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Leah Ward Sears: Represent yourself as well as you represent your clients

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Leah Ward Sears

I used to believe that holding on and hanging in relationships that no longer bring any value to my life (or that are even detrimental to it) was a sign of great strength. I don’t believe that anymore.

Instead, I now know that it takes a lot of strength to know when to let go and then to do it. That is to say, if a person isn’t bringing something significant to your life, not treating you how you’d like to be treated, isn’t living up to his or her agreements with you, or simply isn’t the type of person you want or need him or her to be, you should distance yourself.

Change as your life changes

Everything changes in life, and just because somebody was right for you in the past doesn’t mean that person still is.

This advice goes for clients, personal partners, careers, jobs, houses, habits—you name it. It’s always important to value and respect yourself enough to walk away when you need to.

Case in point: We as lawyers aim to serve. Yet just as much as we consider a client’s case, we must also consider our interests as well. Not only do clients deserve to be treated with respect—lawyers do, too.

I’ve learned over the course of my career that not every client is a good fit. How do I know? I gauge each person during our initial consultation to learn not just about the case but about the person behind it as well. I gauge whether an individual is trustworthy and if the case is one I believe in. I speak with the client about fees and about his or her expectations.

While not everything can be gleaned in the beginning, I use reasoning, intuition, and inference to decide if the case and client are a good fit. It’s a part of the prep work that we as lawyers must do.

Also, small foibles can also come into play over the course of a working relationship. So much you learn through experience, but what if a client doesn’t want to work with a particular lawyer on a team or regularly calls at times well outside of working hours?

Benefit from boundaries

I’ve learned to establish boundaries, and for those who want to work with me, I ask that they work within these parameters. Or else another lawyer might be a better fit.

Second case in point: What happens when you disagree with a coworker and believe he or she is in the wrong? Or what if a partner at the firm has a reputation for having an abrasive personality with fellow coworkers who are on the receiving end of rude behavior? Or, simply put, what if you’re treated unfairly?

I can’t stress enough the importance of acknowledging your boundaries and working to establish a safe working space for yourself.

Early in my career as one of few women and one of the few black lawyers—the only black woman—my physical presence elicited a number of reactions, one of which was a lack of acknowledgement, which I find ironic considering that lawyers are individuals with a staunch respect for justice.

Yet I experienced this reality early in my legal career and made the decision as a young lawyer that I had to be unafraid to speak up and let a coworker know if something truly was unfair or if I disagreed with an idea. I believe we should take a stand for ourselves just as much as we do for others, and this statement is especially true for those of us who are women, minorities, or both.

Establishing boundaries and acknowledging one’s own strength are important parts of our jobs as well, for accepting the call to serve doesn’t exempt us from serving ourselves. In fact, if we’re to reach our potential and excel, we must also seek environments that best serve our needs as lawyers, in alignment with those of our clients and co-workers.

In this way, we can form lasting relationships with people who add to our lives and make our practice all the more meaningful.

Leah Ward Sears Leah Ward Sears is a partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell LLP in Atlanta. She became the first female African-American woman to serve as the chief justice of any state court in 2005, when she assumed that role on the Georgia Supreme Court.