Reviews and the Perfect Lawyer

It’s fall, and so review season is in full swing. You get to find out how badly those cranky partners hold grudges because you missed that extra space AND an extra period in a letter to the judge, or committed your client to an ethical position in discovery when the partner wasn’t going to, or . . . whatever. Law firm reviews are generally nothing more than a chance to take shots at associates, whether deserved or not. A chance to firm up the record with reasons you didn’t make partner, should the firm want some. And yet, reviews for all their fiction scar lawyers deeply.

In my very last review ever in a law firm, I recall two specific things. One, my reviewers said: I was inconsistent, doing good work sometimes and often, not. Two, I was “just too creative.” I remember how horrified and guilt-ridden I felt about those items. Too creative! Oh no, they had seen, despite my best efforts at hiding it, that I was not like them. Inconsistent — why oh why couldn’t I just buckle down like everyone else? I KNEW I was smart enough. I churned with guilt and shame for hours.

But later that day, I had an epiphany: I did not want to work for people who couldn’t tolerate creativity. I didn’t want to go into the office every day and write the perfect nasty letter to opposing counsel, to sacrifice my sense of fairness for a meaningless tactical advantage in discovery that would soon be forgotten. I was tired of tearing everything down around me, from colleagues’ arguments to opposing counsel’s semi-reasonable requests.

I finally started the process of admitting I was not the perfect lawyer, that I never had been, and that I never would be. It took many years, therapy sessions, and of course meds before I stopped feeling ashamed at having failed at law. In other words, to stop feeling so damned depressed all the time.

Looking back, I see that final review contained some kernels of truth: I was too creative — to practice law. Typical lawyers are terrified of the unpredictability of creativity, so they put tremendous energy into marginalizing it and those who possess it. In other words, what gets criticized most in reviews may be precisely the best thing about you.

May your review this year be a launching pad for finding your true vocation.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on getting what they truly want out of work and life. She offers discounted sample sessions so you can try out coaching and experience its unique power. Email Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule yours today.

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