August 01, 2016

10 Lessons I Learned by Exceeding the Average

By Kathy M. Morris

Advanced-degree Baby Boomers have had, on average, only two or three jobs between the ages of 25-48, U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics seem to say. Extrapolating that to our admittedly elusive retirement age, perhaps we’ll have averaged three to four jobs with the possibility of one “encore role” to boot.

Compare that to statistics projecting that millennials may have 15-20 jobs over their working lives. In 2012, Forbes Magazine noted an “upside” of what may seem to us—as seasoned lawyers—to be a staggering number of jobs for our junior counterparts, whom that article called “job-hopping, new normal millennials.” According to the article:

“So while Baby Boomers started working with an eye on gaining stability, raising a family, and ‘settling down,’ today’s young workers take none of that for granted. Instead… [millennials] are more concerned than their predecessors with finding happiness and fulfillment in their work lives. Indeed, since humans have been proven to be terrible at predicting what will make us happy… it’s crucial that we find it through trial-and-error.”

I personally have had nine jobs since graduating from law school and, at age 65, continue to run Under Advisement Ltd., my legal career counseling practice. I consider my collective wealth of experience the product of a cohesive career progression rather than job hopping and want to share with you a key treasured lesson I learned from each role—from the first in a Honolulu law firm to the present entrepreneurial work I do in Chicago, New York City, and remotely via technology.

Here are those 10 lessons:

1. Find out where you want to put down roots and do it bravely. Originally from Minnesota, I realized, as an associate in Hawaii, that I need seasons to make work and the passage of time seem normal. I moved to Chicago and have never looked back, though nearly 40 years later people still challenge the notion that I’m really happy I left paradise for a life of slush and gloom.

2. It’s never too soon or too late to take control of your career. I left my next law job in Chicago after my boss micromanaged me to the point of telling my secretary in what order to do my work, right in front of me and counter to my directions. I got a better job with a better boss. And some years later, the first boss actually apologized to me, citing personal problems as his reason for having tried to hold the office reins so tightly.

Even if you’re at a senior stage in your career, you can still make a job change; I’ve counseled lawyers who thought it was too late but who now welcome rather than dread Mondays.

3. Even if you think you’re losing, you may still win. I’m not proud of it, but I actually cried in frustration during a court recess when I thought a jury trial was going south. My supervisor advised me to hang in and hang on, and he was later proven right when the judge directed the verdict in our favor. You can’t win ’em all, but stay optimistic. You can win more than you may think.

4. Earn a top grade and high praise rather than expecting or just hoping for it. When I started my family, I also started teaching and was appalled when a law student told me the grade I’d given him “didn’t thrill him.” I still remember saying it was his job to thrill me, not the other way around. From that point forward, I made it a point to shine in my work and earn, rather than expect, good things.

5. Delivering bad news well is a skill lawyers need to practice. I first realized this in 1985 when I started counseling law students who were having a painfully hard time getting jobs, even then. The lesson was reinforced when, at a client panel I arranged several years later in my first lawyer training role in a firm, one client said: “If you make a mistake and I don’t like you, that’s a huge problem. If you make a mistake but I know you tried hard and communicated well, we can get past it.” Clients will always remember the skill and kindness you showed them, even when you had nothing good to tell them.

6. Innovating requires courage. When I went into a job people advised me against, where I was hired because I was really different from the culture (which needed changing), I found out how hard it is not to be a fit in your workplace.

I persisted, made a positive impact, and was praised as being “a breath of fresh air.” But it wasn’t easy walking the halls of that job on many a day. Hang in and hang on, right? I know it takes gumption—or a leap of faith. But even if others tell you it’s a bad idea to trade the devil you know for a new and innovative role, if you’re committed to reinventing yourself, you can.

7. You can be yourself and succeed. If, however, you’ve taken some ineffective work habits with you over time—such as perfectionism or procrastination—whether you’re a BigLaw partner or a solo practitioner, you can still learn to adjust propensities you’d prefer to leave behind. Developing personally and professionally is good both for you and your career. Become your best self, and enjoy what happens.

8. Nothing stays the same, so embrace change. Even if you’re not excited by change, try not to fight it. No lawyer benefits from being known as the stodgy old partner—the one who still has his or her assistant printing out their emails rather than handling them online.

You may be one of the lucky ones if your firm or company hasn’t reorganized in ways that affected your career. On the other hand, you may still be waiting for the shoe to drop, without an idea of what you’d want to do next or how to get it. That may not feel so lucky. Face the future and meet it, prepared. It’s an opportunity, even though it’s uncomfortable for most lawyers.

9. You can reach higher than you know. I went to an experiential law school way before that was in vogue; we had no grades and no law review. Still, my most recent job was to create a role at the C-suite level in professional development at one of the largest and best global law firms.

It was fun for me to work where, in the earlier years, I would have had little chance of practicing. And it was my honor and pleasure to create and oversee a team that helped an already world-class firm become even more prominent as a learning organization of continual acclaim in the business world. I never want my counseling clients to underestimate or undersell themselves. When they don’t, their careers soar.

10. It’s a privilege to help others with their careers. It’s what I do for a living. But when you hire an attorney, supervise a more junior colleague, or take an informal mentoring role in your workplace or through the legal community, you’re also changing the careers of others. Even the smallest effort on your part may make a big difference; please strive to make your influence and impact positive in your current position and in any yet to come.

I hope the core lessons I’ve learned over the course of my own career in the law resonate with you and even help propel you to where you want to be. Trial and error isn’t just a career strategy for millennials; it’s for all of us still alive, well, and working.

Kathy M. Morris

is a lawyer and longtime career advisor for lawyers, law students, and law firms through her practice Under Advisement Ltd. (underadvisement.com). She was the inaugural board chair for the ABA Legal Career Central initiative, now starting its second year.