Lessons from an African-American Female Attorney — Lesson 1: Turning Rocks into Stepping Stones

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In this occasional blog series, Sharon Davison, a securities attorney with expertise in providing legal, regulatory, and strategic advice, shares lessons from her impressive legal career navigating among organizations in Big Law, in-house legal departments, and now as a solo attorney. You can read all her lessons here.

In the last year I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about my career and where I want to go in the last stage of it. This look-back to look-forward has made me face some of the roadblocks that I have encountered, as well as some of the advantages as well. It has made me look at who has mentored me, who has sponsored me, and who has tried to hold me back.

As an African American women, born in 1954 — the year the Supreme Court decided Brown v. The Board of Education — my life from the start was shaped around the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also shaped around the Woman’s Movement. I was in the fourth class of women to graduate from Yale College, who did not transfer in. I tell you this biographical history because I think it gives me a particular view of the practice of law, from the standpoint of both large law firms and in-house legal departments.

When I graduated from Columbia Law School, I went to a large New York City law firm. It had no African American partners and only three African American associates. There was no support group for any of the associates, let alone me. There were more woman associates and approximately two women partners, and more women were made partner while I was there. The attitude was associates would sink or swim — although I now know that some associates were mentored.

There are no menial assignments. I learned about a sector I knew nothing about and found it interesting. It also gave me a focus for my search for my next job.

Looking back on that experience, I learned a lot about how to be a lawyer, even though I was not able to use it at the firm in the long run. I was assigned to projects that were deemed unworthy of the more favored associates. One such project was setting up a broker-dealer. In fact, I set up two broker-dealers, and the rest is history. Something that was deemed as a menial assignment created a career for me.

So the first lesson in this series, is: there are no menial assignments. I learned about a sector I knew nothing about and found it interesting. It also gave me a focus for my search for my next job. In fact, there are many lawyers at big law firms that have practices that cover exactly what I cover in my solo practice. I had no one to tell me this.

If you find yourself in this situation — and I am told than many women and African American associates still find themselves here — you should embrace it. Learn everything you can about the task, make yourself an expert, and reach out to other attorneys who are involved in the same practice area.

What I eventually found was that my initial project to set up a broker-dealer could lead to a full and interesting career. I took the rock that my first firm placed upon me and turned it into a career choice that eventually led me to my own law office.

I am not suggesting that if you are really interested in doing M&A transactions and you are not being assigned to work on any that you should stay and do work that does not interest you. I am saying that you need to take the lemons you are given and make lemonade.

Any task that you are performing is the stepping-stone to your next opportunity.