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New Year, New You and the Game of Life

New Year, New You and the Game of Law

When I was younger, I enjoyed going through the process of setting resolutions as the new year approached. I would identify something I wanted to improve in my life, and then I would promptly forget about it, not thinking about it for about 364 days. If I even remembered at all by the time the next New Year’s Eve rolled around.

So, I am not a believer in making new years resolutions. I salute those of you who do this and follow through over the course of the year. But I think that there are more of us backsliders than diligent resolvers.

That is, as far as my personal life goes. In our work lives, we often make our resolutions—or set objectives—as part of our performance assessment process. It can be as simple as identifying three goals for the upcoming year, and perhaps outlining how your progress towards those goals can be evaluated by determining behaviours that will measure your progress. And you may be asked the following year to consider your progress toward last year’s objectives.

It's a process most of us are familiar with, unless we run independent practices and report only to ourselves. We must show someone in a leadership position that we are aware of areas where we can grow and that we can develop a plan for that growth.

But there is a broader context in our work lives that I want to talk about in this season of new year resolutions/annual goal-setting exercises: assessing where we are, professionally, and evaluating how this fits with our life goals.

The National Study on Lawyer Well-Being (my short form name for the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada, and I beg indulgence from the very well-respected and capable researchers who conducted this study, but the title is rather a handful:)) included an analysis of lawyers' intention to leave the profession. Note the following:
  • 27.2% of survey respondents said that they regularly consider leaving the profession, with women weighing in at 30.8% and men at 24.2% .
  • Lawyers with less than ten years of experience were much more likely to regularly consider leaving the profession (34.8% versus 22.9% for lawyers with 10 or more years of practice.)
  • Lawyers in private practice had the highest rate of regularly considering leaving law at about 30% (this figure is shown as both 29.3% and 30.3% on page 304 of the report), as opposed to 25% of lawyers in public and not-for-profit sectors , 19% of those working for for-profit corporations, and 10% of those working in education.
We know that not all lawyers who regularly think about leaving the profession follow through. Some find a way of reinvigorating their interest, but others remain in their jobs, leading lives of quiet desperation. I am not aware of any definitive studies that link staying in your lawyer job when you regularly consider leaving it with depression and other negative mental health outcomes, but we know that feeling that you have no control over your career impacts our well-being. The National Study tells us that “autonomy is the resource that has the most decisive impact on health as it is associated with significantly lower levels of stress, psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and burnout.” (Page 72)

When I was a young lawyer, my co-workers and I regularly had conversations about leaving the profession and coming up with creative ways of supporting ourselves if we left law. The only alternate career path that I remember is one colleague who said that when he got his mortgage paid down, he would quit law and work as a bicycle courier, a job which is about as far away from practicing law as we could imagine. Most of us from my friend group at that time became in-house counsel, and we stayed in law, but not in a private practice, my friend who dreamed about becoming a carefree bike courier included.

I like to imagine a law career as a type of topographic map with an X for start or perhaps like the board for the Game of Life where you make choices—or the dice makes them for you—and end up in either Millionaire Estates or Country Acres but there are many more endpoints option in the Game of Law. For some lawyers, remaining in private practice at the firm they articled may be the right path to getting to your chosen destination, but other people may know that they need to set a different course for their careers.

When we are in law school, we see the path of working in a law firm almost exclusively. Most of us article at law firms, and we dream of having a meteoric rise within the firm and becoming the youngest lawyer to be offered partnership. Most of us end up somewhere in the middle, if we are lucky, or we find ourselves seeking new opportunities on a non-voluntary basis.

As lawyers, we aren’t really conditioned to explore alternate career paths. I would go even further and say that because we are risk-averse by nature, most of us do not want to leave the safety of an established gig. And many of us need to be empowered that we can, and sometimes, must choose to explore something new. So, for anyone reading this blog, you do not have to stay in your current position if it is soul-sucking or if you are unhappy. You can assess your financial obligations, make decisions about your lifestyle, and engage in a process to determine what career path would make you happy. And yes, you have the right to pursue happiness. The right to pursue happiness may not be in Canada’s constitution, but as a human being, it is perfectly acceptable--and perhaps even necessary at times-- to pursue happiness. There are no do-overs in real life.

So, let’s talk about paths in the Game of Law. We don’t all have to be on the same paths. Some paths will curve and meander while other paths will face sharp hills, both going up and going down. Many will be a mix of curves and straight-aways and grades of hills. Most of us who enter law don’t expect our path to be an easy lope to the finish line. We know that it will be gruelling at times, but how do we manage when the gruelling phase becomes the norm, and we no longer want to stay on our current path?

For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of volunteering as a Mentor with the Law Society of Alberta’s Mentor Express program. I have met wonderful young lawyers who are choosing their paths in law and want to be aware of options beyond working at a traditional law firm and I have met young lawyers as well who want to remain on a traditional law firm path but are looking for ways to bring more meaning into their jobs or who want to shift directions. With Mentor Express, lawyers who register for the program (or who are automatically registered as new lawyers upon being called to the bar) can access a webpage featuring bios and photos of available mentors and choose someone whose career experience interests them. Lawyers who participate as mentors provide information about their careers and areas in which they would like to engage with young lawyers. It is free, fast, and effective!

