Some years back, I worked with the very smart managing partner of an AmLaw 200 law firm. He was an extraordinary lawyer and a strong, thoughtful leader. But he had this thing about making his firm bigger. More accurately, he wanted it to be the biggest in his market. He hated it when I asked why he wanted it to be the biggest. Surely that was self-evident?
I’m certain there are those who would say this emphasis on “biggest” is a relic of a time when it was an all-male profession. But let’s not go there. For now, let’s just assume it’s part of a cultural focus on winning, and that lawyer-count, along with games like profits per partner, has long been the easiest way to gauge victory.
Isn’t There a Better Way?
Now that we’re staring down the gun barrel of huge change in the profession (see Evolutionary Road), it’s time to contemplate a better means of defining success. Does “bigger equals better” still cut it in a world where huge firms are going the way of the mastodon?
Think in terms of your own personal success. Close your eyes and imagine it’s 10 years from now, in 2023. If you are really happy — if you’ve achieved what you’ve been working hard for — what will be your measure of success?
Let me suggest a few possibilities from which to choose, knowing it will most certainly be a combination of some:
- Happiness. You’re feeling fulfilled. Your hours are occupied by the activities and people that please you. You worry about things worth worrying about. You are actually having fun!
- Flexibility. Your life is organized in a way that allows you to make spur-of-the-moment decisions. You work where and when you want to and you dedicate small or large chunks of time to relationships and activities outside of work.
- Control. You are in charge of your own affairs. You are the decider when it comes to anything that affects your schedule, pocketbook, focus. Gone is that feeling that someone is always waiting for you to fulfill their needs.
- Creativity. Your work schedule and content supports trying new things, experimenting, learning from mistakes. You are valued for your ability to think differently.
- Health. Your blood pressure is somewhere south of 120/75 and you can take the stairs without getting winded. Some of your friends think it’s strange, but you talk about exercise as a luxury. Stress-related disease is just not on your screen.
- Time. You no longer measure your value in 12-minute increments. Sometimes you sleep in!
- Wealth. More money than Croesus — or at least Scrooge McDuck. You’re rolling in it.
- Respect. Colleagues, competitors, clients and friends know that you are really hot stuff. They admire your abilities and accomplishments. They tell others you’ve “really done it right.”
- Achievement. The largest jury award. The most widely used new method. The biggest client. The most profound social change. Whatever.
Yes, it is a lot more nuanced to assess personal success this way. It’s so much easier when all you have to do is count names on a list or check the scoreboard from time to time. And perhaps you’ll choose to continue to do it that way — for a while. But now, while the sands are shifting, might be a good time to refocus your personal goals. Because if you’re still running that same old route toward that same old end zone, you’re going to be plenty surprised when you realize they’ve moved the goal posts. And you will have missed a chance to get what you really want.
While We’re in 2023 …
Recently, Attorney at Work published Jordan Furlong’s new e-book Evolutionary Road: A Strategic Guide to Your Law Firm’s Future. It’s an extraordinary exploration of the future of the law business through stages of development over the next couple of decades. If you’ve read it, you know we’re in for a ride. (If you haven’t read it, you probably should!)
Take the Survey
The media is fond of talking about the impact of change on law firms. We’re wondering what you’re thinking about your own personal future in the coming years. So we’ve collaborated with Jordan Furlong to ask readers to respond to a simple online survey. Click here and tell us what you think you’ll need to pack for your journey down Evolutionary Road. (It will take two minutes. Promise!) In a couple of weeks we’ll share the results with you here and at Law21.
Merrilyn Astin Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is Partner/Catalyst at Attorney at Work, a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on Twitter @astintarlton.