June 27, 2014
by Ellen

Encore: CPA Study Tips

Yay, you’re graduating! But the celebration is a bit short-lived — now you have to take the CPA exam. Fear not, I have a plan that will see you through to the real celebration. Have a look at my earlier post on studying for the CPAs, and if you need help coming up with your own, personalized plan, shoot me an email and I’d be happy to sit down with you. You can do it — this time next year, it will all be behind you. You just need to stay focused for this last push toward your career. Good luck!!

June 20, 2014
by Ellen

Imposing Order on Chaos: Grad School Style

Time management is one of the most important skills to have in graduate school. The amount of intellectually challenging work to be done can be daunting, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. When we are overwhelmed, we tend to miss important details and deadlines and fall into the procrastination trap. So how can you avoid all that? One word: organize.

1. Clean up:

When I start to feel like my brain is tripping over itself and the amount of work to be done seems, well, insurmountable, it feels so good to clean up. There’s just something so calming about a clean house. Make your momma proud and clean your room (and the bathroom, kitchen, and rest of your apartment). Pay extra attention to your workspace – make a nice, neat place where you can sit down and be the genius your grad school career is grooming you to be. If you don’t have them already, get a desk and a bookshelf. And don’t forget the office supplies (remember how cool it was to get your school supplies as a kid — nothing better than new pens and blank notepads!). Your desk should always be cleared of clutter and the books and textbooks you need for the semester should be together on your bookshelf. Get a decent desk chair, too, so you don’t have the backache excuse to stop working.

2. Calendar everything:

There are all sorts of calendaring options on your computer, phone, etc., but I still believe a paper calendar is best — you can see all levels at once. But that’s just me. Find something that works for you, as long as you are able to enter both long-term and short-term schedules and deadlines. Here are the essentials for good calendaring:

  • All deadlines, from now through next year. Yes, next year. For example, you know you will have to complete your FAFSA and apply for financial aid by a certain date next year — write it down in your calendar. The deadline to apply for graduation — kinda important. When do you need to apply to sit for the CPA? What are the start and end dates for the next few semesters and when do you need to register for classes? These are important deadlines to remember, and having them written down in your calendar now will save you the anxiety of trying to figure it out later, when you may not have enough time to prepare for it or end up in a mad rush to get it done.
  • The deadlines and assignments for each of your classes. The beauty of syllabi — you already know what to do and when. Write it all down in your calendar. Having it all in one place enables you to see what your workload will be in the coming weeks and when assignments from different classes clash, so you can plan ahead and save yourself the stress of trying to get it all done at once. Plus, planning ahead will increase your chances of doing well on each assignment, rather than rushing to turn them in on time.
  • Free time. You need to block out free time for yourself, so you don’t burn out. Be sure to give yourself a nice block of time to do things you love — movies, sports, video games, best sellers, lounging around, etc. When do the Blackhawks play?  Write it down, so you see what work needs to be done ahead of time so you can actually enjoy the game guilt-free. You do still need to be a person, not just a brain, so tend to those needs, too.

3. Shake procrastination:

We procrastinate on tasks when we feel overwhelmed by them or we just plain find them boring. Calendaring, alone, will help you avoid procrastination by scheduling specific time for you to work on assignments, but sometimes we need a little more help to get it done.

  • Baby steps: Break a large project into smaller tasks and put them on a “to do” list. For example, when I started writing my dissertation, I was so overwhelmed by the herculean effort required that I spent a few months in a daze, unsure how to start. Then a friend of mine suggested I forget about the completed product for a while and just do a tiny piece of a single section — something I could to do right then that would “count” as dissertation work. I had already found about 50 articles I needed to read and summarize, so I grouped them into topics and then took one group at a time. I made a list of the articles, read them, summarized them, and then checked them off the list one-by-one. Finishing the first group felt really good, and my momentum continued to build with each article I checked off.
  • Incentives: Set a goal and then treat yourself to a reward when you reach it. I love that Aspen Leaf yogurt place, so I told myself that each time I finished a group of articles, I would take an afternoon off, grab a yogurt, and sit outside enjoying it. Create incentives for both small and large milestones. A good friend of mine had always wanted to go to Disney World. She decided that when she finally finished her dissertation, she would go (and she did!). Just as your allowance motivated you to do your chores as a kid, creating an incentive to complete a task will get you there (even if you whine a little while doing it).

Grad school is tough, especially when you’re just getting started, but if you take a little time to impose some order on your new, chaotic life, you will be surprised at how great you do.



