Shedding Light on Lawyer Creativity

When I first read The Artist’s Way (still the best book on creative recovery out there), I kept searching and searching my memories for those Creative Monster moments. Those are the ones seared in your memory, where someone makes you feel about 2 inches small over some creative effort. The teacher who crumples up your precious doodle and throws it in the trashcan, and lectures you about not wasting time. The person who sniffs at your very first attempts at writing poetry as “not exactly Shakespeare, is it?”

Play by the moonlight, or anywhere else. Just play, and the light will follow.

Play by the moonlight, or anywhere else. Just play, and the light will follow.

Except, I couldn’t really dredge up anything. I had no huge scarring experience to heal from. I felt so wimpy—why couldn’t I just get over my fear of doing something highly creative, of writing the novel I long to write?

Hell, I coach people all the time about vulnerability, and I practice it in many ways. I am pretty darn good, I must say, at detaching from a lot of society’s judgments and not feeling “less than.” I often go without makeup (at 47, this is getting more and more daring!), I don’t value myself by how much stuff I have or whether or not I go on exotic, glamorous-sounding vacations.

But yet, the fear ran deep. And I kind of despised myself for being unable to just get over it. (Yep, we all have our issues, life coaches included.)

Peering into the Past

A few months ago, I got together with both of my sisters and their kids. It was the first time in a couple years we had all gathered at one of our houses. We embarked on a game of Quelf. (If you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it. Lots of wacky yet intelligent fun, great for a wide age range.)

In Quelf, one of the possibilities is drawing a card that requires everyone to come up with synonyms to a word. The word on one particular turn was “night.” There was the predictable “dark,” and a few other equally predictable synonyms. Then it was my turn.

“Inky,” I said.

“WHAT????” exclaimed both sisters. “How is that about night?”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

“No, how is ‘inky’ about night?” they demanded.

My inner dialogue went like this: “Am I wrong? Maybe they’re right, maybe it’s a big stretch. Maybe I am just weird. No, wait Continue reading

What Flavor Is Your Fear, Miserable Lawyer?

All those happiness experts often talk about confronting fears as a way to happiness and resiliency. I don’t disagree with that thesis, exactly. But lawyers are so completely fueled by fears, small and large, that it’s helpful to learn how to discern what flavors your fears come in. That way, you’ll know which ones are worth tackling.

Some fears are actually useful. The ones you have when a car is heading straight toward you at 40 mph, or when a gun is brandished. Those are real, direct fears that require immediate action for your safety and survival.

business guy scared by large shadow

Is this the main flavoring component to your fears?

Then, there are the ones that we rationally know aren’t deserving of the level of fear we give them, like my fear of spiders, or someone else’s fear of heights. We know we’re being a little (or a lot) crazy, but still, we’re scared.

Or, maybe we’re scared of having to do something that we are actually really bad at and don’t have any interest in doing. Like, my deep-rooted desire to never, ever again get into a roller coaster simulator at the science center. While some 10 year-olds think it’s awesome, I did not find it awesome to have to hold my nose, squeeze my eyes shut and pray like hell I didn’t throw up before the end of the simulation.

But mostly, these kinds of fears don’t keep us from finding a fulfilling life and career. The fears that keep us from a satisfying life seem completely rational and logical. You could probably explain them to your best friend or maybe even a therapist, and you wouldn’t sound like a nut-job. Heck, you might even get some enthusiastic nods of agreement.

Continue reading

Leaving Law, Warts and All

Taisha Rucker gives a searingly honest, uncomfortable account of her journey out of law in Full-Disclosure: How To Quit Practicing Law With No Savings, Massive Debt, No Supportive Spouse, and Not a Single Clue About What’s Next. While I think most unhappy lawyers could benefit from the wisdom she acquired along the way, many of you may simply freak out at the thought of lurching along on an uncertain path as she did, and quickly put the book down. That would be a mistake.

Full Disclosure coverRucker does not give the step-by-step plan that most unhappy attorneys, formed by the punch-list lifestyle, deeply crave. After all, aren’t we supposed to set a goal, figure out the steps to that goal, and then march, march, march?

