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Career Design for Free Agents

In Brief
(a publication of Texas Women Lawyers)
February 2001

“It has long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
                       –Elinor Smith (1)

“Free agency” is a concept we’ve come to associate with professional athletes. No longer “owned” by their teams, players now negotiate for the richest package and the best opportunity - helped, of course, by their personal coaches. These days, however, the concept of free agency applies to all knowledge workers - especially lawyers. “In the end, every lawyer is a solo practitioner making an independent decision about where or whether to practice law today.” (2)

Ultimately, you are the person most responsible for your career success and satisfaction. As a free agent, it’s essential to create a personal vision for your career. Once you know what you’re working towards - and for - you can develop long- and short-term goals. This doesn’t mean you need to know exactly what you’ll be doing 10 or 20 years from now. What gives our lives meaning at 25 is not necessarily the same at 45. But you can begin designing a career you want to move toward by clarifying the kind of cases and clients you most enjoy, the talents and skills you utilize when your work “flows,” and what you value most I life and work. Here are seven specific steps a free agent can use to design her career:

1. Clarify Your vision.

Why did you go to law school? Have your goals changed since then? How can you make your work more meaningful? What interests and challenges you? Review your calendar to see which projects you most enjoyed. On what kinds of matters were you working? What skills did you use? What did your clients have in common? Once you determine what you’re passionate about - what you’d do even if you weren’t paid for it - you can begin limiting yourself to this type of work. Develop your skills in these areas and seek out mentors who can help you develop this kind of practice. Offer to work on interesting assignments and with desirable clients. Even if you need to approach this goal gradually, it’s time to begin.

2. Define the Kind of Life You Want - Then Fill Your Hours

Do an honest self-assessment of what matters most to you outside of work. It’s too easy to let demands from your firm and clients define your working hours only to be filled with regret later in life. Balancing work and life is a tremendous challenge, but you can’t even begin without clarifying what is most important to you. Balance is always a process. It’s not essential that each day be carefully divided between work and outside activities. Rather, attend to the aspects of your life that reflect who you are as a person: relationships, health, family, and interests like music, writing, theater, etc. Work is never a substitute for life - and the longer you postpone having a life in order to be “successful” at work, the harder it is to reclaim the non-work activities that determine the quality of your life.

3. Decide How Much Money is Enough

If you don’t answer this question in advance, you may be surprised to find yourself wearing golden handcuffs - and sooner than you anticipated. There’s always more money to be made - but at what personal cost?

4. Choose Work that Helps You Move Toward Your Goals

Choose your work - don’t let it choose you. Don’t be driven by fear - that you will lose money, clients, or your job. Instead, consider taking on new work in the light of your career vision. If it won’t help you move towards your goals, pass it on. If the work you really want isn’t coming your way, make a plan to find it. The more people you talk to about what you love to do and are good at, the more likely it is that the clients you want will find you. A coach can help you to develop and implement a plan to get the work you want.

5. Build Your Own Career While Contributing to Your Firm

Being a free agent does not preclude firm loyalty. But loyalty need not be exacted at the expense of your career vision or your life. As long as your firm’s vision is compatible with your own, you can grow professionally, your clients will be well-served and your firm will profit. Remember, though, that your firm will not put your interests ahead of the firm’s. In fact, most partners are so busy themselves that they have little time to consider your long- term interests. You have to take ultimate responsibility for yourself. If you need information that a partner neglects to share, ask his secretary to see that you receive copies of important documents. If you want to work with certain kinds of matters or clients, make alliances with people both within and outside your firm who can help you. If you’ve been assigned a responsibility beyond your current skill level, don’t be afraid to seek assistance. Serve your clients well, be responsive, show active interest, and chances are good that your clients will be loyal to you. This way, you’ll be contributing to your firm and building your own potentially portable career in the process.

6. Take Risks and Consider What You Stand to Gain

Be willing to take risks. As an attorney you’ve learned to identify and avoid potential risks. But you cannot progress in your own career without taking some chances. Consider what you stand to gain; not only what you stand to lose. Designing your career - and creating a satisfying life - is a continual process of learning what works and what does not. Mistakes are our best teachers.

7. Avoid the “Tyranny of the In-Basket” (3)

As long as you focus exclusively on getting your work done, you will never focus on creating your life’s work. There’s never a “right time” to assess your current alignment in terms of your goals. Most people ignore signs that they need to make some sort of change. They simply work harder to do their jobs - while their stress mounts and their passion for their career erodes. But periodic self-reinvention is absolutely necessary, both for career success and life satisfaction. Occasionally, everyone veers off course. What’s essential is to take the time to determine where you are and the changes you need to make to regain your balance, vitality and personal integrity. As Robert E. Quinn, the organizational behavior and human resource management expert and consultant writes:

“Ultimately, deep change…is a spiritual process. Loss of alignment occurs when, for whatever reason, we begin to pursue the wrong end. This process begins innocently enough. In pursuing some justifiable end, we make a trade-off of some kind. We know it is wrong, but we rationalize our choice. We use the end to justify the means. As time passes, something inside us starts to wither. We are forced to live at the cognitive level, the rational, goal-seeking level. We lose our vitality and begin to work form sheer discipline. Our energy is not naturally replenished, and we experience no joy in what we do. We are experiencing slow death…. We must recognize the lies we have been telling ourselves. We must acknowledge our own weakness, greed, insensitivity and lack of vision and courage. If we do so, we begin to understand the clear need for a course correction, and slowly begin to reinvent our self.” (4)

Free agency means accepting the responsibility for the freedom to create the career and the life that will most satisfy you. It may seem like a lot of work - but it’s worth the trouble. And it’s exactly what a coach is trained to help you do.

Notes:

  1. Cited in Bridges, William. “Creating You & Co. - Learn to Think Like the CEO of Your Own Career.” Perseus Books, 1997, p.160.
  2. Vogt, M. Diane & Richard, Lori-Ann. “Keeping Good Lawyers - Best Practices to Create Career Satisfaction.” Law Practice Management Section, American Bar Association, 2000, p. xiii.
  3. Quinn, Robert E. “Deep Change - Discovering the Leader Within.” Jossey-Bass, 1996, p. 60.
  4. Quinn, Robert E. Ibid, p. 78.
 

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