Rule #1: Don´t talk about politics in your job as a lawyer!
A German lawyer with Turkish roots, partner in a medium-sized North German law firm that wishes to remain anonymous:
"I am a lawyer. A lawyer who was born in Germany and is of Turkish descent. I am self-employed and have been working with an older German colleague for several years and I enjoy doing so. But the work as a German lawyer, born and raised here and without an audible accent has changed recently. Unfortunately.
Every beginning is hard - for everyone
When I started working in this profession, I first ended up in a young, medium-sized law firm. I quickly realised that neither my studies nor my traineeship prepared me for the practical work as a lawyer. Nor did it help that the credo of the managing director of the law firm was to pick up young, inexpensive, inexperienced lawyers directly after their exams and to let them work for you without any assistance, true to the motto: "learning by doing". I was lucky to have colleagues who were willing to answer all my questions with a lot of patience. I cannot remember having learned how to operate a lawyer's program, how many copies to send to court, how to write invoices or apply for court orders, etc.
That was a good basis for me to start my own business one year later.
Self-employed in a male domain
I knew from day one that I was in an absolute male domain. But this has never been an obstacle for me to pursue my profession with the necessary passion. Every person has his or her advantages and corresponding strengths, you just have to know how to use them. I am happy when my clients tell me that they appreciate me as a person because I have empathy and can make them feel that I take them seriously as a person. And I am particularly pleased when my clients do not mention that I am a woman and then also with a "migration background". Because it is also clear: before I became a lawyer, I never had to worry about the fact that I am a woman and grew up in two cultures.
In the beginning it was difficult to get used to it and especially to get used to the fact that clients make a difference between lawyers and female lawyers. This became particularly clear to me when I founded a law firm with an older, experienced German lawyer. In contrast to my partner, I had to assert myself twice and three times - I was constantly mistaken for my partner's secretary. Clients crossed boundaries, repeatedly asked me about private matters or even proposed to me. Again and again clients wanted to take me out to dinner or pay me with other favours.
The amazing thing is that my partner was and still is shocked by my experiences, as he himself never had to make such experiences in all his 40 years of working as a lawyer. Nobody wanted to marry him or even take him out to dinner. No one had crossed the border into the private sphere with him and had always maintained the attorney-client relationship. Even in fee negotiations we regularly experience that clients are more likely to discuss with me as a woman than with my partner.
German, Turkish, German-Turkish: What difference does it make
In the first years of my independence I was often advised to use my bilingualism in my professional life. Initially, I fought tooth and nail against focusing on clients of Turkish descent. I didn't want to fulfill any clichés and be considered one of the many Turkish lawyers who are "only" part of the Turkish community. I wanted to be independent and above all to be perceived as independent of my Turkish descent.
But as a young lawyer, at a certain point you have to ask yourself the question: shouldn't you use all your skills to earn money? This led to the fact that I began to increasingly look after clients of Turkish descent.
I see it as an advantage to be part of a different culture and to be able to show this through my understanding in dealing with clients from the same cultural background. For example, it goes without saying that I approach older Turkish clients with the necessary respect and give them the feeling - as is the custom in Turkish culture - that they are in charge. I also know who I can and cannot shake hands with. If someone is sitting in front of me with a headscarf, I don't care. But I know from colleagues that they often feel disturbed by it and cannot take the client seriously.
A lot has changed - not for the better
The difference in dealing with German or foreign clients has always been noticeable to me. Nevertheless I have - quite naturally! - I have never regarded my law firm as a place for political statements.
However, for over a year now I have had to realize that for the first time in my life I am affected by current politics, both as a person and directly in my work. Never before have I felt this on my own body as I have in the past few months. Whereas I used to try to distance myself from Turkish society or at least to remain neutral, I have been increasingly forced to take a stand since the refugee crisis. And I have had to make the experience on several occasions that new German clients expressly refuse to be represented by me, and this solely against the background that I have a foreign name and look foreign.
The first time I had a client sitting in front of me, who looked at me in astonishment and asked me how I, of all people, managed to become a lawyer in Germany and how I dared to take care of his client, I was speechless at first. From my experience that some clients prefer to be looked after by my male colleague because he is a man, I would have thought that I am now used to this direct refusal. But it was not like that. It came as a surprise to me and hurt. I acted with understanding and referred the client to my colleague, who was also happy to take on the mandate. However, I was horrified inwardly, because I had to realize that another hurdle was now opening up: in addition to the hurdle "female young", there was now the hurdle: a foreign sounding name.
Learning to deal with changes
The consequence of all this can be seen relatively easily from the statistics of my mandates: Whereas I previously advised about 70% German clients and 30% foreign clients, the ratio has now clearly developed in the opposite direction. A coincidence? One might hardly believe it...
And one must not forget: I am of Turkish descent. The political conflict in Turkey is for Germans of Turkish descent - politically correctly expressed! - here in Germany. In addition to the problem as a woman with foreign roots, I also have to face the problem that Turkish society in Germany in particular often takes a stand on domestic political issues in Turkey at the moment, in one direction or the other. As a result, I find myself walking on hot coals when I am unable to assess whether a new client has a problem with me as a woman, as a woman with a migration background or as a woman with a Turkish background without political expressions. Recently, practicing my profession has become more and more like a "egg dance" in the worst sense of the word.
If someone had told me seven years ago that what is about to happen would be coming to me, I must honestly admit that I would have preferred an "anonymous" employment relationship...
Do what? No chickening out!
Since the refugee crisis, things have been going downhill steadily. Clients stay away. Business is worse than ever and the only possible explanation is the foreign name. We can find no other clue than an explanation, especially against the background that we are well positioned from a marketing point of view and have a solid client base.
One hears from acquaintances that reactions to reports about my story trigger the question: "Would you go to a Turkish lawyer?" - It's not just my subjective perception and a cheap excuse for not doing better than it does. And believe me, it makes you queasy when, as an independent lawyer, you lose clients.
A reason to give up? No! When I start something, I see it through, against all odds. I was born and raised in this country. I speak better German than Turkish and not seldom better German than many a German - so they tell me.
I grew up in two cultures and I live them accordingly. I have clients who are loyal to me for this very reason and encourage me that there are more of them."
Thank you very much.
So, what do you think:
How much of the current political situation can our profession take? Would you go to a Turkish lawyer? A Turkish lawyer? How political is the lawyer's profession?
(Originally published on 12.10.2016 on the former CLP blog JurCoach.)