When building our legal careers, we can become so focused on the career ladder that we forget our personal wants and needs. It doesn’t have to be that way. With some forethought, preparation, and practice, you can build a professional life that honors your personal desires. Following are seven best practices I learned while climbing the career ladder in law.
Be important to yourself
As I began to climb my career ladder, I often neglected myself in the early days of my legal practice. I was focusing exclusively on clients, colleagues, and work. It was easy to do. There was always more research, more writing, more networking, more negotiating, more business development, and on and on.
I rarely went to the gym, neglected relationships with friends and family, and ate my meals hurriedly at my desk. After six months of my singular focus on career, I was exhausted, emotionally depleted, and starting to burn out.
After some reflection, I realized that I needed to be important to myself. I couldn’t truly succeed in my career if I didn’t first take care of myself. If I wanted to climb the career ladder as effectively as possible, I had to be as important to myself as my work.
It may seem counterintuitive, but people who take time for their own well-being make better decisions, reach more creative solutions, and have greater career success.
Clarify your priorities and values
Oftentimes, in our haste to climb the career ladder, we take every opportunity in front of us and run with them. I did this. After several years of working diligently to achieve the successes that I was supposed to want to achieve, I was on the precipice of achievement: the final stages of obtaining partnership in a large law firm.
Unfortunately, as I edged closer and closer to the goal, I realized I didn’t want to be a partner in a large law firm. Holy crap! The problem was that I didn’t consider what I really wanted for my career and life. How much happier and successful I could have been if only I had considered my priorities and values before starting to climb the ladder.
If you are at the beginning of your career, today is the perfect time to envision your career and life. If you are not at the beginning, today is still the perfect time to envision your career and life. Do this by clarifying what is important in your daily life – your priorities – and what you want in your lifestyle – your values.
Start with these questions:
- What matters most to you? Financial success? Family? High-profile work?
- In what environment do you want to work? Large or small firm? Entrepreneurial start-up company? Solo practitioner?
- What kind of physical environment do you want to live in? Country or city? Slow- or fast-paced? Your home town or somewhere else?
- What people do you want in your life? A spouse? Partner? Kids? Parents? Friends? Extended family members? Colleagues?
- What activities are important to you? Exercise? Cultural events? Nature? Music?
Ask and answer whatever questions help you understand fully the life and career you want. Start climbing the career ladder with full-knowledge of where you want to go so you can avoid getting near the top and realizing you’ve been climbing the wrong ladder.
Make a plan
After my realization that I didn’t want to be a partner in a large law firm, I started looking for other opportunities. Ultimately, I left my job to pursue a legal career with more flexibility of schedule and autonomy of work. I learned new areas of practice through various workshops and continuing legal education seminars.
I found other attorneys who could guide me in these new areas. I took another state’s bar exam (while my daughter was four months old). Eighteen months after leaving my law firm job, I started my own practice. I was 40 years old and had been out of law school for ten years at the time.
You can make a change to a different career ladder too, if that’s what you want. Or you can flesh out a detailed plan in your current situation. Either way, once you know what you want, figure out how to get it: make a plan, find a mentor or career coach to guide you, read great books, and learn what you need to know to climb whatever ladder you decide to climb.
Surround yourself with supportive people and let them help you
If you are like me, you may not easily ask for help. I like to feel competent and independent, and asking for help seems contrary to those qualities. But it’s not.
As a junior associate, I was assigned a particularly difficult research assignment. I spent hours and hours over the course of a week looking for caselaw and treatises to address the questions and flesh out the answers. As a result, I put together a memorandum, which I provided to the partner who had assigned the project.
He was happy with my work and said it was helpful and insightful. I felt good about my abilities. The next day, in our weekly junior associate meeting, we were discussing our assignments. Another junior associate mentioned his equally difficult research assignment and that he was able to complete it in one day! How? I asked.
After he had spent some time trying to find answers without any success, he called our online research provider, discussed the assignment, and they had provided him with initial search results that put him on a path to completing the assignment that day. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so smart.
Remember, people do not succeed alone. They receive help from others, both professionally and personally: colleagues and support staff, friends and family, a spouse or partner. Ask them for help, and let others help you. You will become more efficient and effective.
I like to automate various tasks, especially “boring” and repetitive tasks, in both my professional and personal lives. I find this particularly helpful for personal tasks, as it allows me to spend my limited personal time in ways that are important to me. Many of my bills are enrolled in auto-pay.
I buy all my pet food and supplies online via auto shipments. A majority of my clothes shopping is handled by an online personal shopper who sends me new items every quarter. Other ideas include having prescriptions auto-refilled and shipped directly to you, and saving a grocery list with an online store so you can one-click for order and delivery.
With many repetitive yet time-sensitive tasks automated, I have time to build my career while simultaneously having an enjoyable personal life. Consider your daily tasks. Which ones can you automate?
Use your time creatively
Climbing the career ladder is time consuming, so I benefit from using my time creatively. I find snippets of “extra” time to accomplish things that are important to me.
An early weekend morning before my daughter wakes up is the perfect time to practice yoga in my living room. An evening after everyone else goes to bed provides time for me to write a blog post or work on my forthcoming book, The Lawyer, the Lion, & the Laundry.
Because I have a lot of control over my work schedule, I often stop work at 3:00 pm to pick my daughter up from school, then work during her afternoon activities for an hour of so, then stop again for dinner and bedtime, and work after she is asleep if there are still pressing items that cannot wait until the morning.
You too can use your time creatively to achieve success in career and life. Look at your daily calendar and see where you have “snippets” of time.
Take a break from work: all work and no play makes you a dull person
As a lawyer who works with other lawyers, I often see colleagues who never take time off. I was shocked to find out that some lawyers had not taken any vacation for several years. Sure, they may have been out of the office occasionally, even for personal matters, but they didn’t take any time for real down time.
This is not good for us. I always take a vacation from work, at least once a year. Sometimes we go on a big trip to a foreign country. Other years we stay close to home and enjoy various daily activities.
It requires planning and diligence to make it happen, but it is worth it. Getting out of our daily grind improves our health and personal relationships. It also increases our motivation, changes our perspective, and allows us to return to work rejuvenated and ready to work productively. Try to get away each year for an extended period of vacation time – at least a week.
Also, ensure that you aren’t working evenings and weekends so that you never have down time during your regular work week. Put your computer or phone away each day and spend time doing things other than work.
Climbing the career ladder is important, but your career can be one important part of a fulfilled life.
About the author
Jamie Jackson Spannhake is a lawyer, writer, mediator, speaker, and certified health coach. She is author of the forthcoming book "The Lawyer, the Lion, & the Laundry", available September 2019 by Attorney at Work Publishing. Her work has appeared in print and online, including at Law Practice magazine, Attorney at Work, Health Food Radar, Law Practice Today, The Complete Lawyer, Electronically In Touch, and eHow.com. She has also published in The Brooklyn Journal of International Law and The Cumberland Law Review, both academic journals.
Jamie practices law as a partner at Berlandi, Nussbaum & Reitzas LLP. She regularly writes and speaks on issues important to entrepreneurs, employees, and business owners, including lawyers, who have too many obligations and not enough time. Connect with Jamie and pre-order her book at jamiespannhake.com