Find Satisfaction In the Law: Guest Column
Your First Years as a Lawyer: An Owner's Manual
by Thane J. Messinger, J.D., M.B.A.
The Search for Satisfaction
I'll start this guest column, if the WebFolks don't object, on a radical note:
New lawyers should not be concerned with job satisfaction.
OK...Got your attention?!
Perhaps I should qualify that: New lawyers should not be concerned with job satisfaction...*at first*. They should, instead, prepare themselves for *future* satisfaction. In this, the first few years of law practice are like the first few years of any other intense training program--medicine, music, or the Marines, to name an alliterative few. In any of these disciplines, as in law, it takes an enormous amount of work before you are in a position to enjoy the rewards. (This is not mere seniority-based protectionism. Until you have gained familiarity with the law, and are able to service (and attract) clients on your own, you are in a poor position to fulfill your professional obligations...much less attend to your own psychic needs.)
It's been my experience that lawyers who demand (or just expect) to be satisfied...are often the most unhappy. It's not that job satisfaction is an unreasonable demand. It *is* that demanding satisfaction immediately is both unrealistic and counter-productive. This is especially true for those who expect satisfaction to come externally: as if it's your *employer's* duty to see that you're happy. Yes, employers (of all kinds) are sometimes short-sighted. But, chances are you will be, too, when the roles are reversed; management is not an easy task, and it's easy to take pot-shots at bosses.
Satisfaction comes from doing something one enjoys. The reality of law practice is not often conducive to enjoyment, simply because much of what law does is either adversarial or nit-picky (and often both). But the story doesn't end there; let's look at the other side: Dissatisfaction with law has several components. Some are dissatisfied because they hold unrealistic expectations. If you expect to enjoy the lifestyle that you enjoyed in a sheltered academic existence (if yours was indeed sheltered), without stress or midnight work sessions, then it is very unlikely that you will find satisfaction anywhere in the law (or anywhere outside the law, for that matter). It's a big world out there, and you're a small, small part of it. (And, metaphysics aside, what do you think is the importance of your individual survival within the ecosystem?) Sorry to be so blunt; I'm just trying to grab your attention, and shift your attitude *before* you hurt yourself.
Your job is, first, to understand what is going on, and, second, adapt to your environment for your own survival...not for the benefit of the ecosystem. Many lawyers are miserable, and assume that they're the only ones suffering. This is natural, and one of the reasons I wrote The Young Lawyer's Jungle Book was to let lawyers (and especially new lawyers) know that they're not alone, and prevent many of the problems caused more by inattention than through active disdain.
Don't be so quick to dislike practice. Yes, it's easy to look at the endless sheets of paper crossing your desk, and lose interest. Yes, it's easy to look across the street and imagine all the fun that everyone else is having. Stop. First, that's not fair to your client, who is paying large sums of money for your talent and attention. Second, it's a dangerous attitude in a world of increasing malpractice concern. Third, it's the first step of a path leading to your removal, in one way or another; don't head down that path without some thought. Fourth, it's short-sighted: Everyone else has stress and boredom, too. Finally, you're wrong. Very, very few jobs in life are both rewarding (intellectually and fiscally) and fun. To expect to be entertained at work -- any work -- is simply unfair. Instead, look to the interesting parts of practice. If you only look at the unpleasant aspects of your work, you'll miss the good parts...and you'll make the mistake of assuming that everyone else is cruising through life.
Also, focus, focus, focus. Once you've mastered an area, then master its intricacies. Not only is it personally rewarding, it'll be professionally rewarding, as well.
If you find that you really, truly, honestly don't like an area of law practice...fine. Plan carefully (and early) to shift to a different area, or to move to a different environment. (More on this is just a bit.) If you find that you really, truly, honestly don't like law practice *at all*...fine. Plan your exit as soon as you can. But take care of your clients and their projects in the meantime. And, in any career event, take care of fundamental professional demands, get comfortable with yourself as an attorney (even if you don't want to do it for long), and worry about self-actualization...later. Don't expect to be satisfied, immediately, and you won't be so disappointed.
Take care of the basics (and take care of them well), and your career options open up. Ignore the basics at your vocational (and emotional) peril.
Thane J. Messinger
PS: Sorry for the harsh tone, but that's part of the message--and it's better to get it from an unknown voice over the Internet...than from the throat of a dissatisfied boss. Don't put your career cart before the job horse. Figure out, now, the rules of the game. The trophies (career and personal) will follow.