Could You Be a Highly Sensitive Person Masquerading as a Tough Lawyer?

Most of you land here on Leaving Law because you’re trying to figure out why law isn’t working for you. Heaven knows you’ve spent mounds of time and mental energy on that topic, right? Yet perhaps you aren’t much closer to finding a solution.

One thing most unhappy lawyers discern quickly is that their colleagues often drive them nuts. After all, as a group lawyers score below average on emotional intelligence.

So the thinking goes, maybe I’m unhappy because my personality is too different from other lawyers’ personalities—choosing a better firm will help. Or maybe you’ve concluded that lawyering in general is not leading you anywhere you want to go.

These aren’t wrong conclusions for many unhappy lawyers.

Some of you, though, may have an additional wrinkle to add to the analysis: It might be your neurology that’s your biggest problem. You might just be what Dr. Elaine Aron calls a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

If you haven’t heard of HSPs, let me assure you it isn’t some trend du jour. The research dates back to the early 1990s. Turns out that roughly 20 percent of the human population are HSPs. It’s also a trait found in more than 100 other animals, including fruit flies, horses, fish, and primates.

Is This You? A Guide to HSP Traits

Simply put, HSPs are able to perceive a much higher amount of sensory input than average. If an average person is a 5 when it comes to picking up on the emotions of others, HSPs are a 10 or 11 (on a 1 to 10 scale). The same is true when it comes to sounds, tastes, textures, and other physical sensations.

Specific HSP traits include:

  • Easily overwhelmed by external stimuli such as noise, strong smells, and lights;
  • Anxiety when there’s a lot to do in a short amount of time, regardless of how easy the tasks are;
  • Quickly sensing the emotions of others, when most people don’t detect them at all;
  • A complex, rich inner life; or
  • Sensitivity to subtle flavors, sounds, or to art of all kinds.

This isn’t an exclusive list, and you don’t need to have all the traits to be an HSP.

Once I heard about HSPs and did some reading and thinking, it was easy to see how I’d been one since birth. Some of my bigger Aha! realizations were:

  • Getting jostled and smushed trying to get into an outdoor concert made me absolutely rage-filled. It was roughly 1,000 times too many sensations at once for me to process, and it took at least a half hour to calm down enough to enjoy the show.
  • I sometimes have instant, intense dislikes to new people–even though the new acquaintance has not done or said anything suspect. Usually other people don’t have a problem with that person initially. Sooner or later, though, I end up being correct to distrust that person.
  • Despite my complete lack of knowledge about music (at the time), the first time I heard Bach’s Cello Suites I nearly cried because they were so beautiful.

For a more formal assessment, you can take Elaine Aron’s free assessment here.

It’s All in the Your Head—the Wiring of It

Being an HSP isn’t a choice you made when you were an impulsive, dramatic tween, say, because it’s about the difference in your nervous system wiring. There’s research documenting that HSPs have more mirror neurons than the average person, and that there may be a genetic component, too.  

Drawing of woman's profile, with messy random lines going throughout her head.
Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay

The neurological differences have been seen on fMRIs (functional MRIs), which track brain activity in real time. (Side note: Anyone who can hook me up with getting an fMRI without paying thousands of dollars will have my undying gratitude! It’s one of my few bucket list items.)

Note that roughly 30 percent of HSPs exhibit extraversion. So while most HSPs are introverted to some degree, it’s not an inherent part of being an HSP.

HSP Hell Is Living in Modern American Culture

In Western culture, HSPs have been mislabeled and misunderstood; frequently they’ve been  pathologized as neurotic, shy, or unduly fearful. If you’re an HSP, chances are very good that you’ve heard “you’re too sensitive!” many times during your life, and perhaps particularly in law practice.

In contrast, Korean culture highly prizes nunchi, a skill that is definitely in the HSP toolkit.

As journalist Euny Hong explains:

Nunchi is the art of sensing what people are thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately. It’s speed-reading a room with the emphasis on the collective, not on specific individuals. . .  In traditional Korean child rearing, nunchi is on a par with “Look both ways before crossing the street” and “Don’t hit your sister.”

This sounds like an HSP’s version of paradise, compared to living in the United States. You need only watch the procession of inescapable truck, beer, and sports commercials to know that our ruling ethos is both “never let them see you sweat,” and “only the strong (deserve to) survive.”

The oceans of unexpressed/repressed emotions lurking just below the surface of many people is wildly confusing to HSPs. Many—maybe most—HSPs do not realize the emotions they are suddenly feeling are not actually their own. It requires constant filtering and interpreting, and it’s exhausting.

HSPs as Lawyers

If it’s bad in the general culture for HSPs, it’s so much worse for HSPs in law. Partly, that’s because the typical law firm or legal department contains a hefty dose of dysfunction, and that is bewildering to HSPs. Plus, the level of energy needed to pretend everything is OK when HSPs know it absolutely isn’t takes a heavy toll.

But if you’re an HSP and your personality doesn’t fit into law, it’s a double-whammy. That’s why the chances of lasting a long time in law are pretty small for that group. An HSP, regardless of personality type, will quickly become overwhelmed, exhausted, and burned out in the typical law environment. The same dynamic happens when you’re an idealistic personality working with hard-nosed pragmatists all the time. Ugh, a double helping that does not taste great!

Photo of red fading rose covered with snow.
Photo by HumoyunXon on Unsplash

Usually, environments that expect constant toughness also punish people for showing sensitivity. The price for HSPs to remain in that environment can be really high. More than likely you’ll have:

  • poor physical health,
  • poor mental and emotional health, and
  • very little satisfaction with your work and life.

Your chances of spending huge chunks of cash on doctors, medications, therapists, massages, retreats, and other things HSPs need to simply survive is roughly 100 percent.

It’s a lot like growing roses in Alaska: It can be done, but it’s infinitely harder than growing spruces or lichens there. It’s pretty pointless.

See Yourself, See Your Solution?

Sometimes, simply recognizing that you’re an HSP gives you the push you need to make changes in your career and life, so that it better matches who you actually are. If that’s you, congratulations! Let me know how your life improved. I love those stories.

If you need help making changes, reach out to set up a session with me (jalvey@jenniferalvey.com ), so we can dig deeper into what will help you embrace your high sensitivity and thrive.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering attorney who, if she had a dollar for every time someone said, “you’re too sensitive,” would be sitting on a nice pile of cash. The day she learned about HSPs was a very, very good day for her, and hopefully will be for many readers, too. Jennifer can be reached at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for sample sessions and speaking engagements..

All Former Lawyers Are Bitter!

Gosh, I feel I owe all you folks wanting to leave law a big apology. Not until I read Steven Chung and Jordan Rothman’s insightful—nay, psychically accurate analyses of why lawyers leave law—did I realize I have been leading folks astray for more than a decade. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

Here I thought that I was helping unhappy lawyers find work:

  • that was much better aligned with their talents,
  • that helped them be who they wanted to be in the world, and
  • in environments that didn’t make them want to start drinking by 11am daily.

But I WAS WRONG. So very wrong. I learned from Chung and Rothman that actually, I’m just bitter, and all my clients who want out of law are, too. I am so very grateful to have been set straight.

yellow traffic sign with Oops! on it, with a cemetery and trees in the background

You Chose That Stress, Baby

After all, when at least half of attorneys surveyed say they would not choose law again, obviously nothing is wrong with the structure and culture of the profession. It’s—‘DOH!—bad personal choices by those who went to law school.

I should have known that the people who “hate the stressful, adversarial nature of the profession,” are just not tough enough. People who don’t welcome the chance to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with opposing counsel and yell at them are not who we need in law. I mean, seriously, how did I not know this?

You fret that colleagues won’t even acknowledge your existence in the hallway? Hey, everyone is there to work, not win congeniality awards. Being pleasant to colleagues is not billable.

