If you want to make sex, politics, religion, and other controversial issues front and center in your job search, I apologize, but maybe you should think about doing something other than working in a law firm. I'm tired of seeing the people who do this, not get jobs.
I am not saying any of this because of my politics—my politics do not matter. I think politics are so ridiculous and such a waste of time that I do not even vote. All I care about is people getting and keeping jobs with law firms. I have seen far too many people blow good opportunities by making the dumbest decisions you can imagine about what they put on their resumes, talk about during interviews, and prioritize in their jobs.
What’s on Your Resume?
Before we dive into this, let me give you one perfect example that I saw just the other day.
I was talking to one of the legal placement specialists in our company, and she was working with a candidate who had impressive credentials. The candidate had previously worked in a major law firm, had performed at the top of their class at an Ivy League law school, and was currently doing a federal clerkship. The candidate was also looking for a position in a large market where there was a lot of demand. This attorney was in their fourth year of practice, which is usually the most marketable year for lateral hires. However, despite all of this, absolutely no one was interested in talking to this candidate. The candidate could not even get interviews in smaller law firms, much less in large ones.
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There were a few other attorneys who did not have qualifications that were nearly as good, but were getting lots of interviews. It was this “star” candidate who was not getting interviews—and it did not seem to make sense until I started reading the candidate's resume.
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This particular candidate was a white male. Under the experience section at the law firm where he had spent three years before his clerkship, all he listed was the pro bono work he had done. He even bragged that he "averaged" over 500 hours of pro bono work each year and then described all of the pro bono work he did in great detail. There was nothing about any of the other work he did for actual paying clients on the resume—I could not believe it.
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Under the attorney's experience with the liberal, Democratic judge he clerked for, he listed and described a few opinions he wrote that had ended up penalizing some major corporations hundreds of millions of dollars for reasons that seemed quite trivial to me. The candidate's description of his time in law school was similarly littered with all sorts of organizations and activities that seemed geared towards overturning our capitalist society and empowering people who do not work with money and power.
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As I said, I am not political or interested in politics—I just want to help people get jobs. I am sure this attorney thinks all of these activities are impressive and important. But should they be on his resume? If you were running a large law firm, would you want to hire this person? If you were a large company spending millions of dollars a year on legal fees, would you want this person looking through your documents and having control over your future if they found something they did not like? Where do you think the press gets confidential informants? Where do you think whistleblowers come from? None of this is good. In fact, it is awful for law firms and clients. This is how people get sued, how law firms lose clients, and how companies get in significant trouble. People like these can be cancer for certain groups.
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Making the Grade
At the outset, I want to say to people who think the way this attorney does: Look, I get it. I went to the University of Chicago for college, which is considered a good college. I could not believe how easy it was to get an A in a class if you simply parroted back the politics and beliefs of the professor in your papers. AUTOMATIC A. If you started trying to argue against their politics—whether they were a Republican, Democrat, Socialist, or even a Communist—your grade would go down accordingly. You would have to be out of your mind to write papers against them. Professors give good grades to students whose opinions they like and who make them feel good about themselves. Even at the best colleges.
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To solve the issue of getting good grades, I shopped professors and spent an hour or so in their classes before committing to them. I could figure out where they were coming from and whether they liked me very quickly. I was so proficient in figuring out what I needed to say that by my junior year, I had not gotten a single grade below an A in over two years—and only one A-. The school asked me to apply for Rhodes, Fulbright, and other types of scholarships.
While some universities are different, the majority have liberal professors who will reward students for being liberal as well. When I was in college, I remember walking into some classes that were so far left I was the only student not wearing a poncho, tie-dye, or sandals in the middle of a Chicago winter. In many circumstances, students come to believe that acting liberal is in their best interest because this will get them good grades in most schools. Then, because this is what made them successful, they repeat it again and again—even well into their careers. You can do, be, act, and feel however you want, but this mentality is not going to go over well with most law firms.
Read also: Why Most Law Firms Expect Their Attorneys to Conform and Act Like Other Attorneys in the Firm
What Law Firms Really Want
Here are the basics about how large law firms work: They want to bring in huge clients. They want to hire people who will work very hard and bill tons of hours to these huge clients. They want to bring in people who will identify with these huge clients and find new ones as well. They like people who are personable, pleasant to be around, and do not complain or make trouble. They want smart people. Full stop. They do not care about anything else. Anything else you bring into the equation of how they evaluate you will harm you. They are not interested.
