Most of us had a clear vision of what our career path would be when we started law school. But in many cases, that concept quickly changed as a result of external forces and internal expectations, tempered by the harsh realities of a shrinking legal job market and exorbitant student loan debt.
So, instead of becoming entertainment lawyers to the stars or world famous civil rights litigators, many of us found ourselves working as associates at the bottom of the law firm ladder, conducting mind numbing document review or researching tedious legal minutiae for hours on end, all because of the lure of a regular paycheck and a modicum of respectability.
Sure, not everyone is miserable in a law firm environment–some lawyers thrive there. For them, it’s a place to earn a stable living and if they’re able to find a practice focus that suits them, law firm life can offer a viable, even enjoyable career. But law firm life isn’t for everyone. Many lawyers burn out and when they reach that stage they know that somehow, something has to change. If you happen to be one of those lawyers, then this post–and our 15-post blog series about becoming a happier lawyer–is for you. When you do reach that wall and decide to make a change, how do you go about making the right choices that will lead to a more fulfilling career?
For starters, as Rick Georges recently explained in a post at his blog, Future Lawyer, you need to have the right mindset. It’s important to prioritize your wants and needs and realize that your life–and your career choices–are within your control:
It isn’t about building a law practice. It’s about living a life. It is about living a life of our own choosing. As for the fantasy of being famous or having a big dream, that is for everyone. But, sooner or later, we recognize that the reality of our lives is what we make of them.
Oftentimes, what holds us back and prevents us from making a decision to change our career path is fear. But, as Carolyn Elefant explains in this post from My Shingle, you can sometimes transform that fear into a catalyst for change. In her post, she discusses the option of going solo, but her advice applies regardless of whether your goal is to hang a shingle, move to a new firm, alter your practice area focus, or even leave the law altogether:
(F)inancial fear (can) trigger…survival mode, such that you don’t feel that you can do anything else than put one foot in front of the other, focused on the next fee, the next contract job, the next paycheck or the next tuition or loan payment, feeling so trapped on the hamster-wheel of life that you don’t have the energy to lift your eyes to the stars…(But) don’t give up on your dream. Just because you couldn’t muster the courage to start in a year or two or five doesn’t mean that you don’t have it in you: many solos and entrepreneurs are made, not born…At some point – maybe in six months or six years, you’ll be lucky enough to have a life-changing epiphany that pushes you to take the leap. Maybe an opportunity will materialize and since you’ve been thinking about starting a firm, you recognize the opportunity and leap for it.
And once you’ve made that leap, stay the course. Fight for the choice you made. Persevere and don’t waiver in the face of unforeseen obstacles. As Allison Shields explains at her blog, Legal Ease,
The truth is that going out on your own, whether as a solo or with others to form a new venture is scary, and it’s hard work. Sometimes it’s easy to lose the vision and to forget why you decided to do this in the first place. Those are the days that you just have to keep going. It’s that hard work and perseverance even (and sometimes especially) when facing the nay-sayers, that makes the difference.
And finally, once you’ve made the change, don’t lose sight of why you altered your career path. Make sure to set your lifestyle priorities and career goals. And once you’ve done so, make sure you’re meeting them and aren’t forgetting about the reasons you made the change in the first place. Cordell Parvin offers these ten suggestions for maintaining a healthy outlook and lifestyle once you’ve made the switch to a new career focus:
1. Take responsibility for your career and life.
2. Determine the priorities in your life and plan each week around those priorities (e.g. family, health, spiritual, work).
3. Exercise for at least 30 minutes 5 days a week.
4. Eat dinner at home with your family at least ___nights a week.
5. Get up from your computer once an hour and, if nothing else, just walk down the hall and back.
6. Take time during the lunch hour to get outside. Do not eat at your computer.
7. Focus on things you can control rather than worrying about things you cannot control.
8. Be a “glass half full” person rather than a “glass half empty” person.
9. Begin building your career based on your major definite purpose (the intersection of your talent, passion and client needs).
10. To better understand the lifestyle changes outlined above read these three books and after each chapter write down how you will apply what you read:
“The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz – this book will teach you to manage your energy.
“First Things First” by Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill – this book will teach you to manage time based on your priorities.
“Getting Things Done” by David Allen – this book will help you reduce stress by getting better organized.
In other words, don’t just seek out career path–always remember why you changed it. Make sure to focus on the things that matter to you the most. Create time for friends and loved ones and take care of yourself. Then, and only then, will you truly be the happy person–lawyer or not–that you were meant to be.