That’s how most lawyers got to law school, whether or not law school was the goal. Lawyers, especially those that go to the top tier schools, are masters of achieving the goals of good grades, leadership positions that look good on the application, and that myriad of things that schools and corporate America say we need to do to be successful and have a future. At least, one in which we will not be living under a bridge.

Yet what we often need to do is stop moving, and listen to what our true selves want and need. Rucker focuses on this crucial, yet usually derided, part of planning our career paths and lives.

The Original Plan

Unlike so many of my clients and readers, Rucker did not go to law school because she lacked any better idea of what to do with herself after graduating college with some stripe of liberal arts degree. No, she knew since she was 11 that she wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer.

This was her plan: Continue reading

Please, Unhappy Lawyers, No “New Job This Year!” Resolutions

I know what you did over the holiday season, you unhappy lawyer, you. You decided that the solution to your misery was simple: FIND A NEW JOB, THIS YEAR!!! I won’t say that a new job can’t make you happier, because of course it can. The question is, will it make you happier just to be in different circumstances, or will it make you happier past when the novelty wears off?

list of things to do: buy coffee machine, repair roof, buy face cream, paint bathroom, then get job

A better list of priorities for the new year. Coffee is #1, as it should be.

I’ve had many clients over the years who were bound and determined to simply get the hell out of their current misery. It almost didn’t matter to them what the new gig was, as long as it wasn’t their current one that had them working constant all-nighters on meaningless deals or TROs with toxic colleagues. They were so unhappy they just knew that anything was better than their current hell. And in many ways, they were right. By the time they had gotten to that soul-depleted, sleep-deprived point, even time in a mental hospital would have been better. At least they wouldn’t have to bill for that.

What happened next for these clients? They took the first job that was remotely palatable, usually not in a law firm. It varied in the details, but typically, yes, they felt better . . . for a while. That while may have been a few weeks, or a year, but in the end, they weren’t actually a whole lot happier. Less stretched past their limits and less exhausted, yes. But not so much happier, as just less abjectly miserable.

Whoo-hoo, what a fabulous New Year’s resolution result: I’m not abjectly miserable, Mom!!

Don’t Hold Out for Your Dream Job

Mind you, I’m not advocating staying in your soul-destroying current gig until you find that dream job, because

  1. I doubt you know what it is yet,
  2. You probably don’t have all the experiences and skills for it right now, and
  3. It may not be time for it yet, according to the wisdom of the Universe (see also, 1 and 2).

What I am suggesting is that you put some serious thought into what that dream really looks like, feels like, tastes like, and sounds like. Journal about it. Make a vision board. Read obsessively about jobs that seem interesting, even if you’re not remotely qualified.

Do it now, not when you have some spare time—because you know perfectly well that if you wait for your life to settle down, you will never take the time to dream. Life rarely settles down when you want it to. By the time it does, you’ll be so exhausted that all you’ll do is sleep. Or take the first job offered, regardless of whether it makes an ounce of sense in the long-term.

The Bridge Job

Once you’ve got a good feel for your dream, work back from there. Think of it as a trip from Boston to Key West. You’ll need transportation and a new wardrobe, and some snacks. You probably won’t need that snow-blower and wool fisherman’s sweaters once you get past Richmond or so. You’ll need to stock up on sunscreen and bathing suits, and learn how to make mojitos instead of Irish coffee. If you garden, you’ll need to learn all about dealing with sandy, not rocky, soil, and about a whole new array of plants and flowers. Bye-bye, tulips, hello, beach sunflowers and palm trees!

In more job-oriented terms (because I know how some of you hate metaphor when you can’t figure out the basics), if you want to write a novel but haven’t written anything but grocery lists and motions to compel in years, you would maybe take a class in fiction or poetry or journalism. Or, if that seems too daunting, a class on improving your business writing skills (better website copy, anyone?). If you want to run a non-profit, maybe you look for an in-house job where you would gain management experience, or volunteer for a group that you like and needs fundraising help.

The point is, if your dream job and life seem like a million miles from where you are, your next job probably won’t be your dream job. But with some dreaming and then some thinking, you can make that next job one of the bridges that gives you more of what you need to get you there in the end.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys discern their dreams, and then figure out the supply list and map for getting there. If you’d like to get some advice for going on your own journey, email Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for a discounted sample coaching session.

