A Career in Law: Defining Success on Your Own Terms

I am in the process of preparing for the upcoming CBA BC Branch Women Lawyers Forum event Defining Moments – Leadership and Ethics. I am presenting on “Defining Success on Your Own Terms,” which is an interesting exercise. What is success anyway? I know what success does not look like – for me, pretty much most of 2003.

When I started law school in 1997, I was spurred by an interest in public affairs and advocacy for women and children. By 2003, I found myself as an associate in the commercial real estate group of a large law firm, which was a total mismatch for my interests and skills. Through a journey of reflection, research and trial and error, I ended up starting Heritage Law in 2005. I found out I was expecting our first child shortly after opening the doors, and the firm was designed around how to effectively manage the competing demands of starting new law firm and being a new mother.

In contrast to where I was in 2003, I have been able to build a career and a firm that mirrors my skills and interests. Based on what I have learned through this journey, here are some initial thoughts on tips for “defining success on your own terms” in law:

1. Know yourself.

There are a lot of subtle and not so subtle messages in law school, in the workplace, in the media, from colleagues, friends and even family members about constitutes professional success. After awhile, it can be difficult to distinguish where ideas have come from and whether they are external or internal. There is a strong sense in the legal community that a successful legal career means certain things, whether it’s a partner track position at a prestigious boutique or large law firm, being corporate counsel, a professorship or becoming a judge. Maybe one of these paths is right for you – or not. The challenge is to do your best to drown out the external noise, spend time assessing what your true skills, interests and aptitudes are and then hopefully fashion a career path doing something you’re good at and like to do. Spending years practicing an area of law you dislike because that was the position open when you completed your articles is depressing to contemplate.

2. Be creative.

Similar to the comments above, a successful career does not necessarily mean a traditional path or even having the same job for more than a few years at a time. We live in a rapidly changing economic, technological and professional landscape. While the pace of change can be daunting, it is also a source of incredible opportunity. There are many different options available now and in the future if you are willing to look outside of the traditional box so to speak.

3. Seek out mentors, both informal and formal.

A recent Ontario study found that almost all women lawyers who were singled out as notably successful or rising stars in their firms identified a strong mentor who championed them to the firm and provided valuable training and client introductions. In addition to paving a pathway to success, mentors can be a valuable source of inspiration and advice. I have had a number of mentors over the years whom I didn’t actually know personally, but who inspired me with their achievements and example from afar.

4. You don’t have to do it all at once.

For women lawyers, who often have young children during the early building years of a legal career, the traditional law firm “up or out” promotion system may not work out well. This inherent conflict is likely one of the biggest reasons why only approximately 16% of equity partners of large law firms are female. That said, a thirty plus year legal career can be a fluid one, with different stages and opportunities for success. Sandra Day O’Connor spent several years at home with her young children. Success doesn’t mean you have to do it all at the same time.

5. Be brave! and failure is often an opportunity.

There is that old truism that nothing worth having comes easy. Take risks. Leave your comfort zone. The worst thing that will happen is that you will fail – which may be a wonderful opportunity for growth, learning and a new path forward.

Please share your own thoughts on defining success on your own terms in law.


  1. When you define ‘success’ based upon another’s definition of success you are bound to fail because you are not true to yourself. It’s that simple. And any definition of success is perfectly OK. Often as lawyers we feel shackled to the traditional uses for our license, some how ‘lesser than’ if we want to do something different. Don’t buy into this. Many talented lawyers are using their degrees the way they want and it’s fair to say they do not leave the profession to do so. And they are much happier for it!

  2. For me, professional success = helping middle class people solve their legal problems + making enough money to care for my family + not leaving my house. Thanks to my informal mentors: Jay Foonberg, Susan Carter Liebel, Carolyn Elefant, Stephanie Kimbro and Richard Granat, I am on the road to bringing that dream to fruition. So excited!!

  3. I think the last point you make is the most important one. I don’t think of myself as “brave” but I have taken lots of chances, many out of necessity. Yes, I’m scared. Yes, I feel like an idiot sometimes. But I do it anyway.

    I think lawyers, especially young lawyers, are used to being at the top of their game and in control. The first few years of practice ARE scary. But you need to push through that and just go for it. Do the best you can do. Get over whatever feelings are holding you back. The worst that can happen is that you will fall on your face. Trust me, even that isn’t that bad. The best that can happen is that you will be successful.

  4. Hi Nicole –

    Thanks for this excellent post. I agree that it is important to remember that a successful career may not follow a traditional path.

    I’m a lawyer and writer who heads a legal PR and web content writing firm. My clients are lawyers. My work involves using my legal skills every day. Sometimes, that means translating legal concepts into language a lay audience can understand. It can mean reviewing a court opinion to determine whether it has news value. It also means helping reporters understand legal concepts as they write a story.

    As you noted, we live in a rapidly changing economic, technological and professional landscape. There are many opportunities that do not involve “leaving the law” but put a law degree to use in new and exciting ways.

    Geri L. Dreiling