For many years now, poorly thought out job and career decisions (often caused by a dysfunctional legal education system which fails to teach students the skills and values they need and the wide range of law practice options) have resulted in an epidemic of job dissatisfaction among lawyers. You owe it to yourself, your family, the legal profession and the public to take control over, and assume responsibility for making, all decisions on issues which vitally affect your career … and your life.
This is the second article in this Career Planning Series. In the first I described the Tasks to Accomplish for a Satisfying Law Career, an overview of the career planning process. One of the first tasks is evaluating your current or most recent work experience based on your goals and values. You may want to 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 your present position. 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, my satisfaction score is ___.
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 had to take a position in Big Law through what I refer to as the OCI “funnel” after having been advised by staff or faculty to do it for “a few years” so you can pay your law school loans (their salaries) or that you are trapped forever in Big Law 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 an “Outplacement” firm.
Third, learn how critically important it is that you become aware of your goals and your values, whether they be personal or professional.
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 by again completing this exercise. 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 ideal, 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 position on your career path.
Another critical issue is how much weight you give to income. You are likely to find that your ideal position pays much less than the salary of your classmate who took a Big Law job. What goals and values do you compromise to earn that high salary?
Many lawyers who have successfully pursued the high income offered by Big Law now find themselves with a wealth of material goods but living in a form of poverty because they have no control over their lives — no self respect, no self-confidence, no self-esteem, no direct contact with individuals, no belief that they are contributing to the public good, no intellectual stimulation, and no autonomy. I have seen a TOTAL score of 20 for New York law firm associates based on considering 20 criteria; a satisfaction score of 1 based on a 9 for reasonable income, a 9 for right geographical location and two random 1’s.
The hours that come with a high income often mean giving up other things, including the freedom to spend your evenings and weekends enjoying your family and friends, your hobbies and volunteer interests — going to Parents’ Nights or attending a child’s ball games.
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.”
I disagree. A law degree provides an opportunity to use both one’s mind and talents to the fullest capacity while contributing to the common good by helping those in dire need of legal services while possibly also being involved in matters of great importance to the society. It increases the likelihood of finding autonomy, satisfaction in one’s work, intellectual stimulation and a sense of self-worth, the components of a rewarding professional life.
Ron Fox is the principal of Career Planning for Lawyers. He has, for the last thirty years, worked with dissatisfied lawyers, lawyers in transition and law students providing them with advice and guidance on how to find positions consistent with their professional goals and personal values. Much of his practice involves helping dissatisfied corporate litigators learn they are not trapped, have options and can overcome the lack of self-worth and self-confidence caused by the failings of legal education. His goal is to help lawyers take control over their careers and their lives and to gain autonomy, a sense of meaning, integrity, satisfaction and self-respect.
After graduating from Harvard Law School and serving in the US Army JAG, he took a position with a corporate law firm and immediately realized that he was in the wrong place. This was his first encounter, a personal one, with the issue of career planning.
Over the next 15 years he practiced law in an insurance company, with a solo practitioner, and in a firm he founded that represented low and middle-income people. He also became one of the first lawyers in the country to offer divorce mediation, served on the board of legal services programs, created lawyer referral programs, and started an association of legal clinics.
Because of his experience with small firms and public interest organizations, he was hired in 1984 to be an adviser to those students at Harvard Law School not interested in working for large corporate law firms. For the next five years he provided individual guidance to hundreds of intelligent, creative, self-sufficient students sadly watching most of them being funneled by the law school to large law firms because the law school did not prepare them to practice law, did not make them aware of their options and focused on on-campus interviewing.
Since leaving that position in 1989, in addition to providing individual advice, he has consulted to and presented workshops for over 25 law schools and bar associations such as the ABA Public Service Division’s “Town Meeting”; co-facilitated a retreat for law school deans on Legal Education Reform at the Fetzer Institute; authored “Lawful Pursuit: Careers in Public Interest Law” published by the ABA; and contributed articles to LexisHub (see listing at end of article) for new attorneys.