Why should anyone be stressed if their boss gives the same assignment to them and another colleague, without telling either one, just to see who will do a better job? Who goes to law school and doesn’t expect to participate in the Hunger Games, right?

All of my spouting off about ways to manage conflict without competition and adversarial pissing contests is just psychobabble, and I am aghast and horrified to have led so many of you astray.

There’s nothing wrong with your colleagues, either. The fact that many of them cannot even meet your eyes or manage a smile in your direction when passing in the hallway? Hey, everyone is there to work, not win congeniality awards.

Being pleasant to colleagues is not billable. Making social contact can distract you from the billable work you were thinking about on your way to the loo.

I am distraught that I ever suggested lawyers should exhibit some basic social intelligence; I guess I watched too many Brene Brown videos.

Questioning Billable Hours Reveals Your Weakness

Do you bitch about billable hours requirements? I did, too. Turns out, questioning billable hours standards means that the naysayers resent and resist accountability.

I am deeply ashamed that I have publicly questioned the utility and general superiority of the billable hours system, and that I have misled so many by doing so. It is a system that is utterly pure and unadulterated by base human motivations. It certainly cannot be perverted by petty things like padding hours or working inefficiently.

Nor could the billable hours model ever in a million years create disincentives to:

  • Training junior lawyers appropriately (and would never cause senior lawyers to mutter “I don’t have time to babysit junior associates!”);
  • Participating in local communities for selfless (i.e., not networking) reasons; or
  • Achieving a healthy balance between work and personal life.

Never, ever would the billable hours system be used to incentivize a ludicrous numbers of hours worked. All those bonuses based on hours billed would definitely not be worth about $20 per hour worked beyond the 1,900 billed hours base.

Besides, that extra $20/hour really adds up when you compare its value to the amount of time you didn’t sleep, missed seeing your family and friends, or couldn’t do something that wasn’t work, eat, or sleep. You don’t get paid a cent for any of those things, right?

Lazy Pre-Laws

I’m hideously embarrassed I didn’t see that bitter ex-lawyers are people who simply failed to do some basic research about what working in law is like.

If only all these unhappy former lawyers had simply buckled down and done some stinking homework before they took their amazing college GPAs and sparkling resumes to law school!

Man sleeping on branch of large tree. Branch is about 4 feet from ground. The man has dark hair and is wearing gray t-shirt and darker gray cargo pants.
Photo by Zhang Kenny on Unsplash

It’s not like making major life decisions is hard! That’s especially true with decisions that come with a $175K price tag that isn’t dischargeable in bankruptcy.

In fact, it’s easier to make huge life decisions when you’ve never worked more than a summer job or lived on your own. You totally know so much about yourself after living in college dorms or with friends off-campus.

All that mumbo-jumbo about the brain not maturing fully until 25 years old, especially executive function and emotional intelligence—excuses, all of it! Heck, some lawyer columnists make it to 40 without emotional intelligence, and they do just fine!

No Special Status for You, Unhappy Lawyers!

Chung is correct—lawyers are spoiled divas to think they are special snowflakes entitled to silly things like autonomy and a chance to gain competence in their work.

It’s unbearably audacious to expect useful training, mentoring, and to be given an idea of the purpose of their work in the overall project. That kind of bleeding heart nonsense is for ordinary, average people, not lawyers, for crying out loud!

Lawyers are the Army of One—we don’t need no namby-pamby cooperation or collaboration with colleagues.

“Trauma” Is Just the Excuse du Jour

Chung does concede that some former lawyers may have been subjected to more stressful situations than others. But for various career-advancement reasons, “they had to keep quiet about all of the abuse they had to put up with from their bosses.”

But honestly—partners said mean things to you and about you? Who cares, right?! Abuse is just something to shrug off, like a hurricane off a duck’s back. As Chung points out, the very worst part of abuse is that you can’t tell everyone about it. Because then you’re a whiner and complainer, which could get back to the abusers and definitely jeopardize your career.

It’s not like years of verbal and emotional abuse from someone with power over you causes deep, debilitating trauma that requires years of therapy to kinda, sorta heal from.

The Complex PTSD that people whine about if they’ve endured years of office abuse is just more of that airy-theory pop psychology. The tragedy of working among narcissists, sociopaths, and generally angry and hyper-reactive people is that you can’t talk about those people over drinks. That’s all. Big deal, right?

If you’re any kind of decent lawyer that’s a small price to pay.

Law Is Nothing To Recover From, You Ninny

Obviously, Chung is correct that calling myself a “recovering lawyer” is really just a weird attempt at self-deprecating humor.

It’s laughable, really, the idea that law has left deep psychological scars on anyone, or irrevocably altered their view of the world.

It’s true, I’m just a weirdo! All those decades of post-practice disturbing dreams—in which I live in terror of being found out for not entering my billable hours promptly—just proves it.

It’s laughable, really, the idea that law has left deep psychological scars on anyone, or irrevocably altered their view of the world.

All us bitter recovering lawyers had a skewed view of the world before law, and law corrected those silly ideas about fairness, compassion, the greater good, and all that other touchy-feely nonsense that decent lawyers rightly reject as frippery.

In light of these revelations from Chung and Rothman, obviously this whole coaching unhappy lawyers gig is a sham. Maybe I should start doing stand-up comedy about that?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer whose gig on the Island of Misfit Toys is still going strong after 22 years.

If you would like one day soon to join all the other legal misfits on the island, and maybe even wear that Recovering Lawyer label with pride, you can schedule a sample session with Jennifer via jalvey@jenniferalvey.com. She can get you running down the path that’s ideal for you.

CRAP! Why Am I Still Here?

A few months into the nightmare that has been 2020, a lot of you unhappy attorneys were making plans. You realized that life was short. You were done with all the intolerable, dysfunctional nonsense of law practice. And you were not going to spend your wild, precious life being miserable.

So how is it almost the end of this oh-so-memorable year, and you haven’t figured out what you want to do instead? Or you have, and you don’t know how to get there? Or you just haven’t sent out any resumes, even though you’re pretty sure you know one or two things you’d like to try?

If you are berating yourself about laziness, or questioning whether any job exists that you would enjoy and be good at—STOP. We are all struggling.

Welcome to Club Paralysis–We Have Hot Towels and Drinks

I hope you’re not beating yourself up for not being on top of your new life quest. For starters, even if you didn’t suffer from depression and anxiety (at least a third of you did) before last spring, the chances are that you do now. Rates of depression among the general populace has tripled since the pandemic began.   I haven’t seen data about lawyers specifically, but I would be gobsmacked if our industry’s rate hasn’t at least doubled. That means at least 65% of lawyers (probably way more) are in the throes of mental illness while trying to work during a pandemic. And there was an election that was far from normal, just to ratchet up the stress level.

Depression and anxiety often result in paralysis and inaction in our lives, making getting the dishes done or clothes washed a real albatross. Things that are difficult to tackle, like figuring out a whole new career and life path? Exponentially harder.

I’m not saying that you should give up on making a change. In fact, I’m begging you not to give up on yourself.

But if you are berating yourself about laziness, or questioning whether any job exists that you would enjoy and be good at—STOP. We are all struggling. People may be posting stuff about how they have embraced a new yoga practice,  or started a cool new side gig giving virtual workshops, or whatever. But remember, people post their highlights reel, and that highlights reel may or may not be completely transparent.

Plus, even if these folks are brutally honest about their success, so what? You have to start where you are, not where Karen or Chad say they are.

Photo by Julia Peretiatko on Unsplash

So give yourself some grace. Take that warm bath if you need it. (Just not during a Zoom meeting, K?) Binge watch that series that makes you laugh so hard you need adult underwear. Eat some chocolate or other dopamine enhancers. Get some movement from the chicken dance instead of something serious and “good for you.”

Don’t Go It Alone

From law school onward, we have been so very conditioned to figure things out by ourselves. Once we’ve been practicing for even a few months, we aren’t all that used to asking people for help. Even if we desperately need it, we have been shamed so often for not knowing something, that we hate to ask for anything.

