The Young Professional’s Survival Guide

GuidepostYou have graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and started working at the law firm with which you interned two summers ago as a young professional. But as soon as you start, you run into some moral “grey areas” that you never expected to encounter. For example, you spent two hours reading a brief. Well, about two hours, you took a few email breaks here and there. Should you underestimate? By how much? They didn’t cover that on the MPRE. The next day, it takes you fifteen minutes to find an answer to a research question, but the partner says to bill two hours because that’s what “the file can support.” Do you? Later, you meet some senior associates for dinner after work and they encourage you to charge the entire dinner to a Fortune 50 client. The client won’t notice, or care. Should you?

If any of these sound familiar, trust me, you’re not alone. You’re in the same boat as millions of twenty-somethings, law graduates and not, who find themselves in the ethical grey area of “real life”. It’s for you that C.K. Gunsalus has written The Young Professional’s Survival Guide: From Cab Fares to Moral Snares. A professor, ethical leader, and former Commissioner of the Commission on Professionalism, Professor Gunsalus has encountered you, time and time again in her career. Unfortunately, she’s often encountered you after you’ve crossed that ethical barrier that you never, ever thought you would. This Survival Guide is for you.

The book isn’t an amorphous, theoretical discussion of ethical issues. Rather, Professor Gunsalus uses real world examples to offer practical advice on how to be a working young professional without compromising your integrity.

  1. Understand your own personal integrity before you even enter your work place. She terms it, “Start as you mean to go on.” Figure out what your values are before any ethical conflicts arise. Knowing your stance before you’re required to compromise that stance will help you enormously.
  2. Find a workplace that matches your values. You may not find a perfect fit, yet, but you can start with a good fit and take it from there. As Professor Gunsalus writes, “If you are going to hitch your reputation to the norms and behaviors of your co-workers … invest in your future by putting some care into assessing them.”
  3. Develop a professional persona. The popular term now is “brand”, or your public, work-related self. Purposefully develop the brand that you want people to see, and that you yourself want to be. Professor Gunsalus offers some practical tips on how to do so: share glory, demonstrate a positive attitude, manage your office relationships, apologize instead of blaming, and set boundaries in the workplace, especially in that grey area when your boss is also your friend.
  4. Have the correct mindset. Professor Gunsalus recognizes that even with the best advice, things can still go wrong, whether due to external pressures, rationalizations or fear of embarrassment.  She writes, however, that the best way to deal with these situations is to have the correct mindset. Don’t give into temptation, don’t break the rules because you think you’re entitled to do so, be aware of conflicts of interest, and while ambition is both good and necessary, make sure you keep track of where your actions are leading. “Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.”
  5. Review, Rehearse AND Reframe. Professor Gunsalus reminds us that it’s not about how to fix what’s already wrong; but how to start off doing right. Her suggestion: master a structured approach to decision-making. Very similar to the IRAC approach to legal analysis: review the issue, determine what rules apply to the issue, analyze the rules and the factors that surround the issue, then conclude with the solutions and the real world implications of choosing those solutions. She also suggests rehearsing responses to ethical dilemmas so you’re prepared when they arise, rather than being flabbergasted, befuddled, and going along. “Being prepared can help you resist.” Finally, as for disagreements that will inevitably crop up, Professor Gunsalus suggests adopting the “And stance” made popular by the book, Getting Past No. In brief, instead of using the word “but” in a sentence, reframe the sentence to use “and.” The example she provides: “The first five pages are very good, but your organization and argument deteriorate after that.” Reframing it, we come up with, “The first five pages are very good and I’d like to work with you on ways to bring all of the report up to the standard.” The result: positive and helpful criticism.

Professor Gunsalus offers more tips and numerous skills in order to be an ethical, young professional. It’s one of her first, though, that I’m going to share with you here: “You’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. The key is to make mistakes from which you can recover. You can make that choice.”

Good luck on your journey, young professional. I know you’ll survive; I hope you thrive as well.

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