Law school did not teach me how to stand out. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Career Services, bless their hearts, brought in career trainers who taught future ‘lady lawyers’ how to speak, dress and act during the recruitment process. I remember attending one of these information sessions in my first year of law school and leaving the lecture hall in abject horror. Did I really need to be mindful of my intonation? And did I have to throw out everything in my wardrobe that had a hint of color? It seemed that given all the progress women made in the working world, we still were six steps behind in the legal profession.
Luckily, I learned to not take these recommendations seriously. And now, two and a half years after law school, I have managed to build a career in law that fits my values, aspirations, and personality. Here are five pieces of career advice that I wish someone had told me while I was still in law school.
1. Look for a job that will teach you the most, not what will earn you the most.
When I finished law school and articling (the mandatory 10-month internship requirement that you need to complete in order to get called to the bar) I was hired back as a lawyer with the government agency that I had articled with. It came with a great paycheque, generous health care benefits and a coveted defined benefit pension plan. After six months, I took a new position that came with a noticeable salary decrease. Why? I had the opportunity to have my own clients, practice different areas of law and adjudicate before different boards and tribunals. In other words, I would learn faster. Over a year later, I haven’t regretted my decision one bit.
2. Workplace culture matters more than you think.
You could love the actual work you do but if you can’t get along with the various personalities that you interact with on a daily basis, you’re not going to enjoy your job. Do you work better in an open-concept environment? Do you work better alone? Do you work better within the confines of a 9–5 schedule? Or perhaps you enjoy working from home when your energy peaks at weird times? You won’t know the answers to this until you audit yourself and figure out how you work best.
3. Don’t do it for the money.
Once we can afford a roof over our head and food on the table, what is your life really about? Meaning. If you’re only working somewhere because of the money you receive in exchange for your labor, you won’t last long. Find a job that allows you to explore your passion, play to your strengths and enables you to contribute to a larger issue that you believe is worth furthering. Money won’t be enough to make you wake up each morning with enthusiasm to get your day started.
4. Become a shapeshifter.
I am lucky because I can be unabashedly myself with my co-workers. However, when I am with my clients, I take my cues from their personality. For example, if my client has a more dominant personality, I fluctuate from being more laid back to being more assertive — especially when I need to set healthy boundaries and expectations. If my client is shy, I take the reigns and guide the process. Being able to develop a rapport with clients requires you to read the energy that they’re bringing to the table and complimenting that in order to navigate the process to their satisfaction. Are your clients easygoing? Are they sensitive? Are they out for blood? Whatever personality traits they carry, it’s crucial to understand them as you carry out your work.
5. Figure out where you need to fit in and where you can stand out.
Yes, there are certain protocols that every employee must more or less follow in a workplace. But that doesn’t mean you need to be a complete and utter conformist. Remember, your employer hired you because they liked something about you and believe that you can contribute value to the organization that no other person can. Capitalize on that. The more irreplaceable you are, the more you should take pride in your individuality. You can be yourself and also be a great team player.
Your biggest asset is your unique blend of skills, experience, and personality. There is no one in this world identical to you. Don’t undervalue that for any amount of money.
If an employer tries to force you, a square peg, into a circular hole, you will be miserable.
Instead, figure out what kind of work you want to be doing and what kind of environment will optimize your strengths, and focus on finding that with everything you have. You will not only find a job you enjoy but a career that will give you a sense of purpose.