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I Wish I’d Known: Barbara McQuade

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Barbara McQuade

If you want to do something, don’t wait to be asked. The invitation may never come.

I’ve seen lawyers make this mistake again and again. They believe that if they’re highly qualified, someone will come and tap them on the shoulder to offer them business, a promotion at work, an appointment to the bench, or an opportunity to run for public office.

It almost never works that way. You have to raise your hand and volunteer.

What courage looks like

One reason we have this misconception is because of the way people talk. Often, public officials will say, “I was asked to run,” as if it would be seen as too presumptuous to decide to run for office on your own. But the truth is that no one campaigns for office just because someone asked them to run.

The same is true for obtaining legal work or applying for a promotion. You have to communicate your interest to others because no one can read your mind.

The fear of failure and embarrassment make people reluctant to ask for opportunities. They don’t want to expose themselves to public rejection if they’re not going to be selected. But you’ll never achieve your goals unless you’re willing to take these risks.

A vivid example of this concept occurred at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and the rest of the field were vying for the gold medal in the 1,000-meter final. One skater, Steven Bradbury of Australia, was badly overmatched and lagged far back, at one point falling a full lap behind the other skaters. Why was Bradbury even bothering to compete when he was so clearly outclassed by the rest of the field?

But in the final lap, another skater tangled with Ohno. They went down and took out all the competitors around them, creating a multi-skater pileup—except for one.

Bradbury, who was so far behind that he was able to navigate through the bodies littering the ice, crossed the finish line first for the gold medal. He won because he volunteered to compete and didn’t allow fear of failure to prevent him from trying.

Don’t shortchange yourself

The same can be true for careers in the law. As a government lawyer, I hired and promoted a number of other lawyers, paralegals, and support staff professionals. Often, someone would decline to apply for an opening, believing that someone else would get it. Sometimes they were surprised with the ultimate selection and regretted their decision not to seek the position.

In some cases, I explained this concept to candidates and urged them to apply. Other good candidates waited for a shoulder tap that never came because their interest was unknown. We were all worse off as a result. The best scenario for everyone in the process is a large number of highly motivated candidates competing for a position.

We can always imagine that someone else is more likely to obtain the legal work, the promotion, or the judgeship. But, in fact, you never know what qualities the decision maker is looking for. Maybe you have an underrepresented attribute that offsets other shortcomings. Perhaps a client is looking for a lawyer with a lower billing rate or needs a new firm because of a conflict of interest. Maybe an employer wants a candidate with different experiences and perspectives. Or, like Bradbury, maybe the other candidates will fall.

If you think you’re qualified for an opportunity, don’t let your fear of failure prevent you from applying. Rather than waiting for someone to ask you if you want something, raise your hand and ask for it yourself.

You can win gold only if you’re willing to risk falling.

Barbara McQuade Barbara L. McQuade is a professor at The University of Michigan Law School whose interests include criminal law, criminal procedure, national security, data privacy, and civil rights. From 2010 to 2017, McQuade served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, the first woman to serve in that position.