My last blog post on my career conundrum prompted several readers to comment on the post and send me thoughtful emails and DMs about their own experiences. I am glad it resonated so much with everyone. Reading the feedback, and in speaking with others, I noticed a theme: some people are very much in control of their careers and make active choices, while others are letting their careers happen to them.
I used to be the latter, sitting in the passenger seat watching the scenery go by, not sure where I was headed. Now I am trying my best to be the former, a driver focused on a career destination of my choice. The reason? Twice, I have been blindsided in my career. I was letting my career control me, instead of the other way around. I do not want that to happen again.
I started at a large firm without much of a career plan. Well, my plan was to keep my head down, work all the time, do great work, and be rewarded. Unfortunately, being a lawyer is not the same as being a law student. Working hard does not directly translate into an A+ career. I was not actively in control of my career; I was letting my career unfold around me as I focused only on my files.
After working like this for several years, during the seven months that I was away on my second maternity leave, my firm took over another firm, bringing on over a hundred new lawyers, new office space, and lots of new expenses. Shortly following my return, many lawyers were “let go”. I was one of them. While the firm emphasized that the decision had nothing to do with my legal skills and I was a great lawyer (hint: I was a seventh year associate without a book of business and had just taken two maternity leaves in three years), it was still a massive blow to my ego and self-esteem. I quickly realized my loyalty to my firm and hours of hard work were no guarantee that my job would be there forever.
CAREER LESSON ONE: Law is a business. Firms are in the business of making money. Economic downturns happen. Pandemics happen. Firms implode. Partnerships crumble. While these events are beyond your control, there are lots of things within your control that you can do to protect yourself.
Any time I speak to new lawyers I always remind them that their job is never guaranteed. While I do not want them to be constantly on edge and thinking negative thoughts, they should at least have an outline of a career plan in the back of their minds. This career plan should involve answers to “What if?” scenarios.
What I should have been doing since day one as a lawyer was laying the groundwork, making connections, keeping an eye on the legal market and other job opportunities, and building my own personal brand, so I had something to fall back on, or people to reach out to, when my job disappeared. These connections, and a growing network, also help build a book of business, something of value to your firm. This is not an onerous undertaking for new lawyers. It’s as simple as getting to know lawyers outside of your firm and letting them get to know you, volunteering with at least one legal organization, writing an article or two, attending a few networking events, setting up a social media presence, being active on LinkedIn, etc. You don’t have to do all of this, (working around the clock as a new lawyer takes up a lot of time) but pick one or two things to do and dedicate a few minutes each week to your career plan. This way, you won’t be starting from scratch in case one of the “What if?” scenarios happen.
This leads to the second career lesson I learned. When I lost my job, I panicked. Instead of taking time to focus and plan and figure out what would be the best job for me and my personality, interests, and skills, I jumped at the first job offer that happened to come my way. Once again, I was not in control of my career. I was letting my career happen to me. I was blindsided when I realized I made the wrong decision. I was not at all a good fit for the new job. Even though I knew early on that I had made a mistake, it took me another 6 months before I had the courage to admit it, take control, and quit. I kept waiting for the job to get better or for me to develop the skills to get used to the new job, or ideally for a new job to just come along and land in my lap with absolutely no effort on my part (ha!). Eventually I quit without another job lined up, but this time I took the lessons I learned and created a career that I love.
CAREER LESSON TWO: It sucks to be stuck in a job you hate. No matter how much you hope it will change, it likely won’t. Plan, prepare, and find a new job that you love. While it would be great if the “perfect” job just appeared in our in-box, often we need to work to find it. Passively waiting for your ideal job to come along could result in a lifelong career that was just ‘meh’ and missed opportunities you failed to find.
My career moves were thrust upon me in the past. I now make all my decisions with a lot more purpose and drive. I’ve also matured enough to know that money and prestige are wonderful but are not enough to make me happy. I know what makes me happy and each career decision must reflect that. No job is perfect, but it is possible to find one that is a good fit for you. This may take a little help, a legal career coach or consultant, speaking with friends and family, taking the time to get to know your own strengths and weaknesses, but you will get there.
No matter what age or stage you are at in your legal career, it is never too late to start being in control.
Life’s too short not to be.
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.