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“What was the most important thing to your successful career?” Shelly asked earnestly.
It was flattering to be asked. This young associate was interviewing the more successful senior attorneys in the firm to help her figure out how to manage her own legal career. But I asked her to come back later, so I had time to think on it.
I’ve had a good life, not so different from others. But what is success? How do I measure it?
When I started out, you were expected to bust butt to get through law school, then start as an associate with a firm (preferably a big and important one). After eight or nine years of 80-hour weeks, you might make partner, do time as a junior partner (still logging 80-hour weeks), and gradually work your way up to senior partner — maybe even name partner. Then you’d go of counsel and keep a window office, coming in every few days to chat up the new associates and other old guys. You knew you’d need a “lawyer’s wife” to show off, a family you could be proud of, and involvement in civic issues, where you could rub shoulders with important people.
Of course, that would all lead to scads of money, a big house, and a reputation as “someone.” That was what success meant.
I have done my time and moved up the success ladder. I have done good work, made good friends, had a good family life and made some money. I can count that as success.
But for many of the people I started out with, it was a different story. Along the way, some took different routes, and seemed to be just as satisfied with their successes as I was with my legal career, if not more so.
Considering the odds, not every lawyer can follow the same path I did — there’s just not enough room on the ladder. As I pondered Shelly’s question, I was reminded of my youthful fantasy of playing pro football. Let’s assume every team needs 40 players, and there are about three junior high schools for every high school. So, there are roughly three times the number of junior high players trying to get one of the available slots on the high school team. If you want to play ball in college, the potential applicants might be 10 to 20 times the available slots. And the odds are much worse for the pros.
So, in theory, the available slots will go to the most accomplished, the most able and the most dedicated to succeed in each successive tier. But that presumes each of these players is committed to the same definition of success. Some of my friends were more concerned with other sports, their grades, girls or other interests. They chose different paths to their own sort of success.
Which led me to realize that Shelly’s question needed to be grounded in the definition of success. In my case, success has meant something different at different times over my career. Meeting my wife changed my tolerance for working weekends, and having a child reduced my interest in long hours. Seeing one of my partner’s big and fancy (but empty) house after his divorce made me appreciate our warm, cozy home — even though I made far less money than him.
Thinking about it also gave me a perspective on different generations of law school graduates, and what they want. Hopefully, today’s graduates don’t all have the same dream of success that I did. Law schools are sending out many more new lawyers than the market can take, and the competition among existing lawyers is already intense. What are the schools telling those students, and what must they be thinking will happen when their massive school loans come due?
I met with Shelly the next day. She was surprised when I started the meeting with a question.
“So, what do you consider a successful career?” I asked.
Her answer might have surprised you as much as it did me.
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