Many of the young lawyers I meet with choose me because I haven’t had a traditional career, and I tell them that I built my career to fit my life as opposed to following a one-size fits all career path (“work to live” rather than “live to work”). My career started traditionally at  a law firm. I made my first non-traditional move by applying to work on a reduced hours basis after the birth of my first child. I knew that both my work, my parenting skills and my relationships suffered when I was exhausted and stressed. I loved being freed from the 1800 billable hours model and not receiving dirty looks when I left the office at 5 pm if my files were under control. Permanent associateship did not exist then, or perhaps I would have stayed, but I ventured into the corporate law world in an innovative job share and I shifted my practice from corporate finance to corporate human resources.

If we stay on the only path we have known, it may be fine, but we don’t really know whether it is the best path for us. I discovered that while I liked corporate finance well enough, I didn’t have the passion for it that I had for corporate human resources. I still did some familiar functions, like executive compensation in public disclosure documents and pension plan oversight, but I also became involved in strategic policy development, training, and implementation. Although part of my responsibilities included advising on specific employee issues which often did not end happily for the employee, I enjoyed being proactively involved in initiatives to improve our workplace through programs like anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies which I oversaw. I felt fulfilled in a way that I didn’t ever feel as a private practice corporate lawyer.

As lawyers, we are risk management specialists, especially with respect to our own careers. We hesitate to give up a “good” job or role because we don’t know if the alternative will be better. We worry about whether we could ever go back to something like our old role if the new opportunity turns out to be a dud. We are in a profession where we constantly compare ourselves to our peers—who is making how much money? Who is getting the files that we wish we had? And because we are frequently well-paid, when compared to average Canadian earnings, we have expectations for a certain quality of life or lifestyle. We may have committed to expenditures or have student loans that must be maintained.

I tell junior lawyers that they can keep their options open by striving to put away six months of living expenses so that they can ride out a sudden job loss (which goodness knows happens in our profession!) and to cushion a move to less remunerative employment. I say this because I have met many lawyers who have come to hate and even resent their practices. When I ask why they don’t explore another avenue, they tell me that they are locked in by golden handcuffs. So, rule number one in my Game of Law is to maximize our career freedom by not putting the golden handcuffs on in the first place! This does not mean that you live like a poor student forever—but you start building your nest egg of six months of expenses as your income increases so that you can always opt out if you need or want to.

I made another big career shift after about ten years in corporate life. I set up a business with two co-workers where we would bring our in-house skills to smaller organizations who didn’t have our skill-sets on salary. Over time, this morphed into a sole legal practice as my partners made individual choices to pursue other opportunities. I became an accidental law firm owner! I liked the flexibility that came with being in charge—but there were also burdens, like having peaks and valleys in both workflow and income. After about ten years again, I decided to make a move. I had developed a niche practice working with small businesses and not-for-profit organizations in human resources and governance matters, and I decided that I wanted to work in the not-for-profit sector. Not because the not-for-profit sector is better, but because it was different from what I had been doing for twenty-five years.

Winding up a practice, even a small practice, is a lot of work, but it was also liberating. I moved into a salaried role, which was a relief from a financial perspective, and I became part of a team again. It was what was right for me at that time. And the experience I gained equipped me to take on leadership of Assist, my dream job.

Maybe I was just lucky, but I don’t think that’s it. I truly believe that you can step out of something you stop enjoying and land on your feet—and I did it enough times to know.

As we start 2023, let’s think about what we want out of our lives and out of our jobs. Our jobs/roles/partnerships do not have to define us. We can define ourselves and then seek opportunities that fit for us. We are not all the same—we don’t have to rigidly follow the scripted path in the Game of Life just because everyone else is doing it. We can go off-road and make our own path in the Game of Law.  

If you are a lawyer who regularly thinks about leaving law, have you considered non-traditional roles within law? We invest so much in our legal education and in our early years of practice—it is a shame that we lose individuals who do not find our profession satisfying. But before exiting the Game of Law, have you explored the different paths that may be available to you? They may not be as visible as working in a law firm or being a prosecutor, but your efforts to find these opportunities may pay dividends in terms of life and career satisfaction.

If you are unsure how to make your career fit your life, you may want to work with a lawyer-coach. I have met with several lawyer coaches in my role with Assist, and they are insightful and skilled. We can also connect you with peer support volunteers who have navigated their own career development and shifts. And the Law Society’s Mentor Express is available to all lawyers, not just junior lawyers, so you can register for the program to be able to access short bios about participating mentors’ whose career paths appeal to you.

If you are happy with your career and have found strategies to share for building meaning into your work, please consider whether you would like to become a lawyer who helps other lawyers. There are many ways you can volunteer in our profession through programs like Mentor Express, but Assist will be offering peer support training in the coming weeks, and it isn’t too late to apply to join us. Training will be on two evenings in Calgary (January 31st and February 2nd) and one Saturday morning in Edmonton (February 11).

May 2023 bring you joy and happiness (and, yes, lawyers are entitled to seek these goals!).