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The attorney who had all this pro bono work and other stuff on his resume will not get a position because law firms realize very quickly that he will not consider the work they give him as most important. What is important to him is pro bono work and doing other things. He is not committed to working in a law firm because three years in, he decided to go work for a judge. He has powerful anti-corporate feelings that are evident from his resume, making him a potential liability to any corporate client. All of this is dangerous and will not serve him well inside of a law firm.
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While I hate to do this, and I am certainly going to alienate some, I am going to say what needs to be said about sex, politics, religion, and social activism in your job search and career. The reason I am doing this is because I want people to get jobs. I care very deeply about making this happen.
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First, however, let me say a few words about diversity.
Diversity is something that is emphasized in all corners of society. Diversity is paramount and a vital part of changing opinions to equalize society. I have written a book about diversity in the legal field and personally believe that it is extremely important. You can see how seriously diversity is taken just by watching television. I love watching various detective movies and dramas. Over the past few years, I have noticed that it is exceedingly rare for the top supervisor in any of these shows to not be a diverse person—either a woman or man of color. The makers of these shows are trying to change the perception that supervisors are only white males or females. The idea is that the dominant culture will start to think differently about the races and sexes of supervisors. All of this is a good thing, and overall perceptions of our society can undoubtedly be affected by this overreaction of Hollywood to address past imbalances.
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Talent Trumps All
Just because society emphasizes diversity does not mean that your difference—or finding a reason to be diverse because of your sexual orientation, race, and so forth—is something that will help you advance. People are still looking for talent. Tons of Ivy League graduates who got into these schools because of athletic skills or other connections never do much with their careers—the world ultimately rewards your talent and contributions, not where you went to school.
Diversity, such as athletic skills, can and should get you in the door. However, you still need to have other talents that will make you valuable. You cannot reasonably expect to use diversity to help further your career. Many people make a big deal about where they went to college or law school for their entire careers, but never amount to much. You still need talent and drive regardless of where you were educated. Similarly, diversity is helpful to balancing our society, but an employer is likely to resent you rubbing it in their face or continually being reminded of it as a reason to hire you or keep you around.
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When Diversity Backfires
Diversity does not mean "us against them." It does not mean that we will not associate with or mingle with others. It does not mean that we expect to be treated as diverse yet want nothing to do with you. It does not mean we will use our diversity for one purpose, but not another.
Read more: What is Diversity and How Can It Help Law Firms?
When I was in college, I dated a woman who was from a conservative Jewish background. Her family hated me because I was not Jewish. They refused to have anything to do with me and every time she would see them, she would dump me for a few weeks because I was not Jewish. She shared with me how her family and other Jewish people she associated with believed that Jews were smarter, cleaner, had better values, and so forth than non-Jews. They did not want to marry or associate with gentiles. Most of her friends were Jewish and shared similar values. They had Yiddish words they used to describe blacks and were racist against them as well. She once invited me to a Jewish Seder and when I went there, the person hosting it was very upset that I was not Jewish and made me feel extremely unwelcome. After the dinner, he called the Hillel Center at the school and told them to never allow a non-Jew to come to Seder again. Some adults from the center even visited my girlfriend to tell her what a mistake she had made. During my last week of school, my girlfriend broke up with me and started dating a Jewish boy because she could not bear her family seeing me at graduation.
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It broke my heart. It was racist. It made me feel—and I was reminded all through college—what it was like to be excluded based on your race or ethnicity or religion. I was not only excluded; I had all sorts of racist beliefs shared with me about how I was inferior because of my race.
Ten years later, after I had started this company and gotten divorced after a brief 16-month marriage, I met a Jewish woman and started dating her. I fell in love with her, and then the same stuff started happening. I was not Jewish and, therefore, not marriage material. While I was not told master race theories about how Jews were better, I did have a lot of stuff shared with me about how Jewish value systems and their culture were better. To avoid this relationship ending and having my heart broken again, I agreed to convert to Judaism and went through this process for over a year.
Several Jews told me that the Jewish culture and religion had only survived by not allowing Jews to marry outside their faith. In societies all over the world, Jews are a minority. They come together and reject the dominant culture—and often think negatively of it—and keep their traditions alive by living and socializing together. Economically and socially, they will help each other but, at the same time, will reject the dominant culture and people within it when it comes to marriage and socializing. Paradoxically, it is for this reason that our world is filled with anti-Semitism. There is a common perception that Jews do not like non-Jews and only want to profit from them economically but not be close to them in other ways.
