Some lawyers know from the start of their careers exactly who they are and what kind of practice they want to build.
Early on, they create a practice that reflects that self-understanding, and thrive. But for others, finding purpose and place within the law is a longer and more complex journey.
Before they start to practice law, very few would-be lawyers have access to a wide network of attorneys. Most lack visibility to the many practice areas and career paths in the legal industry.
That leaves many new attorneys, especially those without ties to the legal community, vulnerable to making uninformed early decisions about the legal career they want to develop.
To fill that void, it’s easy to default to the most obvious choices. One might believe there are limited options—private practice or government practice, litigation or transactional, partner track or solo practitioner.
Law school and media reinforce these false dichotomies and the limited menu. The traditional law firm model does this, as well, by placing newly minted associates into specified practice groups before new lawyers gain significant experience in a particular area of law.
The end result is that some will find themselves in a practice area or industry segment that doesn’t quite fit their skills and goals.
Add the feeling of being misplaced to the pressure of a notoriously stressful profession, and it’s easy to see why some lawyers find themselves unhappy, burnt out, or battling the demons of depression and substance abuse that plague the legal profession.
So, what’s a misplaced lawyer to do?
Finding place and purpose within the law begins with introspection. That requires defining what makes your heart soar and what makes your stomach drop.
Listen to and honor those physical responses. They are clues from within about the types of experiences might make a fulfilling career.
Defining your strengths and weaknesses is key. If you crave collaboration and connection, look for practice areas that values those experiences.
If you yearn to be part of something bigger, seek practice areas that allow you to help solve large-scale or systemic problems.
If you find joy in competition, the big win, and high-stakes problem-solving, look for practice areas that offer and reward those opportunities. Ask those who know you best to help identify your strengths and weaknesses. Others can often define qualities we overlook in ourselves.
Test the Waters
After defining your strengths, showcase them more frequently in your professional life. Note the responses you receive, both positive and negative.
They signal how your current work environment values your strengths, and can provide vital clues on the types of practice areas and environments where your strengths might become a professional asset.
Power of the Pivot
Building a successful legal career takes time, repetition, and confidence. Many will find their place and purpose in the law through perseverance and after developing baseline confidence.
However, for those who don’t find success or fulfillment in persistence, there is power in taking control of your career and pivoting. Choosing to pivot isn’t a surrender. Rather, it’s an act of courage, borne from knowing and betting on yourself.
A pivot may not be a single, grand change. Often, it’s a series of vaguely intentional small changes. These micro-pivots can collectively tilt your career trajectory, taking it off course and in a new direction slowly over time.
Pursue New Experiences
Finding your place in the law may require accepting new experiences and opportunities that are outside your current scope of work.
This could mean soliciting and accepting assignments in new practice areas or from different colleagues, joining outside organizations that mirror your values, or seeking professional development opportunities that offer a fresh perspective.
New experiences can create small windows of opportunity that could lead to a path previously obscured from view.
Seek advice, encouragement, and inspiration from others who have created fulfilling and, ideally, happy careers. If possible, connect with practitioners from a variety of backgrounds, practice areas, and years of practice. These connections can serve as guides as you seek out and navigate a new path.
The work of creating a fulfilling career ever ends truly ends. Even lawyers are human, and humans change. What fulfills today may not in the future.
The upshot is that the law is vast. Within it, there is room for all, including the personal evolution we all undergo over time.
Developing a deep sense of self and the ability to create a path that reflects that understanding will serve you well on the journey ahead.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Brittany Johnson is director, corporate counsel, at Starbucks Corporation. She and her team lead legal support for the company’s domestic and international expansion through brand licensing. Johnson is a mother, a mentor, and a formerly misplaced lawyer herself. Her views in this column do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.
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