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Probate & Property

March/April 2024

Career Development & Wellness - Learning to Identify and Prioritize Your Priorities

Marissa Dungey


  • To prioritize, dictionary definition—to treat something as more important than other things.
  • Once you’ve identified your goals, success is defined as achieving your goals.
  • Identifying and prioritizing what matters begins with introspection to define your goals and values.
Career Development & Wellness - Learning to Identify and Prioritize Your Priorities
Vilin Visuals via Getty Images

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I didn’t learn what it meant to prioritize until I was in my 40s. I understood the dictionary definition—to treat something as more important than other things—but not how one was able to make time for those important things. There was too much work to do, and there were not enough hours in the day.

I didn’t consider work to be my biggest priority, but I worked all the time because the work was never done and my clients and colleagues were counting on me. Eventually, it wore on me. It grew to resentment. I wasn’t taking ownership of my work habits in part because I hadn’t yet identified my goals and didn’t know what I was working towards and what the personal sacrifice was for.

Several years into practice, I worked with a career coach, and she not only helped me find clarity in identifying my goals but also gave me my first lesson in how to prioritize. She asked me what I was doing that (1) furthered my goals, (2) brought me personal satisfaction, or (3) neither furthered my goals nor brought personal satisfaction. And then she told me to stop doing the things that fell into the third category.

At the time, my goals were career-oriented. Through the process, I realized that what I wanted was to manage my own client relationships and be the architect of their planning. Though I had not aspired to be a law firm partner, the role of a partner is what I had described. Being able to identify this as my goal was the key to being able to understand what I was doing that furthered that goal, and what I was doing that did not. Prioritizing the things that furthered my goal and saving valuable time and energy by not doing things that weren’t, helped me to build my own practice.

And then I had kids. It was important to me to be an active and engaged parent, and I knew my kids were counting on me in big ways. This priority was easy to identify, but between being a parent and a partner, it was hard to find the hours in my day to sleep, let alone work out, enjoy time with friends, or otherwise embrace my personal well-being.

And then we had a pandemic—my oldest was about to turn three and my youngest not quite one—and it was fast becoming the busiest year-end of my career. I pushed through even as sleep became all but nonexistent. By the time the year was over, I had so de-prioritized my health and personal well-being that I knew I had to rethink what I was doing. I needed to find a sustainable way to keep doing work that I loved while continuing to be an active and involved parent, which meant I needed to start prioritizing my well-being.

We’ve all heard that a person cannot have it all. Men are told parenting is women’s work. Women are told to “lean in” to their career or “lean out” for their family, but you can’t have both at the same time. It’s in my nature to challenge assumptions and authority, and being told I can’t be an active parent while maintaining a successful high-end practice and embracing my personal well-being didn’t sit well with me. I was determined to find a way and what I found is that the trail had already been blazed. There are plenty of people (men and women) who do have it all at the same time. They don’t talk about it enough. (To be fair, they probably don’t have time for that!)

I recently spoke on a webinar panel for RPTE’s Career Development and Well-being Committee titled “Prioritizing Well-being while Managing a Practice—Tips from Law Firm Partners” with other attorneys who manage a practice, are parents, and prioritize their personal well-being. Reflecting on my own experience and hearing from my co-panelists, here are some of the tips we shared on how we make it work:

Embracing Personal Well-Being

Unfortunately, the legal industry is not known for prioritizing personal well-being. It’s more commonly known for stress, depression, and substance abuse. There is no more important tip that our panel could offer than to embrace personal well-being.

Personal well-being is important not just to health and vibrancy in later years, but also to having a long career and the financial security that comes with it. Your clients and your family don’t just need you now. They need you in the future, so your personal well-being is good for them, too.

It goes beyond taking care of yourself with healthy eating and exercise. Embracing your personal well-being can also mean finding time for the things that bring you personal satisfaction or joy. Spend time with friends, volunteer, coach, get involved in your community, or be a thought leader. Above all, give yourself grace—it’s a work in progress for all of us.

Defining Your Success

Once you’ve identified your goals, success is (literally) defined as achieving your goals. Don’t measure your success or your ability to succeed by assumptions pervasive in the legal industry. Here are a few such assumptions I can debunk:

To be successful, you have to work long hours. FALSE. It’s quality not quantity. If you’re good at what you do, you can be successful. One of my favorite anecdotes from the panel was from a co-panelist who worked a reduced schedule early in her career at a big law firm to balance the demands of parenthood. Not only did she become a partner, but she currently heads the US trusts and estates practice group in her AM Law 200 law firm. Working closer to a 40-hour week (rather than the 60-70 hours necessary to meet billing targets at a big firm) is not, and should not be treated as, part-time.

To have sophisticated clients, you have to work at a big law firm. FALSE. If you have a reputation for doing good work and being responsive, sophisticated clients will want to work with you. I speak from personal experience, having opened my own law firm three years ago (started with two attorneys, and now there are eight attorneys) and we get more referrals for ultra-high-net-worth clients with complex needs than we have the capacity to take on.

You have to choose between having a career and being an active parent. FALSE. It’s important to acknowledge that this is just as big an issue for male attorneys as for female attorneys. The perpetuation of gender bias in all legal jobs pushes women away from their careers as much as it pushes their male counterparts away from an active parenting role.

Defining your success starts with identifying your goals, and your goals should be reflective of what you want for your career, not what the legal industry suggests we all want.

Finding the Time

One thing I cannot challenge is that there are only 24 hours in a day because there just are. What I learned about prioritizing is that if something really is a priority, then it has to be allocated some portion of the day. If you start with 24 hours, after taking time for sleep and other activities that promote your personal well-being, and time to engage with family, there will still be time left in the day for work. Work may need to take priority on a particular day, but if it takes priority every day, there will be no time left for other things. Be intentional about your day and if something is truly a priority, give it the time.

One of the greatest benefits of managing a practice is the flexibility to be in control of your day. Take advantage of technology. Because of it, I can be home most evenings with my kids for dinner and homework and still fit in an extra couple of hours after they go to sleep. For me, it’s also a benefit to my practice. In my field, many of my clients struggle to find time together during the day to connect on their personal planning and appreciate the ability to have a Zoom call outside of traditional working hours. Thanks to technology, we don’t need to work exclusively during traditional work hours—work when it works for you and your practice.

Advocate for What You Need

The tips set out above may not be achievable at every law firm or legal industry job today. If you find that it’s not working where you are, advocate for what you need. If advocating within your organization doesn’t give you the ability to achieve your goals, you have a marketable skill and it may be time to explore other opportunities. Build out your network of peers so that you can talk with them both to help frame your goals and to learn about other organizations and individuals who may be more supportive. You don’t need to leave the practice of law if that’s the work you want to be doing. Being involved in RPTE was a light for me. The Section is full of professionals who have successful practices and prioritize volunteering and thought leadership.

Learning to identify and prioritize the things that matter to you starts with introspection to determine what your goals are and what is important to you. I consider time our most valuable resource. Not doing things that don’t further your goals or provide personal satisfaction (i.e., saying no, delegating, or outsourcing) will give you more time in the day for things that you want to be doing. Make a schedule to be intentional about your day. Start with 24 hours and work backwards allocating time to your priorities. It won’t be a perfect system because emergencies happen at work and at home, and you’ll need to be able to adapt and give yourself grace. You can have it all, at the same time, when it’s on your terms.