Saddest Lawyers: “I Don’t Even Know What I Like Doing”

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there's iPads for distraction, right?

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there’s iPads for distraction, right?

A lot of you know you hate law. But a lot of you also do not know what you would do if you had free time, except maybe sleep. I’m not talking about taking any steps toward making a career change, mind you; I’m talking about the basic concept of doing something purely for fun.

People who have no idea of how to have fun have been marching along to society’s, parents’, and teachers’ idea of what they should do for a very, heartbreakingly long time. They have become numb to their own desires and their own voice.

Far too many lawyers fall into this category. One-third to one-half of my clients usually fall into this category when they initially contact me. It’s often the result of being a smart kid who does well in school. Those around you think all those A’s should be encouraged; after all, those grades will be terrific on your college application.

And that may be just fine with you, because great grades sure look like the start of the path to a good life, and you like school anyway. In fact, you internalize all this and don’t explore non-academic things that won’t help that college application, like art, dancing, writing poetry, ultimate frisbee, or making goofy videos. Because unless you have some unbelievable gift in a non-academic area, these things aren’t likely to win you awards and praise. They are, sadly, usually viewed as time-wasters.

Except, they’re not. Exploring stuff simply because you’re interested in it is how you get to know yourself and honor Continue reading

Special Snowflake Illusions: Lawyer Edition

So this last couple weeks, my life has been turned a little upside down. But not as much as my friend, Mark’s, life has. Mark was moving to California from the East Coast, and stopped in Nashville along the way. We sent him on his way last Tuesday morning, expecting to hear from him that evening that he’d made it to his next stop.

Maybe you're the special snowflake that will walk the Golden (Handcuff) Path of law. Do you even want to? Photo credit: Snowcrystals.com

Maybe you’re the special snowflake that will walk the Golden (Handcuff) Path of law. Or keep your law job. Or maybe you’re just hiding behind an illusion.
Photo credit: Snowcrystals.com

Instead, I got a call a few hours later. Mark had been in an accident caused by a patch of ice, in which he spun around 360 degrees, then flipped over twice. Miraculously, Mark was the one calling me, and not from the ER. He had walked away with a bruise on the arm, a scratch on the head, and in the end, barely even any aches. He stayed with us for a week as he sorted the tedious details out. That was the part that turned my life a little upside down, just by having another person in the house for a week. (And not that I minded!)

Mark is out a car, but of course he could have paid a far, far higher price. Things like this always make me think about how much we carry around illusions of safety and certainty. Even though car accidents are the #1 cause of death for people under 44 years old, we get in our cars every day without a microsecond of reflection that we could be taking our last ride.

The Safe Path of Law

And yet, there are so many of you out there who are utterly convinced that staying in law is a path of safety and certainty, and that you would be wildly irresponsible 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.

Find Your Personality in Your Career

Leaving the Law is delighted to welcome Chelsea Callanan, founder of Happy Go Legal, as a guest blogger. Chelsea focuses on helping lawyers find the right fit for them in a legal career. More on that below.

During law school, we are all pressured to be part of a herd. No matter how unique you felt going into law school, no matter how righteous your specific reason for wanting a JD, you likely didn’t make it through the three grueling years without adopting at least some of the herd mentality. Dreams of working at a non-profit environmental organization are quickly shelved as everyone begins competing for the few jobs at big firms. Even if it does not feel like a good fit for you, it is easy to want to compete to “win.”

herd of wildebeast crossing river

Sure there’s safety in numbers, but the crocodiles can still get you if you choose poorly.

Because of this herd mentality, many new graduates end up in jobs that are a horrible fit for them. They “won”––but in fact may lose years of their lives, lose respect for themselves, or even lose themselves in the job––because of one rash decision. Even if you skirted the herd, and stuck to your guns about finding a job that was a good fit for you, you may now be questioning how well you knew yourself or what you wanted. So in an industry where there are more lawyers than traditional jobs, how do you find your personality in your career?

