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On career design, with the help of luminaries

05 May 2017 - By Katie Cowan

I have gathered you all here today to tell you about career design, with the help of my good friends Amy Poehler and Daniel Kahneman.

Our careers are cool and wondrous things that we get to guide and design how we like (mostly). Design is about conscious care given to how a thing is used and experienced. Design is not the same as control, but that’s okay; full control is overrated.

As you start your careers, you would do well to reflect occasionally on where you are and where else you might be able to go.

In her seminal book Yes, Please (Dey Street Books, 2015) Amy Poehler tells us that she lives by the maxim “Good for her, not for me”. She uses it to sidestep all the dumb judgement women get about the different ways we live and are, and work and parent. It’s a dynamite principle for your career. It allows you, without justifying yourself, to occasionally step off the conveyor belt. You can then look around, and step on a different one that seems to work better, even if the conveyor belt you were on seemed to work perfectly well for everyone else who was on it.

But what might a different conveyor belt look like? To begin with, you might not know. I certainly didn’t.

In his seminal book, Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman tells us that our well-meaning but dumb, pattern-finding brains will, without intervention, mislead us into believing that “what you see is all there is” (aka WYSIATI).

The signals you get in a workplace are generally: this is how people do their work; this is how people practise law; this is The Way.

If you don’t know about WYSIATI, you will accept that, even if you know, theoretically, that people practise law lots of different ways.

For example, if you work at one of the bigger firms who put on those lovely wine and cheese events at law school, you can be forgiven for thinking that that is the only way to practise law. It’s certainly the culture that is presented in those environments.

But a problem arises when, if you find yourself unhappy, or bored, or unable to maintain your health, or your relationships, or something else happens that makes you think something might be off, you think that the issue is not that job but law itself. You forget that jobs and employers that work for some people do not work for all people (good for her, not for me), and you think either that the problem is “you”, or the problem is “law”.

Now, the problem may be you, and it may be law, but if you have only practised law with one employer, or in one way, or in one area, you do not have nearly enough data to reach that conclusion.

Your career is a glorious, mysterious thing that is yours, and that you get to control (mostly). Love it enough to take risks with it. Love it enough to step into it, take hold of it, and design it a little. If your current work does not fit with you, explore the notion that it is “only” a matter of fit, and not an issue with you or with law. If you are in a big firm, try the public sector. If you’re in family law, try IP. If you’re an employed litigator, try the autonomous mode of barristership. Hell, just try switching employers within the same area of practice. Notice when your brain is trying to tell you that what you see is all there is, and politely prove it wrong.

Because here’s the truth: we are human, and humanity is characterised by variety. It is not reasonable to think that what is good for her will always also be good for you. And it turns out, what you see is not all there is. Happy designing.


Katie Cowan is the founder of Christchurch-based litigation services provider Symphony Law Ltd. She is responsible for The New Lawyer fortnightly podcasts for new and prospective lawyers which aim to think in new ways about the practice and culture of law.

Last updated on the 1st December 2018