Susan Smith Blakely

Best Friends at the Bar: Young Women Lawyers Need To Exercise Self Control

Editor's Note:  Ms. JD is excited to announce that Susan Smith Blakely, author of Best Friends at the Bar, will be speaking at Ms. JD: She Leadson October 5, 2012. This post originally appeared on the Best Friends at the Bar blog on April 25, 2011.

You know that I am always thinking of you young lawyers and trying to eke a lesson for you out of everything I read.  Well, yesterday the fertile ground for my efforts on your behalf was church.  There I was at the Easter Sunday service, and you were on my mind.  Glancing at the church bulletin, I noticed some topics for a future discussion group, and a lesson from Jewish teachings jumped out at me:  You Need to Have Self Control.

Let me clarify two things.  First of all, I was not zoning out during the sermon!  Second of all, yes, Christian churches like mine pay a lot of attention to the teachings of the Jews, and this was one of those moments.

I am sure that the ancient teachings about self control cover a lot of ground, but the relevance for the purposes here is that you should control your spending, control your debt and use self control about your lifestyle so that you preserve your options when it comes to your professional pursuits.

Here’s how it works. Many young lawyers, men and women alike, start their law practices at big firms for big salaries. These young lawyers work hard over time and advance in the firm, and they convince themselves that they are entitled to some really expensive lifestyle trappings for their pain and suffering—-the fancy car, the big house, the designer clothes, the vacation home, exotic trips—–and soon they feel like they cannot live without these things. They look around the law firm and see senior members of the firm with extravagant lifestyles, and they want the same thing.  They consider it a statement of importance and having “arrived”, and soon these choices become automatic.

As you know, choices like this come with big price tags, and the biggest price tag typically turns out to be the house mortgage. While it is true that the big salary can support the big house mortgage, that scenario only works until the job that supports the big salary is no longer desirable or available. There comes a time for many of these big earners where they are either burned out or experience a change of heart about what they want to do professionally. There also comes a time for some, especially during an economic downturn, where the job is no longer there. Very often the choice or the solution is to go to a job that pays less. Or there is also the possibility of being offered that big, prestigious job in the public sector—Deputy Director of Whatever—that you would really like to take for career enhancement, but it means a much lower salary.

Some of these are excellent opportunities. Less stress, more job satisfaction or a highly coveted position. Who needs that big salary anyway?  That’s the rub. Make sure you don’t!

It is fundamental that you need a certain amount of income to support the overhead you accumulate. When you scale back the income, you also have to scale back the lifestyle. Even if you are OK with that and it is possible, there are other things to consider. Maybe you can live without the big house and the country club membership, but what about your mate?  Has your acquired lifestyle become so much a part of what you are as a couple or a family that you cannot give it up? Are the Golden Handcuffs locked so tight that you must forgo the options and the happiness that you might otherwise have had?

And, what about the fact that it can be a little out of your control to scale back?  Consider the fact that houses—especially expensive houses—are not selling in this economy, and that we are most certainly going to experience similar challenging economic times again in the future. Recession is like the boomerang. It always comes back.

It is never too early to start thinking about these things. How about the decisions that relate to your family and raising the children you may have one day?  Will your spouse work or not?  What if he needs to be home with the children, can you afford to have him do that?  Or have you lived such a lavish lifestyle to make that option impossible?

Remember that you cannot predict the future. Who knew that the economic collapse of 2008 would catch so many people without adequate nest eggs to stem the tide?  Who knew that the credit crisis would ruin so many dreams and that the stock market losses would change so many visions of retirement?

You do no want this to happen to you.  You want to live within your means and save enough to provide the security you need against an uncertain future.

So, here’s my advice.  Exercise self control.  Do not overextend yourself.  Concentrate on what you need and not want you want—-at least most of the time.  Emphasize simple pleasures.

To do this, you will need to learn to say “no” to yourself and to others.  You will need to use credit sparingly and within reason.  You will need to resist the temptation to keep up with the next door neighbors—or the spendthrift partner in the firm.

It sounds harsh, I know, but preserving your options and being the master—or mistress—-of your own destiny will pay off in spades.  Deny the Golden Handcuffs!  You will be doing yourself a huge favor.

Funny what you can learn in church………………

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