Career Planning for Lawyers: Evaluating Experience and Skills

Career Planning for Lawyers: Evaluating Experience and Skills

 Evaluating Your Current or Most Recent Work Experience is the second installment in this Career Planning Series.  In part one we provided an overview of career planning considerations.

Why not begin by evaluating your current or most recent work experience in the light of your ideal workplace? Print out this exercise or simply write down the numbers from 1 to 20 on a sheet of paper and proceed as follows:

Rate ONLY the characteristics below which are important to you on a scale of 0-10 indicating how much that characteristic is satisfied in that workplace. Divide the total score by the number of characteristics you selected to obtain your satisfaction score. Not surprisingly, a perfect score is a 10.

         1. ___Intellectual stimulation and creativity
         2. ___Experience trying cases in court
         3. ___Self expression in a relaxed atmosphere
         4. ___Reasonable income
         5. ___Work flexibility with time for family and non-career pursuits
         6. ___Opportunity and reasonable timeframe to become a partner
         7. ___Close colleagues and a friendly environment
         8. ___Diverse responsibilities and experience with limited supervision
         9. ___Preferred and/or varied legal specialties
         10. __Treated as professional
         11. __Training and development
         12. __Opportunity for direct service
         13. __Work consistent with professional and personal values
         14. __Contribution to the public good
         15. __Cultural and ethnic diversity
         16. __Autonomy and chance to work independently
         17. __Right geographical location
         18. __Managerial opportunities
         19. __Early client exposure
         20. __Chance to feel needed

     A. My Total Score was ___
     B. I selected ___ characteristics.
     C. Dividing A. above by B. above, you get your satisfaction score ___.

Unhappy with your score? If you scored less than 5.0, you are probably quite dissatisfied with your work and perhaps the direction of your career. What should you do?

First, if you are a lawyer who wrongly believes that you must take a position in BigLaw through what I refer to as the OCI "funnel" or that you are trapped forever in BigLaw and have no options, please understand that this is not the case.

Second, understand that taking control does NOT mean rushing to look at the want ads, calling recruiters or even contracting with an "Outplacement" firm.

Third, learn how critically important it is that you become aware of your goals, your values, whether they be personal or professional, your interests and your options.

Finally, recognize, especially if you are currently unemployed and searching for a new position, that when you accept a position, it combines both satisfying and undesirable features many of which you can evaluate PROSPECTIVELY before accepting a position. What a difference it makes to be able to predict, before taking the position, the likelihood of your finding satisfaction there!! While circumstances may dictate taking one that is not desirable, you will no longer be able to say you were passively placed as happened to many as they left law school. This decision-making approach results in you affirmatively CHOOSING the next step on your career path.

Another  critical issue is how much weight you should give to income. First, realize that income is relative based on several factors. You are likely to find that your ideal job pays much less than the salary offered your classmate who goes to work for Big Law. Stop and think, though, what the potential negative consequences are of pursuing a job based on financial reward as your primary factor. What value do you place on the many factors that play a role in job satisfaction? How much are you willing to give up to earn a lot of money?

It is ironic that many lawyers who have successfully pursued the high income offered by the large law firms now find themselves with a wealth of material goods but living, in a way, in abject poverty because they do not feel they have control over their lives. Try to imagine what it must be like for the partner in the large New York law firm who talks about having no self respect, no self- confidence, no self-esteem, no direct contact with individuals, no belief that she was contributing to the public good, no intellectual stimulation, and no autonomy.

Contrast her view of her life with that of an attorney helping individuals who gives this analysis of income:

"Here's how I view my salary in comparison with the salaries of my classmates in the private sector. l am 'spending' not receiving $50,000 a year for a job I love. I feel good about what I've done when I go home each night. That's disposable 'income' well spent."

The hours that come with a high income often mean giving up other things, including freedom to spend your evenings and weekends as you see fit. There are lawyers who will tell you they have never been to Parents' Night at their child's school or seen one of their child's ball games. As one parent put it: Operating my own law firm allows me greater latitude than a position in BigLaw would in balancing full time law practice with the nurturing of a family.

Having time to enjoy your family and friends, your hobbies and volunteer interests is an important part of living well.

What is the value of your professional degree? I once read this in one of those annual misleading and misguided rating of law schools issues of the U.S. News "To the student, the value of a professional degree is determined by its worth on the job market."

Perhaps that is true for some, but hopefully those of you reading this article believe that your law degree is important because it increases your likelihood of finding autonomy, satisfaction in your work, intellectual stimulation, a sense of self- worth and the feeling that you are needed, that you are helping someone who needs your help. You know that it increases the possibility of your contributing to the common good by involving you in matters of great importance to the society. You value being able to participate in decisions that affect your life. You want to use both your mind and your talents to the fullest capacity. Your degree should enable you to experience all of these characteristics which add up to a full professional life.

In our next installment of this Career Planning series, we will discuss ways to narrow your options.


Ronald W. Fox is the principal of Career Planning for Lawyers.  Since 1990, he has: provided individual guidance to law students and lawyers in transition helping them search for and locate positions consistent with their personal values and their professional goals.