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Understanding Your Why and Your Career

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life consists of what a man is thinking about all day.” What are you thinking about all day? As a lawyer, it may be the case you are working on or the new regulation your company needs to comply with within the next month. But as you are doing that work, are you thinking about trying to pursue a new, intriguing opportunity? Are you thinking it is time to leave your current job? Or are you wondering if there is something more out there? 

If you find yourself pondering any of these questions, it is vitally important that you first understand and articulate your why before taking any action.

At some point, all lawyers had to write about why they wanted to go to law school. This early exercise in stating one's professional purpose is known as the personal statement. It is fair to say that one's why can change over time—most of us have evolved since law school. But this time around when you express your why as a lawyer, you will not be evaluated. Instead, the benefit of asking and answering this question now is solely for your awareness of your level of investment in your work. 

To get to your why, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Why do I do what I do professionally?
  • What gets me out of bed in the morning?
  • What do I do well?
  • What motivates me?
  • How aligned is my personal success with my professional accomplishments?

The Happiness Factor

After you have rethought your why as a lawyer, the next step is to examine your happiness factor. Are you happy? Lawyering is not an armchair philosophy. It is hard work that requires dedication and skillfulness. But is your job a happy obligation? If your answer is yes, then you are on the right path and should keep going as you have been going. But if your answer is no, figure out what you can do to maximize your happiness career-wise. 

What does happiness entail for you at this stage of your career? It could be working for just one client or finding an office with a shorter commute. It could be changing industries or moving back to private practice. Happiness now—just like your why—does not have to be defined the same way you defined it when you started your legal career or the role you are currently in. Paint the picture in your mind of what you look like happy at work. 

Finding Your Purpose

After you have devoted some time to reflective thinking about your why and what makes you happy, the next step is to write down your purpose. This one can be hard. Self-awareness is key here. 

Ask yourself:

  • What am I good at?
  • What matters most to me?
  • What do I really enjoy doing?
  • What is important to me? 

Consider soliciting feedback from trusted friends and relatives whose opinion you value. Do they see you as fulfilled or frustrated? While knowing yourself is important, much can be learned from those with front row seats on your journey and who are most often the benefactors of our good work (or victims of our bad days at the office). Understanding what makes you who you are at your best will help you find the best path forward for your career.

Put It All Together

Now that you have taken a long hard look at yourself, thoughts should then become actions. Write down how your purpose fits together with your why in the context of your career. If you are able to say that your current role meets your needs, then congratulations! If you are coming to realize something new would make a difference, be intentional and create your next steps checklist and goals for your career. Set milestones for yourself and map out the resources and support you need to get to where you ultimately see yourself happy and fulfilled. 


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