Given the current economic malaise, many freshly minted lawyers (and law students) are concerned about their career opportunities. There are numerous stories about law firms shedding excess lawyers and deferring the start of new associates. As such, many new lawyers may be tempted to focus on emphasizing their achievements and attempt to show their competence when it comes to their work. However, there is evidence that defining success by “achievement” and “competence” might actually be detrimental to career success. From Careers in Theory, the blog of the Career Group at the University of London:
An article entitled ‘Graduates’ Construction Systems and Career Development’ by Valerie Fournier (Human Relations 50(4) 1997). The research used a technique from Personal Construct Psychology called the Repertory Grid to elicit the constructs (mental frameworks) through which graduates viewed themselves in the world of work. Fournier examined the graduates as they started their careers, after six months and then after four years.She then compared the graduates whose careers had been successful with those who were less successful. She used objective measures of success (i.e. promotions) and subjective measures (i.e. reported career satisfaction).What she found was that the successful and less successful groups started out their careers with different ideas about themselves and their interaction with the working world. Those who were less successful were more likely to construe themselves in terms of achievements and work competence. The successful graduates were more likely to use constructs related to social behaviour, adjustment and flexibility. Fournier tentatively concluded that career success may be more likely for those graduates who approach the world of work anticipating the importance of social relationships, understanding office politics and preparing to learn and adapt.
- Curiosity: to want to learn new things regardless of where they might lead
- Persistence: to keep trying, even when faced with rejection or silence
- Flexibility: to respond to change positively by adapting yourself or your aims
- Optimism: to believe that opportunities are within reach and that you can benefit from every experience
- Risk-taking: to ‘just do it’ in the face of an unclear result
By developing the above traits, a person is more likely to be able to adapt and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. If one is narrowly focused only on direct achievement and being competent in their narrow area of focus, they are unlikely to even recognize opportunities when they are presented, let alone seize upon them.
I’ve always associated this type of behavior with Professor Edward de Bono’s (1) concept of lateral thinking – the ability to solve problems through an indirect and creative approach. Lateral thinking is about reasoning that is not immediately obvious and about ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.
Not that critical thinking isn’t necessary and useful, but often times it seems as though new lawyers are only able to think critically and are unable to provide non-obvious solutions, which is not indicative of a good lawyer. Clients retain counsel because they want solutions to problems. Some of those problems will be routine. However, the worthwhile, challenging problems will be those that do not have an easy answer upon initial review and will require oblique solutions.
A new lawyer who can exhibit the traits of the Planned Happenstance Theory and is able to use lateral thinking when presented with challenging, unique problems is the type of lawyer who is going to be hired and remain employed.1. (Rhodes Scholar, M.D., M.A., Ph.D., D.Phil, D.Des., LL.D, <- I only point this out to note that I believe the dear Professor is addicted to acronyms)