Finding success in loving (and not loving) law
It is a stroke of fortune to arrive at a career where you love what you do. Perhaps you were born into the world a baby lawyer. As you grew up, your parents and teachers would say, “you should be a lawyer” – and your high school yearbook would identify you as Most Likely To Be A Lawyer. And as the years pass, you find yourself totally immersed in what you do, loving every minute (aside from collections). Your skills, mindset, and motivation are aligned, and you would think of nothing else you’d rather do. This, many a blog will tell you, is what we should all aim for. And while it is great to find yourself in love with your career, not everyone is so lucky.
What do you do if you are not in love with your job? Are you in the wrong career? Let’s acknowledge that there are stresses to lawyering that can be painful to deal with. Consider that the top three causes of malpractice claims are failure to communicate with the client, failure to manage time, and failure to investigate properly. These are all practice management skills which can be developed. Building a practice habit is about buying into a system and following it religiously. You can start by focusing on a single behaviour in response to a cue, such as discovering a deadline and setting a tickler immediately. As each practice habit builds, your ability to reduce the pain-points and maintain a claims-free practice increases.
Having developed practice management skills, you may still be searching for that je ne sais quoi. Perhaps it is worthwhile to take a look at how you measure up on the highest predictors of happiness, namely, autonomy (ability to control your time/practice), competency (feeling like you are good what you do), and relatedness (enjoying the company you keep at work), three factors which were discussed in a study by Lawrence S. Krieger and Kennon M. Sheldon, “What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success”. The more autonomy and competency a lawyer has, the happier a lawyer will be. Can changing practice areas, size of law firms, or moving in-house offer better autonomy, competency, or relatedness?
If, having made career transitions and mastered practice management skills, the lack of love for lawyering still lingers – have you failed yourself? The perception of failure caused by not spending every waking moment doing something you love is an easy trap to fall into, especially given our perfectionist tendencies as lawyers (see Dr. Larry Richard’s excellent article here). Constantly questioning your place in the world because everyone on Facebook and LinkedIn parrots the do-what-you-love principle is not helpful. For every do-what-you-love billionaire tech entrepreneur and actor, there are hundreds more failed entrepreneurs and waiters. Love for your career (as helpful as it is when you have it) is not a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success in a career.
Supposing that there are no better alternative careers (and there are surprisingly many!), accepting the way things are can also lead to success and happiness. Those not so lucky to love lawyering may have found that what one loves may not translate easily into a career. As much as I love snowboarding, it is, unfortunately, not a viable way to make a living, especially since I can barely make a one-foot jump. There is a middle ground between loving one’s job and hating one’s job. A successful career may have elements of both, to varying degrees and at varying times. We can be motivated to succeed in a career for any number of perfectly valid reasons beyond love for the job itself – taking care of family, building personal wealth, obtaining status, and so on. We can take joy from a win in court but slog through drafting the materials. Conversely, we can take joy in the drafting but slog through the trial. We can accept the good with the bad – as a mentor once put it to me, “every day has its good and bad”. A disciplined and motivated lawyer can achieve success, regardless of whether love of the job is the driving force.
There is more than one way to skin a cat. Not loving what you do is not necessarily a sign of failure. So long as you are motivated, achieving values such as building a reputation and putting children through school are worth celebrating. The danger is when the motivation is lacking and the practice management skills aren’t there to buttress you. Build those practice habits and, to the extent social media contributes to your unhappiness, ignore the voices that prey on your insecurities and imperfections.