Which Are the Rules to Break?

Pictured: Police Officer Breaking the Law, originally uploaded to Flickr by Call to AdventureI was reading an article recently and came across this quote:

“Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

This really resonated with me — they often say that girls follow too many rules and I know that’s been true with me. Penelope Trunk’s post (which is an entire other ball of wax) indirectly referenced this also — that girls should do less homework, apply to business school before the conventional “time” to apply, and focus on finding a husband instead of her career in her late 20s.  (Pictured: Police Officer Breaking the Law, originally uploaded to Flickr by Call to Adventure)

So I thought an interesting question for the readers would be: what rules should you break?

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Personally, one of the rules I realized I needed to break was a silly one: that one shouldn’t swear around one’s superiors.  I’m not saying I was dropping the F-bomb around the VIP partner I worked with, but frequently when I was working with men about 5-10 years older than me (and especially where I was the only chick on the team) I would realize, at some point, that they were holding their tongue around me.  And I had to be the one to break the civility barrier, and then it was all cool.

Similarly, someone told me that when you’re working with a persnickety boss you should forget whatever you think are the priorities for the job, and focus on what the boss’s priorities are — that your success or failure in those areas will determine whether the boss sees you as a success.

Readers, what rules have you learned to break?


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  1. You have to know what your goals are before you decide what rules to break (or, put another way, which set of rules to follow).

    What is your definition of success? Do you want to make the most money, or get the best 360 reviews, or launch your own venture & be your own boss? Are you trying to minimize office time and max out on personal time, or make partner by age 35? Be the best working mom out there, or forgo kids altogether and focus on career, or quit the rat race and stay at home?

    I think the idea of breaking rules comes from the fact that rules tend to work only if everyone wants the same thing …. and in reality people want very different things, at least when it comes to the intersection of career, family, and life.

    • Well said.

    • I love this.

      I admit I ignore rules on how women should look (yeah, I hate make-up, so sue me).

      I do swear but only at inanimate objects, or happenings, never at people. The printer, the computer, tripping over the carpet again, etc.

  2. AtlantaAttorney :

    I’ll tell you what rule I have NOT learned to break: white shoes or pants after Labor Day. Just can’t do it – I don’t care what Elle magazine says this month. It just looks terribly unseasonable to me.

    • Diana Barry :

      Heh. I am wearing my white suit today for exactly that reason! :)

    • Does this also apply to patent leather shoes?

      • I certainly don’t think so? There are lots of patent leather shoes available in fall colors and styles, and I’ve often worn them myself during the winter holidays.

      • White patent leather shoes? Unless you’re a toddler or a prostitute, just… no.

      • I’ve always heard they (and velvet) are to be worn just between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.

        • Patent leather, traditionally, was only supposed to be worn between memorial day and labor. Very few people follow that anymore.

    • This is going to be my justification for wearing red shoes to my October wedding, just in case any older relatives decide to give me what-for about it. :-)

  3. Hmm. Good question.
    This is obviously going to be very individualized. Every workplace, industry, etc., will have its own rules that should and should not be broken.

    I think for me, it might be that “work is work, and personal is personal and never the two shall meet.” There is still a line between the two, but I think it’s good to be yourself at work, to let your coworkers/superiors in a little (to the extent they are interested, of course) because otherwise it is just too easy to become so “professional” and blank that you don’t form any meaningful relationships and bonds with anyone. E.g., it’s hard to find a mentor, if you come off as only interested in law journal articles.

    I think it’s especially important to do this as women, because, unlike men, we don’t automatically have sports to bond over with our colleagues (not because women can’t be into sports, but b/c most men will not automatically talk to you about them, at least not meaningfully).

    • I’ve been thinking for a while that fashion might be, for women, what sports is for men: a relatively light way to make conversation and initiate stronger relationships. Valuable networking often begins with a comment about your outfit, silly as it may sound. Unfortunately, of course, sometimes we’re taken less seriously for talking about fashion. There’s also the fact that you might be the only woman there. But I agree about being yourself!

      • Funny, though, I actually would say that I know a lot of men who seem to like to discuss fashion (not, as in, who’s wearing who and all, but as in what the rules are, who’s breaking the rules (badly), what they should wear- some of the main focuses on Corporette). It can be bonded over.

      • I think TV shows are a good gender-less subject.
        But, I don’t even think it matters what you’re into, so much as that you are not afraid to be yourself by letting people see that you have interests. Maybe someone will also turn out to be into kayaking, maybe they will just think it’s kind of nifty that you are.

      • and so anon :

        I’ve heard men, talking among themselves, discuss expensive tailoring at some length.