Now, though, is the time to start overcoming that rugged independence—at least in some areas. Regardless of how self-starting people are, they usually do better with some kind of accountability to another person when they are trying to make a big change. There’s a certain magic to telling another human how you’re doing, and why you are or aren’t doing what you said you wanted to. Checking off to-do lists just isn’t the same.

woman climbing side of mountain alone, with ocean in background
Photo by Luigi Pozzoli on Unsplash

Selecting Your Sounding Board

So find someone you can talk to about your quest to escape law. Spouses, family, friends, maybe even colleagues, are all potential accountability partners. A good brainstorming session with them could do wonders for your quest.

Some tips on picking a good sounding board:

  • Look for people who don’t have an agenda for you. Some people are great at setting aside their own wants and needs to focus on what you need. Others, not so much. Be honest with yourself about who those people are in your life. Your spouse may be wonderful in hundreds of ways, but maybe not when it comes to taking an objective look at an idea that is new to them.
  • Avoid other practicing lawyers. While they will intimately understand your constraints, they may not be very gifted at understanding what is really holding you back. (Perhaps because they have their own struggle there.) Or, they may just be too judgey for this stage of your journey.
  • Seek out people who have broad interests, work experience outside conservative industries, or who are just quirky thinkers. You don’t need someone just like you. You need someone who can complement you, and help you see situations in a different light.

Of course, if you try an accountability partner or two and still aren’t getting anywhere, you can always reach out to a career coach who works with attorneys.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer with diverse experiences or a checkered past, depending on how you frame it. Pro-tip: It’s always about the framing! You can set up a sample session with her by emailing her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

Three Days & Three Ways to Lower Lawyer/Pandemic Anxiety

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. I’m pretty sure most lawyers are exhibiting anxiety, depression, and basically off-the-charts stress levels. It’s the lawyer personality default, I’ve noticed, when things get tense. So I figured this is a good time to talk about that, and to give everyone a few tools for feeling better.

To start, let me tell you that I cannot keep track of, well, anything lately. You?

If there are 3 steps to a recipe I’m trying, I cannot remember steps 2 and 3 without looking at the instructions for, oh, the fifth time. I open a new tab in my browser and have no idea what I was planning to look for, a mere 5 seconds after the initial thought of “I need to look that up.” 

It’s pretty sad, y’all. For a former lawyer who could understand and apply discretionary federal jurisdiction doctrines once upon a time, I have sunk pretty low on the cognitive charts. Even though I don’t feel acutely stressed, my brain is shrieking (and performing) otherwise. 

Intellectually, I know my inability to focus and concentrate is related to anxiety and overstimulation, and probably a skosh of depression. Oddly enough, juggling clients, parenting a teenager doing online learning, and all the other adaptations I need to live a fairly low-risk life in this time of pandemic, is somehow blowing all my brain circuits. I am mentally and emotionally wiped out. Go figure.

But my usual strategies for dealing with overwhelm and anxiety are largely off-limits right now. Visiting random junktique stores, my favorite guilty pleasure, is a roulette wheel. Plus, the amount of pre-planning it takes to come up with something fun, festive, and refreshing is exhausting, especially when the weather is steamy. Most days, I just end up staying inside, spending too much time on my computer, and getting as much done as a hamster on its wheel.

Thankfully, the weather intervened here in Middle Tennessee. And that leads to my number one tip for ratcheting down your anxiety.

Get the Hell Outside

I don’t mean being outside on your way into the store, either. Go outside for at least 15 minutes and sit for a spell, or take a hike, or sit by a fountain. Something, anything outdoors. Soak in all the sights and sounds you can’t get on a screen.

This past week, we have had weather that fantasies are made of in the South: low humidity, highs in the 70s, and sun. Wonderfully excessive amount of sun. 

I needed to work on a furniture project, and plant the dozen pansies I had snagged a week ago. So I spent hours outside over the weekend. No music or podcasts; I just worked on my stuff, listened to the birds, and tried to ignore the sounds of loud trucks and leaf blowers.

By Sunday afternoon, I could think straight again. It was astounding how much better I could function, mentally.

Limit Online Time to an Hour Daily

When the news about Justice Ginsburg hit, I knew there would be a tsunami of posts from distressed friends, plus the predictable political nonsense. So I stayed offline for most of that weekend, and was much better for it.

This past weekend was even more beneficial, because I stayed offline due to, yanno, being busy with life. I was embracing something, rather than merely avoiding something. I cannot recommend this highly enough. 

All those social media posts, even if they align with exactly what you think, are little chunks of mental energy. Posts not only suck our energy away, they also end up in our thoughts later, like cow’s cud. But not as nutritious. That’s a complete lose/lose when it comes to lowering overstimulation and anxiety. 

Several brown and white cows lying on green hillside, chewing their cud.
Photo by T. Q. on Unsplash

Your brain needs a lot of space and time to process, period, for life and lawyering. A pandemic and political instability means you need even more brain space than usual.

Unless you are a reporter or political operative, you really don’t need to spend more than an hour per day keeping up with things. Truly. So cut back hard on your data inputs (news, social media, people who never shut up yet say nothing).

If the world is about to end, someone will tell you. Promise.

Notice Your Ordinary Moments

Most of us suck at noticing and appreciating the small things that make life rich. That  lovely coffee and morsel are hardly noticed since we’re reading something. We have a pet or a kid on our lap, or even a warm fuzzy blanket, but we tune out of that delight and focus on a screen. 

Photo by Jonas Vincent on Unsplash

The next time you find yourself parked in front of a screen, stop for a moment and check in with your senses. What do your feet, hands, lap, and back feel? What different sounds can you identify? What do you see? Pay really close attention. Notice your world.

Also, NO JUDGING of anything you feel/hear/see. Judging launches us into thinking, rather than experiencing. It’s not what you need right now. Simply note, “Hmmm, that sound is loud. Hmmm, that arm hurts,” and move on.

If you are engrossed in the feel of your pet on your lap in all their furry glory, your brain doesn’t have room for annoying worries. If your brain does have room for them, that means you need to pay closer attention to the now. This will take practice, so don’t expect perfect or even decent focus initially. It will come if you keep at it. A few minutes daily is all it takes.

Pay full attention to what is happening to you right now, especially to your body. Don’t tell anyone, but this is really what mindfulness is all about. Meditation is one form of mindfulness, but most attorneys do better starting with being in their bodies, rather than in their heads. (We’re there 90% of the time already, right?) 

Try these 3 things for 3 days, and see if you don’t feel more alert, calm, and able to live and work a bit better. And if you feel better, keep on doing them.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who has struggled with anxiety since dinosaurs roamed the earth in the 1980s. Then she went to law school and into practice, undiagnosed. That was interesting. If you need to talk about law-practice-aggravated anxiety, drop her a line at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to set up a sample session. She has a few ideas and tools for that.

Should You Go To Law School?

Here is the list of reasons you should consider law school:

1. You want to practice law.

That is the entire list.

Unless you have independent wealth with no strings attached to it (i.e., parent/family expectations), there is no other reason you should consider law school. Really.

Do people go to medical school for any reason besides becoming a doctor? No.

Do people get themselves into engineering programs because they think, well, even if this engineering thing doesn’t work out, it’s a great degree to have? No.

But people think there are so many reasons they should go to law school that do not include “I want to practice law.” Many people conflate being a lawyer with practicing law, and they are not the same thing.

Practicing Law Is More Than Having a Law Degree

Our society packs a whole raft of things into the idea of being a lawyer. 

Even though the general populace may not actually like lawyers as a group (and I don’t blame them), lawyers always command a presumption of intelligence, wealth, and success. It may not be deserved, but usually that’s where folks start when they meet someone who is a lawyer.

