Lawyers seeking coaching are talented people, challenged by life and asking big questions. They typically aren’t satisfied with where they find themselves. They don’t know what their next move might be. Some are early in their careers, others not. Some want to continue in practice, others don’t. Many have experienced success, some have known failure. Some want to enter practice after serving as a judge; others are seeking an appointment to the bench.
In coaching, lawyers come to better understand how they got to where they are and what it is that they want. Then they experience another challenge — learning to ask for what they really want. Typically, they aren’t experienced in finding or creating a position that suits them. They have been like many people, researching positions as advertised and seeking to conform to what is posted. A metaphor comes to mind — buying shoes.
Feeling the pinch of outworn shoes, we go shopping for new shoes. Typically, we are met by a salesperson who measures our feet, to assure a good fit. Then, we try on different shoes and walk about the shoe store to see how the shoes fit and feel. It’s all about the fit. Unless, of course, there are great-looking shoes on the clearance rack. Then we may be tempted to cramp the fit for the sake of a great value. Perhaps you’ve done that. I know that I have. In some sense, the stakes for buying an ill-fitting pair of shoes are small. That certainly is not the case when making a career choice.
In talking with clients over the years, I have learned that some have chosen a position because of the marquee, how it would look on their resumes. Others have simply gone with the highest bidder. Others have chosen a firm because it represents how they want to be seen; it provides them an identity. None of these reasons are good or bad. The question is how good is the fit? Even a fit in the early years of practice may not be a fit years later. We change, firms change, and sometimes firms fail. Then, it’s back again to the pursuit of a good fit. Or, is it?
In the midst of a transition, many clients simply ask; “Who will have me?” Often, they see themselves as a commodity and question whether they can measure up to the expectations of the position at hand. Some want to become chameleon-like, conforming to the position as advertised.
Too often, the clients fail to ask the underlying question, what do I want in the next position? While they are eager to update their resumes, they seldom reflect on who they’ve become in the intervening years and how their values may have shifted. After all, we are not static, any more than anyone else, or any one institution.
Knowing ourselves as we are today
We can learn about ourselves by looking within, observing the self from the inside-out.
One way to observe the self from within is to take note of our moods as we go through the day. Our moods, like the weather, are constantly changing in response to what we are doing and thinking. Some activities evoke happiness and contentment, while other activities provoke impatience, perhaps resentment and anger. As we observe ourselves and how we are doing, we are sometimes surprised or disquieted by what we learn about ourselves. Other times, our experiences are aligned with how we know ourselves.
Our moods are data about who we are and who and what we value. We ignore this data at our peril as we navigate the transitions in our lives. To navigate solely with our thinking selves, no matter how well we’ve been trained in analysis and argument, is like driving with our eyes on the speedometer alone, without any attention to the other gauges that provide critical information, including temperature, oil pressure and fuel level.
To operationalize awareness of mood, begin by noting how you are doing in your current position. What is your mood and felt sense (for example, tightness in the neck or shoulders, or shallow breathing) as you interact with specific people in your workplace? Likewise, what do you experience as you move from one activity to another during your work day? Who and what do you appreciate? Who and what produce the opposite sensation? This awareness is a guide as you seek to optimize your current position and consider making a move.
Another way to learn about ourselves is to learn how others perceive us. In doing so, we observe the self from the outside-in.
One way to observe the self from outside-in is to ask others for an assessment. You might say something like:
These days, I want to learn more about myself and how I’m doing. I want to optimize what I am doing well and become aware of the behaviors that don’t serve me. As you observe me here, what do you see? What behaviors do you observe?
In such a conversation, ask for mention of specific behaviors. The more concrete the observations, the more helpful they may be. For example, you may be told:
When you spoke at the conference last Thursday, your remarks were well organized. I particularly remember the stories you shared. They spoke volumes about your talking points. You made good eye contact with the audience and you spoke in a conversational tone. I felt that you were speaking to us, not at us. Your personal warmth was on display, especially as you stepped out from behind the lectern. The only thing I’d suggest you change is the use of your PowerPoints. I found them dated and somewhat distracting.
As the meeting wrapped-up last Wednesday, you sighed and rolled your eyes. You raised your voice, interrupted who was speaking and called the meeting to a close. To me, it seemed as though you had grown impatient with us, weren’t any longer interested in our opinions, and only wanted to move forward with your roll-out. Next time, it might be helpful to have a closing time for our meeting so that we can better organize ourselves and provide our comments in the time allotted.
Listen to what you’re told with an appreciation that the assessments are neither true nor false. Assessments often differ, as they are simply opinions shared from a variety of points of view. Yet, they are data for your benefit and can be helpful as you learn more about yourself and seek to optimize your performance.
Remember to thank the person who has given you the assessment. Being a keen observer and speaking the truth is no easy task!
From where I stand, it’s important to know who you are today and what you want. Cultivating awareness from the inside-out and from the outside-in yields important data. If you choose, you can use the data to better manage yourself, both today and as you plan your future. And in the future, remember to ask for what you really want. The fit is all important.