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What is a Successful Legal Career?
By Ellen Ostrow –
(Originally Published in the Women Lawyers Journal; 2015, VOL. 100, NO. 3)
If asked to evaluate your career – as of this moment – as successful or not, how would you react? What would determine your conclusion? Had you prevailed in court last week, perhaps you would respond with an emphatic “successful.” But had you lost, would that mean that your career had not been successful?
If you’ve achieved equity partner status in your law firm you may well feel that you’ve been successful. The quantity of your compensation may influence your judgment. But what if you consider your comp compared to the men at your firm and note the disparity? Does that make you feel any less successful?
Carol,* a senior corporate partner at a global firm, recently confided to me that she finally feels successful now that she is among the highest compensated partners at her firm, alongside many of the men who’d previously surpassed her.
Defining success in the legal profession is a tricky matter, and has become even more so given post-recession changes in the industry. Within law firms, the traditional definition of success was advancement to equity partnership and compensation. In the years since the economic downturn, big law firms have changed their organizational structures.
The number of years to promotion has increased significantly. Even producing great work over the course of more years no longer guarantees promotion. Firms increasingly have focused on business generation and are loathe to promote an associate without being convinced of significant revenue-generating potential.
At the same time, attorneys who are already equity partners are scrambling to hold onto their business in a dramatically tighter and more competitive market. This leaves them with less time and incentive to develop junior lawyers. Competition for the ever-churning lateral market requires keeping profits per partner high, creating a disincentive for firms to promote associates to equity partnership.
The creation of multiple partnership tracks has also made promotion to equity more illusory. As a result, few associates now view doing great work as a likely path to success at the first firm that hires them out of law school. Promotion to equity has become the most elusive of the traditional objective success measures of a legal career.
Scientists who study the concept of career success , point to its complexity. Status, promotions and pay – the traditional hallmarks of success – are “objective” measures. These use objectively verifiable criteria to evaluate success. However, organizational status, financial attainment, promotions and prestige do not necessarily make people feel successful. I have coached countless attorneys who have achieved these benchmarks only to find themselves feeling empty and unfulfilled. Furthermore, we know that even “objective” measures are contaminated by factors like gender and race. Disparities in access to opportunities leading to objective success as well as in evaluations, promotions and compensation continue to be prevalent in the profession.
Therefore, “subjective” measures of career success – those defined by an individual’s reactions to her unfolding career experiences – are crucial considerations. People conceptualize and evaluate their career success in terms of many factors related to their personal beliefs, values and aspirations.
These include competence, excellence, contribution, challenge, security, work/life balance, feeling valued, sense of meaning and purpose, service, fulfillment, autonomy, legacy and relationships with colleagues and/or clients, to name a few.
The evaluation of your career as successful may also have a temporal component. An associate grinding away long hours may not view her current accomplishments as successful but may consider her career in a broader time frame, anticipating future success as a result of her present-day efforts.
Maureen,* a new non-equity partner at her global firm, stated that, “When I became an associate I wanted success and success was partnership. Otherwise, why make the sacrifice?” Conversely, a recently de-equitized partner may or may not view her career as successful. To the extent to which she considers her reduced status to be a reflection of firm economics and looks back upon a career filled with achievements of which she is proud, she is likely to consider her career a success.
However, I have spoken with senior women in practice areas that have undergone significant changes and who blame themselves for their failure to “reinvent” themselves. In these cases, despite much prior objective evidence of success, these attorneys do not evaluate their careers as successful.
If you’ve ever received a bonus about which you were very pleased only to have your feelings change to disappointment when discovering how paltry your bonus was in comparison to those of others at your own or other firms, you know that our judgments of our success may be influenced by the achievements of others.
Research on career success documents that we evaluate our career outcomes relative to personal standards as well as the attainments and expectations of others. Viewing one’s career as on-, behind- or ahead-of-schedule relative to peers is an example of an other-referent measure of success that can leave an attorney feeling prospering or defeated. Promotions and bonuses provide a powerful incentive for attorneys to compare themselves to others with dramatic consequences for their experience of success.
Recently I coached a young woman attorney who apparently had been on track for partnership at her firm. She received glowing reviews during her eight years at the same firm and had worked on significant matters.
The previous year the firm had brought in a complementary practice from another firm and the former and new practice heads assumed co-leadership roles. Unfortunately, the former leader – also her mentor – was not one to spend political capital advocating for his juniors while the new co-leader did this with relish. As a result, an associate who came in with the group from the other firm was promoted to partner while my client was only elevated to counsel.
Despite being promised compensation to offset the difference in status, she received only a small bump in pay. She had been billing roughly 3,000 hours/year and until this point had viewed the sacrifice as worthwhile. The decision left her devastated. She had no portable business; up until this point playing a prominent role on a senior partner’s matters was more than sufficient for promotion.
The decision reflected the power of senior partners, not anything inherent in the quality of her work. Yet she felt entirely devalued and humiliated by having given so much only to receive so little recognition. Despite not having felt particularly fulfilled by her work, she had felt proud and successful – until now. From that point on, she shifted her goals from advancing at the firm to saving as much of her paycheck as possible, leaving the office in time to see friends, and waiting until she had saved enough to leave practice altogether. The day she could retire from law and feel free to travel would be the day she would experience success.
It’s difficult to define success according to internal referents in a work environment that places value on objective factors like promotion, prestige and money. We are wired to compare ourselves to others and have a tendency to internalize the expectations of our work environments.
Big law provides multiple inducements to value objective and other-referent criteria of success. People with a high need for achievement may choose to work in such organizations with incentive systems that reward and recognize a few leading stars. It’s easy to become trapped trying to live up to and emulate these stars. It can become easy to believe that failing to invest heavily in things you believe will improve your chances of success means foregoing all you’ve invested and feeling like a failure.
In my experience, it is often getting outside this organizational frame of reference that enables people to consider alternative ways of measuring their own career success. For example, Elizabeth* contacted me when she was told that the prestigious, white-shoe firm in which she had worked for her entire legal career had decided to postpone her consideration for partnership because they were not yet convinced of her revenue-generating potential.
At best, she was able to negotiate for counsel status. Elizabeth loved the intellectual challenge of her work. She disliked the incessant client demands, especially those of her international practice. As the mother of two young children and married to another professional, she also felt continually taxed by multiple demands. She had found a way to juggle these, but constantly faced the criticism of senior male partners who disapproved of the ways she got her work done. They preferred the more paced approach afforded them by their stay-at-home wives.
When Elizabeth and I explored what made her feel successful, it was neither the approval of senior partners, the size of her bonus, nor the approbation of clients for being on calls at all hours. Success for Elizabeth was solving complex problems, particularly those that had significant policy implications. It became clear that a position in the federal government offered a far better shot at success and satisfaction than did her firm. Nevertheless, it was not until she actually made the transition that she stopped feeling like a failure.
The culture of the profession as a whole puts great emphasis on competition, winning, individual achievement, status and prestige. Research by Florida State University College of Law Professor Lawrence Krieger and colleagues , has documented the dire effects of legal education upon the values and well-being of law students and ultimately upon the practicing attorneys they become.
According to this research, after beginning law school, students shift from values related to helping and community to external rewards such as money and recognition. The data indicate a general loss of sense of personal purpose. These changes are accompanied by increases in depression, anxiety and negative mood – changes that persist beyond the law school years.
Krieger’s research also indicates that success in law school measured by grades exacerbates the longer-term negative effects of law school. More “successful” students become more attracted to extrinsically oriented jobs and away from the service motivations with which they began law school. These findings have been replicated at multiple law schools and similar results have been found by other legal scholars. 
Most recently, Krieger  found similar relationships among a very large and diverse sample of practicing attorneys. The investigators found no or a negative relationship between grades, affluence, prestige and attorney well-being. The most satisfied and well-adjusted lawyers were those doing work they found personally meaningful and providing needed help to others.
Despite their smaller compensation, lawyers working in public service settings were more motivated by internal and personal values than those in higher-paying private practices and demonstrated higher well-being scores. The authors concluded “the shared understanding of ‘success’ needs to be amended so that talented students and lawyers more regularly avoid self-defeating behaviors in the pursuit of success.” 
Certainly there are attorneys at the largest law firms whose careers not only look successful through the prism of objective criteria but who would also judge themselves as successful according to subjective measures. But defining your legal career as successful has become increasingly challenging. Economically driven changes in the industry have resulted in fewer opportunities to achieve traditional benchmarks of success. Each corporation has only one General Counsel. The number of Margaret Brent annual awardees is finite.
Values have also changed over generations. Few law graduates now go to large law firms aspiring to equity partnership. Careers in the law, as elsewhere, have become less linear and more “boundary-less,” i.e., not limited to a single organization or a single career direction. Concerns about work/life balance are no longer limited to women. Studies show that both male and female millennials have no intention of trading off the quality of their lives for a paycheck. 
How, then, should you define career success for yourself? My suggestion is that you ground your definition in your values. By “values,” I mean the personal strengths or qualities you most want to express in your daily patterns of action. Values are chosen concepts linked with patterns of action that provide a sense of meaning. They can coordinate our behavior over long time frames.
Values can never be fulfilled, satisfied or completed; rather, they serve to give us a purpose or direction. Values should not be confused with goals, which are discrete objectives that can be evaluatedand completed in order to move you in the direction of your stated values. 
There are a few simple ways to focus on your values. First of all, imagine yourself as an 80-year-old woman. What will you need to look back on in order to feel proud of the work you’ve done and the life you’ve lived? When young attorneys seek you out to learn from your wisdom and perspective, what do you hope to tell them made your sacrifices worthwhile? What kind of a lawyer were you?
Finally, at the end of each day ask yourself, “What did I do today that I feel was worthwhile?” If you have the daily experience that you did something in the service of your values, you will have the opportunity to feel successful regardless of how much you were paid or how much prestige you garnered for your actions. And, if at the end of your career you can name things you feel proud to have done and feel that you stood for what mattered to you, then you are likely to consider your career as an attorney to have been a success.
*Client names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect client confidentiality.
- A. Heslin, Conceptualizing and Evaluating Career Success, 26 Journal of Organizational Behavior, 113 (2005).
- Baruch & N. Bozionelos, Career Issues. In S. Zeldon, Ed., APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 2., Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association, 67 (2014).
- S. Krieger & K. M. Sheldon, Does Legal Education Have Negative Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being, 22 Behavioral Science & Law 261 (2004).
- M. Sheldon & L. S. Krieger, Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test and Extension of Self-Determination Theory, 33 Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 883 (2007).
- Elizabeth Mertz, The Language of Law School: Learning to Think Like a Lawyer. Oxford University Press (2007).
- S. Krieger & K.M. Sheldon, What Makes Lawyers Happy?: A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83 The George Washington University Law Review (2015, forthcoming).
- Peggy Drexler, The New Definition of Success for Professional Women, Forbes (November 11, 2014, available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/peggydrexler/2014/11/11/the-new-definition-ofsuccess-for-professional-women-2/.
- E. Flaxman, F. W. Bond & F. Livheim, The Mindful and Effective Employee. New Harbinger Publications (2013).
Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., PCC, CMC is an executive coach and psychologist and Founding Principal of Lawyers Life Coach LLC. Since starting her firm in 1998, Ellen has coached many hundreds of attorneys throughout the world at all levels of experience and seniority in law firms, corporate legal departments, government, not-for-profits and the judiciary. She provides coaching to attorneys in areas related to leadership development and effectiveness, career planning and advancement, communication and emotional intelligence. She also consults with law firms and corporate legal departments on strategies for retaining women and diverse attorneys.
Ellen is particularly known for her expertise on the challenges faced by women in the profession and has been invited to address numerous audiences – including the Department of Justice Canada, the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, Harvard Law School’s Women’s Leadership Summit, the Center for Women in the Law’s Power Summit, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law’s Women Leadership & Equality Program and bar and women attorney’s groups on the national and local level throughout the US and Europe – on strategies for advancing women attorneys. Ellen has also been selected as the exclusive Women In Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF)-endorsed leadership development coach.
A frequent contributing writer for print and electronic legal media, Ellen’s articles have been published in the New York Law Journal Magazine, Perspectives, The Women Advocate, GP Small/Solo, Trial Magazine, Lawyers Weekly USA and many other prominent legal publications. The New York Times, the Washington Post, US News & World Report, the Legal Times, Of Counsel and the Careerist have quoted Ellen and her email newsletter, Beyond the Billable Hour, has been reprinted by more than 30 print and electronic publications and translated into multiple languages.
Ellen is Co-Chair of the Board of the ThirdPath Institute, Co-Chair of the Women’s Bar Association of DC’s Career Committee, a member of the ABA Commission on Women’s Grit Project and the Center for Women in the Law’s Consortium. She has served on the District of Columbia Bar Association’s Lawyers’ Assistance Program Advisory Board (2007-2013), the 2011 Women’s Power Summit on Law & Leadership Advisory Board, The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession’s Women in Law Leadership Academy faculty (2004-2006) the ABA Women Rainmakers’ Board (2012-2013), and the UC Hastings Leadership Academy for Women Lawyers faculty (2014.)
Ellen received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Rochester and her coach training from the MentorCoach ™ program, for which she has also taught. She served on the faculties of three universities before starting her independent practice.