Here’s the mythology—and the reality—of the three most common ones:

Myth #1—Intelligence

Most lawyers are presumed to be above-average in intellectual ability. That part of the myth is true, at least for people who attend the top 50 or so law schools. I’ll discuss this at length in another post, but remember that book smart does not equal street savvy, let alone equaling good with people. 

Yet parents/friends/strangers see analytic intelligence alone as something that will unlock the keys to the job kingdom beyond law. The idea that social skills and good old common sense are important is not something that most Boomers or Gen Xers grew up believing. Consequently, the “intelligence = better job” mythology continues, fueling the “but it’s such a useful degree!” mythology.

Go grab a copy of A Whole New Mind, by Dan Pink, to dig into why intellectual prowess no longer rules the economic roost.

Myth #2—Wealth

Yes, there are lawyers who graduate law school and immediately get paid more than $175K. They nearly all went to top-tier law schools, graduated near the top of their classes, were on a law review, and maybe clerked for a judge. If they aren’t in NYC or the Bay Area, they are in other large cities. They are not first-year associates in Omaha, Louisville, Youngstown, Reno, or Raleigh.

Vast numbers of experienced lawyers (say, 4 years out of law school) pull in less than $100K—sometimes far less. They might be public defenders or other lawyers who work for the downtrodden. They might work as state prosecutors, or in other federal, state, or local governmental roles. They might, like more than half of all attorneys, work for themselves or for smaller firms. http://prelaw.umass.edu/topics/firm_size

When you cross-tabulate that with data from 2019, it means that 

  • New lawyers in small firms very frequently make between $62K and $90.5K;
  • Somewhat experienced lawyers (1 to 3 years) in small firms average $72K to $103K;
  • Experienced lawyers (4 to 9 years) usually make somewhere between $95K and $158K;
  • Veteran lawyers (10 years+) at small firms average $128K to $181K. https://www.ilrg.com/employment/salaries/

While making $110,000 might sound fantastic if you otherwise would be making $65,000, do not forget about student loan payments. EVER. 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Not only can loan payments eat up the difference between $110K and $65K, they can command repayments so high that you actually have less discretionary income than if you were making $65K in a marketing or legal admin job and had no loan repayments. Just as in the rest of society, the middle income jobs for attorneys have been disappearing for the last 2 decades.

Myth #3—Job Security

Many people, especially parents, teachers, and college professors, deeply believe that a career as a lawyer is stable and predictable. And sure, it was—before about 1990, say. But even before 2020, the large, corporate law firms (aka BigLaw) had been downsizing, especially after 2008. 

This year in our brave new world of Pandemia, firms have laid off scads of attorneys, and many firms do not anticipate hiring that same number back once the pandemic is over. Read the writing on the wall yourself: https://abovethelaw.com/covid-19-special-coverage/)

Photo by Charles Koh on Unsplash

One other thing to keep in mind is that a surprising amount of lawyer tasks are being conquered by artificial intelligence (AI). First it was document review, then legal research, and now there are some highly competent legal writing AI packages out there. 

AI will be a huge disruptor in law. I expect that it could help small and solo practices gain enough efficiency that they can offer their services to the middle class at actually affordable rates, which would be a win for everyone. But that remains to be seen.

One thing that usually happens with improved technology is job displacement, and I would be shocked if that did not happen in law.

I’ll dig more deeply into each of these myths in a subsequent post. I know if you are considering law school, chances are you’re the kind of person who wants to know why these societal myths aren’t true.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who went to law school because she wanted to work for a legislative committee. Silly rabbit, she could have done a year of law school and done that easily. Or not gone to law school, oh, at all. If you’re interested in assessing whether you really need law school to do what you want in the world, you can contact Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to set up a sample session.

All They’ve Sown Was a Song: A Pandemic Soundtrack for Unhappy Lawyers

Back in May (a few days ago, or years, whatever), as the pandemic exploded here in the US for the first time, a lawyer friend posted about an Indigo Girls’ Facebook live concert later that day. Immediately, seeing that concert rocketed to the top of my to-do list.

The Indigo Girls were a huge part of my law school and early practice soundtrack. I was a good 15 years away from joining a choir and really learning to sing, but I loved the Indigo Girls’ harmonies and poetic lyrics, and sang right along. Loudly, in my car.

You bet your sweet bippy I was belting out the Girls’ lyrics when they were playing on Facebook. Fortissimo. I definitely annoyed my family more than usual that evening.

woman with long brown hair swinging head with white headphones on, holding smart phone, and singing

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

Listening and singing with those beloved tunes during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter crises, I realized that all us lawyers need to guide us through this time is the Indigo Girls’ inspiring songs.

I’ll Be Fine as Long as None of This Lasts Too Long

It is deep human nature to believe, when we are going through something difficult, that we will be fine as long as things don’t get worse. Then, of course, things immediately go straight to hell:

  • That bad feeling you’ve had about your boss turns into a layoff. 
  • The jabs between you and your honey that you thought were a little sharp, but all in good fun, turn out to be signals you wildly misinterpreted, and you flee the relationship you thought was your one and only. 
  • The nagging feeling of being off turns out to be cancer. 

All of those endings at one point seemed terrible, and likely something you thought you absolutely couldn’t endure. 

But the wood is tired and the wood is old 

And we’ll make it fine if the weather holds 

But if the weather holds then we’ll have missed the point

That’s were I need to go

The Wood Song (Swamp Ophelia, 1994)

Yet eventually, we mostly manage to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the unthinkable. Somehow, we move on, even if we feel we aren’t doing it right. Hopefully, we learn something useful from the experience.

I Just Want To Know When Things Will Feel Normal Again

If anyone out there actually knows the answer to when things will feel normal again, or the answer to its siblings, when will there be a vaccine, or real change in America’s race problems—they could make some serious bank. 

Should we even spend much energy on those questions, though?

Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look

Skip to the final chapter of the book

And then maybe steer us clear from some of the pain it took

To get us where we are this far… (yeah, yeah…)

But the question drowns in its futility

And even I have got to laugh at me

No one gets to miss the storm of what will be

Just holding on for the ride

Wood Song

As much as we all want to have our “normal lives” back and have all the chaos be over, we aren’t going to get that desperate wish. The chance of things reverting to exactly how they were is, roughly speaking, zero.

Personally, I suspect many of whatever changes we will see are for the good. 

We don’t need to be in offices daily to be productive (sorry Boomers and some GenXers), and the environment would sure appreciate a break from all the commuting pollution. A lot of nerves would, too. Plus, I’m holding out hope for communicating via holographic projection some day soon, like on Star Wars.

Star Wars scene with middle-aged Obi Wan and Yoda at a Jedi council meeting in conference chairs, with Ki Adi Mundi attending virtually by hologram

Any changes we can make to protect Black lives will only make us better as a people and a country. We have allowed our society and culture to give far too much power to those who were already powerful. The resulting abuse of the downtrodden has been appalling. The last thing we really need is a return to what was. 

Is the Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

Few of us in November 2019 imagined the radical changes hurricaning toward us. We have been forced to slow down by the pandemic. We have seen how the inequality we have ignored for years, decades, or centuries has wreaked real havoc throughout our society.

But mercifully, 2020 has forced us to stare down the gullet of what needs fixing, scrapping, or rebuilding. That’s true not just for the large issues of the day, but also in our daily lives and work.

Many clients have told me that they are less stressed by being laid off than when they were working at a firm. That’s more than a little telling about the dysfunction of law culture.

Others are happier being at home and away from the full brunt of some difficult personalities, from constant interruptions, and even from pointless meetings (although, sigh, Zoom). Some are Zoomtigued, but do enjoy seeing the pets and kids of their colleagues, and a side of their coworkers they never got to see previously.

I Just Want This Pandemic To Be Over So I Can Decide What To Do Next

It is the most on-brand kind of lawyer thinking: I shouldn’t make a decision until I can see what all the options are, in detail, and think them through. So I should wait out the pandemic and social unrest until things start to settle down.

