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I Wish I’d Known: Roberta A. Kaplan

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Roberta Kaplan
Find your own voice. Not sure you fit the legal mold? There’s no such thing, so just be yourself.

When I graduated Columbia Law School in 1991, women made up 21 percent of the legal profession. As I entered the profession, it was common for a male attorney to have never worked with a female colleague.

As a result, I often wondered: Could I be the talker and, really, the fighter I’ve always been?

Confidently loquacious

The thing is, I’ve never really been afraid to speak up. When I was little, my mother used to write letters to her younger brother, who was then serving in the Peace Corps in India. Her descriptions of me tended to focus on my loquaciousness. One letter from my mom written when I was three elaborated:

“Robbie is a real doll. You have to converse with her to appreciate it… If she lets you get a word in, that is.”

Even my grandmother wrote once, “Robbie is a doll and bright as a whip. I asked her to please stop talking for 15 minutes.” Apparently, in response, I said: “I really can’t, Grandma. I’m a big talker.”

Cautiousness creeps in

But as a new lawyer, despite my talkative and assertive nature, it took time for me to find my own voice.

Although there were some incredible women graduating with me from Columbia Law, the vast majority of my professors and classmates were White men. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d be perceived as “too tough,” “too aggressive,” or “difficult” if I spoke up.

And I definitely wasn’t crazy to worry about this. As we all know, women often get penalized in their careers for “leaning in.”

But with the help of incredible female mentors, like the former Chief Judge Judith Kaye of the New York Court of Appeals, for whom I clerked, I started coming into my own as a lawyer. Once I joined a law firm, I made a concerted effort to seek out strong women like then Paul, Weiss partner, now Chief Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and relied on their advice.

With the support of these role models, I started finding my own voice as a litigator. And the thing is, my way didn’t look or feel the same as that of the male partners in BigLaw.

Don’t waste time on doubt

So what do I wish I’d known when I was in law school and in the years immediately after? I wish I hadn’t wasted a second doubting that my voice was just as valuable as the loudest voices in the room. I encourage all new lawyers, especially new female lawyers, to find mentors in this profession who help them find their own voice and encourage them to use it.

At the firm I founded, we strive to make sure that young associates find their voice and find it quickly. We never want to see an associate flounder or not feel confident because they fear they don’t fit the “mold” of what a lawyer looks, talks, or acts like.

Indeed, many of our best lawyers don’t mimic the hyperaggressive, bulldog lawyer we see in the Hollywood movies. In fact, our clients often need just the opposite—someone to hear them out and truly understand what it is they want and what a win would look like for them. Of course, we also aren’t afraid to then get in the ring and fight to make that happen.

But now that the United States has a vice president who is African American, Southeast Asian, and female, Kamala Harris, who also happens to be a lawyer, it’s my sincere hope that anyone who feels like an outsider in this profession finds their own voice—and uses it.

Roberta A. "Robbie" Kaplan Roberta A. "Robbie" Kaplan is the founding partner of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP in New York City. She has decades of experience in both commercial and civil rights litigation. She’s perhaps best known for successfully arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of her client, Edith Windsor, in United States v. Windsor, in which the court held that prohibitions on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.