    • Agreed. I remember my first boss being SOOOOOO surprised that I was into baseball!

      The swearing rule is a case-by-case thing – in law firms, the people in corporate swear a LOT, but those of us in estate planning don’t so much, ever.

    • Yup, I can back up the people in corporate swearing a lot thing….I never learned to swear properly until I became a transactional lawyer!

    • I agree with the line between work/personal. At my old job, we all hung out together outside of work (or, on Fridays, inside of work with our 5 o’clock happy hours in the office…). It made work a much more pleasant place to be when you’re friends with your co-workers, since you have to be around them 8-12 hours (or more) a day. and now I know if i ever need a reference, any of those people can give me a great one because they really know me, both professionally and personally. I think it was easier in that job because we were all in one giant open space and didn’t have individually offices, or even cubicles, really. It seems like my new office doesn’t have that feeling at all, probably for a number of reasons, but I really miss that.

    • I once had a colleague who’d ask how my child was doing. To me, this was a question aimed at my heart, clearly signifying that she wanted a deep relationship. Took me far too long to figure out that she only meant it as chitchat.

  4. I’m still trying to figure this out in the construction/engineering field. So I thought I’d post to get comments by e-mail.

    • Not sure how uniform the construction/engineering field is, but in industrial engineering I’ve found huge differences between different companies. Generally though, I stick with the following guidelines (and tweak for specific contexts)

      Rules to follow:
      -Official dress code (safety issue), but be comfortable within it
      -Ethical conduct
      -Don’t be June Cleaver (but if you want to bake cookies instead of buying donuts for a special occasion, that’s workable)
      -Don’t leave before you leave (if you’re planning on taking parental leave, keep working your ass off until the day you’re out, and come back as close to full steam as you can manage; don’t sacrifice opportunities now for theoretical work/life balance later)
      -Find a mentor, but don’t limit your choices to someone who looks like you (lots of men are capable and willing to mentor women)
      -Even if most of your personal interests tend toward the domestic, try to have one outside interest that’s relatable (judging Lego robotics competitions is one of mine, and is a great one to bring up in response to “how was your weekend”) – even if it’s something you only do once a year, there’s a lot of stuff that can break down the “you’re a girl” barrier and turn you into a person instead.

      Rules to break (though what “the rules” are seems to be pretty context dependent):
      -If people apologize directly to you for behaviour that they wouldn’t to anyone else in the office/on-site, call them out on it even (especially?) if they’re high up in the organizational structure (I found this was most frequently an issue for swearing, especially by older white guys). I found that saying “I find your apology to be more offensive than your language” was a particularly effective deterrent, and I was singled out far less often afterwards.
      -Own your mistakes – if you screw up, fix it, and figure out what you need to do to keep it from happening again
      -I agree with the statement over request listed below in the chain (state “I’ll be working from home to deal with a furnace appointment” rather than requesting permission) – again, very context dependent, especially if you’re based on site, but the principles can be applied in various ways

      • I work in for a general engineering consulting firm and agree with these.

        Some others mentioned below that also apply well to construct/engr (I think):

        -Always be prepared to explain why you took a certain approach. At least in engr (not sure if this is applicable in law) there is usually more than one route to the same finish. Multiple ways are getting there are good provided there is sufficient knowledge that it will get you to the same finish

        – Mentioned elsewhere but if your client &/or manager feels X is more important, even though you think it should be Y, you better well focus on X. I work with a guy now (more than 20 years of experience in the field) who is always off on some other tangent and it is extremely frustrating b/c managers have to spend more time getting him back on track and it takes him forever (if ever) to accomplish the X goal to begin with

        – My work involves some field work and often visits to industrial facilities. May not be a “rule” or “breaking a rule” but I almost always wear a sports bra on these visits as I find them to be more comfortable.

  5. To me the “rule” that I self-imposed was to never ask for help because this means showing weakness. Also said asking-for-help should never be done with someone unless I owe them something.
    Since then I have learnt that I tend to over-analyze, that most people feel flattered when you ask for advice, and that I have many many “chips” (quoting NGDGTCO) that I never knew I had.
    So yes I have started asking for help whenever needed, and helping others before they ask.

    • sf bay attorney :

      This is a huge one for me. I’ve noticed that some of the male attorneys I have worked with have unabashedly asked for advice or help with ease and no one has ever thought any less of them. I am used to having professors who refused to answer questions until I had done my research first, and to my detriment, have carried that mindset over to my job. I still have to force myself to ask my superiors for help.

