Here at Adam Smith, Esq., we cover the array of law firm management issues from strategy and finance to compensation and cultural issues—”an inquiry into the economics of law firms,” to coin a phrase.

But there’s much more to life.

Specifically, there’s your career. Yes, yours, Dear Reader. As they say in New York, “I’m talking to you.”

Writing about this for a time or two, or every once in awhile, is as fitting as for a doctor to observe that your bodily health is the sum of the health of your organs and bodily systems: A law firm’s health is the sum of the health of its members’ careers.

So today we turn for our text to the Harvard Business Review for their just-published “How to build a meaningful career.”

Many people take alarm at words like “meaningful,” especially when their presumably soft and squishy contours are paired with something as deadly serious and unyieldingly hard-edged as “career,” and lawyers are probably among the worst offenders. Bear with me.

The authors start by acknowledging, realistically and humanely, that in our 20’s “We look for things that we’re proud to talk about at a cocktail party or look good on a resume.” But the en garde immediatley follows: “rarely are those the things that translate to satisfaction.” Why not? Doesn’t that lead to the world’s markers of success including title, compensation, and prestige of the firm? Well, yes it can, but consider these other four factors the authors enumerate.


What do you want to achieve, and what do you want to leave behind? This can be fine-grained or broad-brush. “Legacy” to you (this is all about you, to repeat myself) may mean having helped 3 or 23 or 56 specific clients in particular situations, or it may mean having built the firm’s Shanghai office or given the pro bono program teeth. Only you know what legacy would matter to you. But you better have one in mind.


This isn’t, actually, a psychologist’s buzzword; mastery means excelling in your work at something you love to do, and having your work call for you to employ that skill. You could love to decrypt cyphers but if that’s not in your job description it’s frankly irrelevant. Conversely, you could be a gifted litigator (say), but if the spar and jab of contention don’t fundamentally excite you, best look elsewhere.

“Mastery” is simple at root but of course hard to find for many in real life: You want to be superb at something you care about passionately.


Or, as I might re-characterize it, autonomy. Lawyers overindex on autonomy as a personality trait to a fare-thee-well, but I wonder if we’re all aware of the many guises “autonomy” can inhabit. It doesn’t only or always mean free of any managerial or externally-imposed constraints. In our complex—blessedly so!—society, it should to my mind mean something more akin to a productive balance among the many dimensions of our lives: Our profession, our economic/financial situation, our family, our intellectual and spiritual lives, and the many communities we all belong to—of friends, neighborhoods, alumni networks, churches and synagogues, and more.

New York is famously populated by actors, singers, screenwriters, novelists, artists, photographers, and many other creative types waiting tables while pursuing their dream. They have found freedom and autonomy, even if they haven’t achieved their life’s goal just yet.


Or, in less oblique terms, whether you feel as though you belong where you work. Do you feel you know what the organizations’ fundamental priorities are—and the priorities of those you work with? Those priorities can be getting rich fast, doing the greatest good for the greatest possible number, serving clients, advancing the cause of knowledge, or any number of things. It’s not what they are but whether they’re your priorities as well.

OK, now what?

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