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Taking Control over Your Career and Your Life

"What is work? What is beyond work? Even some seers see this not right. Know therefore what is work, and also know what is wrong work. And know also of a work that is silence: mysterious is the path of work." --------The Bhagavad Gita

Not so mysterious is the path of this column. Here are some of the assumptions and goals behind this feature on FindLaw. We assume that finding satisfaction in the legal profession is always possible; that it is a matter of "seek and ye shall find," rather than "trick or treat." We know that many lawyers wake in the morning glad to be going to work and that many have the additional pleasure of having found their jobs in a purposeful search. They differ from the lawyer who stumbled into a new job and later told us that she was "so happy (she) couldn't believe she was a lawyer." They never gave up faith that a life in the law would serve some of their deepest needs and aspirations.

What of your own life in the law? How would you gauge your own professional satisfaction? By what standards? It might help to know that about 25% of attorneys are "neutral to dissatisfied" with their work, while the remaining 75% say they are satisfied; or that the single most frequently cited cause of satisfaction is "intellectual challenge." Yet, what does intellectual challenge mean to a lawyer, and why do many "satisfied" lawyers never less contemplate changing jobs? Although instructive, statistics are as descriptive as the coefficient of friction for an elephant sliding down Mount Everest; they don't quite capture what it's all about.

Case Study

So, consider Ruth. Ruth always wanted to be a lawyer. Her father was a sole practitioner in a small town in upstate New York. After her mother died, she used to cook dinner while he sat at the kitchen table, telling her about his cases. In college she was on the debating team, majored in political science and was captain of a very competitive basketball team. She spent her junior year in Italy, where she became interested in architecture. However, she stuck to her goals and applied to the best law schools, which she defined as the ones with the highest rating in the annual US News and World Report.

Despite high expectations, she hated law school from day one and almost left after the first month. She worked for her father the first summer and he convinced her to return, reminding her of the substantial debt already incurred for the first year, of her long standing ambition and the prestige of the school. The second year was not as terrible. She signed up for on-campus interviews, even though she had no interest in any of the firms or their work, which seemed far removed from her father's life as a sole practitioner. She received one offer and accepted it. The work that summer was uninteresting but relatively easy, and the pay was terrific. When offered a permanent position, she felt relieved that she had received a vote of confidence from the profession and immediately accepted the offer.

She has been at the firm now for three years. She works until after seven every night and many weekends, and recently has been billing 190 hours a month. She was relieved to find out that although personal matters are secondary to work requirements, honeymoons were not subject to that rule. Nonetheless, she is beginning to wonder where parenthood fits in; her husband wonders too, for he is a lawyer in a similar firm. While some of her work is challenging, and she takes pride in her research, writing and negotiation skills, she has little interest in the subject matter of the cases. She never got much feedback, and now gets little except assurances that everyone is happy with her. Well, almost everyone; one partner regularly screams at her and often will not allow her the time to attend the in-house training sessions. The old boy atmosphere in the upper reaches of the firm is oppressive, but oddly, she gets along well with most of them and realizes she is in danger of making partner. Her father is very proud of her. Her husband is supportive but is frustrated by her disposition, which ranges from a high of melancholy to a low of despair. They are looking to buy a house, and he reminds her that this might not be a good time to just quit. She has had no success with headhunters, who offer more of the same. She is trying to remember why she became a lawyer. When she can, she takes gourmet cooking classes and consumes far too much of her homework. She often eats alone. Her husband gets home even later than she does.

Questions to Consider

No one will share all of Ruth's concerns, and many would even be happy in her situation. However, as a composite figure she does raise many of the issues which will be the stuff of this column and are important to finding satisfaction in the law. Posed as questions, these include:

  • How do I evaluate my present job?
  • Can I improve my present circumstances or move?
  • What right do I have to "want it all"? How enjoyable should work be any way?
  • How much of a personal life am I entitled to?
  • I'm so busy, how can I discover my options?
  • If I don't stay in a firm, what are my transferable skills?
  • How do I get the training which will help me to keep my options open?
  • What are the options in non-law firm and non-traditional career paths?
  • What is my "constituency" as an attorney: are my skills an end in themselves or means to serving a particular sector in life?
  • Can I afford a significant change, economically or in terms of personal dislocation?
  • How do I bridge the gap between law school and practice?
  • How did I become a lawyer, anyway; what is the most important about being in this profession?
  • How do I begin the process of change, other than just answering ads?

In coming columns we will address this last question, looking at the steps we think effective in mounting a job search. In the meantime, what are your thoughts and experiences in finding satisfaction in the law? What have been your own professional highs and lows? What do you see in the lawyers around you? What lawyer do you know with whom you would trade places in a heartbeat? What does it mean if you don't know one? What match exists between the values inherent in the profession and your own priorities? And please, let us know what you think of this whole endeavor and what topics you feel are important to be included in future columns and discussions. We look forward to your reactions with great interest and a little trepidation: these web ventures only magnify the old axiom, "beware of what you want, for surely you will get it!"

Resources for Taking Control of Your Career and Your Life

Surprisingly there are few easily accessible resources which contain first hand descriptions of the lives of satisfied lawyers beyond a few sensational biographies. However, with some digging, and a willingness to interrogate friends and strangers, one can make some headway. Happily, there exist many good articles and surveys and practice descriptions which relate to job satisfaction in the legal profession. You may wish to begin by looking at the following.

  • Profiles of lawyers in many local, state, regional and national legal newspapers, newsletters and magazines. In addition search through back copies of American Lawyer, the National Law Journal, and the ABA YLD Barrister.
  • Published and unpublished material compiled by law schools in which their alumni/ae describe their work and their lives; i.e., Yale Law Graduates at Work and Harvard Law School's Alumni/ae in Action.
  • Books about lawyers: What You Can Do With a Law Degree by Deborah Arron, Lawful Pursuit by Ronald W. Fox, Lawyers in Transition by Mark L. Byers, Good Works by Jessica Cowan; Soul of the Law by Benjamin Sells.
  • Conversations and inquiries: Ask colleagues to give you the names of lawyers who appear to believe that the work they do is satisfying and meaningful. You could contact:
    • The law school you attended and talk to the Dean, faculty, and staff in the career planning and alumni/ae offices;
    • Local and state bar association officers and staff;
    • Judges and personnel at your courts.
  • Take a look at the ABA Profile of VISTA volunteer Myles Lynk.
  • Consider reading profiles such as The Making of a Country Lawyer by Gerry Spence, Running from the Law by Deborah Arron, Women in Law by Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, My Life as a Radical Lawyer by William M. Kunstler, Justice in the Mountains: Stories and Tales by a Vermont Lawyer by Deane C. Davis.
  • Go to the homepage of FindLaw Careers and see what job opportunities and information about lawyers and firms are available.

By Mark L. Byers, Ph.D. and Ronald W. Fox, Esquire

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