Finding your place in the professional world

Let’s face it, a lot of the career advice out there is generic, false or otherwise unhelpful. Early on in school, we’re told to pick something we’re ‘passionate about’ or ‘good at’ – but how can an 18-year-old or even a 25-year-old have any clue if things they seem to like are going to fit into a good career?

The truth is that they don’t, and the result is that there are tons of people out there who actively dislike their jobs. This problem is particularly acute for lawyers because a legal education can put people on a specific, predefined path. Hence the legal industry has become somewhat notorious for dissatisfaction.

Don’t fully believe us? Consider the following:

  • A study by Johns Hopkins found that of 100 occupations studied, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression – 3.6 times more likely than the surveyed average.
  • Seven in ten lawyers responding to a lawyer’s magazine poll said they would change careers if the opportunity arose.
  • An ABA Young Lawyers Division survey indicated that 41 per cent of female attorneys were unhappy with their jobs.

This data may be based on the US, but things are no better in Australia, and there is little reason to believe that these trends will change. In light of these statistics, the premise of this article takes on an even brighter shade of significance.

Finding a place where you feel good (or at least not terrible) within the law or outside of it is imperative if you want to live a happy life.

Meaghan Lewis, a recent guest on the Beyond Billables Podcast is all too aware of this. But Meaghan’s story has less to do with unhappiness-forced change and more to do with initiative, bravery and staying true to herself – things that ultimately led to her finding the right spot.

Meaghan started off as a solicitor practising in New Zealand, but she moved to London, changed jurisdictions and learned a lot about herself in the process. She returned to Australia and continued her trajectory as a senior associate with Corrs Chambers Westgarth. But her perspective and needs had changed, she was no longer motivated by the excitement of the deal or the grueling pace of corporate law. She needed a change, so she quit without something else lined up.

By taking a leap of faith and listening carefully to her intuition, Meaghan landed a role as general counsel with The Law Society of NSW. She now works a 3-day work week and has seen a significant change in the qualitative and quantitative measures of her work. For Meaghan, finding the right place wasn’t drastic, it was going with the flow when it was right but not getting boxed in and never losing sight of what was important.

This is one example that can be emulated, but what else can you do if you’re feeling lost or stuck in your career?

Hone in on your best qualities.

Leading with your strengths is a great way to not only succeed but feel more fulfilled in your professional life. Start with a piece of paper and simply list out the areas where you feel you excel the most. If you need a mental jog, try reading StrengthsFinder 2.0, it’s excellent. There is, of course, the famous Myer-Briggs personality test, which can provide some insight as well. The bottom line is to figure out what you’re good at and how that correlates with your values. Having this information in your back pocket will prove a useful navigational tool.

Define what it is you’re after.

A huge issue for lawyers is that they put in incredibly long hours in high-stress environments and often find themselves asking for what. Salary alone is not a great motivator, if it were lawyers would not suffer from demotivation the way they do. So, define what you’re after. Your issue may be not that you don’t want to be a lawyer but that you want more time for yourself. Some people want freedom, some want prestige, some want to help others, some want more challenge – find that thing that you crave and incorporate it into your life.

Review your past.

As cliche as it may sound, one of the best ways to have a more successful future is to learn from the past. Hit yourself with a battery of questions like: What was the best/worst thing about past jobs? What was the best/worst thing about past cultures you worked in? What was the best/worst thing about past managers? What made me the happiest and proudest at work? What do I regret the most? What kind of people do I get along with best? Going through a reflective process like this allows you to clarify the environments and characteristics of a job that mean the most to you (and the ones that drive you crazy). Sussing this out is one of the first and most important steps towards finding your place.

Mix it up.

Sometimes, finding your sweet spot can be a bit of luck as much as it is careful planning. In this sense, the search for this type of thing can be like throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. We encourage people to get creative, change roles, professions and industries until something clicks. This can obviously cause turmoil, so it must be approached within the confines of your financial responsibilities and risk tolerance. But if your happiness and fulfilment are at stake, isn’t it worth it?

We all want to have lucrative, respected careers that make us grow as people and fulfil us emotionally. Some people get lucky, but far more are left searching. The good news is that, with the right approach and enough diligence, it’s possible to find a sweet spot. Be like Meaghan, find your 3-day workweek and don’t settle until you do.

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