Here are some suggestions for how you can continue the process of finding a satisfying career in the law or elsewhere:
1. Not deciding is a bad decision.
You can drift into law school, having failed to decide to do anything else. You can drift into a legal job, having failed to decide what it is you want to do. And you can drift along doing your legal work. But one day you will wake up and ask how you got where you are. By failing to take control of your destiny you will have made a decision that you are almost sure to regret someday.
An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. Confront yourself to figure out just what it is you want out of a career. Job security, prestige, contribution to the public good, intellectual stimulation, money, the opportunity to create - you can't find what you're looking for if you don't know what it is.
2. Prepare for surprise.
You think you want to be a lawyer, maybe even a particular kind of lawyer. Whatever your motivation for thinking that now, keep an open mind with regard to other opportunities. In our dynamic economy, new careers are being created constantly. The perfect job for you may not have been created yet-or at least you may not have heard anything about it yet. Don't become so fixated on any job that you lose your vision for what else is possible.
Question your assumptions about the law. We all draw inferences and conclusions from whatever limited information we have about a particular subject at a given time. Have you ever tried to picture what someone looks like from their voice on the telephone? You can often draw a clear mental picture, right? But how often has your picture been accurate when you actually meet that person? You probably have a vision of what it would be like to practice law too. Chances are that your vision of what it will be like to be a lawyer is not completely accurate. Be ready to accept the difference between perception and reality and move on.
3. Be true to yourself.
You can't become a lawyer-or a banker or an actor or a physician-for anyone but yourself. Listen to advice from others, but when it's time for you to make career decisions, listen only to your inner voice. The pleasure of impressing someone else with what you do is fleeting. The pain of working day after day in a job you deplore is constant. Unless you are true to yourself, to your own interests and desires, you will be making a mistake.
Don't be too quick to trade off a job in which you would do something you enjoy for a job that pays more. In college and law school there seems to be an informal ranking that correlates success with salary, the same way that pro golfers and tennis players are ranked by their earnings on the circuit each year. All too often the assumption is that the "best" job is the one that pays the most. Job satisfaction is harder to quantify than salary, but the best job is the one you enjoy the most.
A big part of being true to yourself is finding and maintaining your own personal balance between your career and the rest of your life. Don't forget the rest of your life, whatever you do. One lawyer who escaped from an overly demanding position did it for his kids. "I felt like I was kissing them on the head before they got up in the morning and patting them on the head in bed when I got home. I wasn't seeing them except when they were asleep. Men and women alike have to stand up and say we want to spend more time with our children. A high-pressure law practice is not at all conducive to parenthood. You know, on their deathbeds, people never say I wish I'd spent more time at the office. I just had to quit. With kids, you blink and they're gone."
Some lawyers have been able to find balance by working part-time.
4. Cultivate mentors.
Don't be afraid to ask. Law school does not prepare you to practice law. But for what you're able to pick up during your summer jobs or in clinical courses, most of you will not have a clue what to do the first time a client calls you up for advice or the first time you appear before a real judge in a real courtroom. What's more, if you thought you got little feedback in law school, wait until you're at a law firm. (Corporations are generally better at this.) You're left to figure out how you're doing by how much your draft letter to the client was edited before it was sent out or by whether the partner will let you take the next deposition.
Find a mentor. Your mentor should be someone senior to you whom you can talk to freely. Maybe your mentor will be someone you hit it off with while interviewing, or someone you worked for as a summer associate. Maybe it will be someone you work for on your first few projects. Maybe it will be a senior associate working on the same big case you are, whom you get to know on long plane rides and late nights at the client's offices. Maybe it will be another solo with whom you share office space.
Ask your mentor to review your first few writing projects before you submit them. Find out what the senior people in your office expect from newer lawyers. Get some advice about the politics of the place. Find out what the lawyers you're working for may not be telling you about perceptions of your strengths and weaknesses.
A mentor can dramatically improve your chances of succeeding in an office by telling you what you won't pick up in any official publications. To get ahead, you must quickly learn the culture of an office and adapt to it. A mentor can act as your advocate in behind-the-scenes meetings that may affect your future prospects with your employer. A mentor may also be able to help you if you decide to move on. It's always helpful to have someone whom you can bounce ideas off of.
5. Cut your losses.
We all make mistakes. Even if you've done your homework, you may end up working at a place or in a profession that's just not right for you. If you've tried to work through the problem and it hasn't helped, don't be afraid to admit it. Staying on longer than you should only compound the error.
But don't jump at the first opportunity that comes along. Start the entire process of career decision making over again. You will have greater knowledge of the working world and perhaps a better perspective on your own needs and desires, but the decisions are not likely to be any easier. Take your time and get it right the second time. A law degree does keep a lot of options open for you. That is not reason enough to go to law school, but it does provide some comfort if you can't stand the practice of law.
6. Make your own luck. Better to be lucky than good. How many times have you heard that one? What's often overlooked is how often the good make their own luck. No, you can't control luck, but you can influence it. If you work smart and work hard, you can put yourself in a position to be lucky.
There may be only one opening for a lawyer at the place where you'd really like to work, and dozens of people may be applying. You'll have to be really lucky to get that job, right? So make yourself some luck. Work to figure out exactly what the employer is looking for and retool your resume to reflect it. Work to discover who the decision maker is, and personalize your application by addressing it to that person. Prepare for your interview by reading all of the publicly available information about that firm or company, and refer to recent developments during your interview. In short, do everything you can to stand out from the pack. This hard work may not get you the job, but it puts you in a position to be lucky.
Throughout your career, you'll face many wonderful opportunities. Make the most of them by creating some luck for yourself.
7. Keep developing your career.
Things change. To stay on top of your career and to keep happy in what you do, you have to change too.
Change your area of concentration, change your job, change your career.
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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays
You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts
You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives
Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.