Colorado’s newest class of lawyers took their oath Nov. 4, and they have a lot to think about beside the type of career they want: Which bar associations to join, how to balance work and social life, and the practical realities of working versus being a law student. Law Week sat down with family law attorney Danaé Woody, who is seven years into practicing, to talk about how she built her own practice early in her career, why anyone can be a mentor and learning how to handle mistakes gracefully. She owns the Woody Law Firm in Denver and is involved with the Colorado Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, the CLE branch, and the Sturm College of Law’s professional mentoring program.
LAW WEEK: Did you start your own firm right out of school, or were you at other firms beforehand?
WOODY: I started my firm in 2014, so about a year and a half into practice, which is an incredibly early time to do it. But at the same time, I had good mentors. I cultivated a lot of relationships and I had a lot of help. I knew there was a lot of support in the community for me at the time. And I started slowly. My firm has grown now. We have four lawyers right now, and we’re looking to add to that. But at the time, it was just me.
LAW WEEK: When you started your own practice, did you have the goal of growing it into a firm with multiple lawyers? Or was the growth just more organic as your work was growing?
WOODY: The decision to start my own practice was a decision initially about … having the flexibility to work with myself and to meet my clients’ needs the way I thought they needed to be met. Shortly after that, though, probably within about six or eight months, I worked with a business coach. She and I met a lot and did start talking about a modest growth trajectory and how to develop a business model around that, and how to make it work while applying my legal approach as well.
And so initially, the answer is I didn’t intend to grow it into a firm, but not long after I started the firm did I realize that was a possibility. One of the things I like about running a firm is I get to be a lawyer, I get to be a business person, and I get to be a volunteer in the community. I enjoy all three of those.
LAW WEEK: I get the sense that in law school, law students have a lot of pressure to figure out what it is they want to do. I’d be interested to hear if you felt any of that pressure and if you have any thoughts on navigating what you might want out of your law career, but then also still having flexibility in case that
WOODY: I think there is a lot of pressure. And it comes from various sources. It can come from internally or externally. There’s pressure to get a job, sometimes any job depending on the market when lawyers are coming out.
When I went through it, there was pressure to get any experience so that when graduation came and bar passage came, you would be marketable in the industry in some way or another. But I remember it being O.K. to try a few different internships and check some things out. And that was the approach I took.
I never perceived that I was absolutely going to get pigeonholed into something. But that’s also because I didn’t have a very clear idea of something I absolutely wanted to do. I do think that for someone who believes strongly that they want to be in BigLaw or they want to be in a civil rights firm or they want to be a patent lawyer, there are certain things that need to be done during law school and … experiences that need to be had in order to get those jobs. I just wasn’t one of those people.
LAW WEEK: You mentioned before that one thing that you had going for you when you decided to start your own practice was you had good mentors. And just tell me a little bit more about what’s the mentorship you’ve gotten and what’s some of the stuff that has stuck with you.
WOODY: This is not an original quote of mine, but one of the things I learned early on was everybody can be a mentor. Your peers are your mentors, your opposing counsel are your mentors. Anybody you meet is a possible mentor, for positive or negative impact. I learn as much from bad experiences with other lawyers as I do from good ones. I cultivated relationships early, and I held on to those and spread out the number of times that I called different people, so that I could call the same person once or twice a month instead of going to the same well every day with questions.
And then I had one or two really close mentors that I could call in a jam, the ones where you don’t want just anybody. Like I said, I was fortunate enough to have people that I knew were very supportive and who were rooting for me to succeed. So that was something that I’m very grateful for now.
LAW WEEK: I’m really curious about what you’ve learned about making mistakes, because you’re going make mistakes in your career. What are your thoughts on learning how to mess up?
WOODY: That’s the whole first year of being an associate: lawyers learning how to mess up. I take law clerks during law school and … if the relationship is working their first year, then they come on as a first-year associate. I deal with young lawyers in their first year a lot. And it’s an incredible exercise in personal growth for a lot of people. It was for me, and it has been for the people I’ve been with through their process as well.
People who graduate from law school are generally, I think, used to being pretty good at anything they’ve tried to do in their lives for the most part. It takes a lot of mental stamina and dedication to get through law school. So when you get out of it [you think], “Pretty much anything I want to do, anything I set my mind to, I can do.”
Then you’re a lawyer, but you’re pretty much the worst lawyer you’ve ever met, because you don’t know what you’re doing and anybody else who’s been practicing longer than you knows more than you do. So that’s a very uncomfortable place to start as a lawyer. Then we’re learning something new every day, usually several new things every day and making mistakes constantly.
It’s important, I think, for lawyers, especially lawyers just coming out of law school, to know that mental toughness is absolutely a quality that will help with that. Taking criticism day in and day out, is something that’s going to happen for a while, and mistakes are just going to get made as a part of the natural process.
But that’s how I look at mistakes. Sometimes, they’re just going to happen. And if and when they do, it’s better to go into problem-solving mode rather than mental breakdown mode.
LAW WEEK: I’m really curious about adjustments you found yourself having to make between going from being a law student to actually working as a lawyer.
WOODY: Law school is largely academic. There are some practical components of law school, but for the most part, it’s academic. Being a lawyer is largely a very independent space, even in a firm. One’s own professionalism and one’s own work product is essentially a business unto itself. A lawyer’s personal brand and their own personal marketing of themselves and their reputation, all of those things are sort of a mini business to themselves and a lot of people are just sort of figuring it out as they go.
Law school doesn’t teach us how to practice, largely. The other thing it doesn’t teach us is how we interact with other people, and how do we handle stress with opposing counsel or when you get an order out of a judge that makes your stomach hurt … or perhaps we have an angry client who’s angry for the wrong reasons.
We don’t get taught in law school the business of law. We don’t learn a major piece of what a lot of lawyers have to deal with, not just firm owners. Billing practices, how that can affect clients, and those kinds of things as well. And so we have to learn that stuff.
LAW WEEK: If you could look back and give first-year-of-practice you some advice about what you really wish you’d known, what do you tell yourself?
WOODY: You really are going to be good at it one day. That was one that I could’ve used in the first quarter of being a lawyer. And I would tell myself Work-life balance can be a thing.
It’s not super realistic in the first couple years for the majority of [new] lawyers to have a very good work-life balance. But it really is a thing as people get a little bit more established in their career.
LAW WEEK: You mentioned volunteering in the community as one of the big parts of running your own law firm. How important is it for to be involved in the community as a young lawyer?
WOODY: I think it’s really important for lawyers to do things other than just their job, whether that’s community involvement … pro bono work or writing articles or teaching or speaking. I think it’s important on a lot of levels for young lawyers to do that. I think it’s good for our mental health to have something other than just home and work to think about.
It’s good for our exposure as young lawyers and for our credibility [with] more experienced lawyers. If they’re seeing more of us, then we are going to start getting more of the right kind of attention and … more seats at the table where bigger decisions are made, and in policy decisions about what goes on in the legal community. We aren’t going to get seats at those tables unless we take it upon ourselves to put ourselves in those rooms.
And then start saying yes to things. If people do offer opportunities, get involved with projects and tasks, because that opens up so many doors. Once a person says yes enough, then they can start to be a little bit more selective when there are a lot of options and opportunities available.
And then the conversation turns from, say yes to many things to … start saying no to a few more things, and start targeting what you’re really interested in.