When I was in law school, I learned the law. I learned contracts, civil procedure, constitutional law, evidence, property law, and many other things. It was interesting; it was a lot of work, and I thought that was all there was. 

Then, I joined a law firm. 

That’s when the real work began. As an associate, there was even more work, the hours were longer, and the stakes were significantly higher. And I realized that while I’d learned the substantive law, I didn’t learn how to apply it in a practical way. 

So, I spent my time doing my best to practice law, learning what they didn’t teach me, and trying to become useful to the firm. What I didn’t understand then was how vital managing my career was. I needed to be proactive regarding my health; I needed a plan; I had to develop my own business and keep learning because that’s how you move from the associate ranks to the coveted rainmaker position.

But they don’t teach that in law school. 

I eventually left law to help lawyers with career transitions. Over the last decade, I’ve been helping lawyers find their exact right perfect fit firm. I do this because while I loved law and found it intellectually stimulating, I didn’t like not seeing my first child for two years and not having time outside of the office. Still, I love the profession, I love lawyers (I’m even married to one), and I love helping lawyers structure a career that allows them to do what they enjoy over the long term. 

Lawyers have far too few advocates for their well-being, so I see that as my role. 

Over time and thousands of conversations with lawyers, I’ve learned that there are six pillars to that happiness. These six pillars support a balanced legal career. 

The nature of law firm economics means that the power and ability to fully control your career accrues to those who bring in business  (the rainmakers of the industry). So I call these six pillars: Be(coming) a Happy Rainmaker because, the way I see it, you are either becoming a rainmaker or are a rainmaker, and you want to leverage your position to be happier. 

The pillars aren’t only about business development; they are about balance. Business development matters, but so do how you treat yourself, think about the future, and manage your career over the long term. Managing all six pillars will help you achieve a balanced career, enjoy the law, and be happier at work. 

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and 0.1 matters. 

When I say managing the six pillars, I do not mean you must dedicate hours to them daily.

The other discovery I’ve made is that small actions add up over time. The actions are like compound interest; the little bit you do today adds to the bit you did yesterday or last week, and over the course of your career, it adds up to balance and happiness. 

Below, I introduce each of the six pillars; think of applying these pillars the same way you approach your billable time in 0.1 increments that add up. 

The Six Pillars of Be(coming) a Happy Rainmaker

Care for Yourself

The first pillar is health and wellness because you can’t be happy as a person if your body and mind are sick and uncared for. Being unhealthy is unbalanced. 

Often, lawyers neglect or put off health and wellness early in their career, which can add up to serious health issues when they finally reach partner level and can put time into it. 

Sometimes, believe it or not, even partners neglect their health and wellness. 

The key is to manage your health and wellness however you can throughout your career, even in 0.1 increments. 

What can you do in .1? 

  • Take the stairs (even if it’s one flight). 
  • Book a doctor’s appointment. 
  • Choose the healthy option at dinner. 
  • Order healthy meals delivered. 
  • Check out a gym. 
  • Give up soda.
  • Eat one piece of chocolate cake (instead of the whole cake…).

Develop Business

The second pillar (purposefully after health and wellness) is developing your own business. 

When you are an associate, all you have to offer is your time and hard work.

If you don’t bring in your own clients then you never progress beyond this stage. They don’t teach this in law school, but building a book of business is the most essential asset in your balanced career.

When you bring in the clients, you set the terms, establish deadlines, and decide who does the work when – you have the power to schedule the work around what is important to you. 

The thing about building a book of business is that you can’t do it overnight. The client/lawyer relationship is built on trust, and trust is built over time. So, no matter how busy you are as an associate, you have to make some time regularly to build your book of business.

What can you do in .1? 

  • Do a quick LinkedIn post. 
  • Comment on a LinkedIn post
  • Come up with the topic for an article. 
  • Look for a conference.
  • Reach out to a current client or someone you met. 
  • Sign up for a networking event. 

Define Boundaries

Carving out time for yourself is essential, and part of managing your career is setting boundaries for yourself and your work. In the end, your most valuable assets are time and energy, and how you manage them will heavily influence your balance and happiness. 

Setting rigid boundaries can be much harder earlier in your career because you don’t have much power. You trade in the only commodities you have: time and hard work. 

