What does it mean to be successful in law?

Achievement, winning, competition and prestige are all words that have long been associated with the age-old legal profession. While the prospect of a big salary and equity partner status may have drawn many into a career in law, they are not necessarily the best bench markers for long-term success.

The majority of legal professionals will have spent much of their pre-career lives gauging their success based on objective metrics. School, university and college grades helped to track and manage performance against expectations, which in turn will have helped them kick-start their careers. However, personal success is much more of a custom measurement. Success means something different to everyone. Sure, climbing the career ladder might be a factor for some, but success is multi-faceted and should be hinged on each person’s own aspirations and sense of wellbeing.

Understanding the key motivators

In an age where being a great lawyer no longer guarantees promotion, defining success by a laundry list of objective achievements is no longer realistic. Organisations in the legal sector are changing: competition is fierce and the number of years to promotion has increased. This means that rising up the legal ranks might not happen for someone as a result of factors that are beyond their control. A report by LexisNexis considers that those who go on to make partner can be viewed as successes – but the 80-90 per cent who don’t are not necessarily failures.

The key to combatting this lies in understanding their motivating factors. In order to know what success looks like for them, lawyers need to pinpoint the things that mean the most to them and what makes them feel fulfilled. For example, if the satisfaction of solving a thorny legal problem is a person’s biggest motivator, then being promoted might be a goal post that enables them to work on more complex projects. The promotion is merely a stepping stone on the journey to success; there are many other ways that it could have been achieved if a promotion was not possible.

The importance of self-actualisation

It can be easy for lawyers to fall into the trap of measuring their own success by how far they meet the expectations of their firm, clients and peers. According to Forbes, a person’s sense of purpose at work can be heavily influenced by the organisation’s purpose, which can lead to detrimental effects to the way in which they define success.

Applying the self-actualisation theory can help legal professionals to understand what it takes to achieve their own potential and become who they want to be.

Life happens

It’s also important to consider that a person’s definition of success can change over time, sometimes quite dramatically. Success in law might look very different to a young twenty-something lawyer than it does to a forty-something lawyer with a family. Younger professionals might place more value on financial compensation and progressing through the ranks, whereas someone with a family might consider work-life balance the most important factor.

Law is a demanding sector to work in, so professionals need to be self-aware to ensure they can re-evaluate their definition of success as their lives change.