How to live your dream life -- while still being a lawyer.

Anne Field
New York Lawyer
May/June 2000

The 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 asks rhetorically.

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 environment.

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 of perspective."

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, says Duran. "Ask yourself, what's the worst thing that can happen if I take a chance?"

Having helped people with criminal records make successful transitions, Duran
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."

Anne Field has written about business for publications including Fast Company and Success. Her work has also appeared on, the Fortune Small Business Web site.

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