By Rich Cohen, President and General Counsel of Qualmet
I have heard it said many times by colleagues, friends and family members: “Where have the years gone?” You look around and realize that people you are working with are often times born after you graduated from law school. You don’t feel “old” and you still have the pep in your step, but now what? It is time to answer some fundamental questions about your life, career, relationships and finances. How long should I continue to work? What things should I be thinking about for my “post” career years and what is my professional legacy? These questions should not wait to be answered. Take control of your gray years and turn them into great years.
1. Reflect on your career to date.
Like most lawyers, we have a very high degree of motivation. We have triumphed in many areas and have war stories we love to share. For instance, the time we won a major trial, negotiated a huge settlement, and/or saved our company from financial disaster are all things that may stand out. But what are you most proud of? Is it your mentoring of a newer lawyer on your team, an article you authored, an award your department received for excellence in the profession or a process you marshalled from start to finish that streamlined contract review? These data points can be hard or soft, but do take stock in your accomplishments, and know that your value and successes are not always measured in financial reward but intrinsic satisfaction. Take the time to create a list for yourself and take pride in what you have achieved.
2. Are you aligned with your goals?
We all should have a personal plan and a professional plan that creates destinations of success. Song writer and singer George Harrison wrote lyrics that said "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.” Where are you going in your life? Are you like a leaf floating on the sea of uncertainty and allowing the currents to take you where they may? It is never too late to create a plan with goals, strategies, action items and dates for completion. People say the destination is just as important and enjoyable as the journey, but know where you want to be and figure out alternative paths to success. Many years ago, in business school, my professor introduced me to a term that has been part of my personal fabric throughout my career. It is “equifinality” and it means achieving the same ends through different means. Chart your course to success and be prepared for detours and alternative ways to arrive at your destinations.
3. What are you good at but you don’t like to do?
In our careers we are often exposed to many different areas of the law. We may be very good at something, but may not like to do it. Your plate may be filled with contracts to review, privacy matters to navigate, regulatory issues that need to be addressed, etc. These are all very important matters, but what do you not enjoy working on? You are at the stage in your career where you should try and do the things you like the most. Early in my career, I was a bankruptcy practitioner where anytime a bankruptcy issue arose for my company or an affiliated company, I was the “go-to” lawyer. I was very good in this area, and I even had the chance to testify before a Congressional Task Force on Changes to the Bankruptcy Code which ultimately lead to legislative relief for companies in my vertical. However, I didn’t love the practice and found it too narrow. Over time, I was able to transition to a new area that was more interesting to me, which ultimately led to my being able to take on bigger and higher profile matters. You do not need to follow the proverbial “crooked path” and do the same things over and over, year after year. Determine what you like and develop a strategy focused on the things that make you the most fulfilled.
4. What would you like to be good at?
This is always one of the favorite things I like to discuss with colleagues. Their answers on the professional side span the spectrum, including having better financial acumen, learning more about privacy laws, or being a better public speaker. And on the personal side, learn cooking skills and dance steps to name a few. While many can identify what skills they would like to acquire, most do absolutely nothing about it. There are free CLEs, white papers, videos, etc. that will allow you to gain foundational knowledge and a lay of the land all from the comfort of your home. Instead of learning a new skill, they only talk about “one day I will…”, only to live their lives without investing in their own growth and happiness. As the musical group Journey said, “Don’t stop believing” and never stop learning. There is no time like the present to start identifying resources to allow these new skills to become part of your personal and professional portfolios.
5. Is there balance in your life?
I recently received a call from a colleague in his late fifties who was being permanently furloughed from employment due to COVID. I asked him what he was going to do and he said he wasn’t really sure. He shared with me that he had no hobbies, was not very involved philanthropically, and had few friends. His wife had passed away a few years back. He lamented that his work was his life and now was not sure what he would do next or how to find his next adventure. His story is sadly not unique. We dedicate enormous amount of time and energy to our careers at the expense of other things that can create balance and diversification of thought and tasks. The Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” reminds us of the price we pay for not balancing our professional and personal lives. Do not wait to do the things that truly matter most and prioritize family and philanthropy for a more meaningful and happier life.