Decision tree begins with "Do you want to go out tonight?" and works it way through the lyrics of Morrissey's

But the Indigo Girls know better:

Gotta get out of bed

Get a hammer and a nail

Learn how to use my hands

Not just my head

I think myself into jail

Now I know a refuge never grows

From a chin in a hand

And a thoughtful pose

Gotta tend the earth

If you want a rose

Hammer and Nail (Nomads – Indians – Saints, 1990)

A lot of unhappy lawyers are reaching out to me recently, because they’ve been thinking about a change for a while. The pandemic and protests have given them clarity that they don’t want to remain in an unsatisfying, maybe even miserable, job. The time for a change is now.

I wrap my fear around me like a blanket

I sailed my ship of safety ’til I sank it

I’m crawling on your shores

The less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine

Closer to Fine (Indigo Girls, 1989)

Yes, times are highly chaotic and very uncertain right. This level of unknown makes most lawyers a LOT anxious. After all, we are conditioned to worship control and predictability.

Right now, though, spending a lot of energy on predicting the future is about as useful as predicting the trajectory of 5 sand grains during a dust storm.

Perfect Plans Are Useless in a Pandemic

So stop trying. Agonizing about the perfect, bestest decision won’t get you where you want, or need, to go.

Up on the watershed, standing at the fork in the road

You can stand there and agonize

Till your agony’s your heaviest load.

You’ll never fly as the crow flies, get used to a country mile.

When you’re learning to face the path at your pace

Every choice is worth your while.

Watershed (Nomads, Indians, Saints, 1990)

Instead of trying to see 5 years down the road, how about looking deeply at what you need right now? Maybe it’s a less contentious workplace culture. Maybe it’s a need to create something, rather than tear apart arguments and look for flaws. Maybe you need more people to interact with regularly, assuming they are fairly pleasant, or at least highly interesting.

Whatever that deep part of you needs, now is the time to listen. You don’t have to go live off grid in a yurt right away. Maybe you can squeeze in more outdoor time first, and once you can do that regularly, move on to your next need.

The fact that we don’t know where we will end up is in many ways a gift. Because predictability is out the window for now, we can really free ourselves from any perceived need to conform our dreams to the expected, to the familiar, to the known. We can dream bigger, because who can really say that our dreams are unlikely to come true? No one really knows, y’all!

bright yellow VW bus on road in southwest US desert, amid sandstone rock formations

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

When no one knows how anything will turn out, you can feel freer to follow your inner wisdom without a cloud of guilt and doubt hanging over you. Your inner wisdom has always been more likely to be the right answer for you; now more than ever, you can free yourself from justifying the dreams borne of that inner wisdom.

Connect with whatever inspires you–the Indigo Girls, or something else altogether—and use that to dream big, and act big.

The Indigo Girls will be in concert on their Facebook page August 6 at 7pm EDT. Just in case you need to know.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who knows how powerfully a pursuit of your inner wisdom can transform your life. She also is ever-so-slightly fond of the Indigo Girls. You can reach her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule a sample career coaching session, and get clarity on what your big dreams are.

 

Being Different in Law’s Perfection-Obsessed Culture

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how perfectionism wrecks the legal profession, particularly for lawyers who aren’t the stereotypical white guy. Mind you, perfectionism makes everyone’s life unnecessarily difficult, regardless of background or gender. Perfectionism in law drives so much toxic and maladaptive behaviors, it deserves a few posts. (here and here, too)

But in the wake of the renewed focus on Black Lives Matter, it’s really hit me hard just how much worse it is for lawyers who are Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ, or just different from the stereotypical managing partner at a Top 50 firm.

Before I dive into that, though, I should talk about what perfectionism is, and is not.

What Perfectionism Is

Psychology Today defines perfectionism really well:

Perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. When healthy, it can be self-motivating and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success. When unhealthy, it can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness.

What makes extreme perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation. They don’t believe in unconditional love, expecting others’ affection and approval to be dependent on a flawless performance.

(emphasis added)

As a lawyer friend of mine said many years ago about the culture of Washington, D.C.,

“It’s like everyone wants to get that A, in lunch.”

That is perfectionism in a nutshell—caring about doing something perfectly that no sane person gives a rat’s rear about.

What Perfectionism Is Not

Right about now, I’m sure that many of you are asking, “But how else will high-quality work get done, if we don’t aim for perfection?”

If you’re focused on being perfect because you’re fearful of being judged, you’ve already set yourself up to perform more poorly. That’s because fear comes from the amygdala part of the brain.

“When the amygdala senses danger, it actually blocks our prefrontal cortex (responsible for critical thinking) in order to react swiftly. . . . Even a remote threat of failure or embarrassment can trigger a stress response and hijack our idea-generating, problem-solving brilliance,”

says Dr. Jena Field, a London-based therapist who works with clients on roadblocks to happiness and things that kill creativity.

Fear leads to less creativity in solving problems, and an inability to adapt. Being driven by fear is a fool’s errand.

Instead, we do our best work when we focus on the excellence we can create under the conditions we have in that moment.

Be Excellent

In the VIA assessment of Character Strengths & Values (my favorite assessment for clients), one of the 24 values is Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence:

Those who express an appreciation of beauty & excellence notice and appreciate beauty, excellence and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.

The difference between perfectionism and appreciation of excellence is the emotions that drive each one. Perfectionism is driven by fear of not being enough—smart enough, pretty or handsome enough, hard-working enough, organized enough, polished enough—on and on the list goes.

Those who pursue excellence are driven by the challenge of learning and improving. They truly enjoy those things. Sure, they set high goals and have high standards, so their actions can look the same as what perfectionists do. But if they fall short of their ideal, they don’t collapse into a pool of self-loathing. Sure, they have regrets, but they see what they can learn, and then move on.

Yes, You Can Be an Excellence-Loving Perfectionist!

Just to make things more confusing, perfectionism and pursuing excellence often exist side-by-side in one person. I am absolutely one of those people. On the one hand, I really adored well-crafted briefs when I was in practice. I worked with a former Justice White clerk, and reading his drafts and edits was bliss.

But I also had (um, have?) a crap-ton of perfectionistic tendencies. Those looked like:

  • procrastination, because I was so scared of falling short that I kept avoiding those memos and briefs until the last second;
  • avoiding challenges, because, again, I was scared of failing; and
  • comparing my work ethic and hours to other attorneys, who didn’t have a serious chronic illness or a high ACES (adverse childhood experiences) score. People with high ACES are prone to toxic perfectionism, naturally.

Sending Drunks to the Liquor Store

The toxic culture of law does not help any of us with perfectionist tendencies. It’s  sending unrecovered alcoholics to the liquor store with $500, and expecting them to forego all the glorious beer, wine, and bourbon around them, and just buy the overpriced hors d’oeurves.

It will not end well.

Person on city sidewalk in camo pants, black t-shirt, wearing panda head, holding wine bottles, leaning against lamp post

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Lawyers are trained to seize upon the slightest error and build it into Denali, if it suits their purposes. Problem is, that way of approaching legal issues usually turns into a life approach.

Pretty quickly after we start practicing, we find out the hard way that any error = very bad. The real-world consequences of a mistake are usually ignored; it’s the fact of a mistake at all, in any form, that matters (especially for lawyers of color, those who are LGBTQ, and women).

It matters not that the mistake has no impact on your analysis, or that the person shrieking about it has made the same mistake, multiple times. Of course, if the senior lawyer is “comfortable” with you, then any number of errors, including possible malpractice, are magically forgiven.

I know so many lawyers who operate like this in both their personal and professional lives that it obviously isn’t my own, unique experience.

Perfectionism, Weaponized

What’s worse is how this perfectionism tendency is weaponized against minority lawyers. Being born with a darker skin color automatically makes you different in law. Perfectionism gets used against any lawyer who is perceived as different from the traditional lawyer.

