Self-Assessment Strategies for Lawyers

"He discovereth deep things out of darkness. . . ."
----------------------Job 12:22

"Beam me out of here, Scotty!" Star Trek fans will remember this classic bail-out maneuver, invoked whenever Captain Kirk found himself surrounded by hostiles on a planet incompatible with earth life systems. How many dissatisfied lawyers have wished for as swift a sky hook? The mythic appeal of Star Trek should resonate in your career planning. There are some similarities, if you come to think of them. The starship Enterprise was often the sole representative of our civilization's values in the black depths of space or in interaction with other cultures. It had to carry within itself and rely upon resources deposited there by its earthly origins and its visits to other planets. Time and again, the ship and its occupants were forced to evaluate their technical and spiritual equipment in the face of new challenges. From the bridge, Captain Kirk would demand an engineering audit: "We can go no faster, Captain!" Just as often, he would be compelled to assess the adequacy of his cultural assumptions: the ambassadors of mother earth were not always proud of their civilization's values. In these values crises, the ship's occupants would have to forge for themselves a set of responses and decisions consistent with their consciences and independent beliefs. To follow the adventure of the starship Enterprise was to watch a process of ongoing self-assessment and reinvention involving self-reliance, cultural loyalties and encounters with the unknown.

In this article we look at self-assessment strategies for navigating a legal career that follows the coordinates of professional and personal values while drawing upon the skills and resources of you, the individual lawyer, the starship Attorney. The cultural assumptions of the legal profession are continually debated and defined; many codifications exist to serve as a navigational manual. One such is the MacCrate Report, "Legal Education and Professional Development - An Educational Continuum" (to order call the ABA at (312) 988-5522). Anyone who has a personal or a professional interest in legal education and professional development would be well served by reading it. The heart of the report is the compilation of four fundamental values and ten fundamental skills of the legal profession. The first value is the obligation to learn to represent clients competently; the second, the obligation to promote justice, morality and fairness; the third, the obligation to improve the profession; the fourth, an obligation to constantly improve one's skills and the obligation to take positions consistent with one's personal values and professional goals. If you are prepared to accept and adopt these values, you must, as a precondition to accepting a position, understand and be aware of what your personal values and your professional goals are. This is nothing other than self-assessment - becoming aware of your interests, your values, your skills - who you are and what you want in a position.

In our last column, "Taking Stock," we invited readers to fill out a current job evaluation checklist. We hope you tried it, because self-assessment is something you do, not something you read about. In a career planning manual for lawyers ("Lawyers In Transition: Planning a Life in the Law,"), that "unless you take responsibility for your own assessment, you run the danger of drifting into someone else's future. Your epitaph could be like that on the eighteenth century gravestone: 'Here lies Jones, born a man, died a grocer." If not an active participant in the process, you will accept jobs based on the needs and criteria of others. In effect, you must always begin as your own career counselor and coach. Eventually, you may wish to resort to those of us who do that for a living, but you will never relinquish the responsibility for posing and answering all the important questions. How do you do that?

In Lawyers In Transition we stated, "Ideally, assessment should become a process that is done systematically and annually - like strategic planning in business," says that useful guide. "It is an opportunity to evaluate performance, to review the marketplace, and to guide professional development strategies for the you proceed through your self-assessment try to exclude from your mind an obsession with what you presently perceive to be your opportunities." More profoundly, self-assessment is really the construction of a self-portrait, of an autobiography. Like every biography, it is compiled through interviews, review of significant life decisions and accomplishments, review of how others have seen and reacted to the subject, and examinations of the subject's significant ideals. Psychologically astute biographies also include dissection of deeper motives. This is pretty much the method we follow when we do career counseling, and it should be your method too. You are interviewing (or if you like, deposing) yourself, and to do that you need an interview protocol, a structure for inquiry.

In "Career Choice and Satisfaction in the Legal Profession", we say that to enlarge a client's understanding of why he/she is in the law "it is helpful to move back and forth between their current, concrete frustrations on the job and earlier situations, comparing and contrasting them, always looking for the basic, motivational thread that ties these experiences together....eventually you will arrive at a mutual understanding of what they hoped to achieve, consciously or unconsciously, through their choice of law." To aid the discussion, we ask clients to fill out a Career Choices and Reasons Chart, listing briefly their major decisions regarding education and choice of jobs. The most important decisions for young lawyers often involve the choice of college, college major, law school, summer positions, and subsequent permanent jobs. For each such choice, the client describes the other alternatives that were available (or not!), the rationale behind the ultimate decision, and the retrospective assessment of the success of the decision. Like Ulysses, you are "a part of everywhere you have been." Evaluating each step of your own odyssey enables you to determine, as a colleague of ours puts it, whether you have "fully drunk the experiences and focused on the strengths and benefits rather than the costs."

