The Ghost Of Legal Future: A Trial Attorney’s Story

“Right now, I’m passionate about wanting to push the ball forward. [Things] have to change! There’s no other alternative.”

It’s Friday afternoon, the end of yet another long work week during the pandemic. Diana Manning had just finished up a seminar for the New Jersey Women Lawyers Association. 

Manning has had an incredibly satisfying career as a trial attorney and appellate advocate. She is a principal and executive committee member at Bressler, Amery & Ross, a 150-plus lawyer multi-state law firm. She’s been practicing as an attorney for 27 years and has worked at Bressler for the last 21. She attended undergrad and law school at Rutgers University. As an undergrad she double majored in Political Science and Economics and minored in French.

Having practiced law for almost 30 years and as a shareholder of Bressler, Diana is a force of nature. With extensive experience and immense success in her field and seniority at the firm, Diana understands the power and sway she has to use her voice and actions to advocate for women and diverse lawyers in and outside of her firm.

“It’s easier to be loud and obnoxious and be in rooms and tell people they can’t think like that or act like that or say things like that out loud than it was when I was younger. There are certain advantages to being older, like you don’t care so much or there’s less to lose.”

AN ACCIDENTAL TRIAL ATTORNEY WHO NEVER REALLY WANTED TO PRACTICE LAW

Author & law dropout Shefali Lakhani

Speaking with Diana was incredibly inspirational, and I hope readers will enjoy her story just as much as I did. With each installment of the Ghost of Legal Future, I hope to share key insights and advice about the legal field. Diana’s journey touches on considerations prior to and in choosing law schools, the importance of community engagement, cultural fit, and relationships in building a successful career, and how to navigate your career if you find that it’s not what you expected. Her story will also share some of the challenges in the field, as well as insights on how the legal field continues to change. 

Diana claims she is an accidental trial attorney. A self-proclaimed introvert, she never envisioned this path for herself. In fact, when starting law school, she never wanted to practice law but rather use her law degree to get into business.

“Life changed my second year when I took appellate advocacy and my thinking at the time was, I was [an] incredibly shy, introverted, bookish person. […] I took the class, and you know what, it was awful. I thought I was going to die every time we did an argument.”  Diana ended up getting the highest grade in the class which led to an job offer from the professor who was a partner at a small law firm focused on  trial work. While at the time this wasn’t her ideal career path, the job market and economy were in poor shape and having a job was critical.

SUPPORT FROM COLLEAGUES CRITICAL TO HER SUCCESS

Despite her apprehension about speaking in court, the intellectual side of her work and the chess-like aspect of trying cases continued to draw her in. Her career path eventually led to her joining Bressler. Diana credits the people and culture of her firm in helping her achieve success. Bressler is unique in that as it grew to a bigger firm, it retained its collegial small firm culture and continues to be supportive, encouraging, and very entrepreneurial. 

Her colleagues at Bressler have always been supportive of her taking on projects and responsibilities outside of her day to day case load. She is involved in the Amicus Committee of the New Jersey State Bar, which led to arguing two Supreme Court and one significant appellate court case on topics she’s passionate about, and regularly takes on pro bono work. Her involvement in the community and bar associations have helped her stay engaged and excited about the profession and even helped her take the edge off her day to day work. 

Diana touts the importance of finding the correct team, fit, and culture. “I don’t think you can have a successful career and be happy in your career if you don’t find the right people.” The opportunities and teammates she had in her career helped her become the trial attorney she is today, including her now partners who had the confidence in her to let her try cases and who pushed back against clients to let her take on additional responsibilities. Even at her first job, Diana had the opportunity to try cases and gain experiences that other younger female attorneys weren’t necessarily getting at that time.

‘LAW SCHOOL CHANGED THE TRAJECTORY OF MY LIFE’

Attorney Diana Manning

Diana’s day to day is rarely a repeat. New matters, calls, emergencies, taking a deposition or motion arguments in court might be the norm. In addition, Diana is heavily involved in numerous bar associations and doing pro bono work.