I talk a lot about helping lawyers find success and sustainability in their legal careers. If you are feeling burned out, or are feeling like you are being stifled or held back in your current job, this can of course be a very appealing concept––but what does it really mean? Let’s break it down into its two components. Continue reading

How Money Saps Lawyers’ Creativity

I’m on a teeny, tiny little tear about materialism lately. If I were writing for the average factory worker, maybe this would be the wrong time to harp about the evils money can work in your life. But for law factory workers (aka, BigLaw), confronting materialism is important. If you don’t see it in your life, if will affect your choices and keep you stuck without your seeing why.

Lawyer caught in mousetrap

Creative lawyer, meet BigLaw money.

In other words, if you don’t see how the focus on the things shapes your attitudes, you will think that you can’t choose an alternative legal career that pays much less than the ridiculous salaries of BigLaw.

One of the ways we stay stuck is by clinging to the things we know—especially the ones that give us some modicum of pleasure. In initial coaching sessions, when I ask lawyers what gives them pleasure, they usually trot out lists of material goods and experiences that only money can buy. Rarely do I hear a client talk about the sun on his face, the smell of spring flowers, or time spent with a pet. I almost never hear clients talk about the pleasure of making something themselves, except possibly cooking.

We are all, regardless of Meyers-Briggs Type, current job or past training (or lack thereof), inherently creative beings. As I’ve talked about before, our culture and particularly our schools not only don’t know how to cultivate creativity, they actively crush it by about 5th grade. This is not that rant.

Cash Isn’t Creative

When you don’t have lots of cash laying around to buy a ready-made solution, you have to get creative to solve a problem. Continue reading

The Story of Your Alternative Legal Career

What stories do you tell yourself about an alternative legal career? I don’t mean the official, upbeat networking version, or even the realistically optimistic one you might tell a career coach or a therapist. No, I’m talking about the ones your inner lizard croons into your ear, sabotaging you.

Choose a better story for a better legal career.It’s the story we attach to events that cause us the most pain, as Martha Beck reminded me in her new book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature To Create the Life You Want. Yes, there is some pain when you aren’t getting any interviews in that new field you want to be in. It doesn’t feel great to not make the progress you want. But it’s the story you’re attaching to those lack of interviews and progress that makes you miserable and sure you are stuck in law forever.

Actually, “I’m going to be stuck in something I hate” is one of those stories you tell yourself. It’s that thought Continue reading

Edit Perfect Out of Your Alternative Legal Career Search–and Your Life

My torts professor was terribly fond of saying that you only remember something after you’ve heard it at least 5 times. He would then intone, 5 times, “Negligence is not a defense to an intentional tort.” And whaddya know, after 20-plus years, I DO remember that! And, unfortunately, quite a bit about Mrs. Palsgraf and her trouble with crashing objects that got repeated endlessly. (If only there had been YouTube when I was in law school, we could have just watched this and moved right on.)

perfection entry in dictionary

Perfect and its cousins may fill a dictionary page, but it won't fulfill you in work or life.

The same principal works on what we say to ourselves, too. That’s why I’ve been working to eliminate one word from my vocabulary: perfect. I use it way too much, and I don’t like the way it makes my brain tilt.

It’s a little odd, this obsession I have about ridding myself of that word. Mostly, I use it to describe something that works really well, or that fits the circumstances quite nicely. What’s so damaging about that?

For starters, it awakens my dozing inner lizard, Guido, who first gets excited about something finally being perfect; it’s about damn time! Then, Guido starts picking out all the flaws with whatever I’ve just described as perfect. Since that only takes a second or two, and since he’s up and about anyway, Guido then looks for other things whose flaws need pointing out. At this point we often veer into topics like money, my dowdy shoes, my singing, the amount of carbs I’m consuming, the exercise I’m not doing, or other fulfilling subjects.

