Shame and the Alternative Legal Career Search

Shame is the great enforcer of norms. Naturally, shame is rampant among lawyers.

Shame can really warp your decision-making process if you are not keenly aware of it, and sometimes even if you are. It creeps into your life in ways small and large. Particularly if you are from a dysfunctional family (so many lawyers are!), you probably have shame issues that are sabotaging your current career search.

Here’s a common shame-inducing tactic lawyers love to use: “What? You mean you’ve never heard of John Blowhard? He’s only the biggest trial lawyer in America!” Quick, what’s your first instinct? To deny that you were so stupid — because you’re ashamed you didn’t know everything and everyone possible in law. Which is silly, because sitting here today I could barely name three plaintiffs’ lawyers, particularly if you eliminate the ones who advertise on TV. And I’ve been in and around law, in lots of practice areas, for more than 15 years. So when partners and senior associates trot out this kind of tactic regularly, know that you’re dealing with someone who is wildly insecure. Try not to take their bait.

Yet shame often comes in more subtle packages, and from within. Take today. I had an assignment to go to some thrift stores and try to find materials for making tassels, an obscure, antiquarian hobby of mine. I couldn’t do it.

This is not what I told myself, at least not at first. Instead, it was “well, I need to go do X, and then I’ll be closer to Big Lots. The thrift store is in the other direction.” Sort of. There was another thrift store, which I had forgotten about, next to the Big Lots. So then I told myself that it would be more efficient to go to Big Lots, because their inventory was more predictable. Truth be told, there was no real reason not to go to the thrift store, except that I was so hung up on the idea of appearing to need to shop at a thrift store that I let shame derail me.

The moral of this story? Shame sabotages your best interests, if you let it. Think about how important appearances are to most lawyers. Have you ever had the phrase “I can’t do that! I have a law degree!” run through your head? That’s probably shame talking. True, it doesn’t make much sense to work at a job paying $12/hour if you have a law degree and some other options. But what about $30 or $40/hour? That’s what many contract lawyers make, and more than many attorneys at small law firms in smaller cities make. Yet which one would you choose? Would you choose a job as a plumber, if you could make more than you would as an attorney?

I’m not encouraging you to become a plumber, unless of course it interests you. What I am encouraging you to do is listen to your thoughts, and see if you can’t hear the shame lurking behind some of them. Then ask yourself: Am I letting shame keep me from taking a step that would help me, in the end?

If you’ll excuse me, I need to go to Goodwill. I have some shame to beat down.

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