Sorry! Not Sorry? A Colloquy


Eighth-year associate Amanda Bartlett and first-year associate Kate Saba recall an email exchange discussing the gender politics around women apologizing at work.

Amanda Bartlett (Eighth-year associate, Litigation Department): Kate–Remember that time I laid into you about over-apologizing when you hadn’t done anything wrong, you pushed back, and we ended up with “Let’s write an article about this when this case settles down”? Well, the case settled. Let’s do it. Do you remember what precipitated my meltdown?

Kate Saba (First-year associate, Litigation Department): Amanda–Definitely. I apologized for subjecting you to my fumbling during a witness prep session. I’m pretty sure that my general habit of over-apologizing is actually what precipitated the meltdown. You told me to stop apologizing immediately and to channel Meredith Grey as a first-year intern. I was fairly sure you didn’t intend for me to date colleagues or drink a lot of tequila, so I decided to challenge your advice and share some of my thoughts on the subject of humility and conscientiousness in the workplace.

AB: That’s right. You were second-chairing deposition prep for one of our client’s key witnesses. You knew the facts as well as (if not better than) anyone, and the partner invited you to lead portions of the session where your background gave you a unique ability to speak the witness’s language and ask questions that made sense about extremely complicated material. Following that session, in an email to me on a different assignment, you added this line at the end: “sorry you had to listen to my fumbling today.” You had been at the firm for about three months, you were punching way above your weight-class in the work you were doing and the opportunities you were getting, and then you decided to apologize for failing to attain perfect allocution in a witness prep session. I nearly lost my mind. I had noticed before that you had a tendency to apologize even when there was nothing to apologize for, and this put me over the edge!

My main points were three: First, the only way to learn and grow as a lawyer is to fumble through “stretch” opportunities, and that is nothing to apologize for. Second, if you actually had been doing something wrong, someone would have stepped in and prevented you from doing further damage (this was why the Meredith Grey season one analogy seemed apt to me–an experienced doctor is not going to let their intern kill the patient). Third, I was concerned that you were using “sorry” very carelessly in a way that felt like classic professional-woman self-sabotage, and I believe my carefully crafted message was “a dude would never do that.” I mostly just wanted you to be more cognizant of the language you used so as not to needlessly plant the idea in someone’s mind that you had done something wrong.

KS: All fair points. I hope that throughout my career there is always something new to learn. It’s part of why this job is fun. But at this point there is so much to learn, and there are so many questions to ask, that it can be difficult to figure out how to learn graciously and to show some level of conscientiousness and awareness that more senior attorneys are investing their time—time that they could be using for their own work or personal lives—in my development. I don’t like inconveniencing others. In the moment, it’s difficult to see the big picture and to recognize that teaching now translates to better work later. Using apologies carelessly is certainly a bad habit and diminishes the meaning of any apology that is truly necessary. However, I don’t think apologizing is always wrong.

I remember reacting particularly strongly to the portion of your email that noted a guy would never apologize. I don’t think any woman should have to mimic the behavior of male colleagues or assume that an action is appropriate because it is stereotypically common for men. There has to be some middle ground between apologizing too frequently and never apologizing because a guy would not apologize in the workplace…I’m yet to find it.

AB: I completely agree that self-promotion in the absence of self-awareness is not ideal (or even good), but unfortunately, it can be effective. I also agree that conscientiousness is a wonderful trait and one that has tremendous value. But I would rather you let your work speak for itself. My concern is that smart and capable women have an instinct to humble themselves while some of their male counterparts do not, in a way that could be detrimental to their careers. In a perfect world, we could get these shameless self-promoters to show more conscientiousness, but in the world in which we operate, this is a bug in the system.

Apologizing for a perceived screw up also may not actually show conscientiousness as you think it does; it may plant a seed in the senior lawyer’s head that you are suggesting a failure of effort, rather than a lack of experience, or that you’re lacking self-confidence. You and I had been working together for a few weeks before my meltdown; I knew your work pretty well at that point. If we had not had that background, I may have taken your “sorry” as indicative of one of those alternate messages. I am hyper aware of this because I have this “apology” instinct myself and I try to be very conscious of it to make sure I’m sending the message I want to send.

If you feel the need to acknowledge that you could have done something better, in my view, a better way to frame it is to ask for advice–something like: “Hi __, I worked really hard to prepare for that meeting, and I thought it went well, but I felt like it could have gone better. Do you have any ideas for what I can do better next time?” That sort of framing is great because it is forward looking–it shows that you’re self-aware, it shows that you care, and—bonus—it shows the senior lawyer that you respect his or her opinions and experience (flattery will get you places, sister).

KS: That does seem like a great way both to get feedback and to convey a sense of self-awareness, but I still think there is room for a personal style that may tend a bit more towards humility and conscientiousness than shameless self-promotion.

AB: True; personal style is important to develop and cultivate throughout your career, and not every style will be the same. I just want to make sure that as you cultivate that style, you are actually sending the messages you intend to send, rather than something unintentional. Bottom line, I will take this whole episode as a massive success if you take one-fifth of a second to consider whether the word “sorry” in an email is conveying what you want it to convey!

KS: And I will consider this whole episode a massive success if you take a second to consider a first-year lawyer’s perspective before jumping down his or her throat!

AB: Touché.

KS: That said–I appreciated your email and the follow up discussion; it showed me you care about my career development and that you were willing to both give advice and listen to my point of view! So how did you cultivate an individual style that works for you?

AB: Dating my colleagues and drinking tequila.*

* it’s a joke, people.

Amanda Bartlett and Kate Saba are associates in Debevoise’s New York office.
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