Also, the stickler in me tends to pipe up annoyingly about how nothing on this amazing, gorgeous, wonderful earth is perfect, and so essentially I’m lying to myself and maybe others Continue reading

Claim Your Potential, Quit Your Law Job Like David Johnson

In case you haven’t already spend a boatload of billables reading, analyzing and gossiping about Sidley partner David B. Johnson’s superb departure/retirement email, here’s the link from Above the Law.

word "potential" highlighted in legal document

It might be a good idea to seek your potential outside of a legal document, if you want that alternative legal career.

Of course, my hat is off to Mr. Johnson. Welcome to the ranks of lawyer-writers, sir.

For the rest of you who want to leave law, let’s talk amongst ourselves about that “untapped potential” Johnson references in his email. I have no way of knowing what he means by that, nor do I need to (it’s damn funny regardless). What I’m wondering is why you are deciding to live with your untapped potential, instead of taking steps to realize it.

The reality is, if you’re reading a blog about leaving law, law is not doing it for you. Your soul longs for its potential to be realized, and it isn’t going to be realized while being a lawyer. That’s what your unhappiness is all about.

Here’s what wanting to leave law isn’t about: Continue reading

Questioning Your New Year’s Career Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are the fall leaves of career coaching: You know they’re coming, and you sigh because you know you will shortly be helping rake them up and put them in the compost pile where they belong.

Asking the right question can lead to the best answers, in your alternative legal career search and your life.

It’s not that I have anything against resolving to find a new career that makes you happy; far from it. (I kind of have a WHOLE FREAKING BLOG and coaching practice about that.)

But too often, New Year’s resolutions focus you on the wrong thing, on only the goal. So yes, you might use all that fresh-start energy of the new year to find a new job. But if you haven’t figured out the reasons behind where you are now, and more importantly what your purpose in life is, the chances are good you’ll find yourself a lipstick-on-a-pig new job. I would hate that for you.

So instead of a grand list of New Year’s resolutions that are almost guaranteed to make you feel like a failure by Feb. 14 (when most resolutions have become history), I would suggest something different. Something that can focus your attention where it will cause wonderful, sustainable, long-term change. The kind of change that makes your life more fulfilled and happy. Instead of a resolution, spend your year answering a deep question.

I found my question this year when a client sent me a fantastic quote from Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver (thank you!):

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

This question resonates deeply for me. It reminds me that when we get in touch with our wild sides, the sides we want to organize and plan away, we get in touch with our power. And that power will lead us where we need to go, if we just let it.

Plus, there’s the reminder that each life is precious, unique and sacred. And that we need to take action, to do something, rather than sit and ruminate about life’s mysteries or inequities.

So rather than spending time making a long list of your faults you think need remedying, spend time instead on creating or finding your own question. Let it be deep, probing, and without an easy or known answer.

Using Your Question

Your question should remind you of what’s important to your life, and remind you of your purpose. Poetry is always a good place for questions. I like sites like Brainy Quote for online quote searching. You could meditate on the essence of something important to you, like “purpose of creativity,” “path to happiness,” “wisdom” or something similar. Or use a search engine. Inspiration has come from stranger places.

When you discover your question, post it in a couple places. I’d suggest places where you tend to feel stressed and overwhelmed (your desk, your screensaver, the bathroom mirror), and also where you spend time recharging.

In times of stress, focus on your question, and try to connect to its wisdom to lead you through turbulence. Make time at least weekly to reflect on your question, and how you can better incorporate its teaching into your life in ways small and large. Indeed, the more “small” ways you can find, the better. Looking for “big” ways to change your life too often triggers that inner perfectionist most lawyers harbor.

You might even spend time regularly journaling, drawing, or walking and contemplating your question.

I’d love to know what questions surface. If you’re feeling brave, post them in the comments, or email me.

Here’s to a year filled with surprising and enlightening answers.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys find their questions, and answers, to create a better career and life. She offers discounted sample career coaching sessions so you can find out how coaching can help you. Email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule your life-altering appointment today!