3 Insecurities that Stand in Your Way of a Fulfilling BigLaw Career
Don't let your insecurities ruin your happiness
In a recent post, we talked about how setting boundaries is an excellent strategy for ensuring you can stay in BigLaw long enough to accumulate your first million (or more if you’re up for it). Using your BigLaw job to build wealth while you’re still an associate is fantastic and everyone should do it, but you don’t want to spend your BigLaw stint—however long it may be—miserable, counting the days until you hit the financial milestones that are important to you. One day, when you look back on your time in BigLaw, you want to have achieved not just financial success, but also a sense of fulfillment. For many, finding fulfillment in BigLaw is by far the more difficult piece of the puzzle to tackle.
There are numerous reasons why so many struggle to find happiness in BigLaw. Stress, client demands and tons of work are surely up there. But in many instances, what truly, actually stands in our way of having a fulfilling BigLaw career is insecurities that lead us down a path of unnecessary misery.
In this post, we cover 3 insecurities that we’ve experienced ourselves, and the upside-down strategies and realizations that have been particularly helpful to us in trying to craft a—dare we say it—enjoyable BigLaw career.
1. Thinking that you’re important
Too many BigLaw associates incorrectly believe that they are the only ones who can do a particular assignment, or that they can’t log off before midnight because their teams desperately depend on them, or otherwise believe themselves to be very important. BigLaw associates make significant personal sacrifices in response to this mistaken assumption, compromising their sanity, well-being and longevity in BigLaw along the way. In our view, this behavior is misguided at best and highly detrimental at worst. Don’t get us wrong: we should all take our work and responsibilities seriously, but one of the most important realizations we reached during our years in BigLaw is that, with the exception of a few rainmakers, we are all completely unimportant.
‘But what if I’m running point on a dozen matters and annualizing 2600 billables?’ Nope! You’re unimportant. ‘But what if general counsel at MegaCorp is emailing me directly?’ Still unimportant. ‘But what if my group tells me that they see partnership in my future?’ You guessed it: unimportant!
It’s easy to mistake value and importance. Your work in BigLaw has value. Your teams value your contributions, just as you value the contributions of those with whom you work. But the value of your contributions doesn’t make you important because, no matter how good you are, you are easily replaceable. Don’t take it personally. We all are.
The sooner you internalize your unimportance, the better. Think of it this way: what happens when a ‘rockstar’ associate leaves? Do the BigLaw gears seize up for a few months while everyone runs around mid-panic, wondering how on earth they would ever rebuild and recover from the loss? Of course not—that would be ridiculous.
Over the years, we’ve seen countless outstanding associates—and partners—quit, and the world doesn’t grind to a halt when they do. Far from it. When one person quits, another one is plugged in immediately and the wheels keep turning. People move on and those who have left are occasionally mentioned, but soon forgotten.
There are probably only a dozen or so attorneys in your BigLaw firm whose departure could have a material adverse impact on the firm. You are not one of them.
Your relative unimportance is not something to stress over or feel bad about—in fact, it’s great news. It means that you should feel empowered to reimagine the BigLaw world you inhabit. What will you do with this realization? For one, you are free to let go of some of that immense BigLaw weight and guilt that you carry on your shoulders. You’re just not all that important, so could it be that the ‘mistake’ you’re stressing about isn’t such a big deal?
For us, coming to terms with our unimportance allowed us to lighten up.
This job is stressful enough without the added burden of needing to feel important or demonstrate importance. It’s more than okay to just add value. So don’t drive yourself into the ground assuming that matters will crumble without you. They won’t. Take a deep breath. Give yourself permission to let go.
2. Being addicted to praise
Many BigLaw associates spend years in the industry in search of the most valuable currency BigLaw has to offer (aside from money): praise. Ah, to be referred to as a rockstar! To be told you’re the best in your class year or group! To have partners bend over backwards to have you work on their matters!
Understand: praise is poison. Praise is often used strategically to extract maxim value from you: a freshly buttered-up associate is often eager to sacrifice weekends and vacations to work. But even when it’s well-intentioned, praise can be toxic. Praise makes you feel like you’re special and important. Perhaps even indispensable. It makes you feel as though your job loves you back. None of those things are actually true—go back and re-read part 1 of this post.
There is nothing inherently wrong with praise. Indeed, receiving validation for your hard work is critical to finding fulfillment in BigLaw. What can be dangerous is how you react to praise. If being told you’re a rockstar is causing you to pull all-nighters so that you can keep being told you’re a rockstar, then perhaps you ought to consider whether you have an addiction to praise. Addiction to praise can and often will cause overwork, over-sacrifice, burnout and, ultimately, dissatisfaction with the job. Developing a healthy relationship with praise is key.
For us this has meant regularly evaluating whether any actions that we take in response to praise are causing us to deviate from our life goals and values.
3. Thinking that outperforming others is how you succeed in BigLaw
Few will ever admit to this, but many BigLaw associates are—in some shape or form—trying to outshine their peers. BigLaw breeds competition. Outperforming others and establishing ourselves as mission-critical to key partners, clients and matters is our best path to BigLaw success and, therefore, fulfillment, we think. And so, consciously or subconsciously, we compete for more hours, better reviews, ‘favorite associate’ status, special access to important partner and client relationships, and so on.
This is a toxic strategy that leads to neither happiness nor success in BigLaw. Why trying to outshine your peers doesn’t lead to a happy and fulfilling BigLaw career should be fairly obvious—it’s a sign of insecurity that can lead to one or more of the following: believing that your BigLaw value is directly proportionate to how much of your time, well-being and self-respect you’re willing to sacrifice for the job; hoarding information, projects, opportunities and relationships (e.g., angling to be Partner X’s go-to associate); and/or overextending and exposing yourself to the unreasonable and unnecessary pressure to always know the answer and always be available. Effectively, you trap yourself into a miserable and unhealthy quality of life when you don’t have to.
But why would this strategy not lead to success? After all, aren’t the associates who bill the most hours and outperform their peers not the ones who make partner? Understand: insecure, competitive behavior is patently obvious to all your partners and supervisors who are far more perceptive than you may realize. When you’re insecure, everybody else can tell you’re insecure. Sure, by desperately trying to outshine your peers you may still go on to make partner, but this strategy is not a power move and you’re not setting yourself up to be a power partner.
Here’s a little secret: neither Partner X nor the client want you to be an information or relationship bottleneck—it’s in their best interest to have an entire team of capable attorneys who can share knowledge and handle matters efficiently. Indeed, being an information and relationship bottleneck is not a form of success, but rather a form of failure: it reflects poorly on you and your ability to delegate, teach and ensure that things can run smoothly with our without you. Therefore:
The surest way to bring your best foot forward in BigLaw is not to try and outshine everybody else, but to help others shine. A good BigLaw associate can effectively push a project forward. A great BigLaw associate does that and empowers others to do the same, thereby amplifying his or her impact on the partner / client bottomline.
Plus, the truth is, a team-first strategy will always serve your own self-interest. When a team is firing on all cylinders, it’s obvious to your partners and supervisors who is making that happen (the inverse is true as well). A happy and empowered team runs like a well-oiled machine, and that’s music to a partner’s ears.
Ultimately, your success in BigLaw is not measured by how well you set yourself up for success, but by how well you set your entire team up for success. So shift your focus away from yourself, and prioritize teaching, sharing and empowering others. By empowering others, you’ll empower yourself to find not just meaningful success but also purpose, joy and lasting fulfillment in BigLaw.