Unhappy Lawyers and the Myth of “I’m not creative”

When I say “use your creativity” to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, I get some highly revealing responses. Sadly, a common reaction is “I’m not creative.” I blame traditional schooling, Martha Stewart and Pinterest, and our consumerist society for this false belief. Every human being is born creative. At its most basic, creativity is solving a problem for which there is no known (to them) solution, or for which the current solution isn’t working. The artistic expression part of creativity is often just icing on the cake. Icing is yummy, mind you, but it’s not the whole cake.

School Conformity Nukes Creativity

With their focus on correct answers and conformity, schools tend to squash the creativity of all but the most abundantly talented creatives. As Dan Pink points out in his book A Whole New Mind (which you need to read if you haven’t), when children in 1st grade were asked if they are artists, all the hands flew up. By 6th grade, none of the hands went up. (pp. 68-69)

rubber ducks in colors

Education’s idea of creativity. Hey, the ducks may be in rows, but look at those different colors!

My own belief is that tween social pressure—when, developmentally, conformity pressure crescendos—exacerbates the message kids have gotten from most of their teachers: There is one correct answer, and one correct way to get there. Creativity is weird, and should be hidden from view.

Standardized tests ram this message down everyone’s throat. I’ve seen this pressure to conform thinking to a standard pathway again and again in worksheets my 4th grade son has brought home over the years. Far too many times, Continue reading

From Star Student to . . . Poet?

“She was chosen as one of the best high school students in the country, to visit the President of the United States. Her parents assumed that she would go on to be a doctor or a lawyer, so when she announced that she wanted to be a poet, they weren’t sure what to make of it. ‘She said, ‘My father swallowed once, and said, ‘Well, I’ve never understood poetry, so don’t be upset if I don’t read it.’ ‘ Her teachers at college told her she was throwing her education away if she didn’t study something more practical.“ The Writer’s Almanac, Aug. 28, 2013.

photo of Rita Dove

Rita Dove, one courageous woman who chose not to do the expected and become a lawyer.

“She” was the now-renowned poet Rita Dove. At the time she chose the path of a poet,  and not that more practical path as a lawyer or doctor, she was not a Pulitzer Prize-winner. She was not the first African-American Poet Laureate of the United States. She was not the winner of so many awards and honors it takes paragraphs to list them all.

Dove was young, and the daughter of a man with a master’s degree in chemistry. He had worked for a time as an elevator operator, because companies wouldn’t hire a black chemist. Eventually he became the first African-American chemist hired by Goodyear Tire. Dove’s mother was a high school honors student who never went to college, but always encouraged her children in academics.

But She’s Never Been A Lawyer

Why am I writing about this, a blog about lawyers and their career struggles? Hearing Dove’s story, I was struck by the amazing courage it took to decide on poetry as a career. Dove later told the Chicago Tribune, “As a young black person in college I was expected to be a professional. . . Writing poetry was unthinkable then. I was writing but not showing it to anyone yet because I couldn’t see myself as a writer.”

Dove’s struggle is no different than that of many lawyers wanting to leave law to Continue reading

Smart Lawyers, Dumb at Life, Part 2

I stand by my assertion that lawyers are, by and large, a bunch of quitters. Not in the sense that accusation is usually hurled, mind you. At work, lawyers tend to be tenacious and will dig their heels way in when they think they’re right, i.e., every other minute at the very least.

A magnanimous gesture, lawyer-style.

A magnanimous gesture, lawyer-style.

No, what I mean is that lawyers quit when the going gets tough at anything they’re not already pretty good at. Things they tend to suck at, like relationships, compromise, and dreams, for starters. Because they’re so used to being smart and good at the smarty-pants stuff, they’ve set themselves up for motivation by external validation, and haven’t worked much at resilience.

Resilience is, essentially, the ability to bounce back after a failure or set-back. To have hope in the face of disappointment. Looking back, I can count on my hands the number of lawyers I’ve known who are resilient at anything but work.

