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Taking Charge of Your Career

By Linda Green Pierce

Lawyers, particularly young lawyers, are unhappy for three reasons: They're selected for their ability to be suspicious or, euphemistically, prudent; they hold high-pressure positions in which they don't contribute to decision making; and, day by day, they participate in zero-sum games, which produce negative emotions. 1

The opposite of this theory is that lawyers who are not suspicious, who do contribute to decision making, and who have something to gain that is not at the expense of others will not be unhappy. Boiled down, the difference is activity versus passivity.

When you step outside the practice of law to think about the practice of shaping your career as a lawyer, it's this opposite theory you should apply in order to be active about your choices.

Here are three things you can do right now to be active rather than passive:

1. Practice the art of openness. Don't grab the first thing that comes along. It's tempting to take that first offer, especially when you're in a miserable situation and a potential employer is courting you, flattering you, and really wants you. So here's where a little suspicion will serve your openness. By jumping too quickly at an offer where the choice to accept or reject is entirely yours, you've become a thing being acted upon, rather than an actor. By staying active, you can control the situation.

2. Ask your wife. Or husband, or partner, or boyfriend, or girlfriend, or friend, or landlord or dog or goldfish. Just seek advice. Lawyers are so accustomed to going it alone that they forget there are people who actually love them and can see things they cannot see. Ask somebody who is not you what they would do in your situation. And remember, despite what anyone says, you still get to decide.

3. Cast your bread upon the waters. This is the step about having something to gain that is not at the expense of others. If you are actively searching to improve your career, whether by taking on new and challenging assignments or by networking, it helps to give others some information for free. If you are looking for a new position, you'll doubtless hear about jobs that you're not interested in. Pass along that information to someone else who can best use that information, such as another lawyer or a recruiter who can help you in your career. What goes around comes around.

Don't prepare for a change in career - whether with a different law firm or to an in-house position – by letting someone else choose your career for you, or letting outside forces or circumstances choose for you. Speaking practically as a recruiter, you are a much better candidate if you know yourself, rather than being someone who is bright and talented, yet who bends in the wind to whatever a potential employer wants.


1 Seligman, Martin E. P., Verkuil, Paul R., Kang, Terry H., Why Lawyers Are Unhappy, 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 33 (2001), as reprinted in Deakin Law Review, found at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/DeakinLRev/2005/4.html#fn1 (last visited Mar. 12, 2008).