Over the holiday break I have been contacted by a number of lawyers who follow me on Instagram – but who I don’t know in real life. These lawyers are struggling with how they feel about their career and if it’s right for them.
I have had jobs in the past where I couldn’t bear going back on Monday – let alone after a long break. I have spent a lot of time in my career trying to learn ways to shift my perspective and gain a feeling of control about my career. For me as a young lawyer, the fear and loss of confidence I felt facing a workload I didn’t really know how to get through (and often didn’t enjoy) and dealing with fledgling (sometimes downright difficult) relationships at work made me dread going to work at times.
I have learned over the years that there is indeed information in this trauma. I have learned to think deeply about what makes me happy and unhappy about my career… and to use this information to make choices.
You know what though – no one teaches you to do this at Uni. I learned this from some very wise mentors who taught me how to listen to my fears and vulnerabilities. These mentors taught me that it isn’t a mandatory job requirement for lawyers to feel unhappy at work. I have also learned (the hard way) that how we feel about our work colours our whole life. If you feel positive about work then this is a good thing. But if you feel anxious and unnerved all the time then this has a very serious knock on effect in your life.
You deserve much more than that. Please trust me on that.
So here are three things I do to kick start the year as I head back to work. I have also recommended these same things to countless lawyers over the years and they now swear by them too.
Depending on where you work you may have regular/semi-regular performance reviews. My tip is not to wait for a review or feedback from someone else. You can review your own career and work out your own Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
I know this may sound really counterintuitive and quite unappealing to some of you – but it helps you take control of your career and where you are headed. It also helps mitigate that feeling of being removed from where your future is headed and what you are doing day to day.
S – what are my strengths?
This is the fun part. We typically feel happy when we have some feeling of competence about what we are doing. So make a list of all your strengths. They will be technical and also non-technical (because all these things work together to help us do our jobs). For example, you may be really strong at drafting agreements and legal research – and you may also be really strong at building relationships and supporting people in your team.
Having a sense of what you are good at gives you a strong base from which to start assessing your own career direction. It also prepares you to respond to any feedback that might be more on the negative/constructive side. It is always empowering to have a sense of your strengths so you can balance this against suggestions from other people that you may need improvement in other areas.
Having a handle on your strengths is endlessly valuable when you are working out whether the type of law you are doing is right for you, or whether the firm or company you are working at is the one for you. It really helps my confidence to know what I am good at. It also gives me an insight into what I am passionate about because I often find my strengths align with my values and passions.
W – should really be an I
This can be challenging for some people. W is for the areas where we need improvement – some may call these weaknesses. I have always found I like to be on the front foot in understanding where I need improvement – or where I may need upskilling. It’s not possible to improve if you don’t know what you are doing. I am always open about needing guidance or assistance in the areas I have a knowledge gap. Don’t just wait for other people to tell you where you need to grow or improve. If you can get on the front foot with this it will again help you feel some level of ownership in your career growth.
If you do a robust analysis of this you it helps you to feel more prepared for any of those challenging conversations you may have at work about growth areas. Also the topics in O and T below will help with that too – because I often find that, for me, “weaknesses” exist where there are no opportunities to grow or there are threats that challenge my growth.
The other thing that has always been true for me is that the weaknesses I have observed in myself often align with areas in my career that I am not passionate about. Doing this analysis has helped me to make a number of career decisions, including the massive leap I took into the job I have now which I am very happy with.
So – make a list of any areas you may think you are not strong in or where you may need improvement, education or growth. Then really think about why you are not strong in these areas. What is this telling you?
O – opportunities
I always love thinking about opportunities because opportunities have a number of layers and meanings.
Each year I make a list of what opportunities there are in my practice for me to use my strengths. Then I list what opportunities there are for me to make improvements in the areas I may need to. I then make a list of things I would like the opportunity to do that I may not have done before – and I link back into my Strengths and Weaknesses to make a note of how prepared I am for that opportunity or what I may need to do to become prepared for that opportunity.
This is actually really exciting – and in my experience it is also very empowering to drive the types of opportunities that may be available to you. In times gone by in my career I have missed out on opportunities, and now, I think about how things may have been different if I had known that it is OK to ask for opportunities.
T – threats
This is also a really interesting exercise. Each year I make a list of what threats there are which may challenge my strengths. For example, do I need to update my skills to take account of new laws or methodologies? Or do I need to work with a particular partner in my firm? Or do I need to pivot my strengths because there has been a downturn in the market in the area I have focused on?
I also think about are there any threats that may present obstacles to me working on areas I need improvements in? It might be that there are six other lawyers already doing that thing in my team – so then I need to think about other opportunities. So this becomes a spring board for discussion with my partners. I can say I wanted to do X but six other lawyers are doing it now … so can I do Y or can I help with X or is there something similar I can do? This threat then becomes an invitation to have a conversation with my partners about what my professional hopes and dreams are. I am able to have discussions about when and how the opportunity to do X may be able to become available to me, and what I can do in the meantime to build on my strengths or the areas I want to grow in.
Other threats may be that I don’t have a relationship with people in my firm doing the work I want to do. So then I need to think about opportunities to build those relationships. I often find that when I take the lead in working out what obstacles I may encounter, I can then turn them into opportunities and then I feel a lot less anger about them.
2. Find a mentor
This tip is short and very sweet.
If you don’t already have a mentor, then find one. You can join a formal mentoring program at your firm or through your local Law Society. Or you can approach a senior lawyer at your firm that you have a good feeling about and ask them to mentor you.
The sweet spot
Having a mentor can make all the difference. You then have someone in your corner who you (ideally) will trust and you can let your guard down and speak freely to them. A mentoring relationship, when it hits its sweet spot, should be like a breath of fresh air; a safe space to learn and grow through sharing vulnerabilities and stories. Having the feeling that someone is in your corner can make the clouds clear. I was really lucky very early on in my career to learn about the value of having a mentor. I learned that it was so important to have someone I could also talk to about the overwhelming feeling of chaos and pressure I was experiencing on a daily basis.
I can honestly say that I would not be a lawyer now if I had not had the honour and privilege of being mentored by many generous, gracious and very experienced lawyers. And, one thing I want to tell you now is that, having been a mentor myself for decades, it is a gift to be able to work with young lawyers to help them navigate the highs and lows of life and career. If someone agrees to mentor you please trust that that they really want to do it ... and put everything you can into getting the most out of the wonderful relationship that you can.
3. Just be you
This last one sounds the easiest but can often be the hardest. It’s so important to be able to be yourself at work. People often speak of authenticity – and this is exactly what it means. If you have to pretend to be someone you are not then that makes everything else an uphill battle.
You in your whole life
Being you means putting your whole self into your life and your career. Your life and your job are not two separate worlds. If you have to play a role at work then it makes it really hard to be at ease in the rest of your life.
You doing all the things you need to do or love to do
Being you means making sure you are doing everything you need to do in your life to find happiness. Just because you are a lawyer does not mean you have to give up on everything else. Raise your children, play netball, read, go to the gym, see friends, spend time with family, go to the theatre, walk your dog … keep doing what makes you happy.
You is your super power
Being you – this is your super power. This is what makes you unique and what will allow you to shine. I have found it hard to shine when I’m playing a part. Doing that numbs your soul and erodes your mental health. I have done this in many different stages of my career and I know the consequences can be catastrophic and heartbreaking.
Please just be you. If you can’t be yourself at work, there is information in that. Please listen to that.
Jennifer Harris was the 2018 winner of the Mentor of the Year Award at the 2018 Women in Law Awards.