How do young lawyers define career success? “Success” used to typically mean employment at an AmLaw 200 law firm, a six-figure salary and five-figure bonuses, partnership within seven to nine years of graduation, a corner office with a spectacular view, and the prospect of rainmaking abilities to sustain you to retirement. While this is a very real option for many attorneys, it is not possible or preferable for all attorneys. I have discovered that there are other, equally fulfilling versions of a successful legal career. In deciding to forego the traditional career path, here are two crucial realizations I’ve made:
1. You Should Love What You Do.
First, the key to success is satisfaction. I have heard it said that the best way to gauge success is whether yours is a career that other people envy, referring to wealth, prestige, publication, jury verdicts, law firm awards, etc. In my humble opinion, these are cold bedfellows if you are unfulfilled or, worse, miserable on a day-to-day basis.
Let me explain. After taking an informal poll of some of my law school classmates and professional peers, my own path serves as a representative example of the role that satisfaction plays in determining career success. When I attended law school, I quickly became fascinated with criminal law. While a student, I summered and did an externship at state and federal prosecutor’s offices. I spent my first year after graduation as an assistant state’s attorney and relished long, happy days in the courtroom. I soon felt the allure of Big Law, however, and promptly rerouted my career. Besides the fact that I needed a better salary to repay my hefty law school loans, I wanted more income and the accompanying conveniences or, as the case may be, luxuries. I also saw most of my classmates taking the so-called traditional path. Consequently, I transitioned to a large law firm in St. Louis, and next to a multi-national law firm in Chicago, and I established myself as a product liability and commercial litigator. After deciding that I wanted to move home to Orange County before I was up for partner, I joined a large regional firm in Newport Beach and focused my litigation practice on business and real estate disputes. Yes, by the way, practicing in California, Illinois, and Missouri means I have taken three bar exams. They are my law license hat trick, if you will.
By the time I was a senior associate at my Newport Beach law firm and newly married to a “civilian” (i.e., non-lawyer), I enjoyed my practice, my colleagues, and the lifestyle of a law firm associate. But, I recognized that, while I still liked the work itself, I was not motivated to reach for the next rung on the career ladder just for the sake of climbing higher. In her best-selling book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg put a label on a conclusion I had already reached. Ms. Sandberg analogizes that scaling a jungle gym (i.e., making a sometimes lateral or, gasp, seemingly backwards move to a more rewarding or promising position) can be as worthwhile as reaching the top of a vertical career ladder. So, I hesitantly, and then whole-heartedly, resolved that I did not need partnership at a large law firm and all the accompanying enticements (also known widely as “golden handcuffs”). With some exceptions, my peers applauded my decision to try something new and, dare I say, envied it.
2. There Is More Than One Avenue to the “Top.”
With my newfound knowledge that Big Law partnership is not the only way to apply my law degree, I parlayed my legal education and professional experience (along with my post-college background in marketing) to a career in legal recruiting. I worked full-time for a global search firm, placing attorneys of all levels at various law firms and companies and consulting with and advising law firms regarding their hiring needs. I was energized by my work, and I was good at it. This sure seems like success to me.
During this time, I had my first daughter and went right back to work. When my second daughter was stillborn, I was acutely reminded of an obvious truth. Life beyond career is precious too. So, when the sluggish economy and corresponding hiring slowdown affected my earning potential, I made another decision that did not comport with my prior definition of professional success. I put my career on the back burner and became a stay-at-home mom. The timing actually could not have been better. After completing a high-risk pregnancy with our youngest daughter, I got to spend four years with my girls. I immersed myself in play dates, Girl Scouts, softball, soccer, and the like. This, too, is success.
When my kids both headed to school, I was excited to re-enter the workforce. I found ample opportunities for those who welcome alternatives to the traditional career trajectory. To return to Ms. Sandberg’s illustration, ladders are limiting (i.e., on-off, up-down, single file), but jungle gyms offer more options (i.e., up-down-sideways-upside down, multiple climbers). I soon determined that the ideal career option for me was one that offers flexibility, so I can (a) dive into and be wholly committed to my career and (b) structure my work around personal commitments. My networking efforts directed me to Montage Legal Group, a team of well-credentialed, experienced attorneys who prefer the flexibility of substantive freelance assignments to full-time employment. I am thrilled to join this lineup of like-minded women. My new role as a freelance attorney feels once again like success.
Here is the bottom line. One size does not fit all. Each of our stories is unique, and there are as many ways to use a law degree as there are lawyers. You could shoot for partner at a big law firm, hang a shingle, join a small firm, stay at home with kids for a season, contract out your time, or there are many other avenues I have not addressed or have not yet been created. I have exercised several of these options. And, I have experienced what seems like success all along the way.
Krista Kamper earned her Juris Doctor from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis and served as Associate Editor for the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in English with emphasis in Professional Writing from the University of Redlands where she was an Academic All-American and played NCAA volleyball.
Krista’s legal practice has spanned more than nine years and she has specialized in litigation, including disputes involving business, real estate, product liability, and employment claims as well as some family law. Krista practiced at the Chicago office of Holland & Knight, and after moving home to Orange County, Krista joined Newport Beach-based Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. As a senior associate, Krista oversaw general commercial and real estate litigation matters for a wide variety of regional and national clients, including as examples shopping center owners, patio furniture manufacturers, gas station franchisees, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, and construction contractors.
Prior to joining Montage Legal Group, Krista was a legal recruiter with global search firm, Major, Lindsey & Africa. After taking some time to be at home with her two daughters, Krista relaunched her legal career and joined Montage Legal Group’s network of freelance attorneys. Krista was recently featured as a “Success Story” by iRelaunch for getting back into the legal market after taking time off to spend time with her children.
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