Career Satisfaction is Not Always a Straight Line

During my second year of law school I had the good fortune to clerk for a bankruptcy court judge. When he had breaks from the bench, we sat in chambers discussing cases. Sometimes we talked about my career goals. At that point, the only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to try cases. My most memorable conversation with the Judge provided me with the best career advice I ever received. It went something like this:

            Judge:  What kind of life do you want to create?

            Me:  Oh, ok. Um, what do you mean?

            Judge: When thinking about a lawyer job you will probably seek something that will be intellectually stimulating.    

             Me.   Yes, definitely. Otherwise, I will be pretty bored.

             Judge:  You probably want something that will pay well.

             Me: Yes, I smiled. I definitely want to make a good salary.

            Judge: And, you probably want to have time to spend with friends, maybe have a family.

             Me: (with wide eyes) Yes, that is exactly right, Judge! Do you know a position I could seek that would allow me have all those things? Is it possible to have all those things?

            Judge: Yes (pause)….

            Me: (hanging on every word waiting)

           Judge: …..just not all at the same time.

           Me: Oh, ok……

The Judge explained that intellectual stimulation, work-life balance, and compensation are the top three things we all want from our careers. He told me I should always prioritize these three things before making any career decision; and not be surprised when my priorities change. If the position I have no longer matches my priorities, he suggested that I be willing to move to a new position that did. Being in a position that does not match your priorities will always cause stress and tension.   

This advice turned out to be prophetic for my career. I started as a public defender so I could learn how to try cases. I had the best time! I was in the courtroom every day! The salary was low. Then I worked for a public utility and made a lot more money, but there were no opportunities to try more complex cases. I was offered a position in a law firm where I had really interesting complex cases and lots of room to grow.

The grueling hours made it impossible to see my friends or pursue any personal interests. When I had my baby girl, the need for balance could not be ignored. I accepted a decrease in salary to work with the attorney disciplinary agency where my hours were 8:30am to 4:30pm. This was great! But, my priorities shifted again and I started my own firm representing lawyers and law students. I love what I do! No two cases are the same. I have not missed a single ballet performance or field trip. Setting new income targets every day.           

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