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

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

Compassion for the Asshole Lawyers in Your Life

I imagine your first reaction to the concept of compassion for the asshole lawyers surrounding you is “Are you fucking kidding me? They are making my life a living hell, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?” Well, not exactly. Feeling sorry for someone and feeling compassion are two different things. Compassion is rooted in empathy, while pity objectifies and distances us.

boy with angry sneer on face

A mean little kid, or a kid who just got told by his step-dad that he wasn’t included in the lavish vacation plans to Disney?

But drawing that distinction is avoiding the bigger question: Why should I care about people who are mean, nasty, and making everyone around them miserable?

The Buddhist response, roughly, would be that we are all one, and being angry with others is like being angry at your finger for having gangrene. For most of us, that stance is simply too unfamiliar and uncomfortable to adopt, at least right this second.

In more Western terms, this quote might get at the heart of compassion toward those who are assholes:

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” –John Watson

For example, I just had to go turn up the heat from 66 to 68 degrees, because my husband turned it down. The fact that he turned down the heat pisses me off, a lot. This is one of our longstanding, ongoing battles. Despite my thick wool sweater over a long-sleeved T-shirt, two scarves, and wool socks, my hands and nose were freezing. (Yes, there is a reason I live in the South.) My instant reaction is to judge my husband as not caring about me and my needs.

But when I can step back and exercise some compassion, I can see that he is worried about money, and wants to make sure we as a family have enough savings to tide us through any uncertain future. And, his money fears are not entirely rational, but stem from a not-quite-impoverished childhood in Peru. He is, in many ways, like the survivors of the Great Depression.

I don’t necessarily agree with his judgment that the way to accomplish the worthy goal of increased savings is through keeping the house frigid, but by exercising compassion toward him, I can at least step back and go from Defcon 4 to Defcon 2. This actually helps me, by lowering my heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and anxiety levels. That’s a pretty nifty and immediate benefit.

Feeling compassion for those who oppress and hurt us, right in that moment, is the work of many, many years. It’s a sort of Continue reading

What (Unhappy) Lawyer Isn’t Anxiety-Ridden?

I remember the exact moment that I found out that my regular intense jumble of feelings when I got stressed at work had a name. (And, I was usually stressed.) The repetitive thoughts that I couldn’t banish, even when I caught myself and said out loud, “Stop. They aren’t renting space in your brain.” The jumpiness, the lava spew of irritability that could erupt from the slightly prickly exterior. My inability to get shit done because I couldn’t focus. “Oh, so you have anxiety,” the psychiatrist said.

anxious guy burying face in hands

Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness, ahead of depression and other mood disorders. And it often looks just like this in attorneys.

Me? Anxiety? “Huh,” I said thoughtfully. “I never thought of it like that. Pretty much every lawyer I’ve ever known is like this.”

Indeed, I suspect a lot of you who are unhappy lawyers are also anxiety-ridden lawyers. Sure, there are reasons for your anxiety, but if the anxiety doesn’t disappear when the reason is over, you may well have a problem with general anxiety disorder or some of its siblings. And if you feel like the reasons never disappear, that, too, can point to a problem with anxiety.

If you have 3 or more of these 12 typical anxiety symptoms (there are many; these are some common ones), at least consider getting formally evaluated for anxiety:

  • Obsessive Thoughts (such as Excessive worrying/problem-solving, What if . . . ?, and Arguing with yourself);
  • Feeling powerless;
  • Irritability or explosive anger;
  • Difficulty concentrating; Continue reading

Thawing the Frozen Souls of Unhappy Lawyers

At this point in winter, even people who aren’t miserable lawyers are growing desperate. The eternal cold (except on the odd day when it’s 50 degrees), the oppression of snow, and the stingy daylight are, obviously, going to go on forever. Your life feels frigid, meaningless, and depressing. And that’s if you’re a fairly happy, life-ain’t-bad person.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, plunging, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, radically warming up, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

For unhappy attorneys, the situation feels yet more dire. Your soul was already stuck in permanent winter before the actual cold and dark encroached. Now, getting out of bed and getting to work are sheer acts of will and heroism. More than a few of you may have sneaked a look at your insurance policy’s coverage for being a mental health in-patient, and wondered if you could convince someone you are a danger to yourself or others. Three days away from billable hours and all your other worries sounds like a sweet deal.

If you are at this point, don’t despair just yet. I have some tricks you can use to summon back a few flickers of light. Soon enough, actual sunshine will start to appear, the Heat Miser will again triumph over the Cold Miser, and life will feel a bit better.

1. Consider Hibernation.

Winter is a time of quiet and stillness, and of dreams. If we insist on keeping the same frenetic pace year-round, we miss out on the renewal time that is crucial to long-term, sustainable functioning. If you feel like you need to sleep more, then turn off the TV early, and GO TO BED.

2. Consider a Polar Plunge.

OK, I’m not really suggesting you do one of those crazy jump-into-a-34-degree-lake things. Unless that’s your thing. I am suggesting a plunge into something that makes you stretch and sweat and generally reach a bit, physically.

This can be as simple as Continue reading

Change Your Miserable Lawyer Life—With Facebook. Really.

I firmly believe that Facebook can change an unhappy lawyer’s life. Just not in the way that other people think it does. I mean, yes, connection is wonderful. Entertainment certainly eases the crush of boredom and tedium that is often law practice. And yes, you might even get some clients, start a romance or make some enemies or whatever.

Change your life---find the funny in your annoyances, and post it!

Change your life—find the funny in your annoyances, and post it!

My favorite use for Facebook, though, is to make life’s little annoyances and tragedies a little bit funny. In doing that, I’ve found that I obsess much less over the annoyances, hurts and heartaches of life, get over them faster, and—maybe the biggest bonus—get to take my creativity out for a spin.

Here’s a recent example, just so you can see how my demented (but charming) mind works. I noticed one morning that the clean silverware in the dishwasher had been put into the drawer. I knew I hadn’t done it. So I said to my husband, who was slaving over his laptop doing all manner of indecipherable IT things, “Thank you so much for unloading the dishwasher! I really appreciate it!” To which he responded, “You’re welcome.”

After I’ve finished the school run and get back to my empty house, I thought I should put the morning dishes into the dishwasher before getting to work. I opened up the dishwasher and there sat a bunch of dishes. CLEAN dishes. For a few more moments than I care to admit, I was pretty ticked off about this. It hit a lot of those marital sore spots about communication, paying attention, and a laundry list of other things that I won’t bore you with.

I desperately wanted to post something really bitchy, snarky and my-husband-sucks on Facebook about it. Along the lines of “I’m so sick of this shit!”

But that would violate my personal rules about not whining, complaining, or generally airing my dirty laundry on Facebook. So I had to figure out a funny way to relate my little tale of ire and woe. After working it over in my head for several minutes, I came up with:

I’m not sure what label to put on it, but I clearly don’t live in the world where “I emptied the dishwasher” means “I had our son put away the silverware and left everything else in the dishwasher.” That is, however, the world my husband lives in!

I admit I may not have completely succeeded on avoiding snark and a whiff of complaining, but compared to how I initially felt about it, this was a vast improvement.

And that’s pretty much the point: By focusing on how to view the whole thing as funny, rather than the source of anger and frustration, I was able to do an important thing, psychologically speaking: I reframed the situation. I (mostly) got over being angry. I made the best of something that wasn’t ideal. And that, according to noted psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, is a key to happiness in life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys put some happy into their lives. If you’d like to do that, schedule a discounted, sample coaching session with Jennifer. Contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com and get going into a happier life!

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

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

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