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Taking Stock: Evaluating Your Present Position

By Mark Byers

In our last column, we raised some general issues about the search for career satisfaction in the legal profession and promised to carry on the inquiry with a closer look at the process of evaluating one's present position. To help us, we introduced a hypothetical attorney, Ruth, who stood on the brink of some important career decisions. We'll continue to keep company with Ruth, but as we hoped, we received comment and inquiries from what certainly sound like very real lawyers, and we are grateful to draw on their observations in what follows. (If you haven't the leisure for reflection just now, you might go to Take Control for a quick method of evaluating your position.)

W.C. Fields, in typically misogynistic language, once said, "there comes a time in a man's life when he has to seize the bull by the tail and face the situation." However, beyond general misgivings, it is not always so clear precisely what is the situation. Identifying the deficiencies in one's work will depend upon the complex expectations concerning professional rewards, personal goals and work conditions described in our last column.

One client suggested that increasingly negative working conditions such as longer hours are aggravated by feelings of having lost professional definition and purpose, i.e. the dissatisfaction in many jobs could be mitigated by a "reinvention" or "renovation" of lawyers' roles which would restore self-esteem and improve public perception of the profession. The same client implied that congruence between the individual's values and those of the job is closely tied to congruence between the individual's values and the basic goals and purposes of the legal profession, as that individual understands them. Hence, any evaluation of present position requires a three-way match between the values of person, employer and profession. One asks, in the immortal words of Ross Perot's erstwhile running mate, "Who am I; Why am I here?" Furthermore, one asks, "Where am I; Whom am I serving; Am I serving the profession?"

Daniel Evans, at the ABA web site for the Professional and Personal Satisfaction Interest Group of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA suggests changing our criteria for evaluating our work by adopting new values and perspectives that free us from irrelevant and unrealistic expectations of clients, employers, the public, and not the least, ourselves. "Unhappiness is caused by our perception of reality not meeting our expectations. In that case, we have two choices: we can try to change the world to conform to our expectations, or we can change either our perceptions or our expectations." (From "Unlearning Dissatisfaction" by Daniel B. Evans. This emphasis upon the individual changing his or her expectations and attitudes in not offered as a prescription of non-engagement or indifference to the needs of clients or employers. Rather, it attempts to put the locus of finding satisfaction in the "individual lawyer acting alone," i.e. to make satisfaction a matter of personal responsibility and control. Moreover, Evans considers professional satisfaction "to be a lawyering skill." In this he is taking a stand with the MacCrate Report, which asserts that a fundamental value of the legal profession is that a lawyer must take a position only if it is consistent with his or her personal values and professional goals." Thus, he acknowledges that finding job satisfaction and defining professional values is not only an individual responsibility but requires collegial support from the profession or some segment of it.

By Evans' standards, evaluating one's present position would require a rigorous effort to determine whether we should change the job definition to suit our requirements, change our attitudes toward the job, or leave. In particular, he would have us make sure that we were not allowing the job or the clients to define our practice in a way that feels inauthentic. In my book "Lawyers in Transition," I urge against evaluating a job in the light of an obsession with what seem to be one's only opportunities. "Shifting your goals to conform to available opportunities causes you to lose sight of who you are and what you truly need. It is premature strategic thinking."

Another client was understandably less focused on his inner lawyer and more concerned how to evaluate the economic health and competitive position of his employer. The situation described sounds familiar: a firm which perhaps over-expanded in the late 80's and has since failed to stay competitive in some areas as the market has changed; now it is hard to tell if they are undergoing involuntary attrition or cunning downsizing. The client seemed to assume that this is the kind of employer which he seeks; he was only concerned with whether it is a safe and secure alliance. The question for this individual associate was whether his situation constitutes a career constraint or opportunity. To make a determination, he needed 1) to discover more about the competition between firms in his city and his firm's business strategy; 2) to make a separate analysis of his situation at the firm in terms of his training timetable and the viability of the practice areas to which he is assigned. Whatever the firm's fate, his personal growth might continue, perhaps with unusual responsibility, perhaps with the opportunity to be connected with a vital effort at renewal within the firm. For the former, he will need to read more, and especially to talk with friends at other firms to see how his firm is perceived by the others. (Maybe he should have a discreet chat with a headhunter.) For the latter, he needs to see if his opportunities for training will be affected by the morale and resources of the partners for whom he works. If he needs to relocate in the next year or so, he may be more marketable than the partners! We have seen well-trained young associates fare quite well when a firm has died on them.

In his job he must decide what he is trying to obtain from his work experience and to what purpose. Even here, where the focus is on the external working conditions, there is still necessity to undertake some self-assessment and introspection, asking "what do I seek from this position?"

What about Ruth? (As we would say if we were to view our creation as a new soap character.) What first step should she take to recognize her goals and values and then evaluate her present position in light of her criteria? Rather than developing her own list she might want to begin by using one we have compiled. Ruth took this exercise found at Take Control. If you're still with us, try taking the exercise and then return to this page.

Ruth felt that 10 of the 20 variables were very important to her and scored then as follows:

  • 3 Provides intellectual stimulation and creativity
  • 3 Allows self expression
  • 9 Provides adequate Income
  • 2 Provides time for family and non career pursuits
  • 2 Provides the right legal specialties
  • 2 Provides training and development
  • 3 Provides opportunity for direct service
  • 2 Contributes to the public good
  • 8 Provides right geographical location
  • 3 Provides chance to feel needed

She divided the total of 37 by 10 (the number of criteria chosen) and came out with a score of 3.7. What does this mean? On one level, Ruth is saying that she does not have autonomy, she does not like the environment, her mind is not stimulated and she is not doing anything that matters to her. She may be feeling that she is missing the essence of being a professional. For the first time, she is evaluating her employer rather than passively waiting to be judged and, simply put, the firm is not meeting Ruth's standards. Ruth is beginning to take control.

How would you summarize your own scores? Do our variables adequately cover your criteria?
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