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Professional Growth

What Having a Seat at the Table Really Means

May 06, 2022

By Josephine M. Bahn

Helping a young or new lawyer develop leadership skills pays dividends for employers. It gives new attorneysgroup of young lawyers the space, skills, and ambition to achieve more when they transition to firm leadership roles, management positions, or board service in their respective communities.

However, I continue to find that successful lawyers and demonstrated leaders in this profession, though enamored with having a young lawyer leader on their team, often fail to provide the support for getting there. On top of that problem, young or new attorneys may shy away from opportunities because of billable hour pressures or difficult bosses who prevent them from reaching their full potential.

To support young and new lawyers, employers need to develop leadership skills early on, even before the partnership or management opportunity presents itself. And junior and associate lawyers need to be active participants in the process.

Employers first need to define a seat at the table and the on-ramp for arriving there. Without proper preparation, one’s first meeting can be intimidating — and not because of the Robert’s Rules lingo. Employers can develop strong leaders who know what having a seat at the table means from day one by creating an earlier opportunity for them to lead and succeed, be it being first chair of a big client meeting, making a decision in a brief, or taking them (and paying the young lawyer’s freight) to a bar meeting or networking event.

For young lawyers, having the courage to speak up defines true leadership. Show up, raise your hand, and volunteer for work. Do a good job with it so you get asked to do something else. Repeat. That remains my tried-and-true formula for getting involved in bar work, my community, and the practice of law generally. During week one at my first job following my clerkship, a senior lawyer in government asked me to serve on an incoming matter. Four and a half years later, as I was heading into private practice, that small matter turned into one of the largest in the firm’s history. Because I showed up, I was able to start taking depositions, working with opposing counsel, and submitting briefing documents to administrative fora — all firsts for me. Without that opportunity to lead parts of the case, I likely still would not have tick marks next to the number of depositions I have first chaired.

When interviewing for my current position, I was asked about experiences I had thanks to that case — the number of depositions I first- or second-chaired, the number of dispositive motions or responses I filed, and so on. Without an established record of litigation skills, I would not have been as competitive as the other candidates.

Young and new lawyers might need reassurance that established attorneys and practice leaders want to lend a hand. I was recently at a dinner with a very successful partner at my firm. I told her I found her intimidating — in a good way, of course — and that I imagined others felt the same way. Part of our dinner focused on my fear that taking on these opportunities and continuing to raise my hand might prove problematic as I attempt to juggle my practice, outside organization responsibilities, and my two small children. She reassured me that the practice leaders who were asking me to work their cases wanted to hear my questions, to figure out how best to support me, and to serve as a resource. Senior leaders and managers in firms, government agencies, and nonprofits want to hear from their team of lawyers if the workload is insurmountable and how it interplays with their other obligations.

In a recent Washington Lawyer column, I advocated for a work culture where young lawyers are given the chance to learn, grow, and be included. Where young lawyers are encouraged to speak up, more junior members will raise their hands to ask questions, perpetuating an open and inclusive space for all.

Sometimes all it takes is one person at the firm to respond to a young lawyer, who must muster the courage to ask what may seem like an obvious question, that creates a long-lasting loyalty to the employer.

Josephine M. (Jo) Bahn is a construction law and commercial litigation associate at Cozen O’Connor. Bahn also serves as the D.C. Bar’s Under 36 Delegate to the ABA House of Delegates and will chair the ABA Young Lawyers Division beginning in August 2022.