Everyday, many lawyers sit unhappily in their offices with little clarity about their professional futures. I know: I was one of them.
Today, the continued weakness and real-time evolution of the business of law merely compounds the uncertainty. In this environment, it is critical that lawyers regularly perform self-reviews to assess contentment and career trajectory.
These reviews will obviously be very personal. Some lawyers may simply conclude that their unease stems from the plain practice of law; that their law degree is a sunk cost; and that every day spent practicing law rather than pursuing a career acting, rapping, or starting a company is opportunity cost. Others, however, may not be fortunate enough to arrive at such a definitive conclusion; rather, they may be stuck in a state of inertia, unclear whether they like or want to continue to practice law. Until they figure that out, many reason, they’ll cash their paycheck and hope for clarity to emerge. I was in the latter category.
This is a precarious position to be in. After all, contrary to the seemingly 100% of athletes who may beg to differ, divine intervention — if it exists — is likely reserved for something bigger than your legal career. Epiphanies don’t emerge out of the four walls of an office. I realized, therefore, that a better interim strategy is to proactively court focused optionality.
“Focused Optionality” results from a strategic, self-started process of consistently (i) minimizing personal and professional constraints, (ii) nurturing and maintaining multiple open avenues, and (iii) maximizing exposure to different people, perspectives, and places — by way of, among other things, personal branding, business development and networking. In the context of your current position and existing skill set, combining these steps has the potential to coalesce towards something identifiably bigger and personally more meaningful and authentic — so long as they are focused around a customized coherent strategy (as opposed to pursuing wholly arbitrary avenues: lack of focus may lead to too many disconnected and strategically meaningless options and burden you with the Paradox of Choice).
There are a number of measures that you can take to start courting focused optionality:
A. Minimize Constraints
• Analyze your lifestyle, determine whether you’re living in an economically responsible way relative to your means by evaluating all of the inputs (e.g., rent, utilities, entertainment expenses, etc.), pinpoint superfluous costs and expenditures, and cut where possible — particularly if you are handcuffed by tremendous student debt and that debt could be reasonably expected to limit your ability to pivot to a different opportunity;
• Shed unnecessary, costly, or stressful commitments (and relationships) that occupy a lot of time with little reward or return; and
• Minimize involvement in firm-wide administrative committees and commitments (especially if you are fairly certain you have no interest in partnership).
B. Nurture and Maintain Multiple Open Avenues
• Pursue learning opportunities that extend beyond your immediate comfort zone, e.g., take advantage of firm-wide training courses in practice areas outside of your own;
• If your practice area is slow, seek out discreet projects in synergistic practice areas that may be busier (note: an understanding of capital markets and banking, for instance, may be entirely synergistic with other practice areas such as restructuring, and vice versa);
• If your billables are down, consider exploring the various Massive Online Open Courses (otherwise known as “MOOCs” — Khan Academy, Coursera, General Assembly, Udemy, Treehouse, and Skillshare are just a few of many options today) that are now widely available to you cheaply or free of cost and take a course that will either be complementary to your practice or merely expand your horizons; and
• Volunteer with an outside organization — non-profit or otherwise — to expose yourself to networking opportunities and perspectives outside of the legal industry.
C. Maximize Exposure Through Personal Branding and Business-Development
• Fundamentally recognize the new realities of the business of law and focus on more than just lawyering as early in your career as possible — noting, however, that at the heart of optionality is being the best lawyer possible in as little time possible (which doesn’t necessary require 10,000 hours of practice);
• Leave your office and interface regularly and strategically — including with other lawyers within your firm in and outside your area of focus (note: partners in other practice groups may be better positioned to provide valuable color about the firm and your prospects therein; moreover, they may also enable you to later optimize inter-departmental cross-promotional opportunities which, surprisingly, many firms fail to meaningfully capitalize on);
• Seek to leverage off of the relationships and opportunities that others in your firm may have by being upfront and honest about your concerns with a few select mentor-types (note: this is an opportunity for them if they help place you with a current client or potential client);
• Selectively vocalize your openness to different opportunities to those outside your immediate professional circle (note: you have to embrace some level of candor and vulnerability with others if you want to promote utmost optionality…it’s worth the risk);
• Ingratiate yourself with referral sources, e.g., potential clients and lawyers at other firms (note: legal “conflicts” create referral opportunities);
• Appreciate the increased level of competition by media outlets for content, write something related to your field of expertise or personal interests, and find as many homes for it possible (including social media platforms, e.g., Twitter) to show off your personality and build/spread personal brand equity; and
• Build bona fides by participating in workshops, panels, and conferences.
All of this takes work. A lot of work. And a lot of time. Commit to a realistic monthly time and monetary budget to get the process started and, if necessary, deploy tech-based safeguards to ensure that you are efficient and on target (Wunderlist, Trello, Remember the Milk, and Astrid are just some of many viable mobile productivity applications that can help you self-impose accountability).
You must be honest with yourself about your intentions, goals, and prospects and, to the extent you suffer from any doubt or uncertainty, put yourself in the best position possible to clarify or confirm your career path. In the long run, you don’t benefit from investing time and energy climbing to the middle of the wrong ladder. Instead, take steps to find the right ladder and, if necessary, start climbing anew.
Rob Jordan is an attorney who spent six years practicing corporate restructuring law at a big law firm in New York City prior to jumping to the buy-side to join an asset manager with a focus on distressed debt investing. He subsequently joined a restructuring consulting and claims management firm in a dual-role: in-house Distressed Credit Analyst and Senior Director of Business Development. A tech enthusiast, Rob is on the hunt for lifehacks that can make the personal practice and business of law more efficient. He’s on Twitter here: @robertjordan33.