Top 12 Things You Hate Most About Law Firms

So it’s Friday, and high time for a little fun. I’ve concocted a poll that might make you smile, just a bit.

Please, jump right in and vote! You can select more than 1 item from the list. Or, add your own pet peeve. (I love those best.)

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

Working Hard Won’t Solve Your Career Problems, Unhappy Lawyers

It’s heresy to suggest that working hard won’t solve your problems. Especially in the dysfunctional billable hours culture that lawyers have constructed for themselves. Since my job is to be a heretic, though, I’ll just say it: Hard work is not going to get you out of the miserable mess of a career you’re in.

While I rail a lot about how working too many hours makes you about as useful as the average lush in your job, this rant is not about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about when  you need to cut your losses. That’s right: when to actually quit, bail out, cut and run—you get the idea.

The Theology of Hard Work

But first, let’s focus on the whole theology of hard work. I’m not actually suggesting that hard work doesn’t have a place in your life. It absolutely does. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl, author of Flow and several other superb books, talks about how hard work is what gets you to mastery, to the place where you are so deeply immersed into your work that you lose time, in a very connected, joyful way.

guy in front of desk drowning in paperwork

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Problem is, most lawyers don’t work on hard on stuff that they even like, let alone love. They just grind through the task list. Think about it: Is there anything, even one little item, on your to-do list today that you’re looking forward to? Something that lights you up a tiny bit? Or is it more like a list of mildly to completely loathsome tasks that lie before you?

That, my friends, is why the theology of hard work fails us so often. There are certainly many things in life we must do that don’t bring us particular joy (dishes. laundry and cleaning toilets are at the top of my list). But when the vast majority of your time and energy gets sucked into a list of loathsome tasks, you become depleted rather quickly. Is it then any wonder that it’s hard to get out of bed, and go to face that list of loathsomeness?

So when I hear clients say, “But I’ve put so much time and effort into law, I don’t just want to walk away,” I quietly gnash my teeth. In my head, that statement translates to “But I’ve put so much time and energy into killing my soul, I can’t stop now!”

Value First, Then Work Hard

For hard work to work, you need to value the thing you’re pouring that effort into. There has to be something about it that feeds you, nurtures you, and has meaning for you. And please, when I say has meaning, I’m talking about your very own, personal definition of meaning. Not your parents’, your schools’, or society’s definition of meaning. If the reproductive cycle of newts holds meaning and fascination for you, then THAT, dear reader, is what you need to work hard on. There is a reason for that attraction, and your job in life is to follow the Universe’s lead and figure out more about it.

Do you have to quit your job to follow that pull? Maybe. Maybe now, maybe later. My crystal ball is on backorder (dammit), so I really can’t say. But what I can say is that refusing to follow a call means you are putting all your hard work into the wrong thing, and that is a sure-fire recipe for misery.

If you cannot scale back the demands of hard work on stuff you hate in your current job,  or if you cannot add things that bring you some slices of joy, then yes, it is probably time to get serious about cutting your losses. Figure out the direction of your dreams, and then find a job that will put you closer to them. Find a job that requires hard work on something that you can look forward to.

Work hard on what matters to you. For everything else, there’s phoning it in. Or outsourcing!

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who works on hard on her writing and other creating, and on helping unhappy attorneys discern the thing that would light them up if they worked hard on it. If you need help with finding your inner light, schedule a discounted sample session by contacting Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

The Low-Down on Pain, Gratitude and Unhappy Lawyers

Unhappy people, maybe especially unhappy lawyers, spend a lot of time and energy avoiding more pain. This avoidance takes many guises, and some of them get a lot of societal approval. Overwork, just to name an example. Staying “in touch” by being glued to your electronic pacifiers, often in the name of work, is another. Gotta know the latest current events to understand a client’s needs, right?

Are your evenings spent in this kind of pain avoidance, perhaps?

Are your evenings spent in this kind of pain avoidance, perhaps?

On the one hand, it sounds perfectly rational to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Except that the way most people seek pleasure doesn’t actually bring them pleasure (it just numbs them out). In fact, that act of avoiding pain usually prolongs the pain, and adds anxiety and depression on top of it far too often. It’s like anticipation, but on a downer.

Happiness Comes Rushing In—But Only If . . .

It’s not just me, some crunchy recovering lawyer, who knows this. As I watched an interview clip of Louis C.K. talking to Conan O’Brien, I realized Louis C.K. Continue reading

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

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

Lawyers, Put the Digital Pacifiers Down and Get a Better Life

If you’re reading this on your phone or tablet while in line somewhere, I want you to stop. Right now. Disconnect from your digital pacifier, look up, look around, and notice the world you’re in at this very moment. Try to connect with it, by making a conversation, noticing something interesting, or discovering an enticing smell or texture. Do it now, I’ll wait.

toddler with cell phone in white shirt, tie and large shoes

“Sweetie, give mommy the phone and go play.” Words for digitally addicted lawyers to live by.

That’s the simple, condensed version of how to make your life richer and more fulfilling. But I know, you’re lawyers, and you need more, much more than that!

So the expanded version goes like this:

Even as I sat writing this, I really, really wanted to check out Facebook, or answer an email, or knit, or basically do anything besides listen to my own voice. Part of that is simply one of my inner critic’s many tricks. (There are so very many, and all quite clever!)

When Pacifiers Become the Problem

But part of it is the conditioning of modern life. We walk around with this notion that we must be productive, or at least doing something, every waking second, or we have failed. At what, I’m not sure. At being a good cog in the corporate wheel, maybe. Or a good consumer. Or being on top of things, whatever that means.

Our electronic pacifiers certainly feed this behavior. With our smartphone appendage, we don’t have to be with our thoughts while standing in line, let alone observe our surroundings. We certainly don’t have to interact with people on the way to the office restroom; we can check email or Facebook, or get in a couple texts! Whoo hoo!

Yet one of the biggest complaints my clients have is that they don’t even have time to think, they’re so busy and overworked. Hmmm, really? It’s a great hairshirt to moan about. Occasionally, it’s even the reality of the situation. 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

Knitting Your Legal Career Together

After much thought, I’ve realized what the solution is to many of the woes rocking the legal profession: Lawyers all need to learn how to knit. Seriously. Everything you need to know about pursuing goals, having a satisfying career, and making changes in your life can be learned by knitting.

businessman knitting

Knitting has everything lawyers need for a better life and career: control, autonomy, resiliency, generosity, creativity, and most importantly, fun!

After a brief 30-year hiatus, I have taken up knitting again this year. I had been hearing the call for a while, since knitting folk kept popping up in my life. But I resisted, even though I knew the good things that working with my hands and fibers did for my brain chemistry. Why the resistance? Mostly, because I feared the addiction.

What? A life and career coach worried about addiction? Hell yes. A meme that was going around Facebook says it best: Keep Knitting and Ignore the Cleaning. I was worried I would do pretty much exactly that—ignore all my responsibilities that I didn’t care for (cleaning is WAY up there), and just have fun. Heaven forbid.

Isn’t it interesting how we worry so much that we might neglect the crap we hate, that drags us down and makes us miserable, and rarely really helps us along our path in life? The stuff that is, incidentally, never on our deathbed regrets list.

But we don’t worry with any of the same intensity about what being miserable is doing to our souls and 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