For the sake of clients, lawyers are necessarily taught to be risk averse to protect clients from legal hazards. However, well-being and authenticity in your professional life requires that you learn to accept and embrace uncertainty by accepting risk as the cost of entry to achieving your purpose in a given moment.
As a young officer, I was excited about proving myself, but I was also deeply burdened by uncertainty. I wanted authenticity and fulfillment, but I eschewed accepting the risk of personal failure, of being found out as unworthy. Even as I took relatively bold steps in my career, I was weighed down by suppressed worry that took its toll on me.
In hindsight, I was at my weakest when I obsessed over my relative performance, and I was at my strongest when I embraced the empowerment that flows from acting with integrity. As a West Point cadet, I often curated my opportunities to avoid failure rather than investing in the chance for growth. As an officer, I finally established a firm self-identity as a professional because I became familiar with the role of leaders in the ranks and learned to rest in that role and trust in my integrity.
New lawyers can face similar challenges. They often do not have the benefit of having developed their self-identity as a professional before beginning employment as a licensed attorney. The most successful attorneys, however, embrace the truth of their purpose and the power of their integrity rather than obsessing over the possibility of missteps.
Have an Entrepreneurial Spirit
Self-management requires a degree of entrepreneurial spirit, remaining open to professional adventures, and ignoring sunk costs. Resilient and effective lawyers are authentic and seek discomfort as a necessary means for growth. This entrepreneurial mindset allows us to grow to escape the insecurities and stresses of novice status.
But in becoming entrepreneurial, you need to avoid the temptation of resolving uncertainty by mindlessly plowing on. In military vernacular, a “night jump” can be jumping out of an aircraft during hours of darkness or jumping out during the daytime with your eyes closed. Either method can get you started on your way to the drop zone, but at some point, soldiers need to open their eyes and guide themselves to the ground. Young lawyers can similarly use blind faith to undertake new professional adventures but must quickly get their bearings and become deliberate in their choices to avoid inauthenticity and burnout.
A Word of Caution
It is a common theme in military culture that merely doing your best is inadequate. Every member of the military is expected to push themselves to the limits of their given capacity. A standard of doing your best might excuse you from failure, whereas an absolute standard of meeting your responsibility would not.
However, as a new lawyer, there will be times when failure results from factors that fall outside of your control. We are obliged to fully deliver for our clients and the colleagues we work alongside. But good soldiers are not automatons, and good lawyers do not robotically conform to their partners’ whims.
You must avoid conflating the necessity of personal sacrifice with subordinating yourself to the momentum of past choices, the workflow, or the ambition of a boss or bureaucracy. Accommodate risk, be entrepreneurial in managing your career, and be mindful of your inward compass.
You may have already landed your forever job, but it is more likely that you are merely on a waypoint. If you become too comfortable in your present success, you might never accept the uncertainty of leaving a practice or position that contradicts your true talents and passion when the moment is right. By maintaining an empowered sense of risk and personal mission, seeking the right kinds of risk, and trusting in all that got you into the legal profession in the first place, young lawyers will have the foundation and instinct to avoid getting stuck in an unsatisfying status quo and set themselves up for future success no matter what setbacks they may have suffered to date.