Job Sculpting for Lawyers: Increasing Attorney Engagement

One of the reasons that talented employees, including lawyers, leave their firms or companies is because their managers do not grasp the fundamentals of career satisfaction. Managers assume that employees who excel in their roles do so because they enjoy what they do. However, the reality is that being highly skilled and capable does not equate to career satisfaction.


“I have seen many people who were extremely good at something who found it tedious and unsatisfying,” says Tanya Hanson, an attorney with the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund, where she edits publications and coordinates seminars that assist lawyers in their personal and professional lives. Tanya is also the coauthor of The New What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Satisfaction Inside, Outside & Around the Law (Seattle: Lawyer Avenue Press, 2012). “Merely being good at something is not enough to sustain you in a career and, by itself, is not a good predictor of whether you will like a particular job. You need to be good at it and enjoy using it—and enjoy it to the extent that it’s part of your identity.”

Enter “job sculpting”—an intentional approach where a manager helps an employee identify their deeply embedded life interests, and customizes a role that allows the employee to express those interests. The concept was first introduced in a 1999 Harvard Business Review article by Timothy Butler and James Waldroop who, at that time, were respectively the director of career development programs at Harvard Business School and a consultant specializing in executive development and employee retention.

Based on their research, Butler and Waldroop identified eight deeply embedded interests in the business world, many of which can be applied to the legal profession. They believe the most people are motivated by between one and three deeply embedded interests. Examples of deeply embedded interests include influencing through language and ideas, managing people and relationships, counseling and mentoring, enterprise control, and abstract and conceptual thinking. Butler and Waldroop are emphatic that deeply embedded interests are not hobbies; rather, they are long-standing interests and innate passions that begin to emerge in childhood, are consistent over time, and that may be expressed differently in different points of time.

Rather than relegating job sculpting to the HR manager or department, Butler and Waldroop believe that managers should play a central role in job sculpting because of their unique position to observe their employees and shape their work, and because many employees may not be aware of their deeply embedded life interests. This is especially the case when an employee follows a career path simply because it is well-paved and is the path of least resistance.

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Tanya notes that “[o]ne of the most frustrating parts about being unhappy in your work is not being able to pinpoint exactly what is wrong. When you’re bored, confused, frustrated, disillusioned, or depressed, it can be very tempting to want to make a major job change or even overhaul your entire career. It’s very common for unhappy lawyers to think they need to make a complete and final break with the law. Many people do ultimately decide to switch fields.

“Most, though, wouldn’t need to make a significant career transition in order to find happiness on the job. Often, 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, and it can be difficult to do this on your own. If employers were proactive about helping workers sculpt their jobs to fit them, more employees might end up staying with a particular job, firm, company, or career.”

Ellen Raim, VP of HR and legal affairs at Erickson, an aircraft manufacturing company, is a proponent of job sculpting because of its ability to motivate employees. With a 20+ year career in employment law as well as in leading global HR strategy and talent acquisition in a range of companies, including Fortune 500 companies, Raim sees two types of employee engagement: “Rational engagement—which means am I getting paid enough and do I have the tools I need, and emotional engagement. Emotional engagement means my values align with the values of the company and I am allowed to live those values daily. The idea of finding and using your deeply embedded life interests is another facet of the same idea. Make work meaningful to people and they will commit to your company.”

Lest you think that only large companies can incorporate job sculpting, this practice can be applied to firms such as Barran Liebman LLP. This 18-attorney law firm in Portland, Oregon specializes exclusively in employment and labor law for employers. Barran Liebman prioritizes attorney engagement and has won multiple workplace-related awards, including The Oregonian’s Top Workplace, and since 2010, has been listed in the top 10 of Oregon Business Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon, with the #1 ranking in 2013 and 2015 and #2 ranking in 2014. Traci Ray, an attorney and executive director at Barran Liebman, has wholeheartedly embraced the concept of job sculpting through her coaching and mentoring of the lawyers in her firm. “[I]t all starts with relationships—taking the time to learn about the people you work with, what they value, and what motivates them. Once you have this foundation, then job sculpting can begin. Recognizing people’s talent and potential, and matching that with opportunities creates long-term job satisfaction and employee loyalty. Once we have everyone’s unique framework, we can set individual goals that feed into the broader goals of the firm, and then everyone pursues their own goals on their own timeline (no internal competition) and we celebrate the successes of every single person—at the employee, associate and partner levels. Everyone is a part of our team, and everyone is important.”

