Can't get no career satisfaction?

Publication: Women Attorney

(Volume 1, Issue 1)

April-May 1999

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

Too many women do not take their careers seriously enough and they end up unhappy because they don't. They put up with assignments or practices they dislike. They disdain office politics and make unnecessary enemies. They fail to build the relationships they need to move up. They believe excellent work speaks for itself. They put the good of the firm or the team ahead of their own careers, trusting that the firm will return their loyalty.. They expect that mentors or firm policies will take the lead in building their careers. Or they are just so busy juggling work and family responsibilities that they ' take time to consider the alternatives seriously.

This is not to blame or accuse women. To be fair, mitigating factors, play a substantial role in determining the course of many women's careers. Discrimination still exists. Family and career make competing demands on some women. Most firms lack mentors so associates receive little feedback about how they are doing. The me-first philosophy at many law firms makes them unpleasant places to work. And let us not forget that men experience some of these same problems.

There is ample evidence that some law firm practices stymie satisfaction for female lawyers. It is also true that some positive changes have occurred in the last decade at some law firms, but the fact remains that most have a long way to go before they are pleasant places for women to work.

The net result is that the rates of turnover and burnout are especially high among women. A 1998 study of associate turnover by the National Association for Law Placement reported that over 50% of new associates left law firms within four years, even more from large firms. Attrition for women is 3 to 7% higher. This is a very high rate of voluntary turnover, and it does not include the involuntary turnover caused by a firm's decision to fire someone.

In over 10 years of helping people find more satisfying careers, I have found far higher rates of career dissatisfaction and burnout among lawyers than any other profession, and this is especially true for female lawyers.

Virtually 100% of my legal clients report serious levels of dissatisfaction. Even when the firm or corporation instigates a transition or termination, the female lawyers I see are consistently unhappy and generally already looking for another job. The money is good but the fit is wrong. The women feel trapped. They want out but they often don't know where to go or what work would be satisfying.

If that sounds like you, do not despair. There are some simple steps you can take to start on the path to a rewarding career. Let me describe someone who broke out of an unsatisfying career, and found rewarding and stimulating work.

Allison was a management-side employment litigator who had been with several large and prestigious firms. But she was un happy with her job, so much that the last firm had let her go. Both sides agreed her dissatisfaction was impairing her performance.

When she came to see me, it was immediately obvious that she was intelligent, articulate, personable, and skilled. She had no big ego or personality problems. She didn't blame everyone else for her situation. Nor did she give highly emotional explanations, just a matter-of-fact overview of a career path that didn't seem to be leading anywhere satisfying.

In one good firm after another, she found herself representing clients she didn't like. She saw her work as helping big companies discriminate against employees and found it morally repugnant. She hated the unduly adversarial nature of litigation. She was tired of working with tyrannical partners who behaved like spoiled children and got away with it because they were rainmakers. She resented time away from her children and husband to do work she did not enjoy.

Though the particulars changed with each new job, the bottom line was the same: dissatisfaction. Not surprisingly, the brass ring of partnership always eluded her. She had moved from one firm to another, always hoping for the right fit. Now at age 35, she was unhappy, alienated, and overworked.

Over the course of six months, Allison identified helping others as the desired objective of her legal practice. She then settled on teaching as her target, and was not discouraged by the many people who said teaching was not a viable alternative for someone without formal teaching experience. We agreed that Harvard and Yale were indeed not reasonable targets.

She took on some part-time teaching jobs in short order, and now she is a full-time professor at an accredited law school. She recently won a prestigious teaching fellowship that will take her and her family to Europe to pursue her studies for a semester. She is a changed woman - and still a lawyer!

As Allison's story illustrates, having a job you hate is one of the worst things in the world. The hours and the demands of legal practice make it virtually impossible to enjoy your life if you hate your job.

Instead of looking for ways to cope with a job you hate or just tolerate, why not strive for a personally and professionally rewarding career? The key is a sense of satisfaction, even passion, for one's work. Career fulfillment is a critical but often overlooked issue of personal happiness and emotional well-being.

Identifying what makes you happy is the basis for defining the ideal job, exploring career options, and making the right decisions for your life. If you're not happy with your work, you can't have a successful career, no matter how hard you work or how much money you make.

A friend of mine who is a senior partner at one of the largest firms in California is one of those seemingly rare lawyers who loves her work. When I asked her why, she replied, "I don't do it for the money." Although she is well compensated and enjoys the financial rewards, it is not what motivates her. "On the bad days, there's not enough money to make up for it, and on the good days, the money is irrelevant." She has found work that satisfies her own needs and goals, and is a major factor in her success.

Achieving career contentment like hers demands that you know what you want. Many women have detailed lists of what we are looking for in a mate, yet when asked to provide a similarly detailed list of the characteristics of the ideal job, we find ourselves relying on a few cliches. This is not simply an interesting quirk -- it is directly related to not taking our careers as seriously as we should.

Careful attention to these factors is not simply an academic exercise. Numerous studies show that the fit between the person and the job environment leads to career satisfaction, stability, and success.

Defining your own values, vocational interests, and skills is a necessary precursor to examining your fit with an organization's values, activities, tasks, and rewards. All legal jobs are not alike, although when you are burned out and unhappy, you may think they are. A satisfying career may involve leaving the practice of law, but in most cases, it does not.

A first step is to identify what will make you happy in your work life. Your answer should be more basic than to be an excellent contracts attorney or a partner in a major law firm. Recall three pieces of work you dedicated yourself to fully. Describe why the work was important to you, what talents and expertise it called upon, and what objectives - personal and professional - you met.

For instance, ask yourself: What kinds of results are most meaningful to you? What skills do you most enjoy using? What kind of role do you enjoy most? Leader? Independent contributor? Expert? Manager? What tasks and rewards motivate your best performance? What kinds of clients do you want? With whom do you want to work? What is the ideal setting for your job?

If the answers don't reveal themselves immediately, ask yourself three questions:

•Are you living up to your potential?

•Are you making a contribution?

•Is it the contribution you want to make?

You might want to overcome seemingly impossible challenges. Be recognized as an expert in your field. Be able to influence others or make a difference. Be rich. Attain recognition and power. Help others. Manage and help others develop. Add to knowledge in a substantial way. Lead a balanced life. There are as many definitions of personal satisfaction as there are people. What matters is that you define success in your own terms.

A Berkeley-based baby boomer friend began his legal career as a real estate lawyer. He found that he hated his clients and the nature of his practice, which he described as "helping rich people get richer." Looking deeper, he realized helping others was his major source of career satisfaction. He even enjoyed helping rich people who had fallen on hard times or been victimized. Thinking this through led him to shift the focus of his practice and take on different clients. He is a much happier lawyer today.

Once you know what you want to do with your career, you have taken a critical step toward realizing your goal. You still have to act, but the hard part will be over. You know what you want to do not only with your career, but your life. You will know what you want to be able to say about your professional accomplishments - and the impact you've made - at the end of your career.

The practice of law neither precludes nor guarantees happiness. But defining the causes and sources of career satisfaction, as well as your mission in life, will put you on the right path to attain it.


This article originally appeared in the April-May 1999 issue of Women Attorney (Volume 1, Issue 1), a publication of Timber Communications Corporation. Copyright © 1999 RJC Associates. This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of RJC Associates.