      • karenpadi :

        I would add a caveat to asking for help whenever needed. In my niche, we have a government guide (MPEP) that answers many procedural questions. If someone asks me a question where I know the answer is easily findable in the guide using a quick google search, I get very annoyed.

        On the other hand, this guide contradicts itself and isn’t always straight-forward. In that case, if someone comes to me, and it’s clear they’ve looked through the guide and have a few sections identified, I am more than happy to help.

        FWIW, I’ve noticed that men are more likely to not check the guide before asking questions. This summer, we had both male and female interns. It did come up in the intern review meeting that the men weren’t as familiar with the MPEP as the women. It did hurt their chances to have “pestered” their mentors with those questions.

        • Sandy McSouthers :

          This happens with the TMEP too – drives me bonkers. Especially b/c I understand the TMEP to be much shorter and more navigable than the MPEP!

      • Anon Litigator :

        Asking higher ups for advice also gives you a chance to highlight the work you are doing and keeps them in the loop. For example, if I ask a more senior attorney what they think about taking a certain strategy with a tricky witness in a deposition the higher up now know that I am doing depositions on my own, have identified this potential issue and asked for advice for something where experience does matter. I think this is the productive way to ask for help – not asking on small things that you could / should be able to look up yourself or ask someone at a more junior / peer level.

    • At my first job, my boss often said to our team, “Don’t come to me with questions. Come to me with answers.” Needless to say, he was a terrible boss in a lot of ways. But I too have a hard time with this, and have to remind myself on a regular basis that it’s okay to ask questions and ask for help.

      • Now that I supervise younger attorneys, I always tell them ASK ME if you have a question. The thing is if they don’t ask a question, and then they get the assignment wrong, then it causes me more work in the long run. I would rather have them ask a million questions when we get started and deliver a better product.

        The one question I still ask when I am asked to do something is, when do you need it. And make them give me a specific answer.

        Oh, and take copious notes when someone gives you an assigment. It helps you do a better job and also serves to CYA.

        • LinLondon :

          I do the same thing, TX. I feel like I’m actually beating the dead horse with how much I tell my team to please please please ask me anything they have questions about. I’m going to be the one held accountable in the long run, so it’s more time-saving for me to nip it in the bud. I’d rather have 30 people asking me questions about something they messed up 5 minutes ago than 5 months ago.

      • I wonder if what your boss meant to say was, “Be a problem solver, not a problem identifier.” This is something I say (nicely) to staff members who like to whine about what’s wrong, but not do anything to fix it.

        • One boss I work with calls these people ‘highlighters’ – e.g. they point out all the problems but never come up with any solutions. ;)

          • and so anon :

            Some of it is a matter of trust. If people don’t feel they have to engage in CYA by raising every point, they can focus on the issues that seem to matter most. But if you have a distracted boss who will throw you under the bus it’s not a bad idea to advert to every pertinent issue.

  6. Interesting thread. I have found the same thing re swearing with colleagues and senior men: carefully executed, it’s a do.

    Being in academics, I think women’s tendency to follow the rules too closely can be very harmful. One key example is length limits on submissions! (Papers, panel proposals, even your CV.) At times I have bent over backwards to shorten my materials, only to find that everyone else (typically men, in my field) has gone way over the length limit. Guess who looks better prepared and better qualified? Not me, because of all my editing. So now, unless I know it’s absolutely inflexible, I break that rule and end up on an even playing field.

    • This is so true. A good friend of mine got a job once when she called for information even though the posting specifically said “no calls.”
      Obviously, sometimes it’s a risk. But it’s important to keep in mind that risk also sometimes pays off.

    • Research, not Law :

      Hmmm… maybe this varies by discipline. I have definitely not found length limits to be a rule to break. And my very successful male superiors are sticklers for it, too. When I’ve been involved with reviews, glaring disregard for length and style caused submissions to be quickly tossed out.

      • I remember for our research papers we were expected to use word count to make sure the abstract is less than X words or else it would be truncated.

    • Actually my older male partner and many of our judges like things to be as succinct as possible and prefer sort of a “hit ’em in the mouth” way of writing, i.e. get to your point quickly, no use of qualifiers unless necessary, etc. It is not my natural style, so it has required quite a bit of work and restraint on my part, but I have heard from clients who complain about the length of reports written by other female attorneys compared to mine. That’s not to say some clients might not prefer more detailed information, but anytime someone asks more questions about a nuance or other issue, it’s easy to give them that information.

      • Of course one has to be concise and phrase things as effectively as possible. I’m talking about instances when you only get one shot to present your material, and your edits leave out major categories of substance such that it looks like you didn’t cover them. If someone else goes over the length limit, and it turns out that nobody’s counting, then they appear to have covered their bases and you come up short in comparison.