But if you’re performing well at work, why does that matter? And surely, career coach, you’re not saying we should all go and find a job that we suck at just to learn to be resilient? Continue reading

Magical Thinking and Your Legal Career

One of the reasons it takes unhappy lawyers so long to make a change is that, just when they’ve had it with their dysfunctional job and are ready to throw in the towel, something decent or even good happens. They get an interesting assignment that doesn’t require endless 12-hour days. They get assigned to work with a partner who treats them humanely, most of the time. The case goes into a lull. Hey, things are looking up!

Until, they’re not. The plum assignment ends, the nice partner kowtows to the asshole partner, the case explodes.

average guy in tutu with magic wand

Probably not the look you’re aiming for in your legal career search.

Yes, I’m always preaching about reframing the stuff in your life more positively, developing your optimism, and such-like. But thinking that due to this one positive event, your job environment is going to change and now you’ll be happy in law is magical thinking.

Driven by intermittent rewards, magical thinking keeps you in the wildly dysfunctional environment of law far too long. It’s the same dynamic that keeps gamblers addicted: This time Continue reading

The Legal Industry, the Zombie Apocalypse, and the Right Shoes for It

Whether or not you realize it, your legal career is about to get eaten in the zombie apocalypse. The signs are everywhere; stories abound about

  • how law school isn’t worth it, economically;
  • deans are resigning in fiery protests and law professors are mouthing off increasingly about the scam that law school is;
  • the most positive adjective for law firm hiring the last few years is “lackluster;”
  • ginormous law firm implosions (Howrey and Dewey, anyone?);
  • clients screeching for, and getting, alternative fee arrangements; yet
  • billable hours requirements continue their climb, while pay declines, and
  • lawyer dissatisfaction of at least 50% (probably a lot more) of the profession.

If you don’t think this is a recipe for the zombie apocalypse in the legal profession, you’ve been working on the Curiousity rover for the last 5 years. Which is cool. Or living in Denial, Egypt. Which is not so cool. But the really important question is, are you wearing the right shoes for the coming zombie apocalypse?

Damn, You’ll Look Good While Getting Eaten

Cause the thing is, most attorneys wear the metaphorical equivalent what I like to call the “won’t survive the zombie apocalypse” shoes. In real life, I have this slight, um, obsession about classifying women’s shoes this way. The shoes that are 6” stilettos, with big bows and little else attaching them to the feet. And hell yes, they look amazing.

Great shoes if all you need is to look good. If you and your career might need to run in another direction, though, you might want to go shoe shopping for something else.

Trouble is, the only place you can really wear these and not break an ankle is in a carpeted office, doing a job that doesn’t require you to do any walking except to the loo, the conference room and maybe the kitchen to get some coffee. Do more than that, and you risk life and limb. You can’t outrun a toddler. We won’t even discuss your podiatrist and orthopedist bills.

If a zombie suddenly appears and starts chasing you, and you keep those shoes on, you are going down first, before all the people who wear boring 2” wedges, or ballet flats, or even—gasp—Dansko and their ilk.

In Lawyerland, “won’t survive the zombie apocalypse” shoes look like Continue reading

Reframing Your Life and Legal Career

With the advent of digital photography, we are all now experts at framing and cropping pictures. Focusing in on a detail, tightening the focus to get rid of an unsightly background, hell, even changing up some colors—we all now get how with images, the difference between ugly and great can be a simply matter of how you frame it.

It’s the same with life and career. Really.

Star Wars Legos clones

Sure, it’s an OK picture here . . .

Star Wars Legos clones

but you can really appreciate the awesome creativity if you focus on what’s important and leave all the distraction out.

I’ll share something that happened to me not long ago, to show how the way you mentally frame the crap that comes along in life makes a big difference in the quality of your life. And career.

Vulnerability and Uncertainty—the Hardest Part

I’m at “that age.” In other words, that amorphous period of life when your doctor starts prefacing things with, “Well, at your age . . . “ and is usually followed with a suggestion of a test or medication. And of course, being a woman close to “that age,” I’ve been getting mammograms for several years. This year, I got a call instead of a letter. They saw something that might or might not be a change since last year.

I did OK at first. All that work over the years of learning Martin Seligman-inspired optimism did pay off. I breathed. I did not get on the Internet and Continue reading