Giving career advice is tricky. On one hand, you don't want to presume that everything you learned on your road to success will apply (or be desired) for the folks you're advising. And on the other, you know that there are some fundamental truths or realizations that can speed someone's growth. Critiquing career advice is similarly tricky, but a recent article from the ABA's Young Lawyer Division struck a nerve with me and I can't get it out of my head. The bottom line is, I think it's wrong.
Ok, wrong is too strong. It's useful advice, but misses the mark of its apparent intent. In her article Transitioning Your Identity from Law Student to Lawyer, Amanda Marie Fisher suggests five steps law students should take to facilitate stepping into their new identities as lawyers.
Recognize shifting institutional objectives
Define personal objectives
Keep a growth mindset
These are absolutely important things to do, but only the first begins to get at developing your professional identity. As I recently discussed in the context of being a leader, doing things associated with the role you hope to play doesn't help you assume the identity of being that thing. You can do leader-y things without being a leader. And you can do lawyer-y things without assuming the professional identity of being a lawyer.
In the context of leadership, the being-doing distinction is both more important to your success and more apparent to others than the being-doing of lawyering. If you do enough lawyer actions, you can be both successful and recognized for that lawyer-y success. But in my mind, objective success is distinct from the subjective development of a particular professional identity.
Developing a professional identity requires you to think about and develop a sort of philosophy about the role your profession plays in society. That can start, as Ms. Fisher suggests, with recognizing some of the institutional objectives in play. She talks about the interests and objectives of bar associations, law firms, and others, but it should be an even broader examination. What objectives does the practice of law pursue? And more importantly, why or to what end does the practice of law operate?
The process of answering these questions sets you on a deeper path of understanding and opens up the possibility of developing true alignment between your personal values and the values represented by the objectives or purposes of the profession.
For example, you might conclude that lawyers are meant to serve as agnostic proxies for their clients, to ensure procedural fairness in the execution of laws. Doing so supports the civil (as in non-violent) resolution of disputes. Or, you might conclude that lawyers are meant to be principled advocates for their clients, adopting (at least for purposes of the representation) some of their client's values in the pursuit of their goals. Either one these ways of thinking might support an overall purpose of supporting the structure of our system of laws. And a further view might be that lawyering, regardless of the profession's roots, is purely a business, meant to return value (profits) to its partners or shareholders. This latter view makes a lawyer's identity virtually indistinguishable from that of other business executives and only requires building a slightly different skillset (e.g., reading and leveraging the law rather than learning how to read and plan around financial reporting tools or learning project and program management).
Most of the recommendations Ms. Fisher offered to develop identity will help any student prepare for their transition from school to professional life. But they will not help law students develop their professional identity as lawyers, and the risk is that those young lawyers go into the practice without a sense of the values alignment necessary to find actual satisfaction in their work.
There is a near epidemic of dissatisfaction among young attorneys. This is, of course, for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that it is increasingly hard to find mentors to guide them in the introspection and consideration necessary to determine for themselves what the profession of law is and should be about and what their role in it should be. If we can help them do that, we'll be doing some good for our newest colleagues and the profession. And along the way, our law firms and legal organizations will benefit through greater engagement and satisfaction.
If you're interested in working with me to examine your own values and relationship to your practice so that you can lead/guide/mentor the newer attorneys you're working with, of if you're a new attorney looking for a guide who's done this work, let's find a time to talk about whether working together makes sense - a discussion about your practice and your goals, not a sales call.