The most common mistake lawyers make in their careers is that they stop steering. They let the current take them downstream by getting the most prestigious and lucrative job offer possible. Instead of steering, they focus on staying upright – doing everything their employer asks of them, negotiating for raises and promotions that take them downstream faster. Often, these lawyers find themselves at the height of their earning potential, doing work they do not enjoy. They burn out just when they should be hitting their stride.
Life is too short and work hours are too long to do work that does not give you joy.
As an executive coach and legal recruiter, I help people find joy in their work while still making a living. In fact, when people find that joy, they will perform better in their jobs and better performance usually leads to promotions and raises.
The premise is simple. If you work to your strengths, you will perform better and be happier at work and in your personal life. This premise is supported by years of research by the Gallup Organization and numerous experts in positive psychology.
The definition of strengths is a bit different than you might think. Strengths are those parts of your job that energize you and that you do well. It's a two-part definition. If you do something well, but you hate doing it, then it is not a strength. If you love doing something, but you are not very good at it, then it is not a strength.
To figure out what your strengths are, break your job down into the many types of tasks that you perform on a regular basis and be as specific as possible. Put a star next to those tasks that you know or have been told you do well. Then, go back to the starred items and ask yourself how you feel when you are doing those tasks. Are you focused? Does time fly by? Upon completing those tasks, do you feel energized? If the answer is yes to all questions, then that task is a strength of yours. Maybe you are great at explaining complex concepts in simple terms. Or maybe you are good at organizing tasks so that a team can work efficiently. Maybe your strength is being an objective subject-matter expert or being a passionate advocate.
Now that you've identified your strengths, you need to gradually shift more and more of your time to doing those tasks. If you work in a team environment, this may require you to define your strengths for your teammates so that they assign you more of those tasks. Tact is important here. You wouldn't want to say "I’m really good at giving presentations so I think I should give all of the important client presentations." That will simply come across as arrogant Instead, consider this approach, "I really enjoy giving presentations so I would like to do some business development or training presentations, in addition to the client presentations I do normally." The process of shifting time toward your strengths often means you take on more work in the short run. Over time, however, you can turn those extra-curricular projects into part of your regular job and let go of some of projects you like least.
Have you ever met someone who seems to have a job that is perfect for them – a job which maximizes their strengths and lets them get paid to do that they love? Chances are they designed that job themselves. You can too. Start with your strengths.
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Barrett S. Avigdor, Esq. is Managing Director for Latin America, a member of Major, Lindsey & Africa's In-House Practice Group, and based in the firm's San Diego office. A certified executive coach and trainer, Barrett has worked with attorneys around the world to help them enhance their professional performance and create a life they enjoy by utilizing emotional intelligence and their individual strengths. She is the co-author of the best-seller "What Happy Working Mothers Know" (Wiley 2009).