Being a lawyer is not just a job, it’s an identity. That’s why career dissatisfaction can be demoralizing, because it undercuts our very identity. One of the most frustrating parts about career dissatisfaction is not being able to pinpoint exactly what is wrong. Maybe you can identify a few aspects of your job or your firm or the law that you dislike, but somehow these complaints don’t capture your full discontent. Or maybe you have absolutely no idea where you got off track.
It can be very tempting—if you’re bored, confused, frustrated, disillusioned, or depressed—to want to leave the law altogether. Maybe you will eventually decide that you are better off working in an entirely different career. But before you abandon everything you’ve worked for, stop and consider that the problem may be narrower than you think. Many of you won’t need to look so far out of your field to find happiness on the job. Often, just a small or moderate change in your circumstances can make all the difference in your work experience. The challenge is to identify what you need to change.
Part of the problem may be the approach you’re using to think about changing jobs. If you’re like most lawyers, your first thought is, “What’s out there?” That is, what jobs or opportunities are available that I could do with my legal background? A much more successful strategy for making a satisfying career transition is to first ask, “What’s in here?” That is, what is my career identity—your essential self that remains constant throughout your lifetime?
The Lawyer Career Satisfaction Model was developed by Dr. Larry Richard, a law firm consultant at LawyerBrain.com. The model is a lens to clarify your own career identity. Once you identify the core elements of your career identity, you will be much better equipped to identify jobs—and careers—that will fit who you are, whether that’s in law or in some other field. If you are not burned out or dissatisfied, but are just starting out or winding down a legal career, this model can assist you in identifying the core criteria that should define your next job.
The Lawyer Career Satisfaction Model is a “job-person fit” model. It assumes that jobs are not good or bad in themselves, but rather that you will experience a job as “good” when your career identity and your job are closely aligned. When your job fits you, you will feel that your career identity is reflected in your work, and that your work is an extension of who you are. The result is a fulfilling work experience—in other words, career satisfaction.
Career identity is composed of five basic elements: values, psychological needs, communication style, motivated skills, and career interests. The more of these elements that fit your job, the happier you will be.
Values are personal standards that are important to you. Think of them as positive likes or wants. Some examples of values include intellectual challenge, variety, security, money, power, prestige, helping people, having an impact on society, balance between work and personal life, autonomy, and responsibility.
If you want to know what your values are, ask yourself, “What’s important to me about my job?” To really get to the root of what is important to you in a job, you will probably need to ask yourself this question—or have someone else ask it of you—several times to “drill down” to the bottom-line value. When you don’t have another answer for “…and what’s important about that?” you know you have arrived at a bottom-line value.
When personal values are not met in a job, the emotion most people feel is disappointment. But when a value not only goes unmet, but is actively violated, the emotion frequently experienced is anger. When values are fulfilled through a job, the emotions most people feel are satisfaction or fulfillment.
Unlike a value, a psychological need is a compelling drive that operates unconsciously. While a value can be thought of as a positive and desirable aspect of a job, a need is closer to a psychological hunger for a certain experience. Values tend to be analog—you can have more or less of a particular value, and the more you have, the better you feel. Needs, by contrast, are more digital—either you feel the need, or the need is satisfied and it’s off your radar screen. Some of the more common psychological needs include the needs for power or control, affection, intimacy, inclusion in a group, approval, precision, continuity, security, effectiveness, closure, connection, openness, or predictability.
When a psychological need is met, you usually feel nothing at all. But when a psychological need is not met, the emotion is frustration and a sense of urgency, and you’re suddenly very interested in getting that need met. The key point here is that if a need is currently met, you’re probably not thinking about it. And when you consider your next job, you might overlook it, only to discover that your new job doesn’t satisfy the need at all. The lesson: Learn to identify your needs, especially those that are currently met, so that you can be sure to get them satisfied in the new job as well.
We all develop patterns in the way we interact with people, deal with data, make decisions, and schedule events. The best-known and most widely used tool that measures these personality preferences (here called communication styles) is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI measures preferences along four basic dimensions:
- Extraversion vs. introversion (where you prefer to focus your energy: externally or internally)
- Sensing vs. intuition (what type of data you prefer to gather: factual, certain data, or global impressionistic data)
- Thinking vs. feeling (how you prefer to make decisions: based on objective, dispassionate logic or on personal, subjective likes and wants)
- Judging vs. perceiving (how you relate to people and data: in an organized, meticulous, and scheduled way or in a spontaneous, flexible, and informal way)
Knowing where you belong on the four MBTI dimensions can help you understand which kinds of work experiences, data, and people environments are likely to give you pleasure and which are likely to cause you dissatisfaction.
When your communication style doesn’t fit the work you do, or the people with whom you work, it creates the emotion of confusion. When your preferred style of communication does fit the prevailing style in your workplace, the most common emotion experienced is a sense of belonging.
When the element of motivated skills is not met, two different kinds of job dissatisfaction are possible. First, the lawyer who becomes good at something they don’t enjoy can easily become an expert at it in the law without really wanting to. People who are stuck doing something they’re good at but don’t like often have the experience of tedium. Doing the work feels like drudgery.
The other way in which a motivated skill can lead to dissatisfaction is when you don’t get to use skills you are good at and enjoy using. The lack of opportunity to use skills that you enjoy can leave you feeling incomplete, as though a part of your identity is lying dormant. The emotion you may feel is emptiness; the feeling that something is missing. This kind of dissatisfaction can be even more demoralizing than the former.
On the other hand, when your job allows you to use those skills that you both like and perform well, the emotion you are likely to experience is effectiveness. The more you get to use your strengths in your work, the more satisfaction you will experience.
An interest is something you like to learn about or pay attention to. When a career interest is met, you are likely to feel, well, interested; when it is not met, you may feel bored. The most visible (but the least important) of the five elements of career identity is your set of career interests—the topical areas of work that interest you. In law, this element would encompass the substantive practice areas that attract you.
While your career interests are certainly important, for most lawyers they are not as important as your values or psychological needs in determining your overall long-term career satisfaction. Job satisfaction involves much more than just matching your interests to the job.
Your Ideal Job
Once you identify the components of your career identity, you need to ask yourself how well each element lines up with a particular potential job. In thinking about possible jobs, we usually recommend that you first consider other jobs within the law that may line up with your identity better than your current job. After all, why jettison everything you’ve worked for if a modest change can make a big improvement in your satisfaction? If law jobs don’t fit, the next category to consider is “law-related jobs”—those jobs that usually have some link to the legal profession, and often call on either your skills as a lawyer or your knowledge of the profession or some aspect of it such as recruiting, development, writing, speaking, etc. Only as a last resort should you consider jobs that have nothing to do with law—unless you determine that you have a strong personal passion to transition to a particular non-law vocation.
For many lawyers, their primary source of job satisfaction comes not from identifying the right line of work or job category, but rather from the alignment with the surrounding conditions of the job. For example, it’s not sufficient to determine that “I’d rather be a writer than a lawyer.” The real question is: What kind of writer? In what kind of setting? Does my writing job involve interacting with people or not? How much autonomy will I have? What kind of person will I report to? What’s the culture of the workplace?
Whether you plan to stay in the law, move to a law-related job, or leave law altogether, clarifying your own identity first will prove to be a winning strategy. The career identity criteria you identify are likely to remain valid for the remainder of your career, even if you change jobs.
About the Author
Tanya Hanson is the loss prevention attorney for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund. She is also the co-author of The New What Can You Do With a Law Degree?: A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Satisfaction Inside, Outside & Around the Law. Ms. Hanson would like to thank Dr. Larry Richard (www.lawyerbrain.com), for his assistance with this article.