However, setting boundaries is crucial to establishing a long-term career. There are associates who reschedule their weddings or do multiple all-nighters in a row, but people do understand that you have to go to your own wedding, and at some point, everyone needs sleep. If you never set boundaries, you will not survive the work. 

As your career develops, you can set more specific boundaries (as long as you’ve done the work to build your book of business). You can set rules around only taking client meetings on Tuesdays or stopping work by six because you bring the work to the firm. But this does not mean there is nothing you can do as an associate. There will always be opportunities to carve out time for yourself, even if that means buying support. 

Plan Intentionally

Many legal careers are accidental. You end up in a particular practice area because of where you got a job offer, the economy, what was busy at the firm, or where you wanted to live at the time. 

You continue to practice in this area even when you change jobs, even if you never chose it and even if it was not what you planned when you were in law school. 

Accidental careers don’t necessarily connect with you, your intellectual needs, and what you want for yourself and your family. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of going with the flow, grinding away, and not planning for yourself until it’s too late.  

So, the fourth pillar is to plan intentionally. Design your career so it’s about you and what you want, take a long-term view, and review your plan regularly. 

If you are where you want to be, great. If you want to change something, then make a plan to get there over the long term. It might not be easy, and it won’t be overnight, but some regular, intentional effort over time can get you there. 

In many ways, it’s easier to adjust course earlier in your career, but don’t give up when you are a more senior rainmaker because you call the shots and can bring in the clients you prefer to work with. 

Learn Continuously 

There is a temptation to finish school and rely on your knowledge, with an occasional required CLE class, to carry you through your career.  

But the world shifts; change is the only constant, and if you don’t keep up, you will fall behind. Falling behind makes building your business and planning your future more challenging, perhaps impossible. 

It’s not just the law that changes and that you have to study, but your clients and their needs. The most valuable lawyers are the ones who fully understand their clients, and this takes time, effort, study, and a commitment to learning and growing. 

You should also keep abreast of legal industry trends and changes. For example, the prevalence of AI law today that no one imagined just a couple of years ago. You want to know the trends to support your clients effectively. 

So, the fifth pillar is to learn and grow throughout your career. 

Design Your Legacy

Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, always said you should start with the end in mind. This concept is true for your career as well. 

It always seems too early to plan for what comes next and what you want to leave behind, but it never is. 

Talk about the fact that there are different phases: 

Early

This is what you want to start with. Add what you want to be known as a fierce litigator, mediator, what do you want to be known for in your career. 

From a financial perspective, saving for retirement isn’t just like compound interest; it actually is based on compound interest. So, even when you are a first-year associate with a mountain of bills to pay, putting a little bit aside will serve you well in the long run. 

Later you will focus more on succession  planning or retirement, if you want to do these on your terms and determine what you want to leave to the next generation of lawyers, 

In the end: 

But you also face the issues of handing off relationships, nurturing the next generation, and even determining how you want to practice law, if at all, in your retirement. 

So, is work-life balance possible for lawyers? 

The short answer is yes, at least over the course of your career. 

In the short term, there may be no way to get out of an all-nighter, but over time, you can structure your career to make up for the stresses and strains. But managed correctly, you can have enough balance to create a career that engages and interests you rather than draining you to the point of burnout. 

I like to look at the legal career path in five phases: 

  • Junior Associate. 
  • Senior Associate.
  • Partner/Rainmaker. 
  • Succession Planning.
  • Retirement.

As you go through these phases, your focus will shift, your power will shift, and the areas you want to focus on will shift. You won’t have as much control over your work-life balance as an associate as you will as a rainmaker.  

But your career is a marathon, not a sprint. The small, .1, actions you take as an associate and through your career will give you more options as you grow into a rainmaker. These changes and this long-term focus are what make your legal career sustainable. 

Also, work-life balance is not the same for everyone: some people thrive in an ultra-competitive environment, long hours, and time in the office. Others want a collaborative environment that allows them to be with their families, meditate, eat healthy, or live the life they want. Or you may wish to have both a highly competitive environment and time to be with your family or friends while you meditate.  

So, is work-life balance possible? Absolutely. But to get there, you must define what it means for you and intentionally build your career to get there. The 6 Pillars of Be(coming) a Happy Rainmaker serves as a guide, and if you ever need help, I’m here to support you.