  7. DC Kolchitongi :

    I took a look at the linked article, and found myself thinking that you could replace the word “Asians” with the word “women” and a lot of it would still make sense.

    Now that I think about it, I have indeed seen this dynamic in action with my (Asian) husband at his job — and it spurred him to re-train himself to be assertive, in a way very familiar to NGDGTCO readers.

    He still isn’t going to make director this year, but at least now he isn’t working 16-hour days for the privilege!

    • Lostintranslation :

      DC K, as (half) Asian women so your future daughters and I are (effed)^2!! Don’t worry, they can hit me up later for examples of how.not.to.behave :-)

    • I actually found the original article incredibly irritating. (I read it when it first came out X months ago). Agree that the relatively brief discussion about being more assertive and less conformist was interesting, and I assume that these are the issues that resonated with Kat.

      But all the rambling about how to become less like an Asian male and more like a white male – primarily by addressing sexual insecurities and becoming more aggressive and confident around women – was just annoying and somewhat pathetic, and didn’t resonate with me or my experiences (as an Asian female) at all.

      • DC Kolchitongi :

        Haha, I posted my comment right before I got to the part about picking up blonde women. That changed the whole tone of the article decidedly to “skeevy”.

        I’ve encountered a few guys who enjoy classes/books like that. And let me assure you, their problems with women didn’t stem from being Asian, or being a “beta male” — they stemmed from being a misogynist creep. One of them was so awful that I seriously considered asking HR to do something about his constant stream of lady-hating rants.

        @lostintranslation Haha, I am totally going to hit you up for advice!

    • LadyEnginerd :

      My (midwestern) SO has a similar dynamic vs assertive east coasters (like me). I’m sure it’s not nearly as dramatic as if he were from an entirely different culture, but it’s interesting that I (the woman) have been encouraging him (the man) to be more assertive and direct, and he’s often pleasantly surprised to see how well it works. More to your point: we talk so often about how this is a woman-specific, NGDGTCO issue, and I think it’s important to realize that there are a whole boatload of cultural and/or regional issues that can also contribute to someone not advocating for themselves or unintentionally weakening how they are perceived at work.

      Is there a similar book to NGDGTCO that doesn’t have ‘girls’ in the title?

      • A Regular Lurker :

        I’m also somewhat curious as to what extent this kind of dynamic could reflect a more introverted personality . I’m a white woman from the East Coast, and I have also had to learn some hard lessons about being more assertive. So I guess I don’t think it’s strictly a cultural/geographic/gender issue.

      • DC Kolchitongi :

        This. You got at exactly what I was trying to say.

        So … Are loud East Coast white guys the only ones who instinctively know how to assert themselves? Have the rest of us been inadvertently letting them run the show?? :)

        • Regular Lurker – As an introvert and Asian female, I’m interested to hear what lessons you’ve learnt about being assertive. I worry that I am being typecast at work, but I happen to think that my behavior has more to do with my being an introvert, and less with being Asian, though folks might not make such distinctions when assessing me.

          • A Regular Lurker :

            @Anon NYC – Hmm. That’s a tough question to answer. Law school had a lot to do with it for me (though I certainly don’t recommend law school as a form of assertiveness training!). Feeling like I had become everyone else’s punching bag was also a big motivator. I also think I reached a point where I felt like I had nothing left to lose, so I might as well speak up.

            More practically, I would recommend taking a public speaking or acting class if you can. It gave me more confidence in my speaking ability. My public speaking teacher was also great about teaching us body language that conveyed confidence instead of nervousness.

            My issues may not be your issues, but I hope that helped a little. Susan Cain writes about introverts on her blog, thepowerofintroverts.com. Not everything there is practical advice, but you may find it helps you understand yourself better.

            Good luck!! :)

        • LadyEnginerd :

          To (intentionally) split hairs: I’d say that economically privileged, extroverted East Coast white guys are statistically more likely to have been socialized to assert themselves :)

          However, as someone who is more assertive, I do worry about hitting a work environment where I’m perceived as too aggressive. I already hit up against it some when I work with people from other cultures with different ideas as to proper behavior (especially the role of women). After some bad experiences, I now pay close attention to how they might perceive my behavior, and intentionally make myself less threatening. It does cut both ways.

        • Nope. Texans are plenty assertive, too. Even some Texas women ;)

      • MissJackson :

        Gladwell’s “Outliers” covers the idea of cultural background impacting our success from a much broader perspective. It doesn’t touch on midwest/east coast difference much, nor does it specifically cover assertiveness, but it is a facinating read.

