Redefine Your Career By Just Being Yourself

In any profession, certain traits make you “good at your job.” Ideally, doctors are empathetic, accountants are fastidious and lawyers are … let’s say assertive.

I’m a lawyer and I know the stereotypes; we’re overpaid workaholics who always get our way. The stereotypes aren’t far from the expectations. To be successful, you gotta rack up hours, strong-arm people and win no matter what.

But what if you’re like me? You like to write poetry, read tarot cards and genuinely help people. Can you still succeed and not act like a character on Damages? The answer is absolutely yes.

This holds true for any career — you don’t have to fit the norm. And you shouldn’t; the workplace needs more vibrancy, diversity and feminine strength. So I’m here to make the case (legal wordplay, boom) for bringing your unique personality to your work and share some lessons learned along the way.

1. Stop resisting; start reforming.

When I first got to law school, I thought I’d made a huge mistake. The ideal for success was joining a big-name law firm, wearing ex$pen$ive suits and working 80 hours to make six figures to buy more suits. I wanted none of that, except maybe the salary.

I was deflated and embarrassed. I thought I’d found some direction, but only found that I didn’t fit the mold. And had now set myself back at least five years, if not my entire life for generations to come, give or take.

But I still wanted to be a lawyer. I still wanted to help people. So I decided to stop resisting the career I was meant for and instead make it work for me. If getting into Law Review (the penultimate feather in a law student’s cap) didn’t move me, I wouldn’t do it. I’d find the things about lawyering that excited me and do those.

2. Be a good improviser.

In improv, you say yes to whatever your partner suggests. [You know this, we’ve all read Bossypants.] The same is true for starting out in your career. Say yes to connections and opportunities outside your comfort zone.

I almost missed the opportunity that changed my trajectory. While in law school, my university launched a program for creating human rights documentaries. They were sending a team to Cambodia — and there was a spot for one law student.

You’re like “You applied, right?” Yes, but I almost didn’t. Because I thought it impossible to get in, especially for a first-year student. [Right now, you’re thinking about that one thing you’re talking yourself out of. The parallels are not subtle.]

Making that film led me to enroll in other film classes, even as a law student. In one class, I discovered the documentary filmmaking nonprofit Invisible Children. When a friend offered to connect me to someone in the legal department there, I said yes. And when I was offered an internship, I again said yes.

So say yes as much as possible [when your gut agrees], unless we’re talking about two-year gym contracts. That’s always a hard no.

red wall

3. Get entrepreneurial where you are.

Before graduating law school, I gave Invisible’s CEO an offer he couldn’t refuse — I would write fundraising grants to pay my salary and earn the company additional revenue.

It’s one of the more naïve things I’ve undertaken and the learning curve was, ahem, huge. But it’s how I discovered my entrepreneurial spirit — though I spun my wheels at first, I eventually figured it out and saw success. And expanded my capabilities.

If your dream job doesn’t exist or you feel stuck in your company, write your own job description instead. And then figure out how to do it.

4. Breakdowns lead to breakthroughs.

As happens in nonprofit work, and all work really, I eventually hit burnout. After five years (and surviving a viral phenomenon), it was time to move on. But I couldn’t imagine working for a more inspiring company. I thought I’d peaked career-wise.

Luckily, a cosmic light bulb went off and I realized I could take what I loved about nonprofit work with me — and I did. I started my own practice, offering legal support to small businesses, nonprofits and artists doing good in the world. This is the part where the momentum kicked in.

If your dream job doesn’t exist or you feel stuck in your company, write your own job description instead. And then figure out how to do it.

5. Partner with people who aren’t like you.

At Invisible, I worked with a lawyer named Sam Mazzeo. I was initially unsure about him, mostly because of the exclamation points in his emails, but soon realized he was the lawyer I wanted to build this dream with.

Sam is genuinely passionate about being what lawyers are at their best: advocates, counselors and make-it-happeners. We differ in many ways and sometimes butt heads, but the important things are there: Sam lives to help people and he’s incredible at his job.

So keep your eyes open and overlook those exclamation points. You never know who might make your dream possible.

