Legal Practice,  Work Life Balance

Never Making Partner: Can You Be a Happy as a Lawyer?

The ABA recently issued a report on Women of Color in the law on why they leave or stay in the profession. The results are …stark. It was nothing surprising, but even still, it was disappointing to know the same issues I’m struggling with for a decade are issues women who have been practicing twice as long have endured. It’s like, ya, guey. Please stop.

The study (which is worth reviewing) discusses the bias and stereotyping the participants (all women practicing for more than 15 years) experience. They discuss the prove it again bias; the othering we experience as attorneys; how we are never seen as equals by those in charge; and the struggle (outright refusal) to include intersectionality when discussing race/gender issues at work. It’s a great study and it also discusses why women stay in the law and I thought that was really telling as well.

The main thing here though is that the focus, as always, is on those in private practice. To be clear, every sector in this industry has major, major issues. Bias doesn’t exist in a big law vacuum, but I believe the industry’s focus on Big Law = Success is what stops us from seeing the many other options available to us to be happy and healthy in this profession.

And that’s the key in gaining more satisfaction from this work. If we break away from what those in the status quo tell us is success, we open doors to other opportunities of happiness and satisfaction that allows us to go further in this career. That means finding work that challenges you and allows you to grow intellectually. The question shouldn’t be, “am I in a position that will make me partner?” But rather, “am I in a position that will allow me to strengthen my talent and gain an expertise in my field? ” Focusing on your craft will lead to more opportunities–even beyond partnership.

It’s also important to maintain awareness of what is making you unhappy–is it the work culture or the law (sometimes it can be both); more often than not, it’s the work culture. If you find that the day to day practice still calls to you–that you love doing good for others; helping people navigate complex systems; advocating for them, then it’s time to consider whether it’s the environment that you’re in that needs a change. When I was doing direct practice, I loved the work. I loved my clients. Outwitting opposing counsel who never imagined that my clients could “afford” a good attorney—ugh, the best. Getting to call out USCIS in a RFE response because they didn’t understand the law? Chef’s Kiss! I love all aspects of true lawyering. But, if I’m being honest, I stayed at my place for way too long. Even when I felt I wasn’t being valued and it was making me dislike the work, it took me to long to gain the courage to seek out new challenges. It took forever (and a really abrupt situation) for me to decide to move on. And luckily, I landed somewhere were my legal skills are put to use. But don’t get so unhappy you let them chase you out altogether. If you have a talent and skill for lawyering, don’t stop just because your firm doesn’t know how to cultivate your talent. Seek other opportunities that can make you happier so you can continue to use your skills.

Finally, let’s talk financial success. The data shows that most of us reading this (and definitely the one writing) won’t make equity partner. That’s not to say you don’t try, but it’s a tough road. You may opt for something different that results in you not making equity money. Is that a failure? Will you be unhappy if you don’t make that level of Partner? No, on all counts.  Even the most “low-paying” attorney jobs, still pay more than most. For me that sense of financial stability and security that comes with a license and ability to practice is like winning the lottery. That’s not to say we don’t negotiate for better terms and higher salaries just because we grew up poor. But rather, the financial benefit of being an attorney goes beyond the paycheck. It puts us in a position to understand and develop wealth for ourselves and future generations. That’s pretty rad.

Of course, going different routes in law comes with their own challenges–this profession is nothing if not problematic. But my hope is that we use the tools we’ve learned and skills we’ve strengthened to find our own paths in this industry. Paths that make us happy because we’re being intellectually stimulated, feel satisfaction in the good we do, and are financially secure even without the fancy Big Law titles. Yes, equity partner money would be nice, but for someone that literally had to go a few winters without heat as a kid, I’m doing pretty good. Isn’t that also a success?