ALL OF US ARE FAMILIAR WITH THAT FEELING that grips you when you’ve become totally engrossed in something, like taking an exam, and have completely lost track of time. Then, suddenly, something or someone exclaims that all your time for this task is gone, and you realize you’re only halfway through or you failed to go back and work on those hard questions that you skipped over at the beginning. Usually, you’re not completely satisfied with the result you’ve produced. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
In some ways this is a perfect metaphor for life and the practice of law. When we begin practice, we start out with a big picture in mind—the goals we wish to reach and the dragons we want to slay—using a law license as our most potent weapon. But as time goes on and we get ensnared in the day-to-day minutiae of practice, we tend to move into a state that’s a little like being on autopilot. Before we know it, years have flown by, and we’ve been in a trance until something like an illness, the loss of a trusted partner or staffer, or a case that unexpectedly goes in the ditch wakes us up to the passage of time and what we have done or, more importantly, left undone. It’s then that we ask ourselves, “How did I get here?”
If you’ve been practicing for quite a while and feel that you’ve been sleepwalking through practice for the last few years, or if you are just starting out and want to make sure that you really do get where you want to go, some simple steps are addressed below.
(RE)DEFINE SUCCESS FOR YOURSELF
Many lawyers equate success in legal practice with financial gain, high name recognition among fellow lawyers, and the receipt of legal accolades and awards. But reaching these benchmarks often fails to make some lawyers feel happy or successful.
Take some time to think about and determine what success really looks like to you. Depending on your own core values, you may experience the greatest feelings of satisfaction and, consequently, success in the practice of law when you are able to help the poor or those whose causes or beliefs place them in the minority. Or you may feel most successful when you are able to create a practice that allows you to work a restricted number of hours and to live at a moderate financial level; your sense of success might stem from spending more time with your family or on personal hobbies or causes than many of your ostensibly more-successful colleagues are able to do. The most important thing is to periodically take the time to carefully consider what you currently have and what you are spending your days doing, and determine whether you’re still on the road to your true destination.
MAKE A BUCKET LIST
Once you decide upon, or have redefined, your destination, you won’t get there just by wishing. Just as with a physical journey, the journey through life and the practice of law requires that you chart a route through the various way stations that will bring you to the place you’d like to find yourself at the end of your travels.
Making a written list of the things you wish to accomplish through your law practice can help move you toward accomplishing your goals because it will help you to remember them when the currents of life start to pull you off course. It’s like a pilot’s checklist that keeps him focused on the things that must be done when other considerations seek his attention. But even more importantly, putting your goals in writing serves as a sort of promise to yourself. It’s a tangible reminder of what you said you wanted and intended to do, and whether you have and are continuing to apply the necessary discipline to make sure that these things you declared were important are really being honored.
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE CLOCK
This is not an admonition toward better timekeeping habits, though many lawyers could probably use them. Instead, I encourage you to remember to be aware of the passage of time and to take steps to always know where you are on the road throughout your journey. Set aside regular milestones, such as the beginning or end of the year, your birthday or your anniversary date in practice or with your current firm, to take time out to evaluate your bucket list, and whether or not you’re making progress in crossing items off the list and replacing them with new and satisfying challenges. We only get one life, and the quality of yours, when your turn on the merry-go-round is over, depends upon it.
This is my last Simple Steps column, and before I close, I’d like to take a point of privilege to thank Joan Feldman, whose inspiration created this column; Joy White, my first editor who gave my words wings; and John Fallahay, who ably succeeded Joy and who has suffered through my inability to turn in a single column on time with ineffable grace. I couldn’t have done it without the three of you.