To my astonishment, after making the commitment to convert, I was not welcomed into being Jewish either. I realized that being a "convert" was something that other Jews looked down upon. Several Jews—women and men—told me that I could never really be Jewish because it was cultural. One older Jewish woman told me I would never be Jewish because I had not grown up with the "shared suffering." Almost all my wife’s Jewish friends made fun of me after converting. I never felt welcome and, in fact, felt more excluded and more like a minority after converting to Judaism than I did before.
I eventually learned that Judaism was something you could never really convert to—or be part of. Non-Jews I knew thought my conversion was crazy, odd, and nonsensical, and so did Jews. Converting to Judaism was about the most unwelcoming and alienating thing imaginable. I was able to get married because of it. However, her family, friends, and others she knew always reminded me that I was not "really" Jewish. I am going through a divorce now and I have gone right back to attending my Episcopal church and being the same person I was before from a religious and cultural standpoint. Had I known then what I know now, I would have never tried to integrate with a group that was never welcoming and always made me feel like an outsider. I never felt safe in any form of Jewish worship because I never felt entirely at ease. Every Jew I met and spent time with would ask me a few questions to ascertain that "Harrison Barnes" (which does not sound like a Jewish name) was really not Jewish—and, therefore, not part of the tribe.
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I know what it is like to be treated as a minority and to feel unwelcome because of your "diversity." It is painful to feel a lack of opportunity and acceptance because of something you cannot control. I know what it is like to want to be with people who are welcoming and supportive. Ideally, in a law firm or any other diverse workplace, talent and effort are all that matters.
Read also: Hiring Practices Remain Tense with Diversity Efforts
Leave Sexual Orientation out of Your Job Search and Career
Whether it is men listing their volunteering with organizations such as Gay Men's Health Crisis or people listing the various gay, lesbian and transgender organizations they belong to, sexual orientation seems to be all over resumes these days. Many gay and lesbian people believe it is imperative that law firms and colleagues are fully aware of their sexuality—whether it is based on how they talk or dress or advertised on their resume. You are free to do all of this, as long as you are aware of the risks.
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I believe that our society has made incredible strides in accepting sexual orientation and also treating women better in the workplace. In fact, from my experience working in two law firms and having numerous people of various sexual orientations in my company, I honestly do not think society cares anymore. In my own company, I have had polygamists (I have an office in rural Utah), people in same-sex marriages, and numerous gay women and men—and no one cares. I am sure there are pockets of discrimination; however, the overriding feeling today seems to be that welcoming people of diverse orientations into the workplace is not only accepted, but expected. In a career that has spanned more than 25 years, I have honestly never heard anyone make an anti-gay or anti-woman comment.
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That said, problems often arise when people of diverse sexuality make this an issue in their job searches and careers. People often put a bunch of information and statements about their sexual orientation on their resume and expect it to be a positive thing. They expect there will be more jobs and they will be more welcome because they share this personal information on their resumes. They want to be able to aggressively advertise their sexuality either on their resumes or in person and have doors open because of it.
But I am not sure if a law firm or interviewer is going to be comfortable with this. Let me tell you why.
Say you identified yourself on your resume as a lesbian for some reason.
Let’s say that a single woman is reviewing your resume, who enjoys being around other single women.
Say that she sees one resume of a woman who is like her and then looks at your resume. You and the other candidate both have similar educations and backgrounds.
I hate to say this, but people are social animals and they are more likely to hire people who are like them. That is how it works. If the woman reviewing your resume is also a lesbian, she might be more likely to bring you in—but statistically speaking, it is more probable that she is not. Therefore, if you put your sexual orientation on your resume, it will likely do you more harm than good.
Is that fair? No.
Do I approve of this? No.
Is this how the world works? Yes.
Can I change it? No.
Do I want you to get a job? Yes.
No One’s Business but Yours
A lot occurs in the thinking processes of people who do the interviewing and hiring inside of law firms. An attractive woman with nothing on her resume about her sexuality is more likely to be hired. The same is true for a man. I'm not going to get into the specific reasons why this is true, but think about it.
