How do you define career fulfillment? To me, this concept denotes autonomous control of your career path and self-actualization in your work. Many Millennials in the workforce today consider both of these to be absolute rights. Unfortunately, Big Law hasn’t always had the reputation of offering either of these job benefits.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in law or if you’ve been working in law for a few years and are now considering your next move, I’m here to tell you not to abandon the course. It is possible to have just as fulfilling a career in law as you can have at that hot tech startup. The key is to approach your career with the right strategic mindset and stay firmly in the driver’s seat during your early years.
Your first five years as a lawyer are incredibly important. These are pivotal years that establish the foundation for the rest of your career. Unfortunately in the legal industry, the concrete can sometimes set too early. Some young lawyers can be frustrated when a 20-year career trajectory gets set in their 2L summer. This isn’t great for a generation that’s used to having lots of options. Where I sometimes see Millennials start to lose interest in law is when they are shoehorned into tracks early on that doesn’t really suit them, and are not given the chance to adjust their course.
If you’re feeling like you’re in this situation, don’t give up. It is possible to try a few things before finding a practice that suits you. Just because you started out as an associate in intellectual property doesn’t mean you can’t become a litigator. From my experience as a legal recruiter, these are four essential steps to building a satisfying legal career.
- Be a person, not just a piece of paper. When a firm only knows you as your resume, you can only move forward in the direction prescribed by your track. You’ll be evaluated purely on the basis of how well your past experience matches the requirements of the open role. But when a firm knows you through in-person networking, your intelligence, work ethic, energy, and other soft skills have the chance to shine. So join your bar association, ask people to go get coffee, and connect as often as you can face-to-face. A personal connection is often the difference between landing an offer and having your resume consigned to the circular file.
- Don’t believe everything you learn in law school. It’s hard to know what a practice is like while you’re still in law school. So many people choose to become litigators simply because they spend three years reading cases. The best way to get a sense of a practice is to meet people who are working in it. I’d recommend reaching out to members of your alumni group or connecting with people you meet during summer internships and asking them about their day-to-day experience. Do this while you’re still in school and you’ll be able to make a much more informed career decision prior to graduation.
- Don’t believe everything your law firm tells you. Remember that your firm’s primary goal is to do what’s best for the partnership, not what’s best for individual employees. While your firm wants to keep you happy, the path they recommend for you may not always be the one that’s genuinely best for your professional ambitions. If you find yourself being pigeonholed into a track that isn’t fulfilling, don’t assume your only option is to “stay the course.” It’s always worth exploring lateral moves, especially in your first years out of law school.
- Stay in touch with your cohort. Invest the time to develop real relationships with your colleagues because they’ll be the ones to get you your next job. Don’t let exit memos die in some forgotten archive folder. Keep track of where people in your firm go and stay in touch after they leave. Do this diligently and you’ll have a long list of leads when it’s time to make a change.
- Develop relationships with recruiters before you need them. As you try different things during your first few years in law, it’s worthwhile developing a relationship with a recruiter early on, ideally before you need one. The best recruiters – the ones who take a more consultative approach – will work with candidates over the course of many years and multiple career changes. The longer you work together, the better that recruiter will understand your goals and preferences, and the better equipped he or she will be to find a great role for you.
Follow these steps and keep an open mind, and you can find the practice that’s best for you. The in-house Pilates instructors and free macchiatos may be scarce, but it is possible to have a rewarding and fulfilling legal career.
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