Resources Articles Next Step: Build Relationships, Work Toward Goals and Keep An Open Mind

Next Step: Build Relationships, Work Toward Goals and Keep An Open Mind

New York Law Journal Magazine
Volume 7, Number 4
September 2008

I am a fourth year corporate associate in a top Wall Street firm. I enjoy my practice and my firm but am concerned about the future. First, although I get great evaluations and have been told that I'm "partner material," our practice group is so top heavy I'm not sure that anything I do will be enough for me to make partner here. Also, my wife and I hope to start a family and I'm wondering if partnership at this firm is compatible with family life.

Maybe I should be looking for an inhouse position? I don't want to be one of the unhappy lawyers I'm always reading about. What should I do now in order to be a happy one in the future?

First of all, kudos to you for being proactive about your career. Your clarity about your values and the fact that you are enjoying your work are great places from which to start your planning. However, I'd caution you about being too specific about your goals.

As social psychologist Dan Gilbert illustrates in his wonderful book, "Stumbling on Happiness" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), we humans are terrible at forecasting what will make us happy in the future. You may think that becoming a parent will bring you joy while being promoted to partner at your firm will make you miserable, but odds are you'd be initially elated by both and would return to your typical level of happiness not long afterward. Human beings are remarkably adaptive. 

Also, as I'm sure you've already observed, a lot can change in a law firm. Who knows how many of the current partners will still be at your firm by the time it's your turn to be considered?

Your best bet may be to pursue a strategy that positions you for both options you're considering and also gives you the opportunity to get more experiential knowledge of the alternatives so you'll have a better idea of what you enjoy when decision time approaches.

In order to qualify for partnership at your firm I'm sure you'll need a hefty book of business. Why not begin working on that now? Invest in relationship building with in-house attorneys at your level and you will be constructing a foundation for bringing in business in the future.

The in-house lawyers you meet today are the potential GCs of the future. Becoming their trusted advisor over the next few years will position you to become their outside counsel of choice when they're in decision-making positions. Also, by getting to know these attorneys you'll learn about their own work/life experience. Listening to and observing them will enable you to get a sense of what it's like to work in a corporation for a single client. As these colleagues begin their own families, you'll see whether they have more time for family life than the partners in your firm.

This kind of network development will also position you to move in-house if either you or your firm decides that partnership is not in your cards. One of your clients is likely to be delighted to bring an excellent outside counsel in house, while your firm will view this move as a great opportunity to expand its business relationship with the client.

Finally, in terms of ensuring your future happiness, the nearest to a guarantee that we know of is to have close connections to people. So often, attorneys sacrifice these relationships in order to achieve what they think will make them happy but won't: money and status. Continue to develop your network of relationships and spend time with family and friends and you're likely to be happy whatever professional route you choose.

I am a partner in the commercial litigation group of a good firm. After 15 years of practice I've accomplished every professional achievement I'd set for myself and now seem to have run out of goals.

I've received "Super Lawyer" and other similar rankings and I've successfully tried more than a dozen cases. The work is not particularly intellectually challenging anymore. Also, last year I billed more hours than I ever had in the past in spite of how difficult a year it was personally: I buried my surviving parent and had a bout with cancer myself, from which I thankfully appear to be completely recovered. Although I billed more than enough to earn a significant bonus, because other practice groups did not do as well, the firm decided not to give out any.

I find myself wondering what all that hard work was for. I need to find new goals or a new direction, but where to start?

Major events such as your own brush with cancer, your parent's death and the disappointment about your bonus often trigger periods of reflection and self examination that can result in a major change in how you view yourself and the meaning of your life.

It sounds like your practice had been made meaningful for you by the intellectual stimulation of the work and the challenges presented by your personal goals. When these no longer provided meaning, you were striving for a financial brass ring. However, your efforts did not produce the expected results and now you're wondering about the point of your practice and its importance in your life.

Although the confusion and disorientation of a turning point can be difficult, keep in mind that it is a normal, although uncomfortable, process. You'll have to tolerate some period of uncertainty. Try to be patient with yourself: It takes time to redefine yourself, reappraise your career and make appropriate course corrections.

Hopefully there are people in your life on whom you can rely for support and an understanding ear while you sort things out. As a successful attorney, you're probably not inclined toward precipitous decisions, but resist any impulse you may have to make one.

Have you considered the moments in your life when you felt the most effective and satisfied? What do you tend to be doing when you are so engaged that time passes without your notice?

You had an extraordinarily successful year in the midst of a great deal of personal stress. What made you so resilient?

Try to recall a time in your life when you were at your very best. Tell the story to others or write it down for yourself. What strengths enabled you to accomplish this triumph?

What, if anything, feels "undone" in your life? Are there dreams and ambitions you had before law school that you put away but could now dust off and reconsider?

Mulling over these questions will not directly lead to a particular practice goal or a new job description. Rather, they should enable you to begin to articulate for yourself what engages you and would make your work feel significant again. 

During this kind of transition you're unlikely to be able to see the outcome for quite some time. Unlike legal practice, you can't logically think your way to an answer. Instead, you'll have to create "mini-experiments" that allow you to try new things without incurring big risks. You might volunteer to do something about which you've often wondered or talk to people whose career paths widely differ from your own. Be as open minded and open to experience as possible. Take things one step at a time and maintain your optimism.


Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist, consultant and certified coach, is the founder of Lawyers Life Coach, a firm providing executive coaching services to attorneys and consultation to legal employers. She can be reached through

Reprinted with permission from the September 2008 edition of the New York Law Journal Magazine © 2008 ALM.  Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . ALM is now Incisive Media,  # 070076-09-08-0008


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