  8. Really, really excellent thread.

    I’ve thought of the swearing rule before but wasn’t able to get up enough nerve to execute.

    • LadyEnginerd :

      It took a while for me to get up my nerve too, but I find that I get more respect & fit in better with the men if I do. My only rule re: swearing is to only swear at inanimate objects and *not* at people. ‘My ^$%*&ing computer’ is in a very different category of inappropriate to me than saying ‘my &^#(@*^ secretary’ or ‘you’re being a #$)*%.’

  9. That women should automatically be ‘nurturing’ in the workplace. I don’t remember birthdays, organize cupcakes, or initiate secretary gifts. I give negative feedback when it is required and don’t apologize for it. Also, I curse – even with senior partners in the room. That isn’t me trying to be ‘like a man’ – it is me being authentic to my personality and it has always worked for me.

    • Second this comment! I am a feminine woman and I make jam, knit, and do all kinds of girly stuff in my personal time. But I’m one of the most senior managers in the office – don’t look to me to organize potlucks, please! UGH

    • LinLondon :

      I smiled at this because when I bake for my team (I’m in charge of 30 people and two notches down from the top at my company) or organize one of their birthday parties, I think *I’m* breaking the “don’t be June Cleaver” rule.

      • I break the “don’t be a June Cleaver” rule with some frequency, but I always wonder (because of this site in particular) whether I’m doing something terribly wrong. I like baking and I like making people happy! I also like to help plan the office parties. I think the fact that I participate and people in our office are comfortable with me helped me to go from clerk to associate though. Ah well… much greater things to worry about.

    • anon in manhattan :

      I remember reading an article about a young, very successful, now former (took a buyout) NYT reporter. Considered very smart, wonderful credentials. There was a discussion of the great parties she threw, not her reporting. I thought, “Why am I supposed to care about this?”

    • LOL yup, that’s me. In my natural state, I curse like a f***** sailor.

  10. I’ll be very interested in hearing this since I’m fresh out of school.

    A pre-law school job taught me to break the rule of trying not to ask for help because it makes women look weak. I tried to tough out a very different assignment and ended up mixing up a few terms that were new to me. My supervisor was understanding but made it clear that employers would prefer for you to ask and do it correctly than to try to figure it out for fear of looking dumb or weak. In the end I looked worse that day than I would have if I had asked a ton of questions at the outset.

    • sf bay attorney :

      Hi, SeaElle. Asking questions up front (or even mid-assignment) lets the partners know that you’ve actually thought through the issues. That way, if you mess something up in the final document, they at least understand why you did so (or understand that you’ve considered the issues). Also, as Monday posted, self-editing hasn’t worked in my favor, either. In general (depending on what the work is), leaving in more has been better because people know you’re thinking.

      • I think that’s a really great way of thinking about it. I remember thinking when I got my first post-undergrad job that asking a lot of questions seemed to negate them wanting ME to do the assignment. I viewed it more as “they clearly want me to do this and if they wanted to do it themselves they would so I should just figure it out myself.” That day, speaking with my boss (who I think may have been legitimately the world’s best boss) showed me exactly what you’ve mentioned. It isn’t weak to ask for clarifications or for help if you don’t understand something. It is professional and better for the company time wise.

    • anon in manhattan :

      There’s no set rule, and reasonableness is not the guide.

      “The only dumb question is the one you didn’t ask.”

      Don’t take that too literally.

      • I think it has a lot to do with how you ask the question.

        I frame my questions as “I am trying to find the answer to this and have looked here here and here. At this point I can go down paths A, B, C. What would you suggest or is there a D that I haven’t considered?”

        I think you at least have to make (and show) an effort to find the answer before asking.

  11. Blonde Lawyer :

    I tend to ask for forgiveness more than permission. I break the rule about having to ask first. I also tell people what I’m doing instead of asking. Ex.
    “Boss, I’ll be working from home for two hours this afternoon while waiting for a delivery. You can reach me x number.” As opposed to “Boss, is it okay if I work from home this afternoon…”

    The slight exception to my rule is vacation time since we need to all plan our time in such a way that there is always coverage in the office. So, I usually say, “Boss, I plan to be on vacation x week. Please let me know by Friday if there will be coverage issues.”

    • Diana Barry :

      I do this too. It has only once backfired in a superior’s being PO’d at me (when I took the week off between Xmas and New Year’s) but I think it makes you look a lot stronger.

