Legal Practice

Whose Gate are You Keeping?

A few days ago I posted about the quandary I often feel in discussing professional norms and how to abide by them while understanding that those norms are rooted in classism, sexism, and racism. As always, my goal with teaching “how tos” is not to push for assimilation but rather to uncover these unspoken rules so people can decide which, if any, to follow. And how one abides by those norms is wholly dependent on your own career goals, current needs, and other obligations.

Ok, but say you quickly learn and adapt to these standards, what does that mean? It means that while you’ve figured out the way to advance within this industry; it’s imperative that you don’t use the same barriers that they attempted to use against you, against other people. In other words, you cannot become so mesmerized by this profession and the power it provides that you start to judge others because they haven’t adapted the way you have.

Gatekeeping is generally defined as controlling or limiting access to something. As we progress in our careers and gain more positions of power there will be moments where we can advance the status quo and limit access or we can intentionally look for ways to increase access for others.

In my opinion, it is critical that we understand ourselves enough to recognize when we’re limiting access for others and understand why we’re doing so. Otherwise, when we will fail to recognize how we’ve been conditioned to perpetuate professional norms, we continue to inflict that harm on others.

The first step is to gain an understanding of the business norms expected in your workplace and how they impact people like you so that you can easily recognize when gatekeeping is happening. Maybe your firm only wants T14 candidates or values clerking over other internships or prefers one “prestigious” fellowship over another…those are all things you’ll pick up when you see who they hire as interns and new associates. Maybe you fit that mold or made it through for some other reason, either way you understand what is “preferred,” but you also recognize that these preferences have little do with ability or intelligence and more to do with the seduction of prestige.

I’ll repeat that because it is important. It is so easy, a given really, that we will believe the hype and just think that we’re the hottest, most intelligent being to ever come out of our neighborhood and so of course we’ve earned our position! But sit with this for a moment, what if, instead of your success being due only to intelligence, it is also because you figured out how to adapt, assimilate, and play along enough that they let you in?

I know, when I first heard this I thought, “um no, I’m hella smart.” But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that a lot of my career advancement happened because I figured out how to adapt and did what was expected. That doesn’t take away from my intelligence but I understand that there are many intelligent people, who could have excelled in the law, that weren’t able to gain access because someone else wrote them off too early due to their inability/unwillingness to abide by these standards.

So if we agree that most of these professional expectations stem from systemic oppression and the legal industry’s desire to stay exclusive, then another part of our job becomes recognizing when the drive to gate keep revs up within you and figuring out how you will stop yourself from being what limits someone else from advancing in their career.  Take the earlier example, you’re a part of a firm that values T14 graduates and you’re now part of the intern selection committee. Do you go with the flow? Or will you push back and encourage hiring from other schools? Or are you perhaps buying into the idea that only T14s are worthy of your firm?

And it’s easy to think that when the time comes you won’t defend the status quo, but it is just as easy to fall trap to the idea that we’re elite and special. I worked with someone that highly favored interns from the ivies but this person went to a very low ranked law school. It was almost humorous, in a sad way, because this person would never have given their younger version a chance since they weren’t part of an “elite” school. And, in the end, who even benefits from this type of gatekeeping?! Not the person towing the line, not the student that is overlooked, and not the firm that loses out on someone that could bring in a fresh perspective…

Ultimately the key here is to be aware and to be vigilante about both the standards in your workplace and your own thought processes and behaviors. Recognize when maybe you’re buying into a professional standard a little too much without having a rational reason behind it. And recognize how those standards are used to limit access within your firms/places of work so that when you do have the opportunity to allow others in you throw that goddamn gate wide open!