Don’t Let Your Legal Career Be A Casualty of the Pandemic: Strategies for Continuing to Own Your Career
By Lisa B. Horowitz JD, MSOD
To welcome a new decade, on January 2, 2020, I posted an article entitled: Positioning Yourself For Career Success in the New Decade. None of us could have predicted that merely 4 months later, we would be in the middle of a pandemic wreaking havoc on our health and economy.
Your career need not be a casualty of this pandemic. We are all experiencing a transformational event in our lives different from anything most of us have ever faced (professionally or otherwise). It may not seem like you can own your career right now, but self-determination is still possible. The uncertainty, stress and anxiety we are now experiencing are emotions well known to most lawyers—albeit heightened today. To succeed as a lawyer, you have developed skills and tools to deal with these emotions. These same strategies can help you today to protect and even grow your career. You can continue to own your career if you (i) plan intentionally and strategically and (ii) mind your mindset.
Just as you would not leave home (if you could) without checking GoogleMaps, now is not the time to leave your career to chance. Now more than ever, owning your career requires you to be present, informed and deliberate. If you have been following my posts and perhaps attended my training programs, you know that I am an avid proponent of having a strategic career plan.
If you have a strategic career plan, now is the time to rely on it and the process underlying its creation to ground yourself, stay the course (as best as possible), and guide detours you may need to make. If you do not have a strategic career plan, now is an excellent time to create one. Engaging strategically in the career planning process—whether you are reviewing and adapting your existing plan or creating a new one—promotes informed decision-making and will give you confidence. It requires you to understand the legal profession as a business and how you, your firm or legal department fit in that business especially as it is impacted by the current pandemic. Having a strategy facilitates your ability to flex and adapt in real-time. It is perhaps the soundest move you can make to protect your career and preserve your self-determination during these challenging times.
Here are some questions to help you get started:
- Where am I? This question is intended to help you “check in” with yourself in two important ways. First, it promotes self-reflection regarding your values and preferences. If ever there were a time to reflect upon your values and preferences, this would be it. It will push you to pay attention to what is important to you so you are prepared to take advantage of opportunities that will arise in the “new normal” that are aligned with your aspirations. Consider a short values assessment like this one. Second, this question encourages you to assess your strengths and weaknesses. Have you discovered some new strengths during this pandemic that you didn’t know you had? Some weaknesses? Consider both substantive and EQ competencies (i.e., self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship skills). What competencies will you need to sustain your career post-pandemic? Again, think about both substantive and EQ skills like growth mindset, courage and adaptability, which are going to be essential to your success in our new normal. Consider the Clifton Strengthsfinder for a personal strengths assessment.
- Where do I want to be when this pandemic is over? Long-term visioning used to be standard in strategic career planning. In our fast changing environment (especially now) however, it is perhaps more realistic to consider versioning. This involves thinking shorter term and identifying and exploring multiple options. Is simply retaining your job enough? In these uncertain times, it may be. Some of you may be busier than ever. For others, work may be slow. Regardless, to continue to own your career, be curious, proactive and connected with colleagues and peers. If work is slow, think about alternative ways to remain fulfilled and engaged and to build the skills you want or will need. Are there new legal issues that have arisen that allow you to grow and shine? Ask for the assignment. Write an article/white paper. Enhance your legal technology skills. One of my clients—happy where she is—is using her “down” time to study for and take a new privacy certification exam.
- If you want or need to move on from your current job, again explore a variety of potential options. Are you a re-creator looking for a similar position and culture? Or are you a re-purposer looking to reinvent yourself and use your strengths in another venue or direction? Maybe a bit of both? See Crosina, E. & Pratt, M., How People Redirect Their Careers After Getting Laid Off (HBR, April 2019) on the career trajectories of former Lehman Brothers’ employees. Use this time to talk to people in your network (and outside), to find out what their jobs are like and which are aligned with your interests, values, and strengths so you can set yourself up for a more fulfilling future.
- How do I close the gap? Once you have reflected upon the foregoing, it is time to think about setting goals and action steps to move yourself forward. If you have an existing career plan, review it. Are your existing goals and action steps still viable and relevant? If not, adapt them to fit your new direction. If you do not have a strategic career plan, now is the time to set some specific goals and action steps with a timeline for taking action and criteria for monitoring and measuring your progress.
