I know quite a few lawyers who seem to base the whole of their identities on being lawyers. They use legal language in casual conversation, make jurisprudence jokes, and talk about court cases and firms the way people talk about sports games and teams. It’s who they are.
So what happens if these people, for whatever reason, are put in a position where they can’t practice anymore? Kablooie – there go their identities.
But identity is a funny thing. It abhors a vacuum. And it will fill it with whatever the most accessible thing is. Art. Booze. Whatever’s on hand really. And when an identity hardens around something, it’s damn hard to chisel it out again.
That’s why it’s important to not let your identity rest too heavily on any one pillar. Be a lawyer or a writer or whatever your thing is. But be other things too – a friend and a photographer and a tennis player – and be them just as much. As in the stock market, diversify to spread risk; that way if you can’t do one thing, you’ve got others to fill the identity gap. Of course, diversifying also means probably not being great at anything – more on that some other time.
Ideally, I think you want to get to a point where your identity isn’t dependent on anything external at all, on anything you have or do; a point where you base your worth on the values you live by, your integrity, and your character. When you get there – and this is just a theory – all the rest can fall away. You’re you, living in the world inside out, and that’s enough. Baby steps.
If you’re a student preparing to enter the working world, here are three things you can do to start laying the groundwork for the transition:
1. Attend trade conferences. Every industry has trade associations. See for yourself: type into Google some combination of “national association” or “society” or “of America” and your desired industry. Got some hits, right? Now look around on those websites for the events calendar, because every trade association hosts conferences. It’s how they justify making members pay dues. And who goes to these conferences? Everybody in the industry, all of them looking to schmooze. So you should be there too, preferably not sitting in a corner being shy fiddling with your cell phone. And because trade associations are always looking for new blood, they usually make it easy for students to go by offering special student rates, or even better, let students attend for free in exchange for helping with grunt work. So take advantage, go meet some folks, take a few business cards, and send some follow-up emails the next day. Ask people out to lunch or coffee. You’ll pick their brains, they’ll pay, they’ll remember you down the road. It’s that easy.
2. Blog. Penelope covers all the bases on why blogging can be great for your career. If you have an interest area, you should be blogging (and if you don’t have an interest area, you should be exploring). Just like every industry has trade associations, every industry – no matter how boring the subject matter may be – has bloggers. And those bloggers are often experts in the field who know everybody you want to know. So find the blogs in your industry and start taking part in the conversation. Post frequently about things that interest you in the discipline. Leave comments on other blogs so that people can follow your trail back to your site. Be a good blog citizen: credit others when it’s due, link to people you read and respect, and keep your comments constructive. Not only will you build relationships that might translate into real-world hookups, but you’ll also learn a lot about your area simply by reading and writing about it so much. Win-wins all around.
3. Do projects. In the law, this usually translates into writing long papers that require extensive research (or articles for trade association publications – see #1). But projects don’t have to involve footnotes. Host a panel, organize a networking event (happy hours are always popular) – just do something that requires you to make things happen. You don’t need to be part of an organization or have anyone sponsor you, just take the initiative and do it yourself. Handling a project that brings people together or immerses you in a subject area forces you to develop and draw upon skills that will serve you no matter what you ultimately end up doing. A person who can communicate effectively and organize to get things done is always in demand. Be that person.
Notice that these are things that anyone thinking about moving into a new job can do to pave the way, not just students. Attending trade events, blogging, and doing projects are the best way to distinguish yourself from the field of people just blasting their resumes out to everyone in their Contacts list and praying. The goal is to not even need a resume; the lead-up work you’ve already done should speak for you. The rest – fielding offers, weighing options, deciding which is the best fit – is just follow-through.
From what I can tell, there are two types of people in a law firm: workhorses and show horses. Work horses are fungible billing units, doing good work in obscurity. They sit in their offices all day drinking coffee and bluebooking and banging away at the keyboard until its time to go home at well-past a reasonable hour.
Show horses, on the other hand, get to take clients out to dinner and travel to conferences and do more than just churn out documents. Sure, they get worked too – in a firm, everybody gets worked. But the law is more fun for these people because they’re not neck deep in it all the time. The differences between work horses and show horses: social skills and a desire to determine their own experience.
Show horses tend to have more refined social cues than work horses, and consequently have an easier time putting people at ease. They’re more outgoing and know how to tell a joke or a story and keep a conversation rolling. That stuff’s really important, and for some folks it doesn’t come naturally.
But show horses also do something that anyone can do: they ask for what they want. They ask to go out with clients and to travel to conferences and whatever else they want, and often enough they get it. They determine their own level of involvement and get rewarded for it. And ultimately they’re more valuable to the firm than the workhorses because more people can type a memo than can bring in business. So not only do show horses have a more enjoyable experience than work horses, but they have more job security too. Harsh but fair, sad but true.
Seth has an interesting post about one of the big problems in getting people to donate to charity: overcoming the feeling that no matter how much one gives, it’s not enough and therefore it’s not worth giving anything. This is tricky. I understand because I’m one of those types. Making donations to organizations that tackle big problems like world hunger and child and animal abuse often feels like throwing money into a black hole; I know it’s helping in the abstract, but there’s no obvious, immediate return-on-investment to point to and feel good about.
This is where itemization and benchmarking would be beneficial. Instead of asking for general donations for a worthy but daunting cause, non-profits would be better served itemizing exactly where donations will be going to the extent possible and funneling them to those areas through donor choice. For example, a charity dealing with animal welfare might have a “Donate” page on their website with specific projects listed on it. Each project would have its own ‘Donate’ button next to it, along with a brief description of the project and a fundraising goal for it, telethon style. People could then choose which project to donate to and do so until the target amount was met.
I think this would attract more casual donors who are normally dissuaded by the “how much is enough?” dilemma. They’d know how much is enough because the project listing would tell them. So they could give all or part of the goal amount and walk away feeling good. The non-profit could still solicit and accept general donations for normal overhead, and institutional and wealthy donors could still be counted on to shoulder the bulk of these expenses. Only now the average Joe who actually wants to see his dollar doing some good today would have an incentive to chip in too.
This organization is a good model. Making the local national, and vice versa, is the ultimate leverage.
One of the best compliments one lawyer can pay another is “she does good work.” Essentially this comes down to sweating the details: making sure you’ve hit all the research, spotting and addressing all the issues, and double-checking citations, spelling, and grammar. It’s not particularly hard, it’s just tedious. Good work in the law is tedious.
Great work, on the other hand, requires creativity. Great work is coming up with novel arguments, or finding new ways to deploy old ones. Great work is not just giving the client or the partner what he wants, but giving him more than he expected in less time and with good cheer. Doing great work is hard. But this is the stuff that separates good from great and makes linchpins. Good is the expected minimum and people tend to take it for granted; great never ceases to surprise, or bring notice.
Any job can be creative, but most jobs don’t require creativity. Inject some anyway. Be great.
“We can never know what to want,
because, living only one life, we can neither
compare it with our previous lives
nor perfect it in our lives to come.”
-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
This quote from one of my favorite novels gets to the heart of the human condition: the difficulty of making decisions about how one should live one’s only life without any way of knowing if the choices we make will lead to *happiness, fulfillment, Heaven, whatever your thing is*, and the angst that creates in us. We take jobs, take lovers, take chances or don’t, always blind to where those decisions will take us, always wondering what life would be like if we had chosen the alternative. And for the eloquence with which he explained the dilemma, I call this the Kundera Principle, and it is inescapable.
Still, though the condition may be inescapable, one can hedge against it by doing a few things. Read biographies. Acquire mentors. Network and make friends with all types of people, and stay connected to your family. Basically do anything and everything that will put you in a position to study lots of different lives being lived in different ways. Look at the choices people make and the outcomes they bring. Look for patterns and trends among them. Then do your best to copy the things that seem to consistently bring what you consider to be positive results, and avoid the things that seem to invite misery. You’ll still be surprised by variances in outcomes, and by your own feelings throughout the process, but on average you’ll probably do better at dodging life landmines than the person just feeling their way through on intuition alone.
It might sound cold, but looking at other people as data points in a big experiment can help you navigate through life without having to approach every situation as novel. With limited time to live in the world, outsourcing experiences is helpful.
A senior associate told me that first-years don’t bring in clients. I tried anyway. Another one told me that I was wasting good billing time revising marketing materials with our recruiting team. I did it anyway. Everyone tells me I should do as many different kinds of work for as many different partners as possible. I do the work I like for the partners I like.
I’m not trying to play Rebel Without A Cause here. But I am determining my own experience. My career and my life are my own. There are certain things I like doing and want to do more of and get better at. So I do those things as much as I can within the realm of the acceptable. And when that realm becomes too confining, I’ll make some decisions.
No matter what situation you find yourself in, you have to determine your own experience or someone will do it for you. And once someone puts you on a track of their choosing it’s hard to get off. This isn’t to say that you should refuse to do anything you don’t like doing; that’s just unrealistic. But if you’re consistently passing up opportunities that you want to pursue because they don’t jive with someone else’s expectations, you’re running a serious risk of riding the rails into a life you don’t want.