How Important is a Career Plan?

I've always envied my law school friends who knew, from day one, that they wanted to be firm lawyers.  The path to success in private practice is definitely tricky--making the right relationships, figuring out how to get the right kinds of work to develop your skills, and increasingly competing for a limited number of partership spots as the economy sputters.  Even with these challenges, my private practice friends knew more or less what their ideal career trajectory looked like.

Much of the advice given to women about achieving career success centers on making a strategic plan, complete with concrete career goals, and then pushing forward according to your plan.  For my private practice friends, this plan can include identifiable goals like taking x number of depositions within the next year or working on a case with this or that partner or volunteering for an organization that might allow interaction with potential clients.  While my private practice friends set these goals and accomplish them, I struggle to figure out how to set concrete goals when your career could still go a number of directions.  In some ways, I like having my future look so open, but in other ways, I worry that by leaving so many doors open, I might completely miss going through any of them before they close.

In short, the problem I have is having no career plan.  And I'm not alone.  The average woman with a bachelor's degree or higher will hold 11.7 jobs from the ages of 18-44 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  I wish there were data on whether this jumping around meant lower salaries and professional success versus their peers who chose a company and stuck with it, but alas, the BLS doesn't deliver this information.  And so I'm left with the question: how do you develop a career plan if you are one of the people destined to have a number of different jobs instead of a career with one law firm?

For me, my "career plan" is more of a "how do I get the next job I want" plan.  Though I may not know where I will be in 20 years, I try to think of three different jobs I might want to have next.  When I think about the different jobs, I evaluate them in terms of marketable skills I could gain that might make my resume more interesting and applicable to jobs farther down the line.  I also have to consider whether the job pays enough to cover my student loans.  Other than these two caveats, I try to look for jobs that appeal to me, but I worry that in the longterm, I might be hurting myself by not coming up with a career plan now, even if it's a plan for a career that I later decide I don't want.  Is it easier to stick to the wrong career plan and later change directions, or is it better to have no career plan until you truly find something you are sure is a good fit?  I'd love to hear what has worked for others!


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It’s an interesting question, but I’m not sure it’s as black-and-white as it seems. For one thing, most of your friends in private practice, if that means large law firms, won’t be there very long, stastically speaking. So their “plan” might end up being more ephemeral than it looks. Attrition rates are high enough in BigLaw that something like 75% of starting associates will be gone within five years.
Certainly some people start at law firms planning to leave, with a clear exit strategy, but my sense is most of them find themselves more in the position you describe, where it’s a question of “what will get me out of here and still pay my loans.” But there’s nothing wrong with that! Taking a job that interests you and staying there until you find out you don’t like it, or until something more interesting comes along, is perfectly valid. The economy is shifting in some very interesting ways, and it sounds like you’ll be well positioned to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, rather than being stuck in some idealized version of what you want your career to look like.
Some of these interviews might be useful to you: You’ll see that a number of people left law school thinking one thing would work out, and found something entirely different worked better for them!

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