Career Audit

Go With the Plan

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There are those fortunate souls who somehow knew from the start what they want­­ed to do as a lawyer, and found their niche in practice or another law-related career without appearing to break a sweat

And then there are most at­­torneys, who are still trying to figure out what they want to do.

“A lot of my clients, they come in and it’s like they’re lost,” says Sheila Nielsen, a Chicago attorney and social worker whose counseling practice focuses on lawyers. Those lawyers, says Nielsen, sigh and tell her: “I am unhappy, but I don’t know why. I think it’s my job. Maybe it’s something to do with the practice of law.”

Swamped with work, trying to meet deadlines and squeeze in a life, many attorneys give little or no thought to how they want their careers to develop over the next five to 10 years, or longer.

But those who don’t take time out to think about their goals and create a career plan often find themselves struggling later as their work lives falter and lose meaning, experts say. Canadian psychotherapist Dorothy M. Ratusny describes the problem in a recent article: “We allow our work to define us, instead of defining our work. Unfor­tunately, years can go by before we wake up and ask ourselves: What else do I want to do with my life? What are my goals and dreams? Who am I really?”

If that sounds painfully familiar, then it may be time to put together a career plan. And the sooner, the better, experts say.

“I would love to see younger lawyers looking ahead a little bit more, identifying good practice areas, identifying good paths for themselves. Because it means there will be fewer people who are miserable later in their careers,” says Nielsen.

Step one, the experts say, is for lawyers to identify and make a list of activities they like and dislike. This involves “brainstorming all the things that they most love,” says Ratusny, who has a psychotherapy practice in On­tar­io. After listing things they love doing–such as coaching a kids soccer team or, perhaps, playing soccer themselves –lawyers should list things they’re good at. To get at this, Ratusny says, ask, “What do people come to me for?”

“Then you have all these different ideas on a flip chart or a pad of paper,” she says. “Then you start to put it together. What job would allow me to do these things best? That’s how you begin to build a picture.”

Then, look around. Find out what the workday is like for attorneys in other kinds of jobs or practices.

Ask friends or a favorite law professor to suggest practitioners to speak with, Ratusny says. “Go talk to those lawyers and even shadow them for a day or two,” she says. “Follow them around and see what they’re doing.”

Don’t Pass Up The Bar

Louis W. Helmut, assistant dean for career services at California Western School of Law in San Diego, suggests being active in local and state bar associations. It “expands your picture of the landscape of the legal profession,” he says.

San Diego prosecutor Wendy L. Patrick has taken the advice to heart. Active in local bar associations–she is vice president of the San Diego County Bar Association Patrick–also teaches trial and ethics courses, writes for law-related publications and serves as first violinist for the University of San Diego Sym­phony.

“Really, it’s easier than it sounds,” says Patrick, who carries her calendar with her everywhere. “I love what I do, so the long hours are all worthwhile. It’s not hard at all to pursue a passion that you love.”

Patrick is someone who “works hard every day, but she sees the bigger picture and the longer term of her career,” Helmuth says.

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