Reproduced by permission from the Summer 2007 edition of Voices & Views, a newsletter from the Pennsylvania Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession.
by Reneé F. Bergmann
Imagine that your family makes a major, life-altering change, such as deciding to sell your home and buy a new one. It is decided that disrupting your life with the sale of your present home, searching for a new home and moving is in the best interest of your child so that she will enter high school in a new school district. Your house sells in a matter of days, so you will now quickly need to find a new place to live. You find one, and everything seems to be falling into place. All the agreements are signed and the house is almost packed. Closing is just days away. Other than the usual buy/sell last-minute closing issues, life, for the most part, seems to be on track.
Now imagine that your firm announces it has decided to close your office. The good news is you are welcome to join any other office if you like. If it is convenient. If you would like to move to another city.
Temporary personal turmoil can be dealt with; professional turmoil is another issue. When you are dealt personal turmoil along with professional turmoil, where should you turn? The stakes are, to say the least, very high indeed. Is a commute to New York City feasible? You must weigh the options of starting your practice over in a new town with your present firm, or moving to a new firm and perhaps losing the traction and rapport of those within a firm whom you know, are partial to, and, frankly, trust.
What to do? This is not a situation to work out on one's own, so who better to reach out to than members of the Commission?
Since mid-June, when I first heard this rather traumatic news, I've reached out to no less than a dozen contacts through the Commission. The advice, mentoring and time people gave to me ranged from extremely generous to astounding. In fact, while I was writing this article, a Commission member “checked in,” via Blackberry, just to see if I had made a decision, just to see how I was doing.
Why do I share all this with you?
There are many lessons to be learned from my experience. First, any organization, such as the Commission, is only as good as its members. In my experience, the members of the Commission have come through for me — not just in this instance, but also in the past — in an extraordinary way. This recent instance, in particular, needs to be shared. Second, any organization will only give back to you what you give to it. I have certainly heard complaints over the years about the Commission: how it is organized, the programs, the leadership, or sometimes even that the Commission itself lacks vision and purpose, that “fresh faces” are needed.
If you have a complaint, get involved and try to implement positive change over the aspects of the organization that you do not enjoy. Perhaps others have experienced the same type of dissatisfaction, or have had similar experiences. Don't just complain — make a change, a positive change.
Over the last seven years, I have given a significant portion of my free time to the Commission and have thoroughly enjoyed the time I have given. Each year, in the course of my time spent with the Commission I've learned more about the practical aspects of practicing law from you, the Commission members, than anywhere else. I have discovered that, in the process of attending meetings and retreats, planning and attending midyear programs or annual meetings, I had also formed very solid relationships within the Commission. When it came time to draw on those relationships, even if just for advice, I had made enough in the way of deposits to what I will call my relationship bank that people were willing to help when I needed it most. I found people wanting to help. Do not wait for your own traumatic news and then find you have a low balance in your relationship bank. If I had found myself in that position, it would have been a double blow, and I can assure you, it would have been an extremely uncomfortable position.
I would encourage new Commission members to use this example to build relationships early. If not within the Commission, within whatever branch of the Bar Association you are active. Be active and maintain relationships. These relationships are essential to the practice of law. For the more senior Commission members, I would encourage you to connect with new members. Join the mentor program when it is rolled out in September. Exchange cards at events, but more importantly, follow up with new people you meet. Make a connection — for no matter how small you think that connection may be now, it may become very important to you when you least expect it. For those of us in our midyears as lawyers, we sometimes become so entrenched in just moving our careers along that we may forget something like this can unexpectedly occur. Perhaps we even think we are immune to such an event!
Whether you are a midlevel, junior or senior member of the Commission, reaching out to each other is essential, not just to make the Commission work well, but also to keep the Commission moving forward as an organization. The bridge you build in forming just one new relationship at the next event may be the crucial connection that you never knew you would need. Changes occur to all of us, at all stages of our lives and careers, and the wider one's network is, the less traumatic these changes are likely to be. The road you travel can either be filled with connections and opportunities, or with problems you will need to solve alone, without a support network.
Use the Commission to be part of your support network, and build your equity in that network by making deposits in your relationship bank, before you find it necessary to make a withdrawal from your account.
In the end, perhaps this unexpected change in my life will be just the thing I needed. This change will never be something I asked for, but in order to continue to develop both as an attorney, and as a person, perhaps a dramatic change is necessary to continue to move forward. Changes can also be very painful. It is nice to have such a strong support network, like the Commission, when such unexpected changes occur.
Thank you for your support.