Attorneys are often depicted as intimidating and confident figures who think quick on their feet, love complex problems, and show little signs of emotion or weakness while solving them. That couldn’t be further from the way they really are—they’re human. Susanna Lee, corporate counsel at Salesforce, believes this wholeheartedly.
She shares the need for attorneys to live authentically and to accept their imperfections.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions about being an attorney or the legal function itself?
In my opinion, the most powerful attorney in the room is not the one who never shows “weaker” emotions and parades around with a false sense of confidence or with aggression. Unfortunately, the misconception that showing any weakness is unacceptable seems to start as early as law school, when students feel compelled to hide how much they are actually studying or exaggerate it in an attempt to intimidate those around them in the spirit of competition. There is this implicit messaging from the environment that we can never show weakness, that we must always be a step ahead of others to succeed. While the grading curve may have pinned students against each other, the attorneys who I admire most are those who have showed up authentically, and even vulnerably, when the occasion calls for it.
We attorneys aren’t immune to life circumstances, and we are not called to be superhuman. Sure, we are called to lead with pragmatism, strategize with skill, and earn the trust of our clients. But we aren’t perfect, and there will be many times when we won’t know the answer immediately. Humility goes a long way in admitting when I need to take more time to research a topic or when I need to ask for guidance from my supervisor or a more seasoned attorney. The further I progress in my career, the more I realize how important it is for attorneys to stay grounded enough to keep a beginner’s mindset and to accept how imperfect they are. A strong attorney does not act with perfection. a strong attorney can make mistakes and learn.
What’s a piece of unconventional advice you’ve received that was helpful?
“Sometimes all the glass balls you are juggling will come crashing down together at the same time. And that is okay.” A general counsel of a large Fortune 500 company once responded with this when I asked them how they handle all the demands of work and personal life thrown their way. To hear this from an individual who had reached this height of professional success felt liberating. At the time, I felt hard-pressed and on the cusp of burnout from trying to stay in unrelenting “hustle” mode and meeting or exceeding all expectations thrown my way. Sometimes the legal profession feels isolating, and we assume that others are handling all their obligations with much more ease than we are. We so often hear of the highlight reels in this profession and seldom hear how others, including those who we consider successful, have struggled like the rest of us—have spilled their coffee at an important meeting, have fell behind deadlines due to life happenstances, have closed their office door and cried upon receiving bad news. Receiving this advice helped me realize that I am here to live a full life, including the breadth of emotions and misfortune, and that the person who needs to show me the most grace will always be myself.
What song or album motivates you the most?
I come back to “Love Yourz” by J. Cole and “Fly” by Nicki Minaj, featuring Rihanna, time and time again. The former reminds me that I’m always going to be reaching for more and to not lose sight of small wins along the way. The latter is more like an affirmation for me packaged in an anthem.
Find Susanna Lee on LinkedIn.