    • Lostintranslation :

      This is definitely one of my favorite and most-used Corporette/NGDGTCO tips. I’m really lucky to work in an all-male but generally very nurturing and laid-back environment, so I don’t get as much use out of some of the other areas quite yet (e.g. at our work, there isn’t a ton of negotiation, male or female. We’re lucky like that I guess)

    • Business, not Law :

      I do the same thing and it’s probably my favorite “rule” to break. I use judgement in all of the other things going on in the office before I do so and it’s never been a problem to my knowledge.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      This is something I’ve found myself doing recently as well. I’ve written a few emails recently that say “I will be doing X in this way unless you prefer otherwise.” Not only does it sound stronger to me, but it allows me to take immediate action instead of waiting for a reply.

    • karenpadi :

      I am really trying to implement this more often. I was always a permission-asker.

      I’m surprised that I haven’t (knock on wood) actually haven’t had to ask for forgiveness yet.

  12. ‘I do believe there are racially inflected assumptions wired into our neural circuitry that we use to sort through the sea of faces we confront. ‘

    This really strikes a chord with me. Thanks for posting this article.

  13. A little OT, but I have to take issue with the title of the article, which has been bugging me since I read it a few weeks ago. It’s not so much about “all the Asian-American overachievers” as “a certain kind of angry Asian-American male,” imo.

    • Some interesting insights about conformity and behavior aside, it’s mainly one Asian guy whining about how he’s not a White guy. Self-pitying and indulgent to say the least (and I say that as an Asian female).

      • Lostintranslation :

        Wow anon you’re right. I originally was just responding to Kat’s prompt and hadn’t yet looked at the article. oops. The article is painfully bad. News to Wesley Yang: (insert race here) (insert gender here) have problems too.

  14. I have always broken the rules of fashion at work. I have been an attorney for 20 plus years and I have ALWAYS dressed on the somewhat casual side. That is just who I am. I dress appopriately, but less formal than every other female attorney in my office. I do have my going to court suits. Now, I can do this because I have sort of “earned” my spot. But I did wear pants right from the start. And my hair is long a curly. If people dont like it, they can chip in to pay for me to have it straightened.

    How about a rule to NEVER break. Rules of ethics. And not just the formal ones that will get you disbarred. It is tempting to be an asshole (excuse de French). Especially because it seems like men can get away with it. But I follow the rules of procedure and decorum. That is how I roll. Sometimes it is frustrating because I see other attorneys get away with NOT following the rules. But I think in the long run it pays off. It is hard when you are a young attorney when you have a partner pushing you to push the envelope. I walked away from a job for that reason. But believe me, it will be worth it in the long run.

    • Anonymous :

      I have no problem wearing a dress to court today. Fifteen years ago, I needed the full suit for authority and confidence.

    • karenpadi :

      Second you on the rules of ethics. If a higher-up (or client) wonders why I’m not getting better results, I invite them to a meeting with the other side.

      Sometimes the higher-up acts rudely (I don’t let the client talk in these meetings) but, so far, he/she has always come away from the meeting with a better understanding.

    • Agreed on both counts. I find I’m more comfortable and therefore think better when dressed more casually. I have a suit hanging in my office, in case of sudden meeting, but otherwise it’s a blouse or sweater and nice jeans most days.

      I do agree that the ethical rules should be followed. And sometimes this is very uncomfortable, especially when an important client pressures you into violating the rules.

    • After wearing a uniform for years, I quickly broke the must wear nylons with a skirt rule. I haven’t worn them in 3 years and really nobody seems to have noticed or cared.

  15. The rule: don’t interrupt. I generally try to follow this rule, but not always. My experience is that women follow the rule much more than men and it can often be to women’s detriment. In some situations, if one never interrupts, she will never get a word in. I don’t think many people walk away thinking, “Oh, she’s very polite, I love that!” Rather, I think the impression made is that one is lacking in assertiveness and/or has nothing of value to contribute. At some point, one has to break in. I would be very curious to hear others’ thoughts on this.

    • I am a terrible interrupter. It is something I have to watch. I am always afraid that if I don’t say what is on my mind right when it comes to mind, I will forget it. I expect that there has been many a conversation behind my back in which people say, “Oh you know ________, she is really nice, but she always interupts people when they are talking.

    • a passion for fashion :

      I have a problem with interrupting. i do it all the time — to people more and less senior than me — and try to catch myself, but cant always. And i get really annoyed when someone interrupts me, which is why im working on this. I agree that women are less likely to interrupt, but men are less likely to get “in trouble” (for lack of a better phrase) for interrupting.

