It’s Not Your Horrible Law Job. It’s You.

Unhappy lawyers often think that their problem is simply their horrible job. And I’ll be the first in line to say that the daily job of practicing law is nasty. Unpleasant, hostile people (and then there’s opposing counsel), unrelenting pressure of perfectionism, too damned much tedium and unbearable boredom, plus there are far, far too many hours expected.

Redheaded woman alcoholic

Attorney attitudes about money, certainty and lots of other stuff is as bad for them as constant boozing.

But there’s also another truth at work: Some of the horridness of your job stems from your own toxic attitudes. About money, about what work should and should not be, about what you need to feel OK about yourself, about what you should do in the face of obstacles and roadblocks.

Would you agree with an alcoholic who says that she just needs to move away from her toxic spouse, and everything will be fine? Likely not. Yes, breaking up that dysfunctional dynamic is very important, but it’s not the whole solution. Because we all know the arc of the story when the alcoholic doesn’t see her own choices as part of her problem: The wife will simply choose another toxic person to replace the spouse. That’s the choice that feels familiar, and even though dysfunctional, oddly comforting.

So which attitudes are your own personal landmines? I commonly see toxic attitudes in attorneys about:

  • Money
  • Certainty
  • Valuing head over heart
  • Avoiding discomfort
  • Productivity as validation
  • Perfectionism
  • Mistakes
  • Risk aversion

Attorneys, and lots of other people, tend to think that their attitudes about these things are truth, when really they’re a choice about how you view the world. That’s important, because you can choose to change your mind, and not coincidentally change your life. More next time about precisely what’s toxic about attorney attitudes, and what you can choose to open up your mind to exploring.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on finding better, more meaningful work–and not coincidentally, helping attorneys reform some of their toxic attitudes along the way. Find out what that’s like by scheduling a discounted sample coaching session. Email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com today to schedule your session, and get on the road to becoming a recovering lawyer.

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13 thoughts on “It’s Not Your Horrible Law Job. It’s You.

  1. Perhaps I am misunderstanding your point, but I really don’t agree with it. I quit my job at a law firm 6 months ago (did litigation for six years) and am taking time off to think about my next career move. As soon as I quit my job, all of my toxic attitudes (anxiety about money, achiement, accomplishment) dissolved. I’ve never been happier – I thought I needed my job and everything I got out of it, and as soon as I quit I realized I was wrong. Since then I’ve been taking different classes and enjoying life. I have seen other lawyers have the same experience when they quit – it really was just the job. Getting out of that environment really can be the answer.

    • Former Lawyer,

      Why did you decide to take time off, rather than finding a new job / career before leaving your law firm job?

      I’m contemplating whether to look for a job in a new field, or take some time off to pursue a few interests that have been neglected since I started working in law. On the one hand, especially in this economy, it’s wise to not leave a job until you have a new one. It’s axiomatic that getting a job is much easier if you already have a job.

      On the other hand, I’ve experienced the toxic attitudes described in the article above. I want the chance to de-tox from all the negativity I’ve been accumulating for years, dealing with a negative, all-consuming job. It’s hard to find the motivation to jump into a new field while still burnt out from BigLaw life.

      As I’ve described elsewhere on this site, I worry that much of my unhappiness at BigLaw originates from these bad attitudes, and related bad work habits. To the extent the bad attitudes originate in or are reinforced by BigLaw work, detoxing seems worthwhile. But if the bad attitudes are mostly self-generated, then leaving law without resolving them won’t resolve the problem.

      • Polybius,

        I decided to take time off instead of finding a new job while I was working because I don’t know what I want to do. I was working so much that I did not have a chance to do any sort of honest assessment of what I like/want, and I wanted to have a chance to relax and get some perspective before making any more decisions. After having some time to think about it, I know that I would never return to a law firm, there’s a small chance I would practice law again if it were a 9-5 job, but most likely I want to find something else. I’m a big fan of the work detox and I think I’ll make better long term career decisions because of it.

    • What I tend to see happen is lawyers not under stress of working do fine–but as soon as they’re in a job that’s stressful, even if it’s one they like, a lot of the toxic stuff starts to creep back in. Not, mind you, at the same level as when practicing law, but it’s still there. And can still have the same bad side effects, like valuing paying work over creative, non-productive work that is ultimately more soul-satisfying. Hopefully you’ll prove the exception!

      • Former Lawyer,

        Interesting. I have a plan for how to leave and what to do next. But I find that I’m working too much to put it in place. I’m coming around to the idea of just leaving, and working out the next steps after.

        Doing so feels like taking a step off a cliff without looking. But if I wait until I can put my plan into place, I’m afraid I’ll never leave.

      • Polybius, everyone has to do what feels right to them, but life is short! And if you have an idea and a plan, you’re already ahead of the curve! If it makes you feel better, I have a friend who left his software sales job to focus on building his business idea because he realized he just couldn’t do it while he was working. He’s implementing his plan, loves it, and his business is coming along. Good luck with everything!

      • Leavinglaw, I believe what you’re saying. Part of the reason I left a law firm is I looked at the people working there and saw negative people with bad attitudes. I could imagine any of them being miserable at another job. I like to think I have a better attitude and approach than them. I will say I’ve been doing stand up comedy for a year and a half which is arguably more negative than lawyering (and definitely doesn’t pay the bills) but have a very different experience with it than lawyering because I find it so satisfying. My plan is to channel that feeling into my next career. Some people always choose to be unhappy – I’ve made a choice not to be one of those people and the first step was leaving the law firm.

      • Oh, I think embracing something you really love makes all the difference. Congrats to you on such a wise choice!

  2. Plus, part of my problem is not making *enough* money in law.

    I so should have gone to med school. I could be a specialist making over $300,000 per year.

  3. Pingback: Why You Choose To Work For Assholes « Leaving the Law

  4. Pingback: Chasing the Perfect Job, Ruining Your Alternative Legal Career Search « Leaving the Law

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