June 13, 2014
by Ellen

Dress for Success

Knowing what to wear to work can be difficult, especially when you have little or no experience in the business world. Two words: simple and conservative. Your outfit should not be distracting. When you make that presentation in the conference room, you want people to pay attention to what you are saying, not what you are wearing. Now is not the time to show off your straight-off-the-runway, haut couture fashion sense. Stick with the business basics — a nice suit with classic lines. Women’s accessories should be unique but not flashy. For men, a nice watch is a must, but it should be understated — leave the bling at home.

Working in a more formal environment is relatively easy — wear a suit — but figuring out what qualifies as “business casual” is a different story. There is no real standard for business casual — it’s typically something less than a suit but more than jeans (although in some workplaces, “nice” jeans qualify). What do you do? Pay attention to what your boss wears. In most cases, his/her wardrobe will set the standard. There are, however, situations where your boss is a little eccentric or clearly less formal than the rest of the office. In that case, take stock of what most of the other higher-ups are wearing and follow suit, so to speak. When in doubt, go more formal, not less. No one will be offended if you are overdressed, but wearing jeans when everyone else is in a nice skirt or dress pants will draw some disapproving glances and may even result in an embarrassing conversation with your boss about appropriate attire.

If you’re really lost, turn to the experts. For men, a trip to Jos. A. Bank is a good idea. The salespeople there are well-versed in the necessities of the business wardrobe, and there are frequent sales that make a good wardrobe within reach. For ladies, Ann Taylor is your best bet. It’s pretty pricey, though, so you may not be able to stock up on their styles. Look around, take a few pictures, and then go to the discount stores (TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Nordstrom Rack, etc.) to find similar items. For more ideas, check out these helpful suggestions:  5 Ways to Dress for Success on a Budget-Kiplinger

Other things to think about are fit and color. According to wardrobe and image consultant Amanda Sanders, once you have found clothes that are appropriate for the workplace, you should have them professionally tailored. Obviously, if something is too long, you need to have it hemmed, but tailoring is more than hemming — your clothing should skim your body, which means having seams taken in or let out. Color is also important, particularly when it comes to accessories. As image advisor Tom Henske notes, we’ve all heard of the red “power tie,” but other colors are equally important. For example, blue suggests loyalty, intelligence, and honesty, while pink shows friendliness and caring. For additional fashion advice from Sanders and Henske, check out this video on the WSJ website: How To Dress For Success in Business

Be simple, conservative, and more formal, not less. When it comes down to it, you want to get noticed because of your work, not your outfit.


June 6, 2014
by Ellen

Learning to Fall

My daughter is a gymnast. She’s just five years old (“five-and-a-half, which is really more like six,” if you ask her), so she’s still learning the basics. Watching her class last week, I realized something – her coaches are teaching her how to fall.  They’re teaching her how to turn a wobbly handstand into a somersault, how to hold her body and fall backwards into a pit, how to do a handstand on the beam and fall off onto a mat, how to flip around the bar and slowly lower herself to the ground. Sometimes she loses control and falls wrong. Sometimes it scares her. But her coaches pick her back up and she tries again. She’s learning how to overcome her fear of falling, the instinct to freeze, to panic, to flail, to lose control before she hits the ground. She’s learning what to do when it all goes wrong and she’s learning how to keep trying — because falling is inevitable in gymnastics. Even Gabby Douglas learned how to fall before she learned how to flip.

Sitting there, it dawned on me that how to fall is something we all need to learn. A “life lesson,” if you will, and a good one to have as you enter your professional career. When you start your first job, you’re afraid to make mistakes. You don’t want to look stupid, you don’t want to lose your boss’s respect, you want to be perfect. You’re afraid to fall. Maybe you freeze. You’re too careful, you don’t take risks, you never put yourself out there, you do exactly what’s expected of you, no less, no more – and you never get “noticed” by the higher-ups. You have an ordinary career with ordinary success and never reach the top. Your fear of falling keeps you from climbing higher.

Or maybe you do take a risk. Maybe you do put yourself out there — and fall. It may even be an epic fall, and you don’t know what to do. You could panic, you could lose control.  Or you could keep calm and control the fall. Admit your mistake. Ask your boss for help. Mitigate the damage. Then learn from it and try again…and again…and again. I’ve fallen a lot. I’m sure I’ll keep falling, and I’m sure I’ll be humiliated and feel like a total idiot many more times in my life. But that’s ok — I’m always better for it.

My first year out of law school, my firm was acting as local counsel for a firm in Chicago (I was still practicing in California at the time). We were representing a corporation in a lawsuit by the EEOC. One afternoon, the EEOC attorney called me a few minutes before 5pm, asking for an extension on a filing deadline that would run in less than an hour — they were having trouble with their copier. They couldn’t reach counsel in Chicago because of the time difference. I called Chicago myself but couldn’t reach anyone. I walked down to my boss’s office, but he had left for the day. It was up to me. In my experience, it was a professional courtesy for attorneys to cooperate on things like this — I had asked opposing counsel in other cases I handled for extensions and vice versa – so I agreed to a 24 hour extension. The next morning, Chicago counsel called me…. Apparently, opposing counsel had asked them for an extension earlier in the day and they had refused — it was a strategic move. My stomach sank. I felt like an idiot. I may have cost my firm a client, and I didn’t know what to do. As humiliated as I was, I went to my boss, told him about my mistake, and asked for help controlling the damage. While we couldn’t do anything about the extension, he was able to smooth things over with Chicago counsel so we didn’t lose the client. It could have been much worse.

