So unhappy lawyer, you’ve got a clue about what your Myers-Briggs type is. You may even, if you’ve read the other posts I’ve written about the MBTI alphabet (here, here, here and here), have some ideas about whether you fit into law or not.
But here’s the biggest tip of all: Your Myers-Briggs type is not your destiny. It’s a tool that helps you find career happiness, whether that is in the legal profession or in an alternative career to law.
In other words, just because you fall into one of the 6 personality types that predominate in law—ISTJ, ESTJ, INTJ, ENTP, INTP or ENTJ—doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider leaving law. You may fit in, but maybe you would be far happier away from the dysfunction of the law firm environment.
And just because you’re not one of those 6 types, doesn’t mean you must leave law to find career happiness. Maybe there is something compelling (in a positive, rather than fearful way) about law that trumps the negatives for you.
Deal with Who You Actually Are
What you do need to do is pay attention to what your type preferences are telling you. Most of the time, your MBTI type reveals what you’ve been ignoring, denying, or hoping would just go away if you worked harder at being what you’re actually not. Stop fighting your hard-wiring. Find work that plays to your strengths, not your weaknesses.
The MBTI can help you get out of reductionist lawyer-think and see that humans are varied and diverse, and that we all have special personality quirks that are, in fact, quite valuable and actually useful. Even if your innate preferences aren’t valued in a law environment, they are valuable. That’s a revelation to a lot of lawyers.
There is no one set of job skills or personality type that is superior. There are, though, places where some personality types are going to thrive, and others where that same type will whither and die. Law is filled with people who didn’t or couldn’t see that they were beautiful lilies sending themselves off to be planted with the cacti.
There are lots of reasons why we do this to ourselves. Partly, it’s that many lawyers choose law at a young age, without knowing much about themselves, let alone what the realities of lawyering are. And, when you’re young, you often think you’re invincible, and that the harsh realities people try to warn you about simply won’t happen—after all, you’re really smart and determined, and you’ll figure it out.
Or, your lack of self-knowledge led you to rely on others, like parents, teachers and friends, to tell you what to do. Time for that to stop, isn’t it?
Youthful idiocy is why it took 2 Myers-Briggs assessments before I started paying attention to it. By the time I’d practiced law for 5 or 6 years, I had had enough real-life experience in unsuitable environments to listen to what the MBTI was saying. By then, I was convinced that I had little skill or talent to offer anyone at any price. I was really beaten down.
The MBTI helped me see positive value in what I had been told repeatedly were negatives. To most lawyers, my way of doing things was just wrong, bad, and needed to be corrected.
Just how much I had internalized the constant criticism came home to me when I was talking to a sales rep at a career consulting firm, and I told him one of my problems was that I got bored easily. I thought this was a major flaw in my work ethic, to be honest. Never mind the sheer amount of work it took to get through college with A’s, and a top 10 law school with good enough credentials to then clerk for a federal judge—I obviously didn’t have a decent work ethic if I didn’t like doing the same stuff for 10 hours, day in and day out.
Here’s what I’ll never forget: The sales rep said to me, “You aren’t bored, you just need more challenges.” It was a huge lightbulb moment for me. And it also is very true of Perceiving part of my MBTI type, which loathes (and I mean seriously, allergically hates) repeatedly following the same routines. (Perceiving types adore variety and change. So if you’re a P and trying to work in a BigLaw factory, it probably isn’t going to work very well for you.)
The Importance of the Middle Traits
When you’re looking to your MBTI type to help you sort out where to focus your career energies, pay the most attention to the middle two pairs, S/N and T/F. Those are the function pairs: ST, SF, NT and NF. Those pairs are the most closely correlated with job satisfaction.
In other words, the function pairs are where you are the least malleable and able to bend your personality to fit in. Function pairs often represent some core values for you, and violating those core values daily is exhausting and dispiriting. Do it long enough, and you are asking depression to come visit with an engraved invitation.
For example, imagine you’re an NF, a function pair that strongly prefers to approach life and work in a warm and enthusiastic manner, and likes to focus on ideas and possibilities, particularly possibilities