While Diana has had extensive experience trying cases and arguing in court, nowadays it’s likely hard to have her career trajectory working in private practice. Clients, especially institutional, clients don’t want lawyers without trial experience trying cases. It’s an unfortunate Catch-22. As older lawyers who have much of the experience in trying cases retire, Diana believes that there will be many more opportunities for other attorneys to gain and use their trial experience. 

While she’s had success and satisfaction in her career, would she suggest the same path to others? “I’m not a person who would say don’t go to law school. Law school changed the trajectory of my life, including meeting my husband and kids and having a very satisfying career. So for me, it was the right decision, but I do think that you need to be more intentional than I was.”

‘YOU HAVE TO HAVE SOME IDEA OF WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE & WHAT YOU’D BE SIGNING ON FOR’

“I recognize that there are a lot of people that are miserable and don’t like their careers,” she adds. “[Before going to law school] you have to have some idea of what it would be like and what you’d be signing on for because it’s impossible to get through it now without taking on a great deal of debt […] But what I would also say is, I think you have to have the confidence in yourself that you would bail if it wasn’t working […] To be good at law, you have to really practice law, you have to really put in the time. So, if you’re miserable while you’re doing that, it’s a lot of time to be unhappy. It’s not all fun and you have to do a lot of tedious work.”

If you do decide to go to law school, Diana recommends you take some time off. “It is a very demanding field, and it does kind of change the way you think about certain things. So having more, a little bit more life experience is not necessarily a bad thing to put that all into context. There’s a lot of tough personalities, so I think the more experience you have being able to navigate some of that probably holds you in good stead […] It might [also] help people to decide what areas of work they want to practice in.

It’s hard to fully prepare yourself for practicing as a lawyer, and it’s these misaligned expectations that often lead to unhappy lawyers. A lot of lawyers, especially those who have wanted to practice law for years have a hard time admitting they are unhappy when they finally get there. Societal expectations and “sunk costs” may also keep lawyers in a career or path they don’t want to be in. 

ADVICE FOR FRUSTRATED AND UNHAPPY LAWYERS

For unhappy lawyers who have reached out to Diana, she’s suggested a reevaluation of their current practice. “Sometime it’s simple as you’re not in the right department or not practicing in the right area of law. Maybe you’re not on the right team. So much of being happy in what you’re learning how to do is whether or not you like the people you’re working with and you’re doing it with. So is there a way to pivot? Is there a way to go to another firm or go in-house or to do something else?”

“Life is too short is to continue on being unhappy.”

Diana attended Rutgers Law School with a partial scholarship. Leaving law school with virtually no debt allowed her to have the flexibility to focus on developing skills rather than paying off any large debt. Not only that but she had the mindset that she could leave at any point if she wanted to and could make a living in other ways.

“I think if I had felt trapped I probably would have hated the profession a lot more.”

THE STORY OF WOMEN IN LAW

Even now, Diana feels much the same way. Not in that she’s going to drop the practice of law, but more so making sure she’s engaged, happy, and satisfied with the work she’s doing. Her current passion is helping diverse and particularly women attorneys have just as satisfying and fulfilling careers. In fact, even at the end of a long interview on a Friday evening of a long week, she was clearly most passionate and energized when discussing this topic.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years; the statistics on women in the law and diversity in the law have changed marginally. When I started practicing, it was 18% women equity partners and now about 22-24%. […] There has certainly been tremendous progress but it’s not fast enough. […] The stories I was telling at 26, some of the people I know now are still having the same experiences. And I’m still having some of the same experiences! I can’t believe I still go to depositions and the assumption is that I’m the court reporter.” 

“What struck me a couple of years ago was an ABA study that women who are equity partners leave and men who are equity partners don’t. Women leave because they’re unhappy. That’s because it’s death by a 1000 cuts. You’re still mistaken for the court reporter and business still isn’t coming the same way it comes for men.”

PARTNERSHIP FOR WOMEN IS NOT A LOST CAUSE

Many women lawyers can relate to Diana’s stories, unfortunately. Having experienced many of these offenses first hand myself, I was inclined to push her a little bit and ask if she really sees things changing for the better. She does. She’s hopeful, she’s energized, and she’s seen key changes in the field. Diana has seen first-hand how women’s law firm career trajectories have changed and that’s what continues to give her hope. 

First, some context: the average age of a law school graduate is 27 and the average path to partnership takes about 10 years. Four to six years into practicing at a firm, the now senior associates are expected to take on a more challenging work load, strategize their business development efforts, and show their continued commitment to the firm. There’s an obvious conflict. Women are constantly subject to the conversations around “having it all” and the societal and biological pressures of starting, raising, and giving time and energy to their families while also building a career, during potentially the prime parts of their career (especially if they are considering partnership at a law firm). 

Still, Diana finds that partnership (especially for female attorneys) is not a lost cause. “When I started practicing, it was eight years and you were out if you didn’t make partner    you were done. […] The world is so different right now. You don’t have to leave. You can work part time, you can take some time off and come back. There are so many different ways to come at this, so you don’t have to say ‘well if I want to be more present for my family, then I can’t be an equity partner’. It might just take a bit longer. You may just take a more zig zagged path […]  I’ve seen that at my own firm now. Different people have stayed on the path and did it at their own pace and when they got to where they wanted to go, they had the time and energy. It hadn’t beaten them down.

LAWYERING IS WAY MORE TEDIOUS THAN MANY EXPECT

“This is what’s so frustrating because it’s easy to say all the women have to stay, but we’re not a monolith! Everybody has to do what’s right for them. You can only meet the challenges you can meet. […] We can’t judge people for doing what’s right for them. Now there are also a lot of positions where you don’t have to be equity partner. So many people say ‘I don’t want to have to develop business. I like practicing law, but I don’t want the pressure of owning the business’. That was never an option. There are so many ways to approach it and still have a fulfilling career. I just think that things will change.”

As our interview comes to a close, I too am hopeful. Though it may be the end of a long work week, Diana’s mission to help women lawyers is nowhere near finished. I’m excited to hear about everything she continues to accomplish. 

Below you’ll find some additional insights. 

Most challenging part of the job 

Business development. Every year, January 1, you start completely over. It’s all about how many cases you bring in and how much work you’re able to do.

Biggest misconception non-lawyers have about the field

A lot of what you do is writing and reading and analyzing, even if you’re a trial attorney […] It’s nothing like TV […] People think it’s more glamorous, but, there’s not that constant “aha!” moment. Most cases are pretty straightforward. You’re trying to persuade a jury that your facts, your version of the facts are better. It’s way more tedious than I think people know. 

One thing you would change about legal field 

The billable hour. I think that that drives an incredible pressure on work life balance, and I don’t think that that makes sense. I think what grinds people out, especially younger lawyers is this expectation that there’s no end in sight. […] You should be able to have hobbies or relationships or good relationships with your kids and have a satisfying career without this constant pressure to have to be a workaholic, I think it is counterproductive. 

Hobbies

“I love to read […] We are very passionate about cooking and food and traveling so when we’re not in a pandemic, those are definitely our hobbies. I’m very passionate about museums and art and culture and shows. I’m anxious for the pandemic to be over to get back to that. 

As a follow up to some of our discussions, I’d like to share some resources on topics we’ve discussed for further reading. 

The ABA study on women partners leaving the law, Walking Out the Door, can be found here and an additional follow up and break down of that report can be found here. 

Women of color have an even higher rate of attrition from the law. The ABA conducted a study on the hurdles faced by women of color in the law, Left Out and Left Behind, which can be found here, with an additional follow up here. 

If you’re considering law school, and not sure what type of law you want to practice, here is an insightful guide on different practice areas.  

Author Shefali Lakhani graduated with her JD from Boston University School of Law in 2016 and pursued a career in corporate law at three law firms in New York and Atlanta. Little more than three years into it, she decided that law wasn’t her cup of tea. She now works as an associate UX designer and researcher at John Hancock in Boston.

DON’T MISS: Should You Really Go To Law School? Introducing The Ghost Of Legal Future

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