When I think about the stereotypical successful lawyer, I think of someone who wears designer suits and expensive jewelry, lives in a big house, drives a luxury car, has season tickets and always plays with the latest techno-toys. A lot of us are fed that ideal in law school, along with the notion that we should aspire to be partners at large law firms. This may be someone’s measure of success, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s not mine.
It Doesn’t Have to be the Norm
Our society encourages us to associate buying things with success, but that’s not the only measure of success. You can reject others’ definitions of success and create your own measure.
Maybe success for you means being able to do more pro bono work or to provide legal services to low-income clients. Maybe it means having the time and the financial resources to travel. Maybe it means having the ability to retire at 50 or to create college funds for your children. Maybe there’s a charity that you feel so passionately about that you want to give them $10,000 or even $100,000. Or maybe success for you means earning a lower but still living wage while only working three-quarters time.
I started my own law firm this year, right out of law school. I’m really happy to see that my business is growing and thriving, and it’s made me reflect on my measure of success. Even though things are going well, I still have the mindset of a poor law student. My short-term benchmark for success is being able to buy new running shoes without worrying about the price. I’ve been driving a used car for years, and last year I finished paying it off. I’m going to drive that thing into the ground. When I need a new one, my goal is to be successful enough to pay for it in cash. (And it won’t be a luxury car, but something reliable, economical and probably used.)
Your measure of success will probably change, like mine, depending on your stage of life. When you’re just starting out, you may not want the material goods your colleagues have, but instead have the goal of living frugally and paying off your law school debt. Once you accomplish that, your focus may shift to things like supporting the arts, or building your dream house, or helping your local economy by shopping at independently-owned businesses—even though it means you might be spending more.
Your measure of success may have something to do with crazy childhood dreams—like seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert 52 times or playing a round of golf in all 50 states. Whatever your dreams are, embrace them. Let being able to fulfill them be your measure of success.
For me, the ultimate measure of success is freedom. I want to travel—I want to see Stonehenge, the world’s biggest ball of twine, and do a handstand on Antarctica. I want to make a living doing legal work, writing and speaking. And I when I’m in my home state, I want to work where my basset hound can lay at my feet all day. I want to work enough so that money isn’t something I worry about, but not so much that I never get to enjoy my friends and family. I see material goods as tools to help me reach my goals, not an end unto themselves.
That’s my measure of success. What’s yours?
In “Nothing But the Ruth,” columnist Ruth Carter writes about the lessons she’s learning while building her new virtual practice. The Carter Law Firm focuses on intellectual property, social media, First Amendment and flash mob law. Ruth is a 2011 graduate of Arizona State University College of Law, known for her daring antics and outgoing personality, and co-founder of Improv Arizona. She also blogs weekly at UndeniableRuth.com.
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