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Washington, DC-based partner Kate McCarthy talks about finding your own style and getting down to work.

A D V I C E   T O   M Y   Y O U N G E R   S E L F

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photo of Kate McCarthy

Like many people, my original inspiration for going into law was probably the result of watching too many legal dramas on TV. Suffice to say, that meant I did not go to law school dreaming of being a project finance lawyer. I also never intended to come to the US, never mind spend nearly 20 years over here. Life can take you to interesting places if you are open to the challenge.

When I started out, I assumed that there must be one “right way” to be a lawyer. Fast forward more than 20 years and it’s clear to me that there are many ways to be a good lawyer. Different people have different styles and strengths. Some lawyers are most effective in a more adversarial arena, while others are strong consensus builders. My advice for those starting out is: find your own style, and find the practice and the clients your style is best suited to. Your style will appeal to some clients and not to others. That is true for all of us.

I would tell any young lawyer: don’t talk yourself out of challenges because they seem daunting. Many lawyers experience some form of “imposter syndrome” when they become partners – I certainly did. It’s easy to think you are not up to the job because you don’t know it all. I now know that no one knows everything. I am confronted with new issues every day. Often those who seem to know everything have just mastered the art of bluffing better than the rest of us.

Opportunity is the best gift a mentor can give. My first mentor was an old-school male partner who had no time for political correctness. Substantively, however, he was very progressive on women’s issues. He arranged for two senior women to share a job and was willing to assign difficult work equally to men and women. Talk can be cheap, and sometimes the best mentors are not the ones you would first expect.

It’s important to push yourself out of your comfort zone. For many, public speaking is nerve-wracking – but it’s a hurdle you have to get over. Carve out opportunities to handle just ten minutes of a meeting or an internal training session. Start small and then build your way up.

Many of the best women candidates for partnership self-select out of the process. They worry it is hard to have a balanced life as a partner and don’t give it a go. In some ways, it was easier to have children after I became a partner because I had more control over my schedule and could afford a good nanny. If you have a high-pressure job, you absolutely need help, and there is nothing to feel guilty about. It doesn’t matter who folds the laundry.

Don’t look 20 years down the road and worry that it all looks too hard. Take it a year or two at a time and just give it a go. I have been doing that for 22 years now!