How to be Content with Your Legal Career

How to be Content with Your Legal Career

Today we're very excited to have Chelsea Callanan here to discuss how to position yourself for a legal career that's going to make you happy. Chelsea is one half of the fantastic Happy Go Legal, a website and coaching service designed to help you identify and reach your career (and life) goals. Check it out!

Now, without further ado, here's Chelsea.

I'm considering going to law school, but I'm really concerned about the work-life balance aspects of the profession. What can I think about, or do, before applying to make sure law is the right career path for me? What can I do while I'm in in school to ensure I end up where I want to be?

The most important thing you can do is to spend some time thinking introspectively about what success would mean for you in the profession of law. Once you get into law school, there is a bit of a herd mentality, and it is hard to not get caught up in it.

There will be "competition" in getting top grades, getting on to the journals and moot court, getting a clerkship, and OCI.

However, if you don't know what you are playing for, winning in these competitions with your classmates may not really be a win for you.

I would encourage you to envision your ideal day - does it include fitting in a workout at the gym, picking your kid up at the bus stop?

What Does Success Look Like for You?

Not everyone is driven to work for prestige, big paychecks, or expense accounts.

While it may be appealing to consider working at a big firm for 5 years to pay off your law school debt, and then have freedom in front of you, in the current economy the reality is that few will have those opportunities, and it is not a happy experience for many who do get the opportunity.

If the "big law" experience wouldn't meet your requirements of success, then don't spend time pursuing those jobs.

New graduates need to think outside the box to find creative ways to apply their degrees, and to work in different settings than predecessors.

Are you willing and able to take on those challenges? Are you confident enough in your goals for the future to go against the grain if needed to pursue your own definition of success?

Gather Information

If you are considering private practice, make sure you talk to practitioners who can explain the realities of working in the context of the billable hour and how that may impact your lifestyle.

In fact, I would encourage you to take on a mission of meeting with lawyers in different professional settings, to seek out a mentor, and to compare the experiences of lawyers approaching their careers differently.

At the end of each conversation, allow time to debrief and consider whether you could envision yourself being happy in a setting like theirs.

If you can't convince yourself you would be happy working as a lawyer - it might be a good investment to trust your instinct and consider putting off law school until or unless you feel more sure of it in the future.

Evaluate the Finances

Also, on a practical side I would encourage you to take a long hard look at how your definition of success fits into the economics of your future, and whether the law school bubble will have a negative impact on you.

If your goal is to work for an environmental non-profit, and you are applying to Tier 1 law schools and not receiving financial aid, then at the end of the 3-year education, you may be forced to seek an alternative career path out of sheer necessity to pay student loans off each month. Throw in a mortgage, daycare for your children, new wardrobe, commuting costs, etc.

I would encourage sitting down to create a hypothetical budget, figuring out what student loan repayment amounts will look like, and weighing the benefits of the investment.

If you were buying a top-of-the-line automobile, you would research reviews, values, trade-ins, and try to envision whether this car would meet your needs. Don't go into a JD program with less financial due diligence.

How to End Up Where You Want to Be

While you are in school, make sure to keep your personal definition of success in mind, and work diligently.

Look to outside resources, such as the Law School Toolbox or GreenHorn Legal - there are lots of great independent companies run by top-notch legal professionals trying to make the experience of law students more manageable.

Also, develop a strong relationship with your career services office, and professors whom you enjoy. They are all there to help you succeed, and taking the time to foster relationships and take opportunities set before you will pay off.

You should not be above seeking out help, or try to reinvent the wheel.

I would also strongly recommend working with a coach during law school - working with a coach can offer an objective third party perspective, help hold you clarify your goals, maintain work-life balance, and hold you accountable to staying the course.

Once you are in law school, the experience can feel very isolating, and having a time to talk a few time a month to someone who has been through it, survived, and who has your best interest in mind can be a breath of fresh air.

3. I'm a young associate in a law firm, and, frankly, I'm miserable. I feel lucky to have a job, of course, but I hate coming to work every day. What three things can I do now to start improving the situation?

This brings to mind a really sad visual for me. You have invested time and money into obtaining a degree, you have landed a job, and you are battling feelings of guilt around hating a job you should be thankful for. This creates a whirlwind of emotion so powerful it can be hard to set it all aside and perform well at work, or in other aspects of your life.

Don't despair, a career is a long-term plan, and you just may be on the wrong path in the short-term.

Unless you are in the enviable position of having the financial means to quit your job and start over, here are my top three suggestions you can implement today:

  1. Organize your thoughts. It can be a very therapeutic exercise to categorize what is making you so unhappy. What is it about your position that makes you miserable? Is it the setting, the work itself, your colleagues, your supervising partner, your commute, your shoebox office? If nothing else, it is good to write down to clearly remind yourself later in your career what does and does not work for you professionally. This also allows you to vent in a productive manner. On the flip side, also write down what you think you would enjoy more. You may be surprised at what you identify as something that you would be happier doing. Also, be aware of how you may be letting negative thoughts about your job permeate other aspects of your life. Need more inspiration or direction? I highly recommend The Unhappy Lawyer by Monica Parker, and am a big proponent of reaching out to an unbiased third party such as a career coach to help you clarify your goals.