In addition to racial differences, a man who is too empathetic or doesn’t like sports, a woman who is too aggressive, a person who doesn’t fit squarely into gender norms—all of those so-called different lawyers can make firm decision-makers uncomfortable. The different ones will likely find themselves without challenging projects or mentors, and end up leaving law in disgust, frustration, or a sense of failure.

I’ve noticed for many years how my Black and Asian clients get particularly worried about making mistakes, whether or not they want to leave law. Of course we talked about perfectionism generally, but I was blinder than I like admitting about the reasons for that.

I saw that there were many perfectionist expectations from their cultures, but I did not go deeper than that. And I’m very, very sorry that it took the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and all that has followed, to really see the deep, racist roots of that perfectionism.

I don’t think I would have given substantially different advice or suggestions, but I sure would have expressed more understanding of why they felt such pressure to be perfect. It’s not easy to exorcise the demons of perfectionism driven by a dysfunctional upbringing/environment, which I believe many lawyers have.

But it’s nearly impossible to exorcise a demon that is ubiquitous, and hunts you down daily, one way or another.

pigeon on head of Greek statue of nude man standing with head in palm of hand

Photo by Alejandro Morelos on Unsplash

So What Now?

Let me be clear: The solution isn’t to simply accept the idea of living a fearful, perfection-driven life. Nor is the solution to aim for a fear-free life, complete with wacky, reality-denying beliefs that there is no place for fear in a successful life.

Fear has its uses. Fear keeps us safe when a car is barreling down the road at us. Fear keeps us safe when our spidey-sense tells us someone is a threat, as many women can attest. Fear draws our attention to something that is very wrong in our lives.

The rampant, fear-driven perfectionism in law, though, does not help us. It creates:

  • deep insecurities,
  • rigid all-or-nothing thinking,
  • isolation,
  • procrastination, and
  • an inability to experiment and innovate.

Not one of these consequences is helpful to individuals, or to the profession.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."

If you’ve seen yourself while reading this, fantastic! You have an idea where to start unpacking some of your unhappiness in law. Maybe it’s not the actual practicing of law that makes you miserable, but your self-created, perfectionistic hell. You can fix that, I promise.

Say It Out Loud

The legal industry as a whole must fix its fetish with perfection. In the end, calling out colleagues on their weaponized perfectionism benefits everyone, especially lawyers who are different from the norm. It doesn’t require money to address. You don’t need anyone’s permission. It’s a step you can take within the next week, I’ll wager.

Noticing out loud when another lawyer is out of line is an important start to shift the toxic culture of law, one conversation at a time. Yes, it might be daunting. Even terrifying. But it is past time for the profession to get its act together when it comes to discrimination, and this is something individuals—especially those who are favored in law—can actually do to start real change.

More globally, if law cannot extinguish its perfectionism obsession, the industry will likely morph into something small and ugly. Seismic shifts happen daily in the profession, courtesy of both technology and the pandemic. The legal industry needs desperately to adapt and evolve in the face of so much change. The perfectionist mindset of legal industry leaders is a huge barrier to making smart changes.

If the profession remains in the thrall of perfectionism’s rigid thinking, law will not adapt, change, and thrive. No matter what, the industry certainly won’t survive in its current form. That might be a great thing, if the change is intentional and thoughtful. We could have happier lawyers, substantially decreased racism and discrimination within the industry, and maybe even improved access to legal services.

That sounds better that than a dysfunctional wreck of a profession, yes?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and a recovering perfectionist. It’s always a work in progress. If you want to work on changing from perfectionist to a pursuer of excellence, you can reach Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com .

Is the Pandemic Triggering Your Lawyer Perfectionism?

Being plunged into a global pandemic crisis has a way of unsettling people, even logical thinkers like lawyers. In fact, it might be harder for lawyers, because figuring out the worst-case scenario is literally our job.

Add to that, most attorneys are poor at separating their job skills from their approach to their personal life. So I know a lot of you are vastly more anxious and depressed than usual, but maybe it doesn’t feel like a worse version of your usual depression and anxiety. Maybe it’s so much more that the feeling is very, very different.

Oh Hey, Depression, You’re Back. Did You Change Your Hair?

What I did not see coming was how my own depression, which has been infinitely better for years than it was during practice, would come roaring back. And how it would take me a while to even figure out that depression might just be the problem. 

Many of you may be in the midst of depression about surviving this highly uncertain crisis. And yes, it is damned scary, and we have plenty of solid reasons to think that covid-19 is going to sicken or kill people around us.

But survival isn’t where my mind is going. Instead, I’ve been locked in a battle against my inner critic, and it’s bizarre. I’m a monkey on my own back because I’m not writing enough, or putting on FB Live events, or pushing ahead with plans to offer a subscription service for additional coaching materials. Also, I’m not sewing, painting, or even reading much. I’m completely struggling to do nice things for myself, even though every expert on the planet tells you to. Including me!

What AM I doing? 

  • Coaching existing clients and responding to inquiries. Yay! Some minimum normal functioning.
  • Napping like it’s my side gig. Sleeping until 9am or 10 am some days.
  • I’ve done an exercise DVD twice. Go me!
  • Gardening. Sometimes that means pulling up weeds for a couple minutes. Sometimes I even plant a few lettuces or herbs. I got really crazy the other day and planted 6 whole summer bulbs!
  • Getting on Facebook and watching TV more than I care to admit.
  • Doing a few Zooms and more texting/messaging with friends. I’ve even—gasp!—called a few people, unscheduled.
  • Far too much searching online for things I would rather go out and browse for. But going out is a bad, bad idea now, so online it is.

I finally made a rule for myself starting this week that I had to change out of PJs within an hour of getting out of bed. Basically, I put on leggings and some kind of stretchy shirt. Goals, people! 

All of this not-doing-workish-stuff provides infinite fodder for my inner critic. That inner critic loves to point out the 3.27 million ways I am just not worthy or enough, and gleefully points to my current lack of productivity as proof.

His name, incidentally, is Guido. He’s a mobster thug amalgamation from people I’ve known throughout my life. He really, really doesn’t like it when I venture into new places or try creative things.

Guido’s favorite methods of attack are those cloaked in perfectionism. And that is what this current depression is mostly about: I’m not doing all those things I’ve said I would if I just had the time, the energy, or could get enough sleep. So on top of being lazy, I’m also a liar.

Guido is not good company at parties.

Objectively, I know that expecting ourselves to carry on as if nothing life-changing is happening is absurd. But part of me very much expects to have mental energy, motivation, and physical energy, too. That I will suddenly, despite all prior experience before the pandemic, be a dynamo of productivity.

Yeah, right.

How Is Your Perfection Monster Doing?

I’ll bet a wad of cash that you’re experiencing perfection expectations from either yourself, or your bosses. Likely both. Lawyers do love to pretend they can power through anything, and we have the depression, substance abuse, and suicide rates to prove it.

So instead, do your best to accept that you are living through a major, historic crisis, and that however it resolves, some things will never be the same. Accept that we are literally making this up as we go along, because we have no other choice.

You are going to feel uncomfortable and unpleasant things. You are not going to be perky and energetic often, if at all, even if that is the face you’ve decided to present to the world. 

IMG_1773

So nap if you need to nap. Be sweet and nice and protective of yourself, like you would be to a frightened 5 year-old right now.

If you are getting pressure from your law employer to perform at your peak, maybe you should send them this article. Or this one. (Unless you’re involved in deals and lawsuits that will literally save lives.) Even federal judges recognize that these are extraordinary times, and we should get a clue and perspective.

Is Your Past a Problem Again?

You may find that this current, stupendous lack of control triggers some old, old wounds that you thought were laid to rest. 

If you experienced childhood trauma (have you taken the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey to assess that?) or other serious trauma, you are probably having some kind of struggle right now. 