- Don’t go it alone. To create, adapt and execute your strategic career plan, identify those who can help you. Communicate your plan and seek their guidance. Research shows that people are more willing than we think to help us and even get a “high” from doing so. Grant, H., How to Get the Help You Need (HBR 2015). While we are required to “physically distance,” we are not required to cut ourselves off from friends, peers, mentors, sponsors, managers, colleagues and even a coach. Indeed staying connected (along with its related behaviors of generosity and kindness) turns out to be integral to transforming panic into resilience. See Siegel, Daniel, AWARE: The Science and Practice of Presence. So keep connecting via phone, email and yes, Zoom. Reach out to those who invigorate you—who spark your sense of well-being and curiosity—who energize you. This will not only help with your career and build your own resilience but also help others during this challenging time.
Mind Your Mindset
The mindset you bring to strategically planning your career is an integral part of continuing to own your career.
- Don’t ruminate on problems–Focus on what you can control. According to Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, fixating and ruminating on problems creates and prolongs negative emotions and stress, which hinder performance. “Emotionally intelligent people don’t allow themselves to become preoccupied with the uncertainties they face. Instead they focus all their attention and effort on what they can do, in spite of the uncertainty, to better their situation.” See, Bradberry, T., 11 Ways Emotionally Intelligent People Overcome Uncertainty (Newsletter, TalentSmart)
- Embrace change with courage and a growth mindset to move forward resiliently. Resilient people possess three key characteristics: (i) a staunch acceptance of reality; (ii) a deep belief, strongly buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and (iii) an uncanny ability to improvise. What Resilience Means and Why it Matters (HBR 2015. According to Srikumar Rao, author of Happiness at Work, pondering two questions will help you build resilience and take you to an emotional domain rich with possibility rather than foreboding: (i) Is there any possible scenario by which this setback could actually turn out to be a good thing? (ii) What can I do to turn this situation into a good thing that I can celebrate someday in the future? (Rao, S., To Build Your Resilience, Ask Yourself Two Simple Questions (HBR June 2017). If ever there was a time to be curious and have a growth mindset, now is it. We are living in new times and new ways of working and dealing are essential. Your tendency may be to resist the inevitable change but that is unproductive. “When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy and confidence that produces positive emotions and improves performance.” See, Bradberry, T., 11 Ways Emotionally Intelligent People Overcome Uncertainty (Newsletter, TalentSmart)
- Avoid Emotional Hijacking—According to Sigal Barsade, Wharton Professor of Management, emotions are contagious—both positive and negative. You can “catch” them in person and from the news and social media. Your own legitimate “negative emotions” can be amped up from interactions with others and through the news and social media. Barsade, S., The Contagion We Can Control (HBR, March 26, 2020). Self-awareness and self-care (see below) are key during this pandemic. Pay attention to what you are feeling, seeing, hearing, doing, saying and considering. Be aware of your own negative emotions and those of others and try not to pass them along. Focusing on creating and adapting your career plan strategy can help you to avoid being hijacked.
- Be kind to yourself and others: A key but often-overlooked aspect of fostering resilience is the cultivation of compassion for yourself and others. This is a very difficult time. Compassion increases positive emotions, creates positive relationships that increase cooperation, collaboration happiness and overall well being and decreases stress. See, Fernandez, R., 5 Ways to Boost Your Resilience at Work (HBR June 2016). “Exercising, volunteering, showing kindness, mindfulness meditation and maintaining positive high quality connections with others can positively increase your mood.” Barsade, S., The Contagion We Can Control (HBR, March 26, 2020). So spread kindness—not Covid. Being mindful of how your thoughts and actions are impacting your own well being as well as that of others and being generous and compassionate to yourself and others during this transformational time will foster your ability to continue to own your career.
These are transformational times filled with uncertainty and stress. While it may not feel like you can continue to own your career, self-determination is possible! By reading this article, you have taken an important first step forward. Your career doesn’t have to be a casualty of this pandemic. Spend some time reflecting upon these questions, minding your mindset and creating your strategic career plan. If you would like a partner, please feel free to contact me.
Lisa B. Horowitz, JD, MSOD, is an experienced career and leadership coach. She founded the Attorney Talent Strategy Group (www.atalentstrategy.com) following a robust career as a practicing attorney and senior talent development professional. She currently coaches and trains attorneys on career planning strategies, navigating career transitions, leadership, management and business development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or linkedin.com/in/lisabhorowitz/.