“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder,” according to Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, in her best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. We could not agree more. While Sandberg is not an attorney, her profound yet simple words of wisdom are nonetheless apropos for young lawyers.
In recent times, career progression for attorneys in practice has changed. The old “ladder” model — beginning your career with a firm right out of law school, working your way up the ranks, making partner and retiring from your firm — still plays out for a segment of the profession, but by and large this is the exception and not the rule. Most of us — without even noticing it — find ourselves in the jungle gym model, which includes a series of movements, sometimes upward, often lateral, and sometimes even regressive, for a variety of reasons.
With a majority of us operating in the jungle gym model, it is important for young lawyers to be keenly aware of this dynamic and to actively think about how this impacts our career choices and career prospects. Here are 10 things you should keep in mind while scaling the jungle gym.
The Entrepreneurial Profession
Always remember that as an attorney, you are your own law firm. Your boss (whether it be a partner in a firm, the general counsel of your company or the head of your department in the government) is a purchaser of the legal services you provide. It does not matter that you are gainfully employed; you must approach each assignment as if you were bidding for the work — you never know when the boss is looking for a more efficient, effective or competent law firm. Making sure that you’re in the door is not enough to guarantee your success. It is not enough to simply show up anymore.
Don’t Chase the Paper
To the extent you have the freedom to do so, don’t let money drive your career decisions. Certain legal jobs, such as partnership-track associate positions in large firms, offer six-figure salaries that are enticing and hard to turn down for young lawyers. These salaries can certainly help young lawyers get a jump start on the path to financial success, such as paying off student loans and building a nest egg for retirement, but it is important to not lose sight of your career objective simply because other positions do not offer the same financial incentives. Lesser-paying jobs often present greater opportunities for hands-on experience, which could benefit you more in the long run. So, just remember that not all billable hours are created equal. The job market can be pretty tough for a 10th-year associate whose work has consisted mainly of document review.
Limiting your expenses can allow you to explore job opportunities that would otherwise be impossible to pursue. These opportunities could pay dividends in the future in terms of career growth and experience.
Identify What Matters
Identifying what does and doesn’t matter to you is somewhat of a personal decision. For some, the labels, titles and perceived prestige are of primary importance. For others, it may be the money and the power, or perhaps simply making a difference. Regardless of what drives you, take a hard look at your goals and decide what it is you want. This is your career, so it is imperative that you do what is important to you.
Read Between the Lines
As attorneys, we all know how to be crafty with our words. After all, this is often an important skill in framing issues in a light most favorable to our clients. Let’s remember that job opportunities are phrased in the same manner. Be sure you have a clear understanding of what phrases such as “minimal travel required,” “nonpartnership-track,” “staff attorney” and “flexible work schedule” truly mean. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. A direct question should receive a direct answer — or at the very least, an evasive answer should provide you with insight you would not have otherwise gained.
When faced with career decisions, make sure that the contemplated move is in line with precisely what you want and need for your career progression. Detours can be permanent or temporary, but either way they should be meaningful. Whatever you need to progress over the long term, be it trial experience, industry-specific knowledge or a supervisory role, be sure that the jobs you are considering can help develop these skills.
Find a Role Model
If you have a specific goal in mind, seek out people who have attained that milestone. It’s not enough to simply read someone’s biography and try to copy his or her road map. Chances are that with the benefit of hindsight, he or she may now realize that one or two moves made were unnecessary or (even worse) counterproductive and he or she can steer you clear of these missteps.
Keep in Contact
It is vital to your success to remain in contact with those with whom you have worked or who have served as mentors to you at prior positions. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” all too often prevails when we move on to new positions. Contacts from prior jobs can be instrumental in future endeavors, especially if you one day hope to return to a prior employer.
Think Several Steps Ahead
Don’t be short-sighted about career moves. It is not enough to simply hope that a given career move will lead you to your next successive short-term goal. Look at the big picture and make sure that the finish line is in your line of sight.
Leaving the Profession
Sometimes breaking up is hard to do, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the best move for you personally. Some attorneys went to law school with the intention of only practicing for a short period of time before pursuing some other career goal. Others find out, only after practicing, that the legal profession is simply not the path for them. Either way, make sure that you are leaving for the right reasons and not in haste. Oh, and keep up with the CLE requirements if you can — you never know what is down the road and you may want to return to the profession in the near future.
So, whether you see yourself on the ladder or the jungle gym, be mindful of your goals and your available options.
YL Editorial Board
Peter C. Buckley, Chairman
Leigh Ann Buziak
The Editorial Board of Young Lawyer is composed of members of the legal profession. They serve voluntarily and are independent of Young Lawyer. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. Members of the legal community are invited to contribute signed op-ed pieces.