As we begin to rebound from the severe economic downturn, many people are rethinking their career options, and what success in life means generally. One option that’s emerging with more frequency is the so-called “portfolio career.”
While the demand for work-life balance used to be thought of as a “cry from the younger generation,” a growing number of lawyers of all ages are seeing that taking a more creative approach to career satisfaction is essential to achieving their goals and having more meaningful long-term careers. So how will you respond if one of the lawyers you supervise approaches you with a new kind of plan for achieving exactly that?
Doug, an eighth-year associate in a midsize firm, has explored what a new mix of work options might mean for him and has asked his practice group leader, Jane, to meet regarding it. Let’s listen in, like the proverbial flies on the wall, to learn about one lawyer’s proposed solution to creating a satisfying career path, and how his practice group leader can support him in doing so.
Jane: I’m glad we could find time to meet, Doug. It sounds like you have some things on your mind regarding your career. Tell me about them.
Doug: Thanks for meeting with me, Jane. I want to start off by saying I greatly enjoy practicing here, and I look forward to many more years to come. But, if I may, here’s the specific thing I want to talk to you about today. Over the past year or so, I’ve been really struggling to define career and personal satisfaction for myself. While I absolutely enjoy the practice of law, I’ve also been feeling there are other strengths and professional interests of mine that can’t, strictly speaking, be met through the full-time practice of law. I’ve been exploring various options, and I’ve decided to create a portfolio career, and I wanted to discuss what this might look like as I continue practicing here.
Jane: You know we highly value you and your work here, and I’m willing to listen to any proposal you might have, but I’ve never heard of a portfolio career. What are you talking about?
Doug: The best way to describe it is as a combination of multiple part-time jobs rather than one full-time job with a single employer. In reading about it, I’ve found that it’s an emerging trend for all kinds of professionals in various walks of life. Basically, the portfolio career concept focuses on fulfilling one’s strengths and interests, and it can be pursued within one profession—such as the law or law-related positions—or in different ones, such as someone who wants to practice law while also perhaps creating and selling artwork a couple of days a week.
In my case, I’m looking to combine law practice with my interest in teaching and my love of writing, finding outlets for each on different days. As I’ve said, I really enjoy my work here, but I’ve been feeling that it doesn’t give me the ability to find the satisfaction I deeply desire in several areas. My plan is to practice law, hopefully here, three days a week, to teach business law two days a week at the business school of the local university, and to write a book I’ve been developing relating to the impact of the financial debacle on law firm practice. If you’re willing, I want to propose a trial period for this.
Jane: Well, I don’t see why you just don’t teach in the evenings and write on the side and not give up a full-time job. How can you be available to clients and partners if you’re only here three days per week?
Doug: Be assured, I recognize that the practice of law is demanding and meeting the needs of our clients is essential. And as part of the process of figuring this all out, I explored the options you’ve suggested. It became clear to me, though, that having the freedom to devote more time to teaching and writing versus scrambling to fit it into my off-hours from the firm will, frankly, allow me greater chance of success in all three areas. In terms of the practice here, I would remain dedicated to working around the needs of our clients. I would be available via my BlackBerry if an urgent matter arises, and I’m willing to come in during off-times or work from home when the situation demands. I would make sure that all of my clients are kept in the loop on my schedule and how to reach me if they had to do so. And I would continue to be responsive to them, just as I am now. I’m highly organized and believe I can do whatever is necessary to continue to make a valuable contribution here.
To add to that, as you’re aware, since the downturn our business in my area has not been as robust, and I genuinely don’t believe it would be necessary to hire someone to fill in the remaining two days per week. If you think it is necessary, I would be happy to create a job-share plan with someone whereby we would work seamlessly together to have all matters covered on a full-time basis. I’m happy to take the lead on finding someone who would fit that role and developing a framework to ensure the success of the partnership between the two of us.
Jane: I appreciate what you’ve said so far but, frankly speaking, what’s the tangible benefit to us in letting you reduce your time to three days per week? It sounds to me like we lose a lot of your commitment without really gaining anything.
Doug: I can understand that you might see this as no longer being committed to the firm, but it’s just the opposite. I believe by pursuing this portfolio career, I will find much greater overall satisfaction in my work life, especially in practicing law here, and it will only make me more committed to the firm’s success, doing the highest level of work on the days that I’m here, and remaining here for many years to come. There will be no need to hire and train someone else at my experience level, and it will also save the firm money since you’ll only have to pay three-fifths of my current salary, if you agree that it’s not necessary to bring someone else on board. Also, I believe that showing support for this will be great for others’ morale and retention. Plus, because of teaching and writing, I’ll be out in the community more and that could lead to some new business development for the firm.
As to the trial period I want to propose, I’ve gotten an offer from the business school to start teaching two days a week beginning this fall. I’d like to commit to them for the semester, and give us an opportunity to see how this works for the firm. Would you consider trying it out and then evaluating the situation at the end of the semester? I’ve put together a draft plan laying out how this might work for your review.
Jane: Well, it does sound like you’ve thought this through. And because we have a few weeks to work out the logistics before the semester begins, I’m willing to try it out. Perhaps you’ve found a creative new way to keep enjoying the practice of law while expanding into other areas. Obviously, our greatest concern is still making sure the clients’ needs are met, but if we can make this trial work, we’ll do what we can to support you in this endeavor. Let’s meet again in two weeks after I’ve had a chance to review this and think more about it.