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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

May 9, 2018

What can I do to be happier in my first year as a law firm associate?

Julie Q. Brush

The topic of unhappy law firm associates seems to be popular these days. The discussion often involves the values of the Millennial generation and how these values clash with the fundamental nature of how law firms operate – and the people who run them. But is this the whole story? Or are there other factors that come into the mix of disillusionment? How can an incoming freshman increase his/her enjoyment of what’s to come?

Unlike business school, gaining admission to law school does not require a compelling reason as to what drives a person to be a lawyer. It can come into play if there’s a photo finish among applicants, but for the most part – it’s the hard numbers that rule. So many law students choose law school because it either gives them direction or they have a misperception of what practicing law is really all about. For some, Perry Mason, The Good Wife, L.A. Law, The O.J. Simpson Trial, and/or a secure & lucrative profession have served as sources of inspiration. Others may have more defined purposes, but their expectations of what they will…or should do as a young lawyer are not aligned with the reality. And therein lies the other critical factor outside the generation gap that contributes to law firm associate unhappiness: Misaligned Expectations. From the get-go, many aspiring lawyers misunderstand the purpose of being a young lawyer, what they can expect and what will be expected of them.

Becoming a great lawyer is like becoming a great athlete. You have to master The Basics first before becoming great. Law students are bright, accomplished and driven. So it’s only natural they want to move forward fast, take on a lot of responsibility, get staffed on the biggest deals/cases, go to trial, develop business and manage clients. But that’s putting the cart before the horse. A lawyer needs to learn how to be a lawyer first – which starts with The Basics.

And that’s what your formative years as a young associate are all about. That’s your purpose. Watching, doing and learning. And then watching doing and learning some more until your skills are honed and you’ve earned the opportunity to diversify your focus. Is it sexy? Not really. Can it get boring? Sometimes. Will it be a grind? A lot of the time.  But…will you learn? Yes. Will you grow? Certainly. Will you evolve as a professional? Absolutely. Just ask Roger Federer, Lionel Messi or LeBron James.

If you know your purpose – and what to expect from these early years, you will understand the context for this period of your career and it will mitigate your disappointment. This will also allow you to enjoy your experience more fully. Additional advice on how to maximize your enjoyment:

Take Responsibility. Guess what? Your career is your responsibility. Nobody is going to hand you success on a silver platter. Law firm partners are scrambling to maintain their own position and leverage in the firm so they won’t have a lot of meaningful time to ensure your happiness. Sure, firm leadership is trying its best to unlock the secret of associate retention. But material change is not going to come quickly. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can get going on controlling your own career destiny.

Create Your Plan. In order to maximize happiness, you will likely want…and need to learn, grow, be recognized and promoted. Achieving all of these wonderful goals does not just happen. You have to have a strategic plan to make it happen. If you don’t know where to begin, start with a simple list of goals and become more self aware about your career wants/needs. Meet with your boss and ask for assistance in creating this strategy with milestones and check-ins. By partnering together and getting buy-in from your boss, you’ll greatly increase your chances for happiness…and success.

Possess A Positive Attitude. Be positive and enthusiastic about learning new things and building the foundation of your practice. Be grateful for the opportunity to learn from other great lawyers who have dedicated their time to your success. Stay positive through the good and bad times – even if you don’t feel like it. Being “up” is a great strategy to keep the mind positive and happy.

Pursue The Practice You Enjoy. If you enjoy what you do, you’ll be a happier person. That’s a fundamental truth. If you discover that your current practice isn’t for you, don’t be afraid to shift gears. It’s easier to do earlier in your career than later.

Make Friends and Socialize…In Person. Lawyers spend so much time working. And an increasing number are burying their noses in their phones fiddling around on social media. This has created an epic number of professionals who are feeling isolated and lonely. That can be a lethal combo for a young lawyer. So dedicate your time to making friends in the office and getting more connected. Go to lunch, drinks, dinner, coffee or any other activity that requires face-to-face interaction.

Communicate. If something isn’t right for you in the firm or in your role, speak up! Many professionals keep their gripes bottled up and they eventually develop resentment and unhappiness. To short-circuit this from happening to you, talk.

Enjoying life as a new associate is an achievable goal. But it’s important to start law firm life on the right foot with the proper expectations. Those who understand that they need to crawl before they can walk; walk before they can run…and run before they can fly will set the stage for a Hall of Fame career. You have a lot of opportunity ahead of you. How will you choose to use it?

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