Use your head and leave your sexuality off your resume. Revealing your sexuality will help you 10% of the time and hurt you 90% of the time. I honestly do not think it will matter once you are hired—I have not seen people hurt by their sexuality once they are hired, but it can happen. You are not joining a law firm to hook up or have sex or marry people there. Leave that part of your life out of your career. It is no one's business who you sleep with. You are there to do a job.
I have worked with far too many men and women who made an issue out of their sexuality when they were interviewed by a law firm—even if it was not on their resume—and they end up not getting positions. I hate seeing this happen, because it is avoidable. Just put yourself in the shoes of the law firm. If they have two equivalent candidates to hire—one who makes everyone they interview with feel comfortable and another who does not—who do you think they will hire? Who would best represent the law firm, and who would they be most comfortable sending out to see a client?
This often has nothing to do with whether you are gay or not. A straight woman who dresses provocatively is not going to get hired any more than a gay man who dresses effeminately for an interview. I am not being anti-gay or discriminatory here. Your sexuality is not and should not be an issue for getting hired. You are there to work and not show people how attractive and available you are to the same or opposite sex. Leave it all at home.
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Leave Politics out of Your Job Search and Career
I work with a bunch of brilliant people. I honestly do not know whether anyone working for me is Republican, Democrat, or anything else. This is exactly how it should be. It does not matter, nor do I care. I have never even asked them because I do not want to know. I love working on what we work on without worrying about any of this crap—and to me, it is crap.
Politics do not belong in the hiring stage, and they do not belong in the office either as far as I am concerned. It just does not matter. I am not sure if I would have hired most of the people working for me if they made their politics an issue when I interviewed them.
I was working in my office a few years ago with a couple of women who were, unfortunately, extremely political. They were angry about everything going on at that time and continuously made remarks about this or that. We have a big screen TV in our waiting room that is tuned in to a news channel. They would walk by it, get angry, and then talk about it for some time. At night, they went to political party rallies and were vehemently against anyone who did not share their political persuasion.
They were also suspicious of others who had no political persuasion, like me. At first, they thought I was a far-left liberal and would say some of the most outrageous things to me but get no reaction. When I did not react, they decided that I must be a severe conservative, which upset them. Why they wanted to make politics part of where they were working, I have no idea. It did not matter to me and should not have concerned them either.
But it did matter to them—a lot. They wanted to believe they were working for a flaming liberal, and that was important to them. When they realized I was not sharing any liberal views, they assumed I must be the enemy, and they were furious about it. Being mad at me was also important to them. It made very little sense to me since I have nothing to do with politics at all—but I did not explain this, nor did I think it was necessary to do so.
The Odds Aren’t in Your Favor
If you are going to make politics part of your job search or career, you need to understand that you are doing something that has serious risks associated with it. Statistically, if you identify and act out as a Republican or Democrat, you are going to be alienating at least 50% of the people out there who do not share your politics. While you are much more likely to run into other Republicans or Democrats in certain parts of the country than others, the chances are still too great that you will miss out on jobs and opportunities. You are going to be alienating half of the employers out there, probably more than half of your potential clients, half of your colleagues at work—and you are also going to be wasting a lot of time and effort on stuff that has nothing to do with your job.
If you want to be a politician and participating in the political world is essential to you, then go ahead and do it. However, if you want to be an attorney and represent clients, then make this job and your client’s matters your passion. Political leanings are not going to help you get a job or keep a job.
I regularly see attorneys in large cities unable to get jobs because they include organizations like the Federalist Society, NRA, and so forth on their resumes. Why on earth would you try to get a job in a place like New York City or San Francisco with these listed on your resume and think for a moment that this will work out? It will not and cannot. As I said earlier, people hire people who are like them. Even if you get through the door into an interview, your interviewers may find reasons not to like you based on politics alone.
Even if you manage to get hired, the people you are working with will find reasons to not like your work product, not assign you work, or not like you if you are loud enough about political issues they do not like.
The world is a complicated place. Countries go to war, and people kill each other—sometimes in the millions—over unshared political points of view. You cannot reasonably make politics an issue in your job search and career and expect to get and stay ahead in most law firms (unless the majority of people are like you). That said, you may be better off finding and working with a group of like-minded people, who serve like-minded clients. However, I have no idea why anyone would want to complicate their job search and career this way.
Leave Religion out of Your Job Search and Career
You may be very proud of your religion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You may be very proud of being Christian, Jewish, Muslim—or whatever religion you are. But it is important to realize that many people may not share your enthusiasm.
