Many lawyers end up in accidental careers.

A young lawyer graduates from law school, lands a great position, and begins practicing law. They’ve succeeded, arrived, and can pay their student loans. 

And that may work out great—this initial foray into law could launch the perfect legal career that leaves them fulfilled and happy as lawyers. 

Or, they may realize they don’t like the area of law they’re practicing. It isn’t fulfilling, it’s a drag, and it isn’t the right fit. Even if they initially liked it, the market might shift, or their interests might have changed. 

It is easy to stay in that first position, and many lawyers continue practicing in an area even if it is not their initial choice. Days become months, and years become decades. 

However, being trapped in an uninteresting default career can be frustrating. It can make you feel disconnected from your practice and dissatisfied with your career. This can impact your work, prospects, and even personal relationships.

But even if you love your career and practice area, you can reach a point where your days are not your own, and your priorities become afterthoughts. That’s also not a happy way to live your life. 

So, planning intentionally is a crucial pillar to Be(coming) a Happy Rainmaker.

Where you start may not be where you end up. 

There are several reasons why your legal career may take an unexpected turn. 

First and foremost is the economy, whether good or bad. 

The Great Recession is a perfect example of a lousy economy derailing careers. Firms reneged on offers, creating desperate associates who would take anything. Associates who wanted to be in corporate transactional ended up in bankruptcy litigation because that’s where the work was. 

A few associates probably wanted to work in derivatives and subprime loans only to find their areas of interest had become illegal.  

But it’s not only a bad economy that throws your career out of alignment; a good economy can do the same. A couple of years ago, corporate M&A was hot; it was where the money was, so you could easily imagine a young associate interested in securities litigation ending up in corporate M&A. 

Or maybe you want to get back to where you started. 

I know of one lawyer who wanted to work in transactional real estate and started there, but the market turned, the opportunities were elsewhere, and so he ended up without a job. 

He’s a perfect case study in planning because he focused on what he wanted. He changed markets, took a smaller job, took courses, built his business book, and created a practice in a market that was somewhat out of favor. 

Eventually, this dedication paid off: since he had deep expertise and a valuable book of business, future market shifts made him very attractive to Big Law firms. He’s now a partner in one of them, practicing the law he wanted to practice.  

He could do this because he knew what he wanted and made a plan.   

So Create Your Career Plan

A legal career is a lot like running your own business. You work for a firm, but your value to the firm is highly dependent on the business you bring into the firm, your book of business. Your reward depends on how well you build your business and serve your clients. 

So, when we meet with a lateral partner candidate, we first ask them to complete a business plan. We ask them to create a narrative around their work history, current clients, and the opportunities they see to grow. 

We also ask them to think about what their goals for themselves are. I like to think of them in 3 areas: 

  • What is your wealth goal? How much money do you want to make? What leadership positions do you want?
  • What is your freedom goal: do you want to work a lot or a little, travel, or love your work? What is freedom to you? 
  • What is your impact goal: what impact do you want to have on those around you, what area are you interested in? What is your niche? 

Answering these questions gives us a complete understanding of the candidate’s wants and what’s possible for them. 

To Get Ahead of Your Needs

Too often, those business plans do not lead to the career a candidate wants: a partner in Trusts and Estates will struggle to find a lateral opportunity in IP Litigation. Their clients are in Trusts and Estates, their experience is in Trusts and Estates, and their opportunities exist in Trusts and Estates. 

So don’t wait: ask yourself what you want to do early in your career. Think about your wealth, freedom, and impact goals. Consider the practice areas you enjoy and the clients you want to serve. 

It may seem stressful for an associate to change direction, but it is much easier than when one has an established career. 

Later, when you are a partner with a book of business looking for a lateral opportunity, your business plan tells a compelling narrative from the beginning of your career to your partnership. You’ll be happier, and any firm will want to talk to you. 

And Build the Career You Want

Planning is about you and what you want. Even if you’re happy where you are, creating a plan can help you grow, expand your network, and discover opportunities. 

As I talk about in building your book of business (Pillar1), business development is a long game – so a plan will help you strategize your networking and relationship building: 

  • What conferences do you want to go to?
  • What groups do you need to connect with?
  • Who do you want to meet, and when do you want to meet them? 

And your marketing: 

  • What articles do you want to publish? 
  • What cases do you want to comment on? 
  • What influencers should you connect with? 

You can also use the CLE you already have to take to build expertise in a new area. Or write articles and thought pieces in a market to establish your authority and build your book—even in a small or out-of-favor market. 

You may also find that while you like your practice area, some specializations might be more interesting than others. Maybe you want to focus on startups or are interested in AI. Developing competence and reputation in these areas won’t happen overnight, so make a plan. 

Then, Plan Your Time to Align Your Priorities

Your macro, career-level plan is essential, but you must also be intentional about the day-to-day. 

When I mentioned planning to Emily Stedman (a corporate litigator, a big-law partner, and an advocate for lawyer well-being), she brought up her calendar. 

She reviews her week and blocks time for different activities: her work, workouts, and business development – she plans the week to ensure she has time for the things she wants to prioritize.

While macro, plan your life, planning is excellent for steering your career. Monthly, weekly, and daily planning is how you make sure you set boundaries and make time for your priorities. 

Rainmakers have a lot more calendar flexibility, but making a weekly plan and using your calendar will help throughout your career. 

So what can you do in .1?

I recommend that you review your career plan once a year. Check the narrative, and ensure you build the career you want. 

That’ll take longer than .1, but you only have to do it once a year. 

But there are things you can do now: 

  • Review your calendar and add block time for the next week. 
  • Schedule some business development outreach. 
  • Write down a couple of long-term goals. 

Be intentional

It is easy to fall into a career by default, and there will be plenty to keep you busy. 

But a truly happy rainmaker builds a career on purpose around their needs and interests. They plan their day to make time for their priorities. 

An essential key to Be(coming) a Happy Rainmaker is to be intentional and create a plan. 

Interesting references

Accidental careers may not align with a lawyer’s intellectual needs or personal goals.

Many lawyers continue practicing in an area even if it was not their initial choice or plan during law school.