6. How is your professional and physical health?
It is a funny thing that as the years progress, our hair sometimes turns gray, we may put on a few pounds and our overall energy can be reduced. We pay the price for habits developed years ago, perhaps the routine of a donut with your morning coffee, an adult drink when you get home to take off the edge or grabbing the TV remote instead of taking a walk. Professionally, our offices are stacked with memories of the past and our LinkedIn profile hasn’t been updated in years. We are in a rut! One of the advantages to COVID “work from home” realities is that we can exchange our morning commute for a morning walk. We can plan our meals better and avoid the temptation of going out for lunch and overeating. We can be healthier and must do so to feel better and to think clearer. We can dedicate time to refresh our professional profiles with relevant information and updated career achievements. You need to focus on the things you can control and act to be the best you can be. If not now, when?
7. What’s your legacy?
Legacy is defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor from the past.” We commonly hear about someone’s legacy “living on” as they continue to affect those in the present. We do not have complete control over our legacies as we can only control our own actions and not how they are viewed by others. I have heard people say that the story of a person’s life is the dash between their date of birth and date of death on their tombstone. What have you done to impact people around you and how will those changes continue after the chapters of your life are written? What are the things that provide a lasting and meaningful impact and influence for generations to come? It is never too late to help make whatever you touch better because of your actions. A good exercise would be to ask several friends and family members what they feel your legacy will be. It helps us monitor whether we are on the path we want to be able to leave our mark on this world.
8. If I didn’t work here I would…
The song “If I Had A Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies has whimsical lyrics that tries to reveal things people would do if money were no object. While the exact amount of money one needs to do everything they want to do is an individual exercise, the concept of money not holding you back has relevance to our career choices. Many of us continue in the same job for years because we believe we would not find a job that paid as much, even though we might not love our job. We often say if I won the lottery, I would (fill in the blank as appropriate)….but what are you waiting for? If there is something you really want to do, now is the time to do it. Perhaps you might need to reduce your spending, you may have to reset the importance of a large house or a fancy car and relocate to a more affordable geography. Not doing what you want to do is a choice you make. The Eagles song “Already Gone” has the prophetic lyrics: “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” It is time to free yourself from self-imposed paralysis. With careful planning, you can self-actualize your dreams.
9. It is not too late to refresh your career.
You have gotten this far in your career because of your skills, talent, intellect and determination. Start refreshing yourself by determining your brand as a lawyer. What are you known for and what do you excel at that you want people to recognize? Find speaking opportunities to showcase your talents and write articles on your expertise for peers. Lead your colleagues through influence and not by authority. Build relationships with people who could benefit from your help. Mentor a younger lawyer or assist someone in transition. Take on assignments that are outside of your comfort zone and be exhilarated by the challenge of learning something new. You can exert control in your personal and professional lives and it should begin without delay.
10. The best days of your life haven’t happened yet!
I am an optimist by nature. I believe that hard work and focus combined with a positive mental attitude helps you achieve more than you thought possible. It is as simple as practicing positive thinking and visualizing the success you want to achieve. I always approach everything in my life by defining success and then working backwards. Of course, there will be disappointments along the way, but once I switched on optimism and shut down pessimism, I found myself happier, more fulfilled and more successful. You control how you choose to live your life. You may be confronted with challenges along the way, but the tree that faces the wind has the strongest wood. Never stop believing in yourself and your capacity to do great things. You may be in, or approaching your gray years, but following these simple suggestions just might help you transform them into great years. Your journey awaits and your lasting and enduring success is still achievable.
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Top Ten Tips for Improving Your Career, December 18, 2019, by Rich Cohen
The Halftime of Your Career, May 13, 2020, by Rich Cohen