My client Louisa (name and details changed) was conflicted. She has achieved her first fee-paid judicial appointment. She is getting glowing appraisals and comments from her full-time colleagues that she should apply for a full-time position and set her sights on the High Court bench. The judicial pension would provide her with a nice financial exit strategy after the precarious nature of her self-employed career to date. All looks like it should be rosy. Yet it’s not.

When Louisa talks about the judiciary she uses phrases like ‘I should...’ and ‘I guess...’ On my Zoom screen I see her slump a little and look away to the right. But when she talks about an alternative option – opening a law clinic in a deprived area of her city she says ‘I’d love to...’ and ‘If I could…’ Her mouth curls in a smile before she even says the words and I see her breathe deeply, filling herself not only with air but with hope and the prospect of joy. She looks me in the eye and tells me how much she would enjoy using law to serve communities in need, how it matches with her personality. But then she tells me that maybe she should progress up the more conventional career ladder, if not to the judiciary then maybe she should try to take silk.

Ambition and self-actualisation

As lawyers, by our nature, we have a degree of ambition. The lengthy and often arduous qualification requirements put off those who don’t. We invest time, energy and money into getting into a competitive career and we don’t want to waste that. The career has obvious well-trodden career paths with golden rewards at the end: Queen’s Counsel, equity partner, being called Your Honour. To ‘give up’ or ‘divert’ before you get there seems like, if not complete failure, a degree of mediocrity and stagnation.

For that is the nature of ambition; it propels us forward. However, ambition becomes harmful if taken to excess and associated with a ruthless uncaring drive to get to the top by trampling over other people if that is what is required. Likewise, too little ambition feels like fecklessness, a settling or, as Louisa put it, a feeling of becoming ‘beached’. We assume, Goldilocks like, that just enough ambition is the perfect measure. A steady climb up the well-worn path to ‘the top’ is how a career should be. And yet for some of us, while ambition drives us down the road, we have an internal brake pulling us back.

Ambition is a tool that is meant to help us with our ultimate purpose as humans to ‘self-actualise’. Self-actualisation is the complete realisation of your full potential and the full development of your abilities and appreciation for life. Or, as psychologist Carl Rogers put it, it is ‘when a person’s ideal self (ie who they would like to be) is congruent with their actual behaviour’. The problem with ambition is when we tie it to the wrong destination, to fulfilling someone else’s vision for us and not our own internal understanding of our ideal self, and that is something lawyers commonly struggle with.

Why ambition causes conflict

One reason for this is that lawyers do not often stop to reflect, or are not self-aware enough, to really know where our inner strengths and desires are taking us. A constant whirl of work keeps our nose down to the path immediately in front of our feet. If you have three skeleton arguments and two orders to draft plus a client conference before the end of the day, when do you take time to wonder about where you want to be in life in a year’s time, five years’ time, or ten years’ time? When did you last spend time in conversation with someone who is deeply listening to you, drawing out for you the truths you did not realise were there?

As humans we can also cloak ourselves with the ambitions of others. Louisa told me about her mother, who brought her up in comfort but was always conscious that she had never been to university herself. Louisa knew as a teen that her mother’s hope was that she would do better, go further. She imagined how proud her mother would be to tell people her daughter was a judge or QC. Motivation like that from a third party who cares about us can be very important and a positive influence on our lives. However, it can become dangerous if combined with a fixed definition of what success means.

How coaching can help

In our coaching session I was able to help Louisa listen to the two voices inside her. There was a strong voice that said: ‘You should keep climbing the ladder. You should get to the top. You should be successful.’ A quieter voice said: ‘I don’t know if it’s possible but I’m really drawn to being the director of a law clinic, to helping a community with civil rights and poverty. People might say it was ‘bleeding heart’ but I think I’d feel “me” doing that.’

First, we looked at who was saying to Louisa ‘you should keep climbing’. It was now a deeply internalised voice, but where had that belief originally come from? What was the underlying intention of the voice? Next, we looked at her individual definition of success. What career path would fully realise her unique set of skills and desires? What would give her joy? Finally, we looked at what advice she imagined she would get from the friends and colleagues she had earlier mentioned as true supports and people she admired.

By the end of the process Louisa was able to redirect her ambition away from other people’s definition of success and towards her own. When I asked: ‘If you imagine yourself as the director of that law centre, does the nagging voice in your head stop saying ‘You should, you should,’ and say, ‘Oh! You did it!’ She replied with sudden certainty. ‘Yes. Yes it does.’

In conclusion, before you start thinking about how to get to ‘the top’ it is important to consider if you are on the right mountain. If ambition is to keep pushing us ever upwards into the fog-covered distance, the peak never in sight, we need to decide what direction is right for us in the first place. The direction should be wherever you find your maximum satisfaction with the daily process of work. Do you like the adrenaline rush of roping up and climbing sheer cliff faces and sliding back down scree? Or would you like the bucolic meander through field and by babbling brook? Neither is wrong but only one is instinctively right for you. Take that direction. 


Self-coaching exercises:

  • Imagine yourself sitting on a porch in a rocking chair in your eighties. What would that contented future self say to you now about your career dilemmas?
  • Use your lawyer skills: Write down what that ‘You should’ voice is telling you. Then ask: Does it have any evidence for what it is saying? Is that evidence relevant or out of date? Is the evidence bettered by arguments from the ‘I wish’ voice? Is the voice truly on your side or should you treat it as a hostile witness because it is furthering its own motivations and needs?