 

  1. Consider shifts you can make at work. Many young associates feel very stuck, and fear that if they expressed their unhappiness, or invested time in trying to make their situation better (at least more manageable for the duration), that they would be fired. Such a drastic reaction from your employer is rarely likely, but scary nonetheless. This can be a tricky line to walk, but consider whether you have an advocate in your firm whom you can trust - perhaps an assigning partner, a mentor, or even an associate in a different department. If you give your notice in 6 months with no prior warning of your unhappiness, this person may be shocked and wish they had had the opportunity to help you. Within your firm, would you be interested in working in another practice group? Do you need help delegating more effectively to make your experience better? If you are not able to, or don't want to, make a clean break from your position, spend some energy exploring whether your situation could be made better with some tweaks?

 

  1. Network. Network. Network. I know many hate the word network, and it can feel so daunting to consider spending time, after a long miserable day at work, networking. So start with something manageable - work to identify your most influential supporters, and be targeted in your approach. Once you have clarified your thoughts, you are in a better position to ask supporters in your network for help. As explained by another young lawyer who has landed 3 jobs successfully, creating an organized approach can really help you maximize the time you can devote to job searching outside of your regular workday. Maybe you want to have informational interviews with other attorneys or business professionals to explore alternative careers, maybe you want an introduction to someone with a job you aspire to, or maybe you just want someone to pass in a resume on your behalf to get to the top of the pile. By virtue of human nature, most people in your network will be happy to help you.

Could you talk a bit about what you do in an average day at work, and how it's similar to (or different from) what you thought you'd be doing when you started law school?

I have created a slightly different experience for myself in the law than most third year associates.

I went to law school knowing I wanted to work with small businesses, and have taken risks and made changes in my career path to carve a niche in small business corporate law and trademark law.

After a 2-year stint at a medium sized regional firm, and then at a very small firm, I now work at a small-medium sized (16 lawyer) firm in Portland, Maine, and work primarily on corporate and trademark matters. On most days, I work primarily on matters for clients I have brought to the firm, so I am much more driven by client deadlines and needs than those set by partners - this gives me greater control over my days which is very important to me.

I also having coaching clients, and am involved in other entrepreneurial endeavors. I find that having other ventures outside of just practicing law helps me stay balanced, and all of my experiences support one another to help me offer better services to my legal clients.

My Average Day

On an average day I may have an 8AM coaching session, which I conduct by phone. I will connect with a professional for 45 minutes, guiding a conversation aimed at supporting their growth and creating a plan for their next week(s). Morning coaching sessions always get me really pumped for my own day, so I then head into the office around 9AM.

I will spend 15-20 minutes organizing my most important tasks for the day and cleaning up my inbox.

During the morning I may work on setting up an LLC for a client, researching trademark precedent for protection of a client's mark or brand, drafting contracts, or be negotiating the terms of a settlement agreement between my client and another business over trademark usage.

I offer free consultations to new business clients and may have a meeting scheduled. I will review their completed intake form to help prepare for the meeting, and meet with them for up to an hour to issue spot goals, challenges, and strategies they have for growing their business. I love the opportunity to meet with and offer guidance to business owners on a one-on-one basis, and consultations are interesting and keep me on my toes.

During the afternoon, I may collaborate with a colleague, to discuss a problem my client is having that is outside of my wheelhouse, or meet with a partner to update him on progress of a trademark file for a firm client.

Since I am continually trying to generate more trademark and small business work, I will also spend at least a half hour a day following up with potential client leads, connecting with a referral source, or preparing for a speaking engagement.

As a full-time attorney by day, and entrepreneur by night, after hitting the gym and having dinner, I often launch into writing a blog post, exploring ways to connect with new coaching clients, or attending coaching class (I am working towards my Associate Certified Coach credential with ICF). Building the foundation for a successful and diverse career doesn't come easy, but making it fun along the way is the ideal.

Is it What I Expected?

On an average day I am doing work that is in line with what I had hoped to do outside of law school, and almost in to my 4th year of practice I feel I am hitting my stride and getting to do work that I really enjoy.

What I hadn't really anticipated while in law school was how much more there is to practicing law effectively than just knowing the law.

I am constantly working on my communication skills, both for communicating with clients, and for working with colleagues and staff. I strive to offer a high level of customer service, and therefore spend time working on billing systems, intake systems, and the most efficient way to manage my workflow and tasks.

Also, although I truly enjoy it, I wasn't aware how much time networking and marketing can take. In order to get my name out as a trademark attorney, I have given numerous talks on intellectual property, attended dozens of events, spent time on social media, and gone to coffee and lunch with many local practitioners, professional service providers, potential clients, and colleagues.

It takes a long time to cultivate relationships, and my hope is that investing time in building strong relationships this early in my career will allow me to be a connector in my network for years to come. Although I am an introvert by nature, I can turn on the extroversion when needed.

My bottom line lesson learned is that practicing law is all about liking and working with people. Unless you land a position that is uniquely supportive of working on your own, you will need to be OK with talking to people almost all day long.

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. A 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School, she was a member of the Columbia Law Review, a Civ Pro Teaching Assistant, a Kent Scholar, and a Stone Scholar. After law school, she clerked in the District of Massachusetts and was a BigLaw patent litigator for two years. Now she helps other aspiring lawyers get into law school, get through, and stay true to themselves in the process. 

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