If you have ever grieved deaths or other losses, you could very well be re-experiencing that right now.

If you already suffered from depression or anxiety, or both, you’re probably experiencing more of it.

Speaking of anxiety—Lawyers, in particular, often experience their anxiety through increased perfection pressure. That happens at work, mostly. Yet even if work has dried up (a whole other source of anxiety!), there’s always:

  • being the perfect homeschool parent, 
  • being extremely prepared by stockpiling or taking monumental measures to clean and sanitize, or 
  • being completely, utterly informed about current developments with the pandemic.  

Those are just the tip of the iceberg.

What Gives You Calm?

I suspect that I’m struggling from the re-awakened trauma from growing up in an alcoholic household. I don’t know what is coming next, just like I didn’t know then. Plus, my reaction to being enormously scared isn’t fight or flight, but freeze. So I resemble a refrigerated sloth more often than I care to. Yippee.

Fortunately, my grown-up, gone-to-therapy self has discovered some really good coping strategies over the years. For me, the priority is to spend time outside, preferably in my garden, possibly taking walks along very deserted paths in the woods. Or even going for a drive in the country by myself.

Grown-up me also knows that I need to stay off Facebook and away from most news updates, let alone hourly ones. I am instead watching Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear at 5pm EDT a few days a week. 

andy beshear headshot next to Kentucky flag

I’m a born-and-bred Kentuckian, yes, but more importantly, Gov. Andy has a wonderfully down-to-earth, “we are all in this together” message, and frequently reassures us that we are going to be OK. There are also exhortations about being patriotic, and that this is the defining challenge for our generation. He also talks a lot about doing what we need to do to protect our people, along with chiding those who try to evade restrictions, and reminding us, “You can’t be doing that. Do what you know you should be doing. We need to protect each other.”

I find some calm and hope listening to Gov. Andy. 

I share my own current struggles not to get any sympathy, because I’m really doing better than I was (or you wouldn’t be reading this post).

Mostly, I want to let y’all know that despite all the productivity porn (love that phrase!) you may be seeing on social media, everyone is struggling right now. That struggle may look like abject denial of the existence of a crisis, to all kinds of decluttering, cleaning, and stockpiling, all the way to self-harm. 

Some Gentle Goals

There are some excellent resources (here and here, for starters) about how to take care of yourself during this time. If you feel able to adopt a few of these behaviors, that’s outstanding.

If you are utterly overwhelmed at the idea of most of them, THAT’S OK. 

 

The most important thing is figuring out what makes your inner 5-year-old feel safe and calm. Then do that!

Some ideas that your inner 5-year-old might like:

Consider singing and dancing as ways to deal with anxiety and depression. It does not matter in the slightest if you are the worst ever at these. Humans have been singing and dancing in their tribes since before recorded history. These activities are human birthrights, because they let us express a huge range of emotions. It’s hard finding words right now for what we are feeling. Let it out in other ways.

group of adults on brown grass field, dancing in disorganized group

Read and take bubble baths. Get under a weighted fuzzy blanket and go on a streaming binge! 

Meditation and yoga, or any kind of movement, are wonderful for most of us, no matter how old.

Have a little forbidden food. Unless it’s forbidden due to allergies or very serious health reasons. Hint: I’ll gain weight/it’s not paleo/vegan/low-fat are not the kind of serious health reasons I’m talking about. 

Do something for someone else. Putting a smile on another person’s face is a powerful, amazing drug. Just be sure to keep up your own self-care, OK? No martyrdom!

Make some really bad arts and crafts. Let your inner 5-year-old have fun making a glorious mess. Do not insist on pretty or Pinterest-level. Unless it’s Pinterest-fail.

Be careful with alcohol and other similar substances. A glass or two of wine nightly is probably OK right now, unless you’re a substance abuser. I’m personally up to a whopping two drinks a week lately, which is about 3 times as much as I usually drink.

Most of all, remember you are important, loved, and needed in this world.

The world has the best medicine and doctors in history, along with the best communications and technology ever known. People are working together to find solutions. To quote Gov. Andy, “We’re gonna get through this,” even though the way may not be crystal clear right now.

Be well, everyone. Take care of each other.

If you’re struggling, connect with someone and get the help you need. If you want to drop me a line about work, career, or deep questions, I’m jalvey@jenniferalvey.com. I’m not a therapist, but sometimes I have a few decent ideas about how to reframe what’s happening. I’ve also leveled up to Snarky Queen of Coffee & Memes™, so we can always discuss that.

 

 

When Everything’s Gone to S%#(*

I have spent the last couple days trying to write a fabulous post that will help all of y’all feel better about living through a pandemic. You know, something that isn’t so pie-in-the-sky that most of you lawyers would eye-roll past, but that still inspires y’all to look for some deeper meaning and wisdom in this crisis. Something that will help you dig down for what you really want your life to be in 6 months or a year.

This is not that post.

The truth is, I’m struggling as much as anyone else right now. Trouble focusing, feeling OK one minute and crying the next. Not wanting to work at all. Spending way the hell too much time on Facebook, and in chats with friends, even though that often depresses me as much as keeps me connected. Oh, and TV watching. I’m considering upgrading my Hulu account every other hour. My chocolate consumption is . . . unwise.

No Music, and I’m Crying

Which is why, this morning, I was outside gardening in the rain.

In the spring, two of my profound joys are mucking around in my garden, and getting ready for Easter with many choir rehearsals. 

I realized several days ago that the likelihood of having Easter services was about .0005% of a chance above nil. No live services means no choir joyfully processing down the aisle in song. Or at our church, no singing the Hallelujah Chorus right before the end of the Easter service. I’ve sung that for a decade now, every Easter. I’ve gone from abject terror to absolute delight about that, over the years.

Episcopal choir in black robes and white cottas, on dais, holding music folders

St. Paul’s Episcopal choir, Franklin TN

Merely thinking that we wouldn’t have choir, I was OK. But I actually typed that out in a chat with friends, and I started tearing up. Singing is one of the greatest joys of my life. I didn’t start singing with a choir until 2008; before that, it was the radio and me, baby. 

I had no idea what I had been missing all my life.

Now, I do know what I’ll be missing. And I’ve been pretty depressed about it.

But it’s just this one time, right? Many things that are much more important are also going AWOL in all our lives right now. So why was I sobbing about singing?

It’s All About that Grief

Finally, I realized: I’m grieving.

For the foreseeable future, there won’t be rehearsals. That means no time with my choir family, who are cherished, maddening, hilarious, eyeroll-inducing, and so many other things. Plus, there’s the real joy of making music.

Then, there’s the other parts of this spring I was really anticipating: Finally going to Keeneland on my college alumni racing day, which I have never been able to attend; seeing a dear friend who was coming to visit Nashville with her daughter to look at a local college; seeing my son at his school guitar concert. 

These were some of the bigger emotional milestones in my life vision for the next couple months. And now, in less than a week, it’s all gone to the compost pile of our lives. 

Future Haze

It is a kind of death. Just like when someone you love dies, suddenly we are faced with a very different future than what we imagined. When someone dies, it’s disorienting and shocking, but at least the rest of the world stays roughly the same. 

Now, not only are all of the pleasant expectations we had being destroyed, the rest of the world is morphing into something radically different than it was just weeks ago. And it sure isn’t looking like a fun, new reality.

Here in Nashville, it’s also been overcast or rainy since February 1 for all but a tiny handful of days. I’m like a solar light; without sunlight, I start to fade and lose energy. No sun also means little to no gardening time. One of the best ways to soothe ourselves is to get outside, and I haven’t been able to do that much at all.

The Crazy Lady in the Rain

Today, though, I decided to seize a window without rain, and gave my rose bushes some badly needed pruning before they get so overgrown I would be bleeding copiously if I tried to hack them back.