6. Unapologetically lead with your feminine.

Speaking of strengths, as a woman, I have felt the pressure to assimilate in my line of work — to do business the way men have been doing it for years, rather than bring my unique approach and perspective. But our innate feminine strengths are valuable in business. Research shows we are better listeners, communicators and storytellers. When we bring our fortitude, intuition and empathy, we bring balance to the workplace and, honestly, do better work.

7. And claim who you are.

Over the years at wilkmazz, we realized that we lawyer differently — that we’re relatable, engaging and genuinely excited about our work. This led to a rebrand, a clearer direction and a tagline that informs everything we do: We’re just like you, but lawyers.

So find your own way in to your career; create a niche for yourself and add vibrancy to your profession. You may even lead change in your industry. Most importantly, you will stand as proof that being who we are is needed and there is always another path.

How do you stand out in your industry? How do you try to?

Images via Michelle Kim

Emily is a lawyer, poet and activist who currently serves as managing partner at wilkmazz, a one-stop legal shop for small businesses, nonprofits and artists.

12 COMMENTS
  • Andrea December 6, 2017

    Wonderful article, very inspiring. I checked your website and the work you’ve done and the clients you’ve worked with is impressive.

    I hope you continue with all the good work.

    Love from Spain xx

  • Nishita Ta October 16, 2017

    Amazing read,
    Just what everyone needs to hear and practice – thank you!
    Your job/career is also just as much your life hence you.

  • Brenda Ulrich October 16, 2017

    I love this article! I too am a lawyer — worked in a big firm for a few years and hated it, then in a small nonprofit for a few years (which I loved but hit a dead end), and then joined a solo practitioner with whom I eventually became partners. I genuinely like my clients and what they do and supporting them in their journey and dreams. This job can be so fulfilling when you practice in a way that aligns with who you are. Thank you for posting.

    • Brenda Ulrich October 16, 2017

      Looking at your website, it sounds like we have similar kinds of clients — the artistic creative kind. The other thing I like in my practice is the network of other small firm lawyers I’ve developed with different niche specialties than ours — its symbiotic and vital and another great source of connection.

      • Emily Wilkinson October 27, 2017

        So glad to hear, Brenda! Please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d love to talk shop. 🙂

  • Hannah October 16, 2017

    I love what you said about start resisting start reforming. It’s easy to feel like to have a certain career you have to fit a certain stereo- type. I also love what you say about getting entrepreniarial where you are. I really want to go back to school for a degree in journalism or communication, bc I love writing. but as a full-time mom of almost two and wife it hasn’t happened yet but I’ve pursued free lance writing opportunities and contributor positions this year and learned a lot. great article!

    http://www.theblessedlittlelife.squarespace.com

    • Emily Wilkinson October 27, 2017

      I love that you’ve been able to dip your toe in the writing waters, all while raising your two-year-old, Hannah. Congrats on your journey in career and motherhood. 🙂

  • Ana October 16, 2017

    I studied Interior Design. I did the bachelor and master’s degrees (it took me 6 years to finished). When that happened, I started to understand that… I didn’t want to do it as my career! Anyway, I accepted to work as a writer for two companies (because I really started loving it), I gave Interior Design classes and I even did a internship in an Interior Design office. I really tried to work in the area because everyone were like “you studied Interior Design, you should work in it” (specially my parents! But inside, I saw myself in another professional area. So I started to work in social media (focused on my profile), writing and even graphic design. I had the opportunity to work in a studio dedicated to that areas, but now I don’t have a job (my blog isn’t a payed job… yet). And… the struggle is that… no one gives a job because I’m not a social media manager, or writer or anything else, because I didn’t studied those areas!! What should I do? I don’t have the ambicion to create my own studio, but… how do I prove that I’m good at what I’m doing (even if I’m constantly working on my portfolio)?
    Sorry for the big comment, but it’s difficult to see people talking about this matter.
    Kisses**
    http://www.fine-alchemy.blogspot.com

  • I love your point about leading with your experiences and strengths as a woman. This is why diversity is so important in a workforce – everything has something unique to offer. Good on you for finding your niche and working out your career!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

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