Job sculpting can be performed with small tweaks, and without necessarily having to recreate the attorney’s position. Shayda Zaerpoor Le has been an associate attorney at Barran Liebman for a little over two years, and her work is evenly split between employment advice and litigation, with some work devoted to higher education issues. “At Barran Liebman…there is a lot of job sculpting happening all the time, but within the framework of what the firm needs to accomplish. So we are an employment law firm—we need to do employment law. We are a client-facing business – we need to bring in clients. That’s the framework. But within that, the firm really encourages you to find your own path. Professional development activities are expected, but not because there’s a quota for the number of committees you need to be on—it’s because those activities help you segue into developing your portfolio and bringing in clients. I think the further I advance in my career, the more the concept of job sculpting becomes important to me.”

A significant part of Shayda’s career satisfaction is her involvement in professional and community groups and her firm’s support of such activities. For example, Shayda serves on the board of Andisheh Center, a Persian cultural organization, which is a huge time commitment outside of her billable hour requirements. Yet the firm strongly supports her involvement in this organization. “I get to do it in a way that I like, I get to overlap it with other things that matter to me, and I get support and trust from the firm that I’m doing it responsibly.”

One day, Shayda happened to have a conversation with Traci about Nowruz, a holiday celebrating the Persian New Year, and how Shayda was sending personal Nowruz cards to her friends. Traci thought this was a great idea and suggested to Shayda that the firm create customized Nowruz cards for her to send to her friends and clients. Shayda liked this suggestion and was able to take advantage of the firm’s marketing resources and support to come up with a list of names, design cards and distribute them. In conjunction with this idea, Traci asked Shayda what typically happens during Nowruz and Shayda mentioned that people celebrate with Persian food. As a result, Traci arranged for the firm to have a semi-traditional lunch where the attorneys enjoy Persian food. As a result of this experience, Shayda appreciates that Traci and the firm looked for opportunities to engage her interests and support something that is important to her.

Job sculpting does not require any special training and it can be done in a number of ways. While the manager can encourage the use of personality and skills assessment tests, the more meaningful way to perform job sculpting is by incorporating it as part of the attorney’s regular performance review.


Job sculpting requires the manager to be observant, maintain an open mind, ask questions and listen to the associate without being defensive or judgmental. For job sculpting to work, at the very minimum, the manager must instill trust and foster “psychological safety,” defined as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” (See Amy Edmondson, TEDxHGSE Presentation, published May 4, 2014).

Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor of leadership and management has done extensive studies of the benefits of psychological safety. Edmondson’s research has been bolstered by a four-year, data-driven study conducted by Google on its employees, which indicates that the number one predictor of successful team performance is the presence of “psychological safety” (See “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by Charles Duhigg, New York Times, Feb. 25, 2016).

Ellen Raim concurs regarding the significant effect that psychological safety has on an employee’s behavior. “A manager’s job is to get work done through others. If a manager does not make his reports comfortable they will not perform optimally. It is in a manager’s best interest to make it safe for his employees to express their needs, ideas and wishes.”

With job sculpting, the manager must be prepared for the possibility that an employee may ultimately decide to leave the department, firm or company. Some managers may balk at the idea of investing time and resources to help an employee identify her deeply embedded interest only to turn around and jump to a different team or department. However, “this is very short-sighted,” says Ellen. “I always tell managers who express this concern that if they do not help employees (who might move to a new role in the company) then the employee is just as likely to get fed up with the manager and the job and quit anyway. If you help the employee learn and grow you will get recognized as a great manager and people will want to come work in your group and build a loyal relationship with the leaving employee that will benefit you in the end.”

Ultimately, managers should keep in mind that career satisfaction is a key element that fosters employee motivation, engagement and commitment. “Here is what I wish more employers understood about retaining good workers,” Tanya Hanson exhorts. “When employees’ jobs provide a good fit for them, they feel that their career identity is reflected in their work and their work is an extension of who they are. As a result, employees are happier and more fulfilled at work and, consequently, more likely to stay and perform at a higher level. Job fit simply means how well an employee’s career identity corresponds to the characteristics of the job. So it’s crucial to understand not only what the employee has to offer the employer, but also to know what the employee wants and needs in a work experience.”

About the Author

Yumi M. O’Neil is an associate general counsel at Cambia Health Solutions, a multi-faceted health solutions and insurance company in Portland, Oregon.

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