and her personal life. At times it weighed her down. Yes, she rose to the occasion (almost always) and she gained success because of it. But the success at the end of the story is not all we need to know. Vulnerability is a key component that paints a richer and deeper picture of the truth. Seasoned attorneys endured the same or similar struggles. No woman should have to undergo that type of pressure to achieve success. I’m grateful that our society has taken certain steps to reduce the unfair challenges that women face in the workforce, even though there are still improvements to be made. Issues still surface, but maybe not to the same magnitude that they did before I started practicing. I’m also grateful for the notion of a “work-life balance” focus, because it fuels longevity and happiness in any profession.
Sonia, do you share stories that did not end successfully for you? Or do you only share the victories?
I do share stories that did not end successfully. You can probably learn the most from the things that go wrong. One of my favorites was from my first trial where I so proudly identified all my exhibits through my witness and then forgot to move them into evidence before resting. And yes, the judge allowed me to reopen the case and get the evidence in.
Ariel, what do you see as your role when you are told a “war story”? Are you a passive listener or do you feel empowered to challenge the story?
It depends on who is telling the story and my comfort level with that individual. If I have built a rapport with the attorney, I definitely feel empowered to ask questions—not necessarily to challenge the story, but to better understand why he or she felt it was necessary to endure such obstacles. Recently, an accomplished general counsel shared a story about her desire to transition from litigation, which she found unpredictable, to her current role. She suggested that as a young attorney, I need to prioritize my life according to what will make me happy, establish these standards and priorities firmly, and remain unwavering in them. Early on, she established a tone that encouraged me to jump right in and ask questions, which gave me a true sense of what she wanted to convey.
Sonia, do you ask newer attorneys to share their “war stories” with you? What do you gain from hearing those stories?
Hearing stories from newer lawyers helps me remain current and engaged and exposes me to different ways of looking at things. It is important to stay in touch with the younger generation.
Sonia, as a litigator, storytelling is a skill you have honed. Is there a tip for telling these “war stories” you would like to share?
Every presentation in court is a story, so telling “war stories”—or sharing “battle scars”—is a form of mentoring newer attorneys. In court, you are in a battle and your story is your weapon. I work on how I want the judge, jury, or appellate panel to see my client. Attorneys who are amazing storytellers bring you in and don’t let you go until they’re finished. Usually, they are successful because they capture the audience—the judge, the jury, or in this case, the mentee. A war story should be helpful, perhaps enlightening, or at the very least of some relevance to the other person’s life. It should be simple and direct. No one wants to hear a bunch of complicated, boring facts about your case or your life. And if nothing else, if you can get people to think and to engage, you have served a purpose.
As Sonia’s and Ariel’s responses reveal, our stories, as women litigators, are powerful. They should create bridges that bring generations together, not create a “haze” that separates us and our ability to connect and learn. Let’s tell our stories—and listen to them—in an intentional way. Let’s be candid, vulnerable, questioning, and authentic, and truly build bridges with the next generation to inspire and encourage their success.
Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, grit, war stories, career development, mentoring, young lawyers, millennials, work-life balance, trailblazers