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.

Legacy

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.

Mastery

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.

Freedom

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.

Alignment

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?

If you can check off all those boxes in your sleep, with no remotely serious second thoughts, congratulations to you. (You may also stop reading now.) On the other hand.

You may be among those (the majority?) who don’t honestly know what matters most to you in work. You may have followed a path of achievement largely prescribed and defined in others’ terms and not those of your own devising. You may be where you are largely because, at each fork in the road, you chose the course that would “keep more of your options open.” You may simply be where you are as a result of luck (hey, it happens!).

While this may be understandable, it simply will not do.

If you’re starting from a position of relative ignorance about what really matters most to you, my recommendation is to create some hypotheses and test-drive them. Do you care more about being on the front lines or in management? Do you work best surrounded by colleagues and in the thick of teamwork or more or less by yourself? Understanding that you are in a demanding profession and there is no substitute for putting in hard work, are flexible hours, somewhat within your control, important to you or is a regular schedule more your style? Caveat: Don’t form your hypotheses by, as they say, “fighting the last war.” If the last partner you worked with or client you worked for was a control freak, don’t assume solving that problem will take care of everything else as well.

Lawyers like checklists and roadmaps, and the article actually provides some, so I’ll leave you with a few.

  • Write down what the critical elements of a meaningful career would look like to you.
  • Enlist the help of a small circle of friends—family members may actually not be optimal for this purpose—to act as your private “advisory board” to help you on your path.
  • If you can experiment within your current job, do it. If you can’t, talk to people whose careers seem enticing to you.
  • Do not worry about your very next job; this is a long-term project. Focus on the long term.
  • Do not assume it’s too late to change. Certainly in America, it never actually is.
  • Finally, and this is probably most important of all to many who have led relatively unexamined lives so far: Don’t let your financial obligations get out of control, to the point where they own you lock, stock, and barrel. Give yourself some slack. Do you really need?
    • The second home?
    • The vacation in _________ in summer and ________ in winter?
    • A new car for you and your spouse ever year? Every other year? Every three years?
    • The largest and loveliest first home that realtors tell you you can afford?

If you think I’m kidding about this final list, I kid you not. It’s not whether you take a cab or ride the subway, eat out once a month or once a week, that will kill you. It’s whether the monthly “nut” you need to maintain positive cashflow constitutes a set of leg irons. Sherman McCoy, the famous protagonist of Tom Wolfe’s legendary Bonfire of the Vanities, a Wall Street “Master of the Universe,” with his Park Avenue apartment with hand-carved crown moldings, Hamptons home, his and hers Mercedes, bespoke suits, vacations in the south of France, and all of it, had nightmares of money “hemorrhaging—just hemorrhaging” out the door.

Don’t be Sherman McCoy.

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