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 It Takes For Miserable Lawyers To Blossom

The hardest part of a life change for lawyers, whether it’s your career or other important parts of your life, usually is the waiting. In our go-go, get-it-done-NOW culture, waiting is seen as weak, passive, and therefore completely unacceptable.

Punga tree fern frond

Your inner wisdom may be curled up in a ball and rocking inside, but give it a little attention and love, and it will unfurl in ways that will astound you.

Unfortunately, it’s also very necessary for any big change to occur. Miserable lawyers, especially, hate this fact. They fight, they rail, they apply to any job that looks like it will propel them out of their current misery into something new and at least different.

Adjusting to the new is at least something to do. It serves as a fine distraction indeed from facing the harder questions of any real job or life change: What do I really, truly, want?

Note that the question is not, “What do I want that allows me to maintain my career status and income and doesn’t make me miserable?” I get that question a lot; it’s usually from folks who want a menu of 5 things they can do with their law degree that aren’t practicing law. People who can answer that question for you abound, and if you’re not willing to put your heart and your true self into career change, I suggest you contact one of them. Everyone will be happier, at least in the short run.

But if you’re at the point where you’ve tried changing law firms, or even given up law firms for safe alternatives like government or in-house, and still you can barely get yourself into the office, 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

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

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

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 1

You wanna know why your legal career and your life suck? It’s because you’re too damned smart for your own good. And no one has been in your face telling you that you can, and should, do a lot of stuff that is hard, and that you suck at, so you can have a better life and career. Except me!

Attorneys attending the school of life. Not always pretty.

Attorneys attending the school of life. Not always pretty.

It’s more than a little heretical to say this to even the most well-adjusted lawyers, all 77 of them. But it is the path to a more balanced, satisfying, and sustainable life and career.

I don’t know if you caught the Quora answer a little while ago that has, um, motivated me to say this stuff out loud. The question was: What does it feel like to be a smart person?

Are Smart and Happy Mutually Exclusive?

Most attorneys are indeed very smart, but many, many of them are miserable, or at the very least not happy. And that matches up with the bottom-line answer on Quora:

Overall, being smart brought many accolades and successes, but it also made me anxious, afraid of failure, and eager to quit at the first signs of hardship.

The guy—a former high school math whiz, ranked 25th in the country—is right: Being smart has its downsides, and usually they center around the crippling unwillingness to persevere with stuff you’re not naturally good at. Say, working with those who aren’t like you, or keeping on in a hobby or even a job that you’re not performing brilliantly at.

Essentially, being smart in a culture that prizes the punch-list lifestyle can lead you Continue reading

Walking Into a Better Law Life

I really hate how much a 25-minute walk in the morning turns my mood around. There, I said it! As a coach, I’m all about tools to improve your life and get you moving forward toward your dreams. I feel like I should be enthusiastic and positive about the ones I know that work, like exercise,

professional woman walking on city street

I’ll bet she sees something more interesting than whatever is on your screen at the moment! Though I might suggest taking the sidewalk instead of the middle of the street.

I’m just not that into walking. The movement itself does not thrill me. Unlike my new love, tai chi, which is graceful and flowing; I just adore it. Or like some of my old loves, horseback riding and dancing. All about flow and grace and harmony, some of my most favorite things.

But this morning, it was finally sunny and heading toward warm for the first time in a while, my mood was crashing, and I knew I needed to rebalance those pesky perimenopause hormones by moving. So I did. I went for a walk.

I am very fortunate that my street is pretty interesting for me. I love gardening, and there are lots of nice gardens along the way to admire and inspire. Plus the singer in me loves hearing the birds chirping like mad to catch up on their chatter lost to nasty weather lately. It is a feast for some of my senses, and I do try to really observe, notice and appreciate what’s around me. In other words, I am present as I walk.

Which brings me to the actual point: Be present in your life, even during stuff you don’t love. And find ways to embrace the good things in your life.

Shift Into the Present and Out of Worry

The more ways you find to be present in your life as it happens, the less time you spend on energy-sucking things like worry. You also make your life richer, by being in the moment and adding to your experience library.

I usually see the opposite of being in the moment at health clubs: People are plugged into TVs, music, or audio books so they can avoid the feeling of being in their body, and also to avoid contact with those around them.

If your workout is so unpleasant that you need to numb out to get through it, maybe it’s time to choose something you inherently like the feel of.

Fight Perfectionism With Your Body

Especially for lawyers, many of us love, love, love to be in our heads and not so much in our bodies. Maybe we were the klutzy kids in school. Maybe we haven’t found the form of movement that brings us actual pleasure. Maybe a lot of pounding physical movement is simply too much stimulation for most introverts. Whatever the reason, many lawyers tend to avoid the physical. Exercise is usually one of the first things to go when the work demands really ratchet up.

Lawyers also tend to bring their perfectionistic tendencies into their views on exercise. Shocking, right? If they can’t do a full hour of a complete and demanding workout, they won’t do one at all. This is one of they myriad ways that lawyers are brittle and not resilient. The all-or-nothing attitude leads to important but not urgent stuff simply not getting done. You don’t make progress toward your dreams, because you can’t have the whole enchilada right off the bat, instead of getting started with the tortilla chips and salsa.

Might I suggest a short walk, without a phone or other distractions? Look for at least 5 things that interest your eyes, catch your ears, or offer an interesting texture (and touch them if possible). Pay attention to anything that delights your soul, even if it’s no more than a violet. Practice being present in your own life. Just ten minutes a day can really make a difference. And yes, you can actually spare ten minutes. Whatever grind-away time you lose, you’ll make up for in increased efficiency. I promise.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy lawyers find joy in their present, whatever its challenges. And, she coaches them on how to increase that joy in their life and work. Contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for a discounted sample session to see what that’s like.

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