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Keys for Success: Aligning What You Do to What You Want
By Dave Namkung
Previously posted in Lawyers Weekly

As a recruiter, one of the common themes we face with associates is how to help them regain their passion within the practice of law.  For many associates, law is a career that emerged as a result of academic excellence in undergrad and continuing through law school, resulting in a prestigious start with a top tier law firm. Once the associate is immersed in practice, however, associates often feel challenged assessing whether their success to date is aligned with their longer term career aspirations. 

What follows are a few key practices we’ve observed in lawyers who have mindfully transitioned from early success to long term alignment between their practice and interests.  

Proactively Educate Yourself 

Junior associates often struggle to articulate their goals early in their careers, as they are still trying to assess what they really want out of their practice.  A select (and perhaps fortunate) few are able to secure positions out of law school practicing exactly what they had hoped for in a suitable environment. For many others, the path is more circuitous: they started out law school with aspirations of practicing A, after summering discover interests in practice B, wind up taking an offer practicing C, creating angst as to whether their career will ultimately be fulfilling 

key practice in determining what you want in your career is to connect with mentors whose careers you admire. While many associates may do this on a spontaneous basis, our experience is the truly successful go out of their way to pro-actively seek these individuals.  Whether talking to a partner at their firm, a judge, a mentor through CBA, in-house counsel or even a recruiter, by pro-actively connecting with those who enjoy inspiring practices, these young lawyers are better able to envision what they plan to strive towards.   

Once you have identified individuals to approach for career insight, the key is to ask some critical questions to pinpoint elements of their practice you wish you emulate: what do/don’t they like about their daily practice? What are the challenges about their practice area or particular firm? As you engage in conversations with more and more people, you eventually educate yourself on the nuances of various practices by asking the right questionsenabling you to understand what your most suitable options may be and how best to plan for the next step(s) 

Be Honest 

Armed with this knowledge, the key is to be as honest as possible with yourself in assessing what path you most want to pursue. Do you want to be a top litigator or solicitor in the market? Are you willing to pursue their lifestyle or would you rather more balance? How does this desire honestly rank against your other priorities?   

One of our best clients often comments that while some of his friends like to golf on the weekend, he truly enjoys learning about both the business of running his firm (one of the top litigation boutiques in the market), and takes great pleasure in trying to better understand the legal principles and ideas shaping the court.  Clearly, this is someone who has found an alignment between his practice and passion. Understanding his motivations and how he approaches practice would be insightful to anyone who seeks to mirror his highly successful career.   

Goal setting can be challenging and time-intensive as it involves, among other things, honestly evaluating values, interests, strengths and weaknesses, and ascertaining which career paths are most suitable.  

Set Goals to Align with your Interests 

No matter the goal, a key practice is to assess whether your current practice environment will give you a reasonable prospect of achieving your goals in the medium term.   

Can you gain access to the kind of work you want?  Can you get mentorship suitable for your career development?  Will you be empowered to build your own brand (if that is important to you)? These are all helpful questions to ask when assessing whether your current environment is aligned to your goals.    

If your current practice does not point you towards your goals, it is worth considering whether you can tweak or modify your existing surroundings (seek work from other groups, pro-bono matters, etc.) to find a suitable solution or at least gain relevant experience in the interim. Otherwise, external practice alternatives may be optimal.  


Once you have a sense of how you want to see your career unfold, the next key is to take active steps towards it. For example, if you are passionate about becoming a rainmaker, while skill development as a lawyer remains critical in the formative years in practice, the need to establish business contacts and a market presence happen sooner than most lawyers appreciate, so build a plan around this and act on it.  Similarly, if your aspiration is to be a leading figure in a specific practice areathen seize opportunities to distinguish your expertise. For example, two promising young associates (former clerks at the BC Court of Appeal) created the BC Civil Appeals Netletter, which is circulated to hundreds of litigators across the country.  


Actively Review 

Once you have established a game plan, it is equally important to actively and consistently review how you are progressing against your previously stated goals. Reviews provide accountability for making tangible strides towards your goals and provide insight on where you may wish to redirect your development – your goals may change, or new opportunities may present.   

In the end, the ultimate key is to take control of ensuring your career goals are being aligned with your passions. It is never too early (or too late) to set goals and to take steps towards them.  Associates who don’t actively set out and pursue their goals run the risk of allowing others to set their plans for them, which may limit their chances of finding long term career satisfaction.  

David Namkung is a Partner of Smith Legal Search in Vancouver. He joined Smith Legal Search  from one of Canada’s largest national firms and is currently Vice-President, Fundraising for the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (BC Chapter). 


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