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After the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, I had an experience with a candidate in New York City that I can only attribute to fear and racism. I had a Muslim candidate who was a graduate of a top law school and came from a top law firm in a practice area that was high in demand. He could not get a single interview, and firms were utterly silent about him. Not only would they not interview him, but they also would not even respond to his candidacy. In contrast, other attorneys I was working with who were not Muslims were getting numerous interviews. I am 100% confident this guy was being discriminated against because of his Muslim faith. None of that information should have been on his resume.
Being Jewish in certain parts of the United States can hurt you. Being Muslim in certain parts of the United States can hurt you. Being a conservative Christian in certain parts of the United States can hurt you. Advertising that you are a Scientologist will freak out employers in most parts of the United States. Sorry, folks! Religious discrimination exists and can hurt you if you are seeking a job—and it can hurt you if you are trying to keep one as well.
If I was in a major law firm and suddenly announced that I was part of a controversial religion and following its dictates, do you think my law firm would welcome this? What if I announced that I was a fundamentalist Mormon with multiple wives? How would that go over?
Anyone who advertises their religion and makes it an issue in their job search and career does so at their own risk. When I converted to Judaism, I went to visit some working-class step-relatives in rural Ohio for the Fourth of July. As I walked around, I saw a bunch of them whispering, smiling, and laughing while looking at me and my exotic Jewish then-fiancé from Los Angeles. Finally, after witnessing this for some time, I walked up to them and asked what they were laughing at—I honestly had no idea.
“Your secret is out!” one of the men said. “We all know you are Jewish.”
This made me uncomfortable because I had grown up with them and knew their thinking process. I realized they just thought I was an idiot for converting to Judaism, and probably never even knew any Jews in this rural Ohio farming community. But it still made me feel uneasy and like I needed to get out of there.
Do you think if I were trying to get a job in a law firm in that Ohio town that advertising my religion would be a good idea? Absolutely not. I would have to be crazy to do so.
If you are seeking a position in a major law firm in New York City, advertising that you are a conservative Christian will not help—although it might in the South. You just do not want to make your religion an issue. Every time you put your faith on your resume, you are going to alienate some people who you would not alienate if you left it off. Why risk it?
Why make an issue out of it when you are working either? If you want to work with people who share your religion, then you can probably find a law firm where you can do this. But in general, you are always going to risk alienating others when religion is involved.
Read also: Strategies for Success in Law Firm Interviews
Leave Social Activism out of Your Job Search and Career
Many people are very proud that they support various organizations that are against pollution, sexual exploitation of minors, child labor in China, people eating meat, and more. They advertise this on their resume and try to convert people everywhere they go to believe in their cause. This is not a good idea unless the cause is very closely related to what the attorney does for a living —or wants to be doing for a living.
Years ago, I represented a woman who had graduated from Stanford Law School who included on her resume that she had been raped and was actively involved with organizations for rape victims. She was not getting interviews. When I pointed out to her that the subject of rape might make people uncomfortable, she accused me of being a misogynist and told me that it was important to her for people to know who she was and that being raped was part of her identity.
I asked her if this was something she wanted to discuss in her interviews and she said it would be "inappropriate" for people to bring it up. I then asked her why she had this all over her resume if it was inappropriate for people to talk about it. While I was sympathetic, I also believe she was creating an impediment to getting a job.
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If someone has strong feelings about being a vegetarian, does it make sense for them to talk about it in interviews?
If someone has formidable anti-immigrant or pro-immigrant sentiments, does it make sense to make an issue out of them?
You are entitled to have feelings about social justice and other issues, but advertising these things is more likely to disqualify you from getting a job—or keeping one—than ever helping you. You can fight these battles on your own time.
Anything that has the potential to alienate you or separate you from others can hurt you if you are looking for a job. While sex, politics, religion, and social justice are all components of who we are, they are also among the most divisive issues in society. They will get in the way of you getting hired and even keeping jobs.
You need to avoid giving people any reasons to dislike and not hire you. You should never make things about you—the job of an attorney is to put other peoples’ needs first and the needs of your clients and employers first. Always make it about them and never about you. If you want to do something that emphasizes your sexual orientation, politics, religion, or social activism, maybe you should be in another profession—or confine yourself to a part of the legal profession where that is important.
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Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. He is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.
Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays
You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts
You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives
Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.