YOU'VE MADE IT. WHAT NEXT?
to live your dream life -- while still being a lawyer.
New York Lawyer
trouble with success is that it often falls short of the reviews.
There you are at a big firm, making big bucks, working with names
in the press, winning the attention of the partners, basking in
the glow of your parents' proud gaze. But deep inside lurks that
uneasy feeling that something is missing: the "uh, oh, this
isn't how I thought it would be." Or maybe you feel the itch
for a daily dose of the high you get when you're at the top of a
tough rock climb.
You don't have to leave the law to reclaim what's missing. And you
don't have to settle for less, either. Listen, for example, to the
words of Alexandra Duran, 51, a therapist,
lawyer, and career coach, who works with a steady stream of attorneys
seeking ways to build a life more in tune with what they really
want. "I help people parse away other people's expectations,"
she says, so they're not fulfilling someone else's definition of
success. The idea is to create your own snapshot of success and
then pursue it -- that's where you get the high, or as Duran
likes to put it, "that's where you find joy, meaning, and purpose."
This isn't about convincing yourself to feel exhilarated next time
you draw up a will. It's about deciding for yourself what you really
want -- whether that's to work with famous works of art, to watch
your kids grow up, to be in a firm where you feel comfortable, to
stop feeling so stressed out that you have to overdose on TV or
something else -- and then arranging your life around getting it.
More often than not, getting what you want doesn't involve a drastic
career switch, just a fine-tuning -- a move, say, from litigation
into matrimonial law or from a big firm to a smaller one. Or vice
versa. Success isn't about giving up what you have; it's about negotiating
for what you want, says Duran, above.
How do you do it? You have to pinpoint your assumptions about what
it means to be successful. Then throw most of them out. Here are
some classic assumptions that Duran
sees in her practice, Career Transitioning,
Inc. -- plus her strategies for revising them:
I Have to Make Partner
It's visible and it's lucrative, and it's
easy to think of big-firm partnership as the Holy Grail of success.
Make it, and you've arrived. Or have you?
One client of Duran's came to her with
a classic concern that she wasn't making partner. Keeping her from
partnership was the fact that she wasn't doing a lot of trial work.
"My question was why she hadn't been doing trial work,"
says Duran. "And it turned out
she didn't actually like it." What she liked was appellate
work -- the research and writing. "It seems to me that you're
saying you've successfully avoided doing something you don't like
to do," Duran told her. "You've
worked for people you think are very smart and who you like, you've
enjoyed the work, and you have succeeded in the work you've done."
How is that "unsuccessful"? Duran
The client looked at whose definition of success she was holding
herself up against. "It was''t her definition,"Duran
points out. The client is currently seeking appellate work.
What you have to ask yourself about big-firm partnership, Duran
says, is whether it, and the responsibility and stress that come
with it, will really satisfy that "something more" itch
or whether it's satisfying someone else's definition (your parents'?
the partners'?) of success.
Think about your dream job, says Duran.
"Being successful means going and making it part of your life
now." Suppose you want to be an astronaut, but you're already
37. Maybe you can be part of a team that gets a satellite into orbit
or deals with the international legal issues it might create.
You Can Make Yourself Fit Into a Certain Firm
Maybe your firm loves a collaborative approach
and you prefer to work solo. Or you want to learn and your firm
wants you to hit the ground running. No matter how good of a lawyer,
person, or politician you are, you can't compensate for a firm that
doesn't fit your personal style -- and you shouldn't have to. "If
you spend all of your time trying to make a firm a good fit when
it's not, you divert your energy from the work you need to get done."
One New York lawyer, a client of Duran's,
started feeling that as hard as he worked, he couldn't seem to make
his mark at his firm or win much positive feedback. He'd mentioned
to Duran that his firm was full of
screamers. When Duran uncovered the
fact that the client's father had a bad temper, she pointed out
that the corporate culture was the issue for him. It wasn't being
a lawyer that was an uneasy fit for him; it was the environment
he was in. The client decided to switch to a firm with a more collegial
The "Good Fit" Will Last Forever
Ask yourself why you're staying at your firm.
It's easy to be at a place where you feel comfortable -- even if
the practice area or the daily work isn't all that interesting.
"That's not a career choice, it's a non-choice, and people
who make non-choices for fit or peace or comfort usually find themselves
unhappy or confused in the end," says Duran.
It seems right for a while, but you're still not getting everything
you want or can have.
No One Will Want Me If ...
I want to work an hour less a day, if I want
to telecommute, if I want to spend more time with my kids, if I
work in a different location. And the list goes on. "The assumption
is that you don't have a right to try to negotiate things for yourself
that will give you joy," says Duran.
"People say to me, 'but they won't want me if I make a choice
to spend more time with my children.' And I say to them, 'first
of all, who is "they"?' Do you know any of these people?'
All you need, she says, "is to find one other person at any given
time who thinks you're a good fit with them. One person. I've changed
careers four times and I've always found at least one person who
thinks that's OK at a given time." More than one person, in fact.
The story of Duran's
own career is one of following her interests and taking her skills
with her, moving from clinical social worker to big-firm lawyer
(LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae) to general counsel (the Fashion
Institute of Technology) to attorney-therapist-career coach.
I Don't Like Risk
"Don't fear the unknown. It's where the fun
is," says Duran.
"I cannot tell you how many times attorneys have come to me with
'impossible' situations made so by their own fears and negative
assumptions. Attorneys often want and fear change at the same time.
It's confusing, and all too often, they succumb to their fears and
feel trapped. The negative assumptions attorneys have about their
situations and their freedom to change are frequently due to a loss
Part of the job of being a lawyer is to avoid risk for the client
and the firm. Look at whether you're doing that in your own life
-- or if you just think you are. Consider one client, who described
himself as risk-averse even though in his private life, he'd bungee
jump and parachute. When he better understood his motivations and
his tolerance for risk, he started pursuing -- and getting -- more
appropriate and satisfying assignments. And his feelings about his
work improved dramatically. It comes down to one crucial question,
"Ask yourself, what's the worst thing that can happen if I
take a chance?"
Having helped people with criminal records make successful transitions,
points out, "it's possible for anyone. Perhaps a sacrifice
will be required, perhaps not, but the first step is deciding not
to be ruled by fear."
After you've questioned these assumptions, then what? "Don't
judge -- unless it's your job," says Duran.
"If it all hasn't turned out the way you wanted, it's easy
to beat yourself up. Why not just start, without blaming yourself,
to make your life take the shape you would like it to have? Blame
won't get you there. Take an honest look at your priorities, what
you honor and value, and what gives you joy, and the process begins."
Field has written about business for publications including Fast Company
and Success. Her work has also appeared on fsb.com, the Fortune Small
Business Web site.
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