  16. I think “managing up” is a major challenge for most young professionals. Most people enter the workplace with the expectation that their manager will tell them what to do, their manager knows best, their manager will anticipate any obstacles, their manager will make expectations clear, the manager will give feedback, etc, etc. For most of our academic careers, we aren’t really able to question our professors, and we certainly aren’t expected to anticipate our professor’s needs. Then you get into the workplace, and you aren’t given instructions beyond “fw: pls handle, tx” or “urgent”. You need to know your boss’s work style and personality, anticipate his or her areas of weakness, and know how to work with them. I regularly feel like I’m being condescending to my boss when I remind him 10 times to do something that needs to be done every month, but guess what, he usually forgets. (He’ll also ask me to do things that I know for a fact he already did himself – and when I tell him he did them, he’s surprised because he doesn’t remember.)

    One rule not to break is the tedious style-related diktats of a micromanager. It doesn’t matter how good your work is if Mr. Micromanager is ticked off from the get-go because you used left aligned margins and a serial comma when he likes justified margins and no serial commas. Yes, it’s incredibly insulting for a professional to be forced to waste time formatting a purely internal document that was perfectly acceptable to anyone but Mr. Crazypants in the corner office. But do it anyway because it benefits no one to prod a sleeping bear. Not like this has ever happened to me, of course.

    • Oh lord, I had the same thing happen with an older partner who would only use fully justified 13 pt Garamond. EVERYONE ELSE in the office used 12 pt Times New Roman. Sigh.

  17. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I avoid swearing in the work environment. I don’t care how many people do it, it is unprofessional. Frankly, it also sounds uneducated, as if you know no better way to express yourself. The one rule I learned never to break, and which many lawyers nowadays seem to overlook, is: don’t anger the judge.

    • a passion for fashion :

      Totally agree on “dont anger the judge” and the fact that many overlook this rule. But totally disagree on all points on the swearing issue. to each their own.

      • I think never anger the judge (or the clerks) is a very good rule, but too often attorneys confuse that rule with ‘don’t stand your ground when appropriate because you don’t want to anger the judge,’ which is not the same thing at all, and not a rule you should keep. Sadly, not all attorneys understand the difference. I have seen this too often, esp. with the more intimidating judges, and it’s a real disservice to clients.

        • This. There have been quite a few times when I’ve frustrated the judge by refusing to back down and ultimately convincing the judge to see it my way.

        • Another Anonymous :

          “Here, here!” for don’t anger the clerks. I am a clerk, and nothing infuriates me more than disingenuous or patently meritless arguments. Second on the list is failure to correctly cite the record, and a very close third is binding your briefs and records with anything other than coil binding. Please do not use the stupid tape or bracket binding, which comes undone with the slightest use. Because I read, re-read, and re-re-read, I need binding that stands up.

          OK, rant over. :-)

    • I am with you on the swearing issue! I don’t appreciate swearing in the workplace (or other places, for that matter) and I think it sounds juvenile. Educated adults should be able to express themselves and show emphasis and feeling in their conversations without swearing. I find the most effective communicators in our organization (and the most respected) are those who don’t use profanity.

    • Well, let’s tie the issues together. When opposing counsel swears during depositions, I always manage to attach those pages to my motions and briefs, in the hopes of angering the judge against opposing counsel. Swear words in a transcript look incredibly unprofessional.

      • I’m not sure it matters to a good judge. A lawyer can be an unprofessional hack and screw up all over the place and still win if he’s got the right facts and the law on his side. I saw this all the time when I was working for trial judges. Judges may reprimand them in court, but it never affected the substance of their rulings.

  18. The rule of not asking for extensions on discovery responses. I was apparently the only attorney left in my city who tried to get discovery responses in on time. I just asked for an extension last week on some, and it felt really good! Of course, that was after the other side had gotten 3 extensions on their responses (and were still late), and we do not have a scheduling order in the case yet so no deadlines coming up. Still, it was the first time I requested an extension just because I didn’t want to work late.

  19. 1. No swearing. Break it occasionally depending on workplace. Swearing can be a way to express oneself if done in the right context and in the right workplace. DC Atty, gotta disagree with you on this one. A swear word thrown in on occasion sometimes adds exactly the right tone and it may help you bond if your workplace tends to resemble a naval shipyard in its use of f bombs.
    2. Wait your turn. If you see a space that would allow you to advance even though you are not “next in line”, consider whether it’s worthwhile to do so. A lot of times, women assume that the people in front of them in line are interested in whatever opportunity is awaiting and miss out. (Note: I’m speaking figuratively about lines, NOT the ones at Starbucks.)
    3. There are no dumb questions. Sorry, but sometimes there are. And sometimes a dumb question makes the person asking it look dumb when they are not. I think it is good to ask questions, but just consider whether the question you are asking is handled well by “the internets”.
    4. Do not learn to type. This is really old school, but I thought I would throw it in there since it is one I used to hear. Nowadays, knowing the modern-day equiv of typing, which I would say is rapid word processing and use of keyboard shortcuts, is a huge productivity boost. I would say it allows me to be twice as efficient.

    • wow – just out of curiosity, when were women (or anyone) instructed not to learn to type? i thought this ended in the 1980s with the spread of word processing and computers and the like? funny how ironic and dusty that sounds now.

      and BTW, i too hate the folks that cut lines at starbucks, but i agree with you about figurative lines.

      • Research, not Law :

        I’ve heard it, although not said to me personally. I think it was common during the period when women were transitioning from being limited to secretarial work to having positions where they had a secretary.

        A more modern version may be “never learn to make coffee.” I worked as an admin to put myself through school, and I lived by this rule to make it clear that was not why I was there.

        • Legal Mama :

          I follow the “not a barista” rule, too — if I am asked to make it, I preface it by saying, “Ugh, I am horrible at this, but I will give it a shot”, then I fumble around with the coffee, take a long time to figure out how to open the mechanism, and then make it so strong no one wants to drink it. After about 3 times, someone else will usually volunteer to take over. Passive-aggressive, sure; but it would be stupid to directly refuse when asked by your supervisor — it makes you look “petty,” but these things matter a lot in establishing roles.

      • This rule came about because women were often pushed into secretarial positions if they knew how to type (see O’Connor, who graduated from Stanford and a firm offered her a secretarial positions because she was female).

        These days I know very few attorneys who still dictate and don’t type. Most of them are older, and I consider them to be the outliers. No one in my generation makes it through law school without being a decent typist.

      • In my all-girl private high school, there were 3 different tracks of classes. The top track involved a lot of AP classes and covered topics like physics and calculus. The middle track didn’t really have AP classes, and included topics such as anatomy & physiology. The bottom track included home economics and typing. No one else was taught typing, as we were told that our secretaries would do that for us. This was in the early 90s.

      • no typing :

        I was born in 1966 and graduated from college in 1987. Everyone, including my very feminist/liberated then-stepmom, told me not to learn to type when I was in high school and college. And, for that time period, they were right.

        The only exception was my father, a doctor, who told me that learning to type in high school (mid 1950s) was the best thing he ever did because he didn’t have to wait for secretaries to type things for him and that I should learn, too, because it is always better to know how to do stuff for yourself. Now, it turns out he was right about the typing and knowing how to do stuff for yourself (he couldn’t have foreseen PCs and tablets and smartphones, but he was on to something). But he was dead-ass wrong that the calculus was the same for him (a male physician) as it was for me (a female recent graduate). And, predictably, he continued to be wrong when I was in my pre-partnership years in BigLaw and he kept wondering why I wasn’t married, why I didn’t have kids, why I had to spend time picking up my own drycleaning etc. Of course, by then he was on wife number three (he’s now on number four), so I rest my case. But I digress . . .

        • wow .. well, of all the lessons you could have taken from your father, it sounds like “learn how to type and do stuff for yourself” was a good one!

    • My mother likes to say that there’s nothing wrong with cursing, but you have to know how to do it before you let loose with the expletives. Cursing properly is a skill and can be quite useful if done right.

    • re: do not learn to type rule. Am in my mid-30s and remember hearing it as I was growing up in the 1980s. It’s so old school, but now I think it’s symbolic of that pigeon-holing that can happen with any “female” task. The only problem is that by avoiding pigeon-holing, women might end up losing out on a skill that might help them long-term. That was more my point, but prob not expressed so well…

      • The typing I learned in my grade 11 typing class was the most useful skill I learned in high school, hands down. (And my teacher was old-school: we had to learn on electronic typewriters and were not allowed to advance to computers until we knew what we were doing; we were not allowed to look at the screen or our fingers; and we were tested on both speed and accuracy. I praise that woman every day.)

  20. Anonymous :

    I just read the Trunk post. I am 45 years old and loved it!

    • ha. i assume you know that 99% of the corporette commentariat found it appalling.

      i think she’s got a point about not being neurotic (e.g the hardest worker), being honest about looking for a husband if you want one, being frugal, and maybe a point about plastic surgery – or, at least, minding your appearance.

      the rants about homeschooling, startups, MRS vs. MBA and maternity leave were ridiculous, not to mention illogical and contradictory. i’ve read some other posts of hers and she contradicts herself left and right. it’s like she keeps forgetting her meds.