When you make a mistake, especially a big one, it’s hard to get past it. You may find yourself dwelling on it or wanting to give up and never take a risk again. But that would be foolish. The beautiful thing about mistakes is that you can learn from them — they actually make you better. My mistake taught me to be more skeptical. Coming out of law school, having learned so much about ethics, I believed other attorneys would have the same standards — going into it, most young attorneys are a little naïve. My experience quickly disabused me of this notion and actually prepared me for another case I handled just a few months later, this time as lead counsel. Opposing counsel on that case would prove to be the most unethical, underhanded attorneys I ever dealt with, but having learned my lesson the first time, I never fell for their attempts to gain an unfair advantage. I succeeded because of it.

Falling down, getting back up, and learning from the experience made me a better attorney. My subsequent success also overshadowed my initial mistake — a year later, that same Chicago firm recruited me. If I had given up or withdrawn into the background, forever unsure of myself, I never would have gained that opportunity.

We all make mistakes. We all fall. It’s how we fall and what we do when we hit the ground that determines our fate — not the fall itself. Don’t let the fear of falling keep you from trying, and don’t let your mistakes devastate you. Learn from them and move on. If my five year old can do it, so can you.

May 28, 2014
by Ellen

Your First Day

Many of you are starting your internships in the coming days, so here are five things to think about for your first day:

1. Map and test your commute. Know exactly how to get to your office and where to park, and try it out during the morning rush hour to get the timing right. Then, on the day of, leave earlier than you think you need to — by at least 15 minutes. It’s one of those laws of the universe that the one time it is absolutely necessary that you get somewhere on time, disaster strikes… so be prepared. You may even want to plot an alternate route, just in case. If you get there too early to head up to the office, you can always sit at Starbucks for a bit and collect yourself.

2. Don’t be shy. If you’re an introvert like me, silence is your go-to response in new situations. But you have to resist the urge to retreat behind the walls of your cubicle. Instead, pretend like you’re actually comfortable in the new environment. If you’re really freaked out, think about someone you respect who is really outgoing and confident in any setting — do what you think they would do. After a few successful introductions, you’ll start to feel better. And if you have a question, ask!

3. Accept the lunch invite. I guarantee you that someone will ask you to lunch on your first day. It may be your boss, a few new colleagues, or both. At one of my first jobs, it was actually a “welcome lunch” in the conference room with all of the partners and just one other new associate — a very nice gesture that felt more like being interviewed (and totally killed my appetite). But no matter what the lunch hour brings, accept it with a smile, order something that won’t drip down your chin or get stuck in your teeth, and enjoy yourself. (A note on paying: Be sure you bring enough cash for lunch in case you go somewhere and need to split the check. If they want to buy you lunch, protest a little at first, but then accept if they insist –and don’t forget to say “thank you.”)

4.  Don’t leave early. You probably won’t have enough work to keep you busy for a full workday, but leaving early doesn’t leave a good impression. If your boss hasn’t assigned you a task, ask for something. If there really isn’t anything for you to work on yet, spend the time getting accustomed to the firm’s IT setup. How does the email work? What about the calendar? Is there a research system you need to learn? Where are the office supplies? Do you need anything for your desk? Does your desk phone work and how do you use it? Of course, the answers will require some asking — take the opportunity to get to know the people you work with. Then, when everyone else starts to go home, you can follow their lead.

5. Accept the after work social invite.  Have a clear schedule for after work because, as with lunch, a few of your new colleagues may want to get to know you better over drinks. That’s cool, you should go. But whatever you do, don’t get sloshed. You may want to, since you did just survive one of the most stressful days of your career, but resist the urge. Don’t be afraid to stick with soda (you do have to drive home after all), and if you do drink, just have one and nurse it. Also, be friendly and stay 100% positive — don’t complain about your day or say anything bad about anyone you met, even if that’s what everyone else is doing. You need to keep all doors open — it takes more than one day to figure out how to fit in, and you don’t want to provide gossip material.

For more great advice on how to make your first day count, check out Jacquelyn Smith’s “19 Things You Should Do On Your First Day Of Work” ( http://www.businessinsider.com/what-to-do-your-first-day-of-work-2014-2#ixzz332DeMa2H ).