What Kind of Professional Do You Want to Be?

Professional Meditating

by Bernadette Healy

Being a professional new to their career – exciting and nerve-wracking!

Congratulations on being a practitioner in your new career (or if you are a law student on getting as far as you have to date!).   You have probably been so busy getting to this point that you may not have given thought to the question: how do I want to be in this career? 

That is, what kind of lawyer do you want to be, not just in terms of executing your professional obligations as a lawyer but what sort of professional do you want to be?

It may be helpful to think of your new career as a marathon you are about to start rather than a sprint.  For some of you sprinting will be a particular strength and this is definitely the kind of skill required for some of your work.

However treating this career in general as a sprint or a series of sprints may inadvertently lead you to experience burnout.

Although it is common, particularly when a new professional, to view your new career in terms of discrete projects, from a long-term well-being perspective, it will help to keep stepping back and asking yourself about how you are going in terms of an ongoing professional journey.

This means regularly setting aside time to yourself, relaxing and reflecting – asking yourself questions about how you are compared with how you want to be. This will help to avoid your putting too much emphasis on any one outcome – a protective practice in terms of stress and helpful if you tend towards frequent feelings of anxiety and / or tending towards being overly responsible.

Anxiety and responsibility are two of the most common issues that young lawyers face as they are finding their way in their new profession.

Anxiety is a non-specific kind of feeling which is associated with symptoms such as excessive worrying, negative thoughts often including concerns about failure and approval of others and feelings of agitation.

Troubling feelings related to responsibility generally oscillate between taking on too much responsibility and taking on too little with associated feelings of shame and self-criticism

Are these feelings relevant to you or perhaps to a colleague?

It may be a little challenging to be asked to reflect on your feelings when you are most likely highly rational people about to begin your career within a profession where rationality is so greatly prized.  However, feelings are a great source of information – about how we are going relative to our deeply held sense of ourselves – ignore them at your own peril down the track!

You need to be careful not to prematurely judge your own performance as a lawyer (in worse case, deciding to leave when the issue is just the natural one of being new to a professional role).

Perhaps for a very small number it may not turn out to be your career – if so remember that it is not possible to find that out without putting yourself in a position to try; hopefully if this turns out to be the case, you can avoid self-recrimination and any urge to inaccurately conclude that you are a failure when actually you have merely done a necessary bit of career self-correction.

Judging everything in terms of achievement, winning and needing to avoid making mistakes is very common within the legal profession.  The use of judgement and judging while a necessary skill can also be very limiting if it means you are not as engaged in your life as you could be due to a fear of failure.  That is, people who focus only on success tend to avoid putting themselves in the position of being a beginner.  This leads to their ending up with a much reduced repertoire of skills and abilities and experiences than those who are less concerned with trying out something for fear of looking like an idiot or not getting it right the first time.  Ongoing self-criticism and judgement is predictive of both stress and even, poor performance, particularly in terms of a rigidity in problem-solving.

 Staying true to yourself

Try and keep a gentle and warm interest in yourself and who you are; your values and priorities and feelings and how to remain true to that while in your professional role.

Put some rituals in place to ensure that you make a point of separating out work from non-work, for example:

  • Listing questions arising from current work day and leaving them at work ready to be re-visited at the beginning of the next work day.
  • Cycling home.
  • Getting off the tram or train one stop early and walking.
  • Sitting in a park for 5 mins before going home.
  • Doing a 3 min breathing practice on the train home.
  • Asking your partner and family to leave you alone for the first 10-15 mins after you get home.

Do some regular self-reflection.  You could start with the identification of your personal triggers – this could be people, situations or events which cause you to react in a manner which is out of proportion with the situation.

For example you may find yourself being very annoyed with the approach of a colleague and find yourself ruminating on them, their approach, your reaction, the situations you have shared etc.  What may actually be happening is that your colleague has triggered a potential threat to a core belief such as that you must be liked and approved of; that you must be in control; or that you must be included.  If you are not aware of these potential triggers, you are likely to automatically and unthinkingly respond to the situation in an inappropriate and reactionary manner and to attribute to the other that which is really to do with you.

Learning to identify and control personal triggers is vital to ensuring that you know where you and your ‘stuff’ ends and that of others around you begins.  It doesn’t change the situations you face but it will give you a sense of security that you will be ok.

Self-reflective practice can guard against the kind of existential desert that is commonly experienced  by those who have been so busy doing, fixing, controlling and generally just getting on with things that they have omitted to build in regular time for being, reflecting and asking themselves some non-task-focused questions.

Focusing in on your inner life can help to modify the down side of your skill set.  That is, just as it is necessary to know your strengths and build on them and maximize their use, it is also necessary to understand the likely down sides of these strengths.  E.g. the strong individualistic drive and focus that can motivate someone to become a skilled practitioner may also be associated with low tolerance for others’ weaknesses and perhaps even make them a poor team player.  A person with great organizational ability and project management ability may also be associated with an inability to see the role of lateral thinking in problem-solving or perhaps even a reluctance to give time to the use of non-standard problem-solving methods.

So think about the kind of professional you want to be, make a bit of effort to allow yourself space for your own feelings and ideas to bubble up, watch out for your personal triggers and the other side of your strengths and most importantly, do all this with a sense of fun, curiosity and kindness.