Then, I decided to pull some weeds. I love pulling weeds, because I get this absolutely visceral thrill from prying them out, roots and all.

garden bed with a small pile of pulled up weeds in middleOf course, it started raining. I decided I didn’t care.

So there I was, an overweight, middle-aged woman squatting in a garden bed, digging into the dirt with my bare fingers, while the sprinkles intensified. If someone were filming my life, this would be the scene where I’d finally lost my mind.

But instead, it was the scene where I finally found some calm and peace. 

So What Now?

What does this mean for you lovely souls who are still reading? 

Give yourself permission to grieve. We have lost our familiar routines and pleasures, and instead are being plunged into some frightening uncertainty none of us have ever lived through. It’s a monumental loss, and it’s terrifying.

Remember that grief is very weird and very personal. Sure, there are stages of grief, but that doesn’t mean everyone experiences them the same way, at the same rate, or in linear order. You bounce around from denial to acceptance, then loop back to bargaining, etc. Give yourself permission to simply accept what you are feeling, no judgement, no expectations.

Find some way to include things that bring you joy. If this is the first time you’ve really considered what brings you joy—what a wonderful gift you can give yourself by figuring that out. 

If you know what brings you joy, but feel like it’s impossible to get right now—time to get creative. Maybe you can’t go to a raucous party with 100 of your closest friends, but maybe you can create a similar experience through Zoom, live-streaming, or even a simple multi-party phone call.

Do something nice for someone else. It’s a proven way to improve your outlook. Write a note to someone who has been important to you. Call someone you’ve lost touch with. Get some necessaries or small luxuries delivered to someone you know is struggling in some way. 

Do something nice for yourself. Get some wonderful-smelling soap, and enjoy the fragrant suds. Take naps. Splurge a little on art supplies, books, favorite foods, or plants. Read or watch something hilarious and fluffy. Whatever puts a genuine smile on your face that you can do while social distancing, just do it.

And if you’re struggling, connect with someone. If you want to drop me a line, I’m jalvey@jenniferalvey.com. I’m not a therapist, but sometimes I have a few decent ideas about how to reframe what’s happening.

Be well, everyone. Take care of each other.

Top 3 Limiting Beliefs Most Lawyers Cling To—Do You?

People often mistake their thoughts and beliefs as actual truths. Yet it’s often not so. For example, we all believe that murder is bad, that we shouldn’t commit murder, and that anyone who commits murder should be punished.

Oh, except if it’s self-defense. Or it’s a soldier killing an enemy. Or it was an unforeseeable accident. Or if a helpless victim kills her tormentor after years of abuse, or . . .

You get the point. Our beliefs are not necessarily the gospel from on high, let alone the entire truth. Yet to hear many lawyers, you might think that these 3 beliefs are, indeed, handed down from above.

1. Work Isn’t Supposed To Be Fun, That’s Why They Call It Work

When you really break down this belief, you find that its roots are both from medieval society, and from America in the 1950s. No, really. 

In medieval times, most people were serfs/peasants/not royalty or landed gentry. To get by, emotionally and mentally, it helped if you did not have big dreams and aspirations above your station. The likelihood that you would be able to rise above your birth status was almost nil, so why encourage your children to dream about that? It would have been cruel.

Once democracy started dethroning royal regimes, it was more reasonable to aspire to something better. Maybe even something you enjoyed and could make some money doing.

People, especially unenslaved white men, were no longer tied to the land as their sole means of income. People moved around, seeking freedom and money. But then, this little trend called the Industrial Revolution happened. And it started dominating the modern economy, so that by the 1950s, manufacturing was the economic engine of America.

As Dan Pink points out in his brilliant book, A Whole New Mind, a manufacturing economy requires a huge amount of compliant behavior, and highly repetitive, perfect work. The number of people who enjoy that kind of work environment is pretty small, compared to the total workforce. 

By conditioning workers to believe that work isn’t supposed to be fun, employers convinced rebellious and unhappy workers that their expectations of work bliss were the problem: Work isn’t supposed to be fun!

neon light signage on wall

Photo by Christopher Farrugia on Pexels.com

 

The thing is, we haven’t lived in a manufacturing-dominated economy since the 1970s. We now live in an innovation economy. That means that the people who will make the best living are the ones who don’t follow the rules slavishly, and who tailor their lives to cultivate their creativity, i.e., problem-solving.

Newsflash: Having fun is one of the chief ways to foster creativity. With such rapid change in the business world, every company needs creativity. Ergo, work actually should be fun regularly.

2. No One Will Pay Me for Doing What I Love

There is a grain of truth in this. Because the truth is, no one will pay you for doing every single thing you love. For example, I post all kinds of snarky cat and grammar memes on my personal Facebook page. I love doing that! But sadly, no one has leaped forward with fistfuls of cash to ensure I continue doing it. I’m OK with that.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get paid for something you love to do. Plenty of people have:

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Bill Gates & Steve Jobs
  • J.S. Bach
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Marie Curie
  • Usain Bolt
  • Oksana Baiul

Plus, there are all the people in the world who like their jobs and would never pick a different one, but whose lives don’t make the headlines.

The Japanese have a fascinating concept to help discern what our ideal work is: Ichigai. It’s much easier to comprehend in a diagram:

ichigai venn diagram

Some cautions: Many lawyers get tripped up on the getting-paid part of the diagram. That’s because they are most familiar with fairly traditional, predictable ways of getting paid. Folks, it is not 1999. Entrepreneurship is having a heyday.

Before you decide you can’t possibly be paid for what you love to do, read at least 25 stories of unlikely startups that are making money. For example, pet cafes. Or take a look at the Experiences offered on AirBnb.

N.B.!! If you have long-term trauma in your past, or have worked in a toxic law firm environment for several years—realize that there may be unseen barriers for you. I strongly urge you to talk to someone who specializes in trauma recovery as you consider your future plans. After all, life throws enough barriers up, and you don’t want to be your own biggest barrier, through no fault of your own.

3. I Have No Marketable Skills Aside from Practicing Law

This particular belief can drive me to drink! I know it’s rooted in depression and anxiety, but still. 

Let’s review:

  • You achieved academically for your entire academic career through college.
  • You’ve probably had some jobs or volunteer experience along the way, in which you learned more things.
  • You made it through not only 3 years of law school, you probably passed the bar as well.
  • If you are working in law (or have), you have incredible survival skills.

And you want to tell people you don’t know how to do anything that isn’t law? Seriously??

man wearing red leather jacket

Photo by Ricardo Augusto on Pexels.com

 

Off the top of my head, here are some things I’m pretty sure you know how to do (and I do not even know you):

  • Think critically. We need only take a look at the news to see that this quality is sorely lacking in the world, in businesses, medical decisions, politics, and on and on.
  • Problem spotting. You know enough about how the world works, especially the legal and government structures, to have a Spidey sense about a looming issue.
  • Research your bum off. Like, digging through 30 or 40 of the top search hits, not just the top 10 (and going down many rabbit holes).
  • Evaluate the credibility of research findings, of sources, of people’s testimony or statements.
  • Sort through a huge amount of information quickly, to find the important facts/documents/statements/theories.
  • Assign value to factors in a decision. In other words, you can bottom-line with the best of them.
  • See the forest and the trees, depending upon what the circumstances call for.
  • Solve complex problems. Because seriously, lawyers rarely get hired for the things that are easy to fix.

A fabulous place to dig around for skills and talents you already have, but don’t know you have, is a Department of Labor site call O*Net. Look in the Find Occupations area, for example, at the Lawyer information and data. See how non-lawyers view what we do. This site is a freaking gold mine of information on all kinds of jobs, despite its 2007 appearance. Wander around it, and get informed and inspired.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who believes in coffee, chocolate, and Kentucky bourbon. When she isn’t pursuing her unpaid passions for gardening or making things, she helps unhappy attorneys get their groove back. To set up a sample coaching session with Jennifer, contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.