If you ask the average 3L what they want their life to look like in a year or two, the most likely response is “employed.” Hardly surprising, right? Aside from the iffy legal job market, it really is hard to know what specifically they want their life to look like. Most law students have almost no idea what even a week of law practice is like.
The funny thing is, it’s harder to get experienced lawyers to give a detailed answer to the same question. I usually couch that question to clients in the guise of “If you won the lottery and had zero financial concerns, what would you want your life to look like?”
I typically get 3 types of answers:
- By far the most common is a version of “Live on the beach and do nothing.”
- Many times, I hear “Spend more time with family and friends.”
- Then, there are those who seem utterly confounded by the notion of freedom: “I don’t know . . . I’ve never really thought about what I could do if I didn’t have to work.”
What is missing from all 3 answers is the idea that you actually have the power to design the kind of life you want. Or indeed, that you can have legitimate preferences that supersede any employer’s desires for your time.
Start With the End in Mind
Design thinking has been popular for a while now, because it makes a lot of sense: Figure out what the people at the receiving end of a solution want and need—in detail—before starting a project. Then, organize your efforts and strategies to get you to there.
Design thinking works in all kinds of contexts. It works in the writing business when you consider what your audience’s background, needs, and likely actions will be after reading your content, before you start blathering endlessly on a topic you’re obsessed by.
In law, it can work by asking a client what the ideal result in their conflict or deal would look like, rather than simply telling them that they should mediate, litigate, or accept standard contract terms.
And, it works for non-work things, like deciding what you want your life to be like.
What Is Your Ideal Life, Anyway?
I’m reminded of this because Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen died last Friday. He is known in business circles for his work on disruptive innovation, but I know him chiefly for a brilliant article he wrote in 2010, How Will You Measure Your Life? (He later authored a book by the same name.)
One of the most insightful, moving parts of the article was this:
Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.
No matter if you’re at the beginning, middle, or end of your legal career, it’s not too late to design your life. How do you want it to look?
- Are professional accolades & expertise your purpose?
- Maybe helping and serving others with your knowledge and skills?
- Perhaps cultivating close connections with family and friends?
- Moving to something completely outside of law?
Whatever it is, you can start right now to include the most important things to you into your life. You don’t have to dramatically upend your life right away (if ever); start small.
Maybe commit to a weekly activity, or dinner with a beloved, and refuse to let your colleagues or your own insecurities pressure you into skipping it, absent a true medical crisis or the specter of imminent jail time.
If you really don’t know what you want your life to look like, commit to spending some time daily to meditate, write, or talk about that. Your life’s purpose may be fuzzy at first, but the more you focus on it consistently, the clearer it will get.
Or, you can shove that uncomfortable question aside, and let the forces around you shape your life instead. It’s your call.
But I’m rooting for you to choose happy.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer whose purpose keeps unfolding and evolving. She is often annoyed by this, because having a static answer seems so much easier to get to. Eventually, she realizes (for the zillionth time) that going with the flow of uncertainty has led her to the most rewarding parts of her life.
If you would like help to discern your life’s purpose (for the near future, anyway), you can schedule a session with Jennifer by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.