Think Less to Do More: A Career Improving “Paradigm Squish” for the Millennial Lawyer
If you’re a Millennial like me (born after 1978), you may object to the notion that our generation can be adequately described in conglomerate when we are so categorically individual.
As valid as that objection may be, the fact remains that our generation’s shared life experiences are in stark contrast to the population that makes up the vast majority of our work superiors. There is no escaping the fact that 70% of law firm partners are Baby Boomers. These contrasting life experiences have ingrained a significantly different perspective on practicing law.
Fortunately, Millennials share the invaluable traits of flexibility, open-mindedness, and self-reflection. Hopefully those traits will allow you to seriously consider and perhaps even implement some of the following tips.
To be sure, a complete paradigm shift is neither possible nor desirable. There are many more positives than negatives that go along with our generation's reputation as the most idealistic, altruistic, connected, and educated in human history.
Instead, I’m offering these tips for a “paradigm squish” that are designed to help lower your stress level and maximize your productivity. Our time will come, but until then, here are five minor perspective tweaks designed to improve the odds of a successful legal career for my fellow Millennials:
- "Paradigm Squish" tip #1: Less Emphasis on Financial Success. Most people mistakenly confuse the concepts of career success and financial success. Accordingly, it needs to be pointed out that finances are not the daily motivation of most successful people. Successful people focus on motivating others and winning at the small things every day. Financial success is simply a byproduct of their winning ways. A wise woman once told me that I should define success as "the progressive realization of a predetermined goal, which requires the ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." If you pursue career success in this way, you will soon find yourself amongst the truly successful attorneys who derive daily gratification and significance from their career.
- “Paradigm Squish” tip #2: Less Idealism Concerning Professional Meritocracy. I recently stumbled across a quote that provides a great summary of the legal profession’s meritocracy: “Experience isn’t the only thing that matters, but it is way ahead of whatever is in second place.” – Jerry Parnell. Some Millennials have fallen into the mental trap of thinking that the legal business model has produced an unjust hierarchy that completely discounts a young person’s actual legal skills. This is very naïve and can be quite dangerous to a young associate’s career prospects. Intelligence and the ability to master a topic substantively is only a small part of lawyering. The primary skills required of an attorney are building a book of business and executing a well-formed legal strategy. These skills can only be mastered with experience. If you've had a sibling or suffered through high school, you should know how to cope with this. The eldest sibling always gets the front seat. The upper-classmen haze the freshman, who are left with no recourse. This is how it always has been and always will be. This is not a real problem. Accept the dilemma for the non-complex result of natural order that it is. Experience is required for high level legal practice. When we have the experience, we'll get to call the shots.
- "Paradigm Squish" tip #3: Less Focus on Immediate Responsibility. Through no fault of our own, we are the generation of immediate gratification. We've always been a single click away from our heart's desire, which has made delayed gratification all too foreign to us. We all want to sit first chair on a big case on our first day. The reality is that the law is wrought with pitfalls for a young attorney and to take on such responsibility without adequate experience is not ethical. No one is prepared to try a case on their first day. A good mental mechanism you can use to combat your desire to carry higher levels of responsibility than you probably should is to plan to peak when you’re fifty. Focus on gaining substantial experience that will prepare you to try that historic case when you’re seasoned enough to take it, no matter how long down the road that may be. Look at every little improvement on your skills as winning the day.
- "Paradigm Squish" tip #4: Less Entrepreneur Worshiping. Entrepreneurship is not everything it is portrayed to be. Even though eighty percent of new businesses fail, we have been indoctrinated for our entire lives that entrepreneurship is the path to quick riches. Forty percent of our cohorts have said they plan to own a business one day. Too many of us have the attitude that being the next Zuckerburg and starting the next Facebook is a realistic possibility. How does this pertain to new lawyers? A large portion of young associates went to law school believing that similar success would await them after law school. This belief is badly mistaken. The two aspects of entrepreneurialism that make it such a great profession are the ability to make exorbitant amounts of money and the freedom of being your own boss. Despite the fact that a career as an attorney holds no parallels, the perception remains that a certain percentage of law grads achieve a similar success when they are endowed with six figure salaries upon graduation. The reality is that while such an existence affords a well above average lifestyle, it is not even remotely comparable to the flexibility and financial privilege that a successful entrepreneur enjoys. When this realization hits a young attorney, it can be very discouraging and distracting. Some may become disenchanted with their lot and move to another field, laying waste to years of effort. Others mire in their disappointment and allow their work efforts to suffer. Either scenario can be avoided by sincerely appreciating the legal profession for the non-entrepreneurial venture that it is and taking the Mark Cuban poster off the wall.
- "Paradigm Squish" tip #5: Less Perfectionism and Fear of Failure. The Millennial generation is full of perfectionists. Computer-aided, pinpoint accuracy is our standard bearer. We've been expected to score perfectly on standardized tests since we've been able to talk. We are constantly compared to our peers. In my opinion, the unrelenting demands for perfection and the dire consequences of not meeting those demands have put the Millennial generation in an almost catatonic state. I’m not saying you shouldn’t seek perfection during law school. Your resume will need to showcase excellence in the form of top grades, journal memberships, and other accolades to merit consideration. However, the constant pursuit of perfection can be hazardous to your career once you’ve accomplished the feat of getting hired. To be clear, a young associate shouldn’t make a habit of constantly asking for guidance on elementary tasks. However, it is better to have gone to a superior with a probing question than to have missed the scope of a project altogether for fear of exposing your incompetence. A young attorney should reframe the fear of appearing incompetent for what it truly is, appearing inexperienced. That is the only actual risk. Every attorney was inexperienced at one point, and inexperience is easily forgiven. While your superior may seem miffed by your inquiry in the moment, any misgivings about your aptitude will soon be forgotten. This is especially true if you provide high quality work product on the project because you completely understood what you are being asked to do. Always ask about the scope and format of a project, and never be afraid to clarify specifics with the supervising attorney.
Juan Sosa is a small business owner in addition to being a rising 2L at North Carolina Central University School of Law. He joined Lawyers Mutual as a Summer Associate for the summer of 2013 in conjunction with the North Carolina Bar Association’s Minorities in the Profession program. As a current student of the law, business owner, and singer-songwriter, Juan brings a fresh perspective on the challenges facing law firms and new attorneys in today’s shifting legal climate. For further information, please contact the Client Services Department of Lawyers Mutual.