October 23, 2012

Unfolding Your Career Options

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 Table of Contents | Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business

January/February 2010 Issue | Volume 36 Number 1 | Page 57

Career Steps

Unfolding Your Career Options

“So, what do you see yourself doing in five years?” It’s a question I’ve always rebelled against, partly because of a general aversion to future planning, but mostly because it’s a question that can’t necessarily be answered. Given the speed of change we experience now, the work that we may be doing in five years may have yet to be invented. Still, moving toward the future with no plan probably doesn’t make sense either.

So in these seemingly unpredictable times, how can a lawyer best assess future career options? By looking inside, to discover what you enjoy most, before looking outside.

Most of us tend to look outward when it comes to seeking a new direction for our careers. We scan the horizon to see who is hiring and for what roles and use that to gauge what we might do in the future, taking into consideration what we are doing today. But scanning present positions alone misses out on the alchemy that comes with remaining open to yet undefined options.

We may also conduct an inventory of our background and other past experiences. The trouble is, although we usually think about the things we’ve done and what that experience has prepared us for, we often fail to take stock of what we have most enjoyed about our work and avocational experiences. And this is the essential inside look we should take when considering where we might head in the future.

Taking stock of your most enjoyed and energizing experiences is an invaluable part of charting your future course, but it’s often one that causes lawyers to roll their eyes. It comes across as touchy-feely and not the task-oriented response that lawyers use to do their work. But there are ways to make this internal assessment more like a review of the evidence and less like a new age experience. Here’s how.

Conduct a Personal Performance Review

Lawyers conduct annual performance reviews of associates, support staff and sometimes peers or superiors. So why not take time to conduct an annual review of your own work? Sift through your client files, and put together some kind of accounting of the matters in which you’ve been engaged. Take a few hours to review the content of the work involved, but more importantly, evaluate which areas or aspects of your work have brought you engagement and enjoyment and which have left you feeling flat. Think in terms of practice areas, general content and specific tasks involved by type of matter. In doing so, you’ll be creating an accounting of where you may want to steer your future work.

Next, delve deeper into what made particular aspects of your work most engaging as well as the types of rewards or outcomes (financial or otherwise) that resulted. Also think about how you can generate more of the kind of work you like. At the same time, take a realistic look at whether dedicating yourself to growing this type of work is financially justifiable.

Now that you have determined which parts of your work are most enjoyable and rewarding to you, rank the component factors from most to least preferred. The chart below gives you an example. Remember that a list of preferred work is good, but one that is rank ordered is considerably more valuable.

Career Steps Chart

Once you have your ranked list of preferred work in hand, determine whether or not the content of that work—be it the practice area overall or the specific components you like to do—is growing or shrinking. If it’s a growing arena, now is the time to start capitalizing on your interests in it. If, on the other hand, the thing you enjoy most is disappearing from the marketplace, it’s doubtful that this will constitute your future. However, is there a way you can use your skills and experience in doing that work in a similar arena? It’s worth exploring.

Engage Others

We are often blind to what we really do best because the things we do very well are almost effortless for us—in other words, we tend to do them naturally, which can give us inaccurate perceptions of ourselves and our skills. As a result, even if you’ve taken a personal inventory of what you think you do well and are fully engaged in, you should elicit the perspectives of others. Ask those closest to you if they agree with your thoughts on a future work course, and if there are areas where you have gifts that you may not have acknowledged. You may find it difficult to ask others for help. But those close to you are likely to enjoy the process, and some of them have a vested interest in your future career, too. Give your friends and colleagues a chance to assist you, and remind them that you are happy to return the favor.

It makes sense to prepare a list of questions in advance of your conversations, as well as to allow for a free-flow discussion. Showing others that you are serious about this process is more likely to create the most useful responses. The questions you ask your selected group of personal advisors will vary, depending on the role that each plays in your life. Here are some suggestions:

  • When you work with me, what do you think that I am best at and enjoy doing the most?
  • When I talk about my work, what are the things I discuss that indicate that I am excited and invested in what I am doing?
  • When I talk about things that aren’t directly work-related, what are the things I discuss that I seem to enjoy the most?
  • What kinds of people, or which people specifically, do you think that I collaborate with most effectively? How is that demonstrated?
  • When you think about me in the future, or in another position or area of work, what can you imagine me doing?

When asking these questions, it’s vital that you not censor the responses. One word of criticism or dismissal is likely to turn off your audience. At this stage, you are simply looking for raw data. Remember, there will be time later to evaluate the information you gather.

Use Other Assessment Tools

To learn more about your strengths, you might try using Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath, a short book packaged with access to an online assessment tool. It uses a system developed by the Gallup organization. The book provides an overview of the strengths philosophy, a detailed description of 34 defined strengths, and ideas for how people can manage their particular strengths and put them into action. Book owners use the online test to determine their top five strengths. They then receive a detailed description of those strengths and 10 strategies for maximizing each of them. While this assessment will not give you an answer to your future, it may help you better understand your abilities and give you language to talk about them. It can also be useful to share your strengths list with others to see if they agree with the assessment, and whether it sparks ideas about your best use of these gifts.

Scan the Horizon

If you aren’t in a career crisis and don’t need to find a new job immediately, you can devote some time to thinking about the “what’s next” scenarios by paying attention to articles, blog posts and conversations about new or emerging fields that spark your interest. Collecting your favorites in a “future” folder, be it digital or paper, is a good way to gather supposedly disparate ideas that may in fact form a mosaic image of what you are seeking down the road. But complete this task only after you have completed the steps discussed earlier—otherwise, with no idea of what you most enjoy and are best at, you will have nothing against which to measure emerging options.

Remember Your Temperament Be sure to consider your personality and temperament when thinking about your future career. If, for example, you have never been an entrepreneurial person, it’s unlikely you will become that person just because you have a business “idea.” By the time you are a practicing lawyer, you as an individual are fairly well formed. This doesn’t mean that you can’t change direction, just that it makes sense to move in directions that are consistent with who you are.

Most importantly, no matter what direction you choose, check your options in context with your values. Nothing makes work more difficult than doing something that is inconsistent with the things that matter to you most.

Creating a new future for yourself may not mean being able to answer that “where will you be in five years” question today, but with some concrete work and reflection, you may be surprised at how many options will unfold.

Wendy L. Werner is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is a member of the ABA LPM Section’s Law Practice Today Webzine Board.