One of the most common recurring themes I encounter when working with new clients is the question: is it me or is it the job?
After so many years of working to become an attorney many of my clients find themselves in a position where they suddenly realize that being a lawyer is not everything that they thought it would be. They find themselves bristling against everything that their practice is asking of them. They don’t like the hours, they don’t like the demands, they’re not particularly interested in the work, and they can’t help but wonder:
Is there something wrong with me or is there something wrong with the job?
Today I want to explore a simple exploration you can undertake to get to the bottom of this critical and terrifying question.
(If this is a struggle you are going through, I strongly encourage you to sign up for a free coaching session. I would love to help you get clarity around your career and settle those feelings of discomfort.)
Early in my career, it was made abundantly clear to me that, with respect to my lawyering path, I only had one of two choices to make. I could provide advice and counsel or I could be a project attorney like a litigator or a deal lawyer.
Advice and counsel lawyers deal with the ongoing business side of their clients. This work involves day-to-day advice and support regarding contracts, business initiatives and general business operations. In contrast, “project” lawyers are those who ride the waves of cases and deals. Those attorneys may be staffed on a handful of deals or cases at any particular time but largely their work centers around one significant event in the life of their client’s business. At the close of that event, the parties typically go their merry ways or start another, similar transaction.
I knew well enough in law school that I did not want to be a litigator however I did not have a sense of what it meant to be a deal attorney or to provide advice and counsel. When I first started my practice I worked in a larger corporate finance group that housed not only employee benefits, ERISA, intellectual property work but also mergers and acquisitions. Given that my early years of practicing occurred during the recession of 2009 I was lucky enough to be cast as the one and only associate for the entire corporate finance group. As a result, I was exposed to both transactional and deal work. While I certainly enjoyed the thrill and excitement of a deal: the last minute fire drills and being able to come together as a team to succeed towards an overarching goal, I quickly came to realize that the lifestyle and demands of deal work was simply not for me.
In contrast, the advice and counsel work allowed me to develop more of an ongoing relationship and understanding of my clients and manage my workload in a manner that allowed me to have something closer to that ever elusive 9 to 5 job. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like the deal work but rather I didn’t like the lifestyle of the deal work. The challenges were enjoyable on both fronts but I simply realized that the life I was wanting was not consistent with deal work. Fast forward years later, I had a conversation with the corporate finance practice group chair and was able to focus my work into one of the many subsets of corporate finance instead of bouncing around amongst all the groups. I was finally able to enjoy the advice/counsel side of things and get away from the deal work.
Through that experience I realized that I would be happy doing any kind of work that challenged me intellectually but what really filled my happiness bucket was stimulating work that also allowed me to have some predictability and stability in my life.
As a coach, I work with attorneys of all different kinds of backgrounds and I have many clients who are deal attorneys and litigators who thrive on the life cycles of their deals and cases. They enjoy the excitement they enjoy the thrill on the rush that comes with working towards an overarching goal and they appreciate the ebbs and flows of that work. In contrast I also work with a variety of more transactional attorneys who thoroughly enjoy having a day that’s a little bit more predictable and being able to develop that long term relationship with their clients. Both types of work have their place in the legal industry and within law firms. Our challenge is discerning which type of work is more in alignment with who we are and what we want our lives to be. I firmly believe that as attorneys we enjoy intellectual stimulations stimulation and intellectual challenge. With that in mind, I also believe that we could practice in nearly any area of law and find happiness.
The question is what type of lifestyle do we want to have that accompanies that intellectual stimulation? That is where the ultimate decision between advice/counsel work and deal/case work comes into play.
If you find yourself lashing out against the realities of your particular practice area I encourage you to ask simply: am I just coming to realize which type of work I want to do?
It is not uncommon for attorneys that I work with to come to me completely certain that there is something wrong with them and that they’re simply not cut out for practicing law. When I push them on this conclusion what I often find is they’re struggling with the realities and the demands of the particular type of work that they find themselves in. For those clients, I encourage them to consider whether their experience is simply a realization of the type of work that they want to do rather than a condemnation of their skill sets and abilities.
Is it possible that nothing has gone wrong? Is it possible that you have simply learned through experience the type of work that you don’t want to do?
I have never met a client who is simply not cut out for practicing law. We must not forget how much work we put in to get here and how many opportunities we had to wash out and to be told that we are in the wrong place.
Now here we are doing the thing we’ve been working so hard for and finally we are the ones telling ourselves that we are not cut out for this. Why would we choose to do that? There is so much evidence to the contrary!
What if instead of making this about ourselves (as we humans are often prone to do) we instead saw our unhappiness as good information to inform our next career decision. We can use our experience to teach us more about the types of work we actually want to do. Then we can set out to find it.