Stop Putting Out Fires. Start Building A Career.

Solo Practice University® is proud to welcome our newest  monthly columnist, Chelsea Callanan, who will be focusing primarily on professional development and the ever-elusive work-life balance. (I personally think it should just be called ‘life’ because who today can honestly separate work from their life? Not me. You say tomato…) Chelsea will be addressing these issues and we’re thrilled to have her.

Graduation has happened for law school students across the country, who are now scrambling to put together bar exam study schedules, and if they haven’t already – decide what they are going to do after school.  I can place myself back in that time of great transition and change, and remember how stressful it was, even though I had a firm position secured for after the bar exam.  It turns out that I left that first job within two years (it wasn’t a good fit), and looking back now realize that I accepted the offer in large part to avoid additional stress of finding a different job, or of exploring what it is that I really wanted.  I was so focused on checking off the box on my to do list “get job,” that I didn’t put in the time to think about how or whether it really fit into my career plan.  To be honest, I didn’t even really have a career plan in mind – I just needed a job.  The rest would come together later, right?

Stop reacting and get proactive!

I see a trend in the legal field that concerns me – maybe it concerns you, too. A focus on the negativity and the immediate concerns in the job market is forcing people to be more reactive, rather than proactive.

When you accept certain facts as hard truths, and then shape your life decisions around these truths, you are reacting.  For example, I had heard that few people in my graduating class were getting job offers, that I should accept the first job I was offered, and to always accept a job from a “big firm” (Maine’s level of big firms is not traditional BigLaw, but the local equivalent).  I accepted this as truth and therefore moved forward during school to get all of the resume boosters that a big firm would want to see on a prospective candidate’s resume.

Now, looking back – three law firm jobs later, I am working side by side with my husband in our own firm, and am diversifying how I spend my time and make money in all sorts of interesting ways.   I believe my initial employment decisions immediately after law school were very reactive and shortsighted.  I am now working hard to shift my mindset to a more proactive and engaged way of thinking.

If I had instead set goals, put a plan in place, and focused on achieving my own personal success, the trends and data and advice would merely have been blurry background– not the main focus or driver of my decisions.  This proactive way of thinking is much more conducive to finding career satisfaction, and certainly much more a characteristic of highly successful people.

Lawyers are like snowflakes (laugh if you must!)

As busy law students and lawyers, it’s very easy to get caught up in the urgency of things, rather than the importance of  things.

Lawyers casually joke around that all we do is go around “putting out fires” at work, or as students we jump from one reading assignment and exam paper to the next – dealing only with what is urgent.  If you get too caught up in that mentality, and let it translate into your personal and professional development, then you can’t be surprised when you aren’t making the progress in your career you had hoped for.  Your personal goals have been lost in the ashes of all the fires you put out.

We need to feel empowered to focus on what is important, not only what is urgent.

Remember – what is important to me is different than what is important to you, or any other lawyer.  We all have unique situations and circumstances – different amounts of student debt, different family obligations, different geographic locations, different practice areas, and different health.  Like snowflakes, law school grads all have unique characteristics that push them to place importance on different areas of their life and career goals.  So how can we make sure to not lose ourselves in the mass of urgent data, advice, and instructions for how to avoid being a miserable failure of a lawyer?

Ditch the job – Embrace the career

If you recall back when you were in law school, you had access to a “Career Services Office” – it wasn’t called “Job Services Office.”  And yet that is how so many students and alumni treat this resource.  Lawyers are blessed to work towards and gain a degree that is very versatile and portable, and to gain knowledge than can benefit them in many employment and business settings.  So how can we begin thinking about getting on an exciting and fulfilling career path, rather than just finding or creating a job sufficient to pay the bills?  Of course, financial constraints are a major factor for most new lawyers (including my husband and I) – but we can’t live solely for fear of missing a month of $1,500+ student loan payments.  This is why I challenge lawyers to think beyond the next financial quarter, job review, or client meeting.  By thinking out further, you can learn to proactively set and embrace career goals.

Think to yourself who your role model or mentor is, and what you find inspiring about them.  Have they had multiple roles or positions in their career?  Have they set and achieved goals you want to achieve for yourself?  Often times when we look up to people, it is because they are working towards and have achieved major goals that are similarly important to us.  Yet, if we are only running from urgent task to urgent task, we may become frustrated that we are not doing as well as they are and not know why.

Hanging a shingle is an important career choice

What I hope you take away from this post is that if you are a student trying to decide what to do after law school, I encourage you to consider your options, and to include going solo in your list of options.  But such an endeavor is not for the faint of heart, and it is not a good fit if it is not in line with your unique and important goals.  If you haven’t taken the time to really assess what is important to you in your career, don’t just take the first job offered or go out on your own as a reaction.  Fit time in among your urgent tasks to prioritize honest self-assessment, learning more about what you want your life to look like.  Then build a team of people/resources to help you get there.

If you have proactively already hung a shingle and are working on your own, make sure to check in regularly on what is important to you.  If you jump from fire to fire for too long you are likely to lose some of your inner snowflake – and your own inner fire along the way.

Tell me what you think

Do you feel like you are always putting out fires?  Have you lost your inner snowflake (yes, you can laugh)?  How do you prioritize your important goals and needs in your career planning?  Share a comment below – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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