The first step toward achieving career success and satisfaction is an honest self-assessment. If you’re not clear about where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to go, it’s difficult to determine if you’re on the right path or what your next step should be. It’s a good idea to give yourself a regular career check-up. Periodic reflection on your progress and satisfaction will keep you from wandering too far afield and increase the odds of reaching your ultimate goals.
By taking a good look at yourself, you can pinpoint any areas of dissatisfaction and determine whether you need to make some large or small changes in your current employment situation; change practice areas, law firms, or type of legal employer; or leave the practice of law altogether for a related or completely different field of endeavor.
At the very least, take stock both personally and professionally before embarking upon a job search, to save yourself unnecessary steps along your path to career fulfillment. As a legal recruiter, I sometimes worked with candidates who were dissatisfied in their jobs but didn’t take the time to figure out what they wanted before making a move. There was the litigator who thought it was her particular law firm she didn’t like, only to move to another firm’s litigation department and discover she was even more miserable. It took a further job change to join the corporate department of a third law firm before she was content. And, there have been other lawyers who, just months after moving to a new law firm, decided they really wanted to follow completely different career paths such as becoming a therapist or opening a bakery.
Your self-assessment should include a look at the pros and cons of past and current jobs, your preferences, values, life goals, and dreams. What did you like and dislike about various positions you held? For each one, look at the actual work you did on a daily basis, the people with and for whom you worked, the culture of the organization and its position in the legal marketplace, your clients, the practice, business development opportunities, and your professional growth prospects. Are you more comfortable in a formal, corporate-style setting, a more informal law firm, or a small, entrepreneurial or solo practice where you can be your own boss?
Consider also the details: the physical environment, your commute, the pay and benefits. Are you living in the geographic location that’s best for you personally and professionally? Think about the specifics of the projects or tasks you most and least enjoyed, and why. If you could imagine an ideal work situation, what would it look like? You should be clear about what you want to move away from as well as what you wish to move toward.
If you’re like most people, the work you do is integral to your self-image. Do you like what you see? Give yourself an unvarnished once-over. Look at what excites or bores you, your strengths and weaknesses. Honestly evaluate whether there are some skills you want to develop or enhance. How are your mental and physical health, energy level, and work/life balance?
Think back to the reasons you went to law school and what you hoped to accomplish. What were your dreams? Are you headed toward those goals, or have your goals changed? Keep in mind the reality of your current financial and family responsibilities because sometimes priorities change along with your stage in life. You also might want to talk things over with trusted friends and colleagues for a reality check: Are your goals realistic given your background and experience, personality, and family responsibilities? If not, is there something that can be changed?
An important question to ask yourself is whether your work reflects your core motivations and values. Are you representing the type of clients and working on the kinds of cases or deals that resonate with your beliefs? It’s difficult to effectively and zealously represent a client whose goals conflict with your personal ideals. Sometimes pursuing pro bono activities or an interest outside of law, such as with a charity, a civic organization, sports, or a hobby, can add balance and perspective and provide another avenue for fulfillment.
Once you complete a thorough self-assessment, you’ll be in a better position to gather relevant information, consider your options, and create an action plan to get you where you want to go. Having a personal career plan allows you to set a course that matches your specific desires, values, skills, and interests. It also assists you in aligning your goals with those of your firm. A career plan gives you a blueprint against which you can measure your progress and, with regular review, keeps you from straying too far off course. Finally, it allows you to focus your time, energy, and resources for optimum results.