Are you getting TOO comfortable where you are?

9 September 2019

You are happy in your current job, your work is valued and you feel that you can handle anything that comes your way.  You are comfortable.  Watch out!

The endless demands on a lawyer, when coupled with attempts to maintain some semblance of a private life, can leave very little time to reflect on anything more than your current situation.  That is a mistake!  Being happy and comfortable may be great, but becoming complacent is much less so.

Here are a few thoughts that may come in handy.

Complacency.  Your daily life is busy trying to fit a number of complex and at times conflicting tasks into a small (sometimes unreasonable, sometimes impossible!) time frame.  You feel satisfied if, at the end of the day, you have managed to meet most deadlines and client expectations; you often do not look beyond that basic level of satisfaction.  You simply do not have the time, energy or inclination to look further because everything is okay.  Not great, perhaps, but good enough.  You are well treated, well paid and well thought-of, so you live with “okay”.  At the end of another exhausting day, the last thing you may want to do is to look further down the road.  At your career next year, three years from now, three years after that.

What this means in practice is that you can easily become complacent.  Things are going smoothly, so you may not want to contemplate whether you are truly satisfied with your professional and personal life or are merely coping with the current situation.  This is understandable and, so long as it does not become your go-to position, can actually be healthy as it allows you to invest your initial years into becoming the best lawyer you can be; however, you need to stay alert over time, as that same attitude may begin to have a drag on your career.  After three to four years in private practice, you need to step back to review, assess, and adapt.  It does not mean that you must actively undertake a search for a new job, but rather take stock of your situation, both as it is today and as it is likely to become in a few years.  If you do not go through the process, you seriously risk getting stuck.

Inertia.  Complacency often leads to inertia.  Steve has long said, “Inertia is a lawyer’s worst enemy, yet his constant companion.”  We have witnessed this with candidates so many times that it is not at all surprising.  Being a lawyer is a significant professional investment and personal challenge, and a certain degree of “comfortable passivity” often helps us survive.  However, we often stress that you need to listen to yourself:  if your body and mind suggest slowing down to ponder “life and stuff”, take it easy; however, if there is a little voice inside you telling you that complacency and inertia are becoming more a pretext to deny reality than a temporary break, you should react and you should do so quickly, certainly before that dim voice withers away.

How to react?  First of all, you need to create some distance (mental, if not physical) from your daily routine.  Think lucidly.  Think strategically.  After a few years you are certainly familiar with your firm’s configuration and dynamics.  You might suddenly realize that all the local partners are lateral hires and that nobody has ever been promoted internally.  You might realize that your firm is “top-heavy” (i.e., there are already many young partners).  You might also notice that there are already several people ahead of you in line for promotion and that the firm continues to hire at a rapid clip.  Another scenario might be the absence of clarity in terms of the firm’s compensation system.  These are but a few of a firm’s realities that an associate might easily overlook while being kept busy with work and billable hours and keeping partners happy.  Their satisfaction with your hard work is certainly rewarding, but do not let it become your only consideration.  Keep your eyes open and use your self-confidence to evaluate lucidly and competently the chances that you realistically have to grow within the team.  Start by looking at facts, assess the firm in its totality and place it mentally within the context of the broader market.  Then look at yourself, your expertise, your increased personal maturity, and ask yourself what your expectations are and whether you think that the firm can satisfy them.

Outside help might be useful.  The process suggested above may be a relatively easy task in terms of your reflections on your current firm; it may be more complicated when it comes to a broader market evaluation and assessment of where your career stands compared to that of  your contemporaries.  Turning toward people who know the market will certainly be enlightening; however, do your research on recruiters/career advisers before contacting any of them.  Make sure you talk to someone you trust to provide sound and good advice for you, not someone who will want to submit you for each and every job there might be.  Discussing your own reflections with a competent and trustworthy adviser can help you put together an action plan and that will give you the strength and energy you need to counter inertia and take your career to the next level.

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