This chart is set up as a simple matrix. As straightforward as these decisions may appear, they are no less complex than the seemingly obvious questions asked in interviews. Indeed, careful completion of the chart can be a fine way of preparing for interviews. You can create and complete such a chart for yourself. You can also conduct a written self-interview. It will be surprising if you don't become very thoughtful after writing answers to the following questions:

  • When did you first entertain the notion of being a lawyer?
  • Who were the people who supported or influenced you to become a lawyer? What did they see in you? What were their personal attributes, skills and characteristics that seem to have contributed to their accomplishment and satisfaction. Were there those who discouraged you? Why?
  • How did you choose your college major?
  • At the time you applied, what were your reasons for applying to law school?
  • What was your experience your first year of law school?
  • What was the evolution of your study methods and your attitude toward grades (i.e. your analytic strengths and weaknesses and your attitude toward competition)?
  • What courses did you like best, and do they have the slightest bearing on what you do now? Is this a problem?
  • If you ever seriously considered dropping out of law school, what was the turning point that changed your mind?
  • What impact did your summer jobs and your first permanent job have on your self-image and career plans?

In addition to interviewing yourself, you might wish to review your significant accomplishments: not just the professionally recognizable triumphs that are standard fare on resumes, but achievements you know to be privately and personally significant. "Often the groundwork for a sense of mastery has been laid well before your formal professional training.....Things your have done successfully and well at any stage of life are apt to be windows on your talents and interests." (Remember the summer you were fifteen and kept a bunk load of third graders in control for a rainy week at camp? Do you have potential as a managing partner?) We often ask clients to write ten achievement stories, describe the skills essential to their successes, and look for underlying themes and continuities.

Exercises of this kind can be even more structured, especially those dealing with an audit of your problem solving and legal skills, e.g. client counseling, argumentation, negotiation. A good place to find them is in self-assessment manuals and career search guide books, the classic example still being "What Color is Your Parachute" by Richard Bolle. Good books with exercises specifically intended for lawyers are rare. Deborah Aaron's "What You Can Do With a Law Degree" and Mark Byers' "Lawyers In Transition" both contain good exercises and thoughtful discussions on linking self-assessment to professional development.

More precise tools for self-assessment include a variety of self-administered vocational interest and personality inventories often used in career counseling and personnel work. Most require some professional training to administer and interpret, and for that reason you will find it necessary to find a service qualified to do the work with you. College and university placement offices (including many law schools) and professional career counselors routinely refer to these "tests". As we said in a previous article, "These inventories are not tools for plumbing the unconscious...Rather, they are self-administered questionnaires scored by comparing subjects' responses with those of people in various job categories or who fit into some classification of personality types. These inventories describe patterns of interest, motivation and values that affect major life decisions....Usually, an inventory will organize the subject's prior intuitions, putting old self-knowledge in a new light."

You may already have heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Vocational Interest Inventory. The MBTI is based upon the character typology developed by C.G. Jung, who brought us the notions of introversion and extroversion. Gently non-judgmental, the inventory classifies you as one of 16 possible personality types. The results have rich implications for assessing whether you might function more naturally in certain legal specialties and organizational settings. A rich body of research pertaining to lawyers exists for these inventories. The Strong Vocational Interest Inventory actually compares your interests and values with those of men and women in over 100 occupations, including law, and from the pattern of your scores you may well be able to deduce what kinds or organizations, clients and activities would be most to your liking. Both "tests" may even clarify whether law, or law alone, is an optimum choice for you. Usually, what these inventories suggest is that you many have compelling interests in addition to those related to law which make it difficult to fit comfortably into one of the usual professional niches.

Reverting to the Star Trek analogy, one could say that your traits and interests are like the crew of the Enterprise: they combine to meet some challenges more effectively than others, and it is best for them not to work at cross purposes. Ship, captain and crew can also be used to illustrate the last step in self-assessment. We discover ourselves in conversations with significant others. Sometimes they are our immediate family, sometimes our intimate colleagues, sometimes people dead and gone or fictitious people (not corporations!) who have meant much to us in our reading. Captain Kirk relied upon those around him to reflect back to him the values and concerns that kept him a captain and held him to his course. A spouse, a mentor, a counselor can confirm or correct the initial results of your self-assessment. The value of such conversations might seem obvious to lawyers, for whom a synonym is "counselor," but lawyers are by training reluctant to voice inconclusive notions. As a consequence, they won't share working hypotheses about themselves, despite the need for good exploratory conversations to define the goals they find so illusive. The moral? Identify people who don't hold your doubts against you and who respect your right to uncertainty. Talk to them before you defend yourself before the bar of bosses and potential employers who expect the appearance of certitude.

Lawyers, we have suggested, are like male drivers: they hate to ask for directions. This leads to our final recommendation regarding self-assessment. Networking, in its early stages, is a part of self-assessment. However, many lawyers are shy about exploring new professional identities in interviews, waiting until they can sound absolutely certain about their goals. Unfortunately, although they may have researched their options, they cannot avoid getting out and talking to people to confirm their interests and preferences. As some pundit once said, "no field is plowed by being turned over in the mind." The last step in self-assessment involves identifying options (not exhaustively), and then setting aside some interviewing solely for the sake of testing them out. This process leads from using some contacts for counseling to pursuing others for jobs. Choosing the right contacts for the right purpose involves discretion and courage. In our future columns we'll discuss how to move through self-assessment to researching your options, developing an ideal position statement and starting to network.

We hope these homilies are stimulating and, more important, useful. If we can't beam up, we'd like to team up, traveling with you on your career adventure.