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March 17, 2007

"Tip of The Week" - Stop Telling Me What 'I Can't' Do

Connecticut Law Tribune - March 19, 2007

When I was growing up my mother forbade my brothers and I to say, "I can't." Without fail, she would repeat her mantra, "Say, 'you don't want to' or 'you don't know how' or 'you don't have time.' But never let me hear you say 'you can't."

Therefore, I would like to officially strike the two words "I can't" from our lexicon. It has to be the most debilitating phrase in the English language. It serves no other purpose than to express fear at trying something new, encourages us to never challenge the norm, or, in the alternative, is a phrase we use to avoid doing what is requested of us.

When I was in the fourth grade, our class was going to put on the musical "The H.M.S. Pinafore, by Gilbert & Sullivan." I wanted nothing more than to be the Monarch of the Sea, one of the lead male singing roles. When I told the teacher I wanted to audition for the part, she explained it was a male role and "you can't." I didn't understand why? It made no sense to me.

I was getting my first lesson in blind, thoughtless, habitual sexism. I got off the school bus so upset I was inconsolable. Finally, my mother asked why I was so upset. I told her the story. She explained to me as only a mother can that the teacher was just buying into the norm. She was going along with "the rules" because it was easy. She lacked creativity and a mind of her own and wasn't looking for the best person to fill the role, just looking for the correct gender to fill the role. Therefore, if I really wanted the part, it was my job to let her know in no uncertain terms that I had the right to try out for the role.

My mother asked me about the tryout process. I told her that none of the boys really wanted the role. They were told they didn't have to memorize the words and they could even sing facing the wall, their backs to the audience, if they were scared. My mother said, "Go back to school, demand an audition, then memorize the lyrics and sing straight into the audience." I did. I got the part. It was one of those life-defining moments.

As a new lawyer, when I started my own practice right out of law school, my two partners (also newly minted) and I had a running joke. If I suggested something legally innovative, they would say, "You can't do that." I would say, "Show me where it says I can't?" And they would laugh, "The law according to Susan." From fourth grade on, the motivating principal in my life has been: Until someone shows me legitimately why I can't, I'm going to assume I can.

As new lawyers, we are told over and over again that "we can't" open our own practice right out of law school. Like my fourth grade teacher, these naysayers in the form of professors, career counselors, other lawyers, judges and family members are just projecting their fears upon you, maybe the very same fears that stopped them from venturing out on their own and pursuing their dreams. Find out why they are so fearful of you, so you can address the obstacles to the success they perceive to be insurmountable, one hurdle at a time.

You can open your own legal practice. Some perceived hurdles might present challenges you're not willing to take on. That, however, is very different than saying, "I can't." If you're just not willing to make those hard choices, that's perfectly alright. But you absolutely can open your own law practice if you want to.

I've stricken the phrase, "I can't" from my vocabulary and banished it from my household. If my husband says those words, I give him the raised eyebrow. If my three-year old says those words, I immediately say, "Don't tell me you can't. Tell me you don't want to or you're scared because you don't know how. If you're scared because you don't know how, I'll teach you how." •

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. Her blog, Build A Solo Practice, is at susancartierliebel.typepad.com. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2007) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel

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