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Professional Success in BigLaw Isn't About Partnership

How will you measure your life's achievements?

Successful Samuel

When Successful Samuel first joined the M&A group at Boyd Ulmer Siegfried & Yost, it was just a budding practice group with relatively few big-time players, but thanks to the tireless efforts of Samuel and his esteemed peers, BUSY was the real deal now. In recent years, Industry had consistently ranked the BUSY attorneys among the most dedicated and indefatigable in the world.

Samuel’s rise at BUSY was meteoric. As a young associate, Samuel built a name for himself with legendary work ethic. Each night around 8PM, Samuel would call home to let his now ex-wife know that some emergency or another was going to keep him in the office late. ‘OK, I’ll tuck the kids in,’ she would say with an understanding sigh. But the BUSY partners noticed Samuel's sacrifice on the home front and they rewarded him for it. ‘There’s a major Demanding Corp. deal in the pipeline,’ they told him, ‘and we want you to run point.’ Samuel was floored. It was unheard of to give that much responsibility to a young attorney. He would later identify this moment as his lucky break. After all, Demanding Corp. would one day become his first client.

The moment that Samuel made partner was another that he would never forget. It was the seventh inning of Little Billy’s tee-ball championship, with the good guys down by two runs. The bases were loaded. Little Billy was on deck when Samuel got the call from Rainmaker Rick. ‘Hi, Rick, perhaps if I could give you a ring in a few…’ he started to mutter before Rick interrupted him with the good news: ‘Samuel, my boy, I am thrilled to inform you that the BUSY partners have voted to bring you onto the team! Congratulations, son, you’ve earned it. But before we kick off the celebration, there’s a business development strategy meeting tomorrow morning that we want you to join. You ready to talk shop?’ Samuel was so elated that to this day he cannot remember what he discussed with Rick for the next half hour.

The money really started flowing when Samuel made equity partner some years later. The starter house in the up-and-coming neighborhood was replaced by a more partner-appropriate venture in the already-arrived area. Regularly occurring house upgrades over the next two decades eventually led him to the McMansion at the end of the cul-de-sac. His three-car garage provided more than enough room to store all of the camera equipment and woodworking tools that had brought Samuel so much joy in his twenties. Occasionally he would pick up one of these artifacts and be flooded with happy memories, as a layer of dust slid off and settled on the laminate floor.

Tragedy almost struck years later when Samuel’s adult daughter had a serious health scare. Samuel took a whole month off to spend time with her and the young grandkids. He’d never done that before. Samuel’s client contacts were good people—friends even—but after about three weeks some of the familiar crisis emails started to trickle in. It was about time to head back to the office. The boat payment was going to come due soon, and Samuel wasn’t about to risk de-equitization either. But he was grateful to have had that time with family. BUSY was that kind of firm.

The BUSY partners were eager to show their support to Samuel upon his return. As a heartfelt surprise, they awarded Samuel with the Singularly Attentive Dedication award on his first day back in the office. It was BUSY’s inaugural SAD award, and Samuel graciously and humbly received it. ‘Keep working hard,’ he told the promising junior partners in attendance, ‘and one day I’ll be presenting you with the SAD award.’ The BUSY partners briefly looked up from their smartphones, offering laughter and applause, as Samuel reflected on his lifetime of professional achievement.

What does it mean to be ‘successful’?

By all traditional metrics, Samuel achieved the highest level of professional success, but was he ‘professionally successful’? Maybe. The answer depends, in our view, not on the perceived prestigiousness of his job title or the size of his residence, but on whether he actually succeeded in achieving what he most wanted out of life. Because, at its core, ‘success’—and even ‘professional success’—is more than a job title; it is about the pursuit of happiness, purpose and personal fulfillment. Did Samuel achieve that? Did Samuel even have time to pause and reflect on what he really wanted out of life?

When we as a society say that someone is ‘professionally successful,’ what we typically mean is that they have a fancy-sounding job title and high annual income. We are taught to believe that a BigLaw equity partner is obviously ‘successful’ simply by virtue of having reached the highest rung on the prestige-and-income ladder, even if he or she looks back on a personal life filled with regret.

But if professional success comes at the expense of your mental and physical health, your relationships and overall well-being, then why on earth would anyone categorize that as ‘success'?

Wouldn’t a better and truer formulation of professional success be one that brings us closer to our ultimate goals of happiness and fulfillment?

It’s time to expand the definition of ‘success’

For every True Believer who has found his or her calling in BigLaw, we see scores of BigLaw attorneys who are burned out and deeply unhappy, yet still feel like they have to pursue partnership because they think that not pursuing it equates with failure, embarrassment or lack of ambition. This is silly. As two highly ambitious individuals who are also proud non-partners, we want you to know that partnership is not at all a prerequisite to a successful BigLaw career. For us, partnership is in fact fundamentally incompatible with our own definition of professional success. That’s because we view success in BigLaw as doing interesting and challenging work, but also having a reduced schedule, allowing us to chase adventure at home in the Tetons and beyond. If our work responsibilities prevent us from skiing the legendary powder and hiking the high-alpine trail system in Jackson Hole, then we can't call that success.

There is absolutely nothing un-prestigious about not pursuing partnership in BigLaw. Yes, reaching the Promised Land of BigLaw partnership means you’ve joined an elite club, but the truth is:

The most exclusive BigLaw club is not comprised of equity partners, but of BigLaw attorneys who feel happy and content. That club is so exclusive that it’s practically unheard of, but we assure you that it exists.

And, despite the intro to this post, partnership doesn’t have to be incompatible with joining this exclusive club. Indeed, some will find genuine joy and satisfaction in partnership—hopefully without having to make the unreasonable sacrifices that the fictional Samuel made.

The point is simply that real success isn’t about how society measures your life and work against traditional metrics: it’s about how you measure your life and work against your own value system. Only you can determine what success means for you.

One good way to think of what success might mean for you is to listen to your gut. Ask yourself: in the morning, do you wake up happy and excited for what lies ahead, or do you instead feel anxiety from work-related dreams you almost feel like you should be able to bill for? While we can’t say that we wake up overjoyed every single day, we do wake up feeling content and fulfilled most days, which tells us that choosing to pursue an alternative-track BigLaw trajectory is the right path for us. We can’t help but feel very successful. We would urge everyone to find out what truly sparks joy in their life and causes them to wake up with a smile on their face in the morning: that’s success worth pursuing.

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