UST School of Law

A Summer Associate’s View on How to Thrive

This post originally appeared on Courtroom Divas.

The other evening, I met with a few friends after work. Before the food came to the table, the stories started pouring out of people: complex projects, quick turnarounds, and long hours. All of us are going to begin our third and final year of law school this fall – which means this summer we are all interning as summer associates. The firm I am at is busy, sometimes hectic, and requires long hours and hard work. But it is a very engaging environment for a young professional. The work is challenging and interesting. More than that, the people are congenial, willing to teach, and have given each of the summer law clerks remarkable opportunities.

In June, the other female law clerk and I were invited by the co-managing partner of the firm, Alana Bassin, to attend a women’s luncheon. The luncheon, which Alana co-chaired, was attended by 1,200 women in support of female candidates for all levels of office in our home state of Minnesota. The celebration of women’s leadership was both astounding and encouraging for a young professional woman to see.

The main speaker at the event was Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, who spoke on her new book Thrive. Arianna, who leads a whirlwind life, talked about finding the “third metric” of success beyond money and power. The third metric includes our well-being, our wisdom, our sense of wonder and our capacity for compassion. Arianna contends that to accomplish this, we need to get more sleep – and not let ourselves be run ragged.

For a young professional woman just entering the legal field, sleep seems like a foreign concept. Law school trains would-be attorneys to “balance” a full class load, moot court, law journal and clinic, with the “other” parts of our life such as family, friends, faith and exercise. Law students tend to create this “balance” through lack of sleep – which does not change when we begin working as summer clerks, and, I understand, as first year associates. For those of us who intend to build careers, the sacrifice of sleep is well worth it in these early years. However, this training often results in women constantly saying, “yes,” when we want to say, “no,” and stretching themselves and their schedules too thin.

When I was a sophomore in college, I was taking a full class load which included organic chemistry, multivariable calculus and electronic and magnetic physics among other things. I was a teacher’s assistant for general chemistry, a research assistant in the analytical chemistry labs, travelling and competing for the debate team, involved in my church, and active in my sorority. I was exhausted. Halfway through the year, two of my professors sat down with me. They told me to slow down, kicked me out of the lab, and advised me to learn to say the word “no.” I was very grateful that there were two professors who cared enough – and noticed enough – to make sure I was still a functioning human being. During the rest of that year, I cut down my schedule and learned that – in Arianna’s words – “no” is a complete sentence. The subsequent college years were still hectic, but much more manageable.

“No” is a very difficult word for many women. We like to say “yes.” We love being helpful, caring, and liked. We are afraid that saying “no” will destroy relationships. After saying “no,” we feel guilty. What we forget is that we are not superhuman. Moreover, we forget that we are allowed to say “no” even when we have started a project. Arianna points out that a project can be finished by dropping it – not every pursuit in life must be completed. She used the example of learning to ski: she finished learning to ski by stopping.

Ironically, the reminder to say “no” is what has kept me focused on my career path. As I went through college, I got a significant amount of pressure to go to graduate school for chemistry, and work as a research chemist full time. However, as an avid competitive debater, I always had my sights set on law school. Learning how to say “no,” and dictate my own path, has led me to a career and a city which I love.

If a young woman says “yes” to everything, she no longer has the time and energy to build a career. Her attention is so divided that she does not have time to put in the work required of a young attorney like the lawyers before her. The ball starts getting dropped oneverything, and instead of one amazing career, everything she does is mediocre. Much of what she does is not what she wants to be doing, but is what someone else asked her to do – and she didn’t refuse.

If the young professional does learn the word “no,” instead of reaching for the next cup of coffee, or driving to the next event, she has time to focus on the here and now, whether that is work, school, or family. That kind of focus is what allows true learning, creates good work product, encourages creativity, provides a healthy lifestyle, and prevents the burnout so many women face early in their careers.

Cutting out the unnecessary sometimes (but not always) leads to more sleep, but always helps you discover what is truly important. When you begin cutting your schedule down, you discover which parts of your life you can’t live without. Things like family, friends, and faith often fall into this category, while the slew of extra organizations and clubs do not. For me, indispensable time includes time with my family and the time every week I spend mentoring young women at my church. Allowing myself to say “no” has made space for me to thrive. I have more drive, more passion, and a better ability to work both efficiently and intelligently – because my mind is here and now. Creating space to look good, feel good and connect with the important people in your life means you are wasting less time at work feeling exhausted.

There will always be hectic, messy and stressful times – no matter how much sleep we get. That is the nature of our chosen profession, and moreover the nature of our lives. Nonetheless, choosing to say “no” – and being okay with that decision – is a good place to start “balancing” our lives.

Lea Westman is a 3L at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and a summer associate for Bowman and Brooke LLP.