Finding “Your” Place: Tips for The First Five Years of Practice

We stumble out of the bar exam exhausted and relieved, feeling both excited and slightly uneasy about our future. We expect that, at some level, financial security, meaningful work and the fulfillment of postponed plans await us after the gauntlet of law school.

If you are like me, you found a different reality awaiting you. In the first five years of practice, I made less money as an associate than I did as a paralegal. Plans were still on hold. I was in a practice area I was not comfortable with. The learning curve was steep, and I questioned whether I would ever be a good lawyer. I thought maybe the law and I were not a good fit. I was tempted to run away from it.

And then I found “my place.” Instantly, I saw how those first five challenging years exquisitely prepared me for “my” practice area, one that has sustained me intellectually, emotionally and financially ever since. I am so glad I did not abandon the law. And neither should you!

Here are a few things I learned that might help you on your path:

It can take up to five years to find your place; don’t give up!

During my first five years, I felt unsettled and uncomfortable. My reality was far different than what my goal had been in law school. I was not sure what I wanted to do, but I sure as heck knew I did not want to continue doing what I was doing.

I started exploring different positions and options. I got close to making a change three years in, but someone else was chosen for the job. I let go, kept casually exploring, and concentrated on enjoying life as best I could. Two years later, the phone rang. The person previously chosen for the job had left. I interviewed and got the job. Life took me to where I needed to be. Looking back, the additional two years made a big difference in my skill level and depth of experience. The delay better prepared me and gave me a more solid foundation on which to base my practice area.

Be picky about firm culture.

You interview potential employers as much as they interview you. Culture is everything. Every law firm and workplace has a value system. Make sure it fits yours. When you are unemployed, have student loan debt and are trying to “adult,” it seems counterintuitive to reject job opportunities. I rejected several of them. One firm I interviewed worshipped the bottom line. The interview was all about billing rates, billable hours and how the pie was divvied up. I sensed that ethics and people would take a back seat to money. Another firm was trying to project the feel of “old-line prominence.” But it did so with faux wood paneling and cheap reproductions of classic paintings. The interviewer was pretentious. It took everything for me to not run away mid-interview.

The law firm I landed at really cared about their clients and employees. People were genuine, and most importantly, warm and supportive. I may not have been comfortable with the work I was doing but I loved who I was working with and what their values were.

Find meaning and purpose in the day-to-day slogging through.

Law can feel like death by a thousand daily details, all of which need attending because one of them might be significant in the future. Or not. It is easy to feel like a legal janitor rather than someone making a difference.

People rarely come to lawyers because things are going well in their life. We often deal with good people at their worst. But that divorce is an important step to a better life for them, no matter how angry and stressed they are now. The will you draft ensures order during a sad and difficult time for their family. The contract you draft prevents discord and acrimony down the road. Every day hold closely in your mind and heart what you are giving to people. It will help you slog through the grind.

Accept the messiness of being human.

The number one dynamic I see tormenting beautiful souls is perfectionism. It is called the “practice” of law for a reason. You cannot get good at something without doing it badly at first. The more you fail, the quicker you learn. When I told my first boss that I had made a significant mistake on a case, he looked at me with mock anger and shock and thundered: “It won’t be the last time.” Then he smiled. What a generous gift he gave me in that moment. The best we can do is develop systems and habits to avoid foreseeable mistakes.

Every week I fall short of my standards. I beat myself up, but have learned to let it go more quickly by identifying what I need to do to avoid making that particular mistake again. (This week is remembering to run both the spellcheck and the grammar check.) Ask yourself, will the mistake really matter a year from now? Most of the time it will not matter a week from now.

Our minds are both our best friend and worst enemy.

This one I came to kicking and screaming. After many years of reading about the benefits of mindfulness, intentional cultivation of emotions and the importance of physical wellness, I gave it a genuine go. I did so because I was trapped in a stew of toxic negativity. (And, well a diet-dependent on the roll-out of special seasonal candy from Halloween through Easter – not unrelated dynamics.)

For a week I rose early every day (“You can’t be serious—who has time?”) put on soothing music and practiced my own version of meta meditation. Most importantly, I did not engage with work or the internet (other than for music) during this period. In three days I was hooked, and I have not stopped since. I am stunned at how much more positive, content, peaceful and light I feel, though the challenges in my life did not change. They seem less significant and more manageable. Simple things like posture, breathing, and diet makes me feel stronger, calmer and more connected. My mind, once my enemy, can now be my best friend.

Bottom line: There is a place for you in the law. A special place that you and only you can fill. It takes some time to find it. Even when you do, it must be tended, like a garden, as it is a living thing needing intention and loving kindness. It’s well worth it—as you are both the harvest and the beneficiary!

About the Author

VuletichVictoria Vuletich is assistant dean at the Grand Rapids, MI campus of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. She is the former deputy director of the Professional Standards Division of the State Bar of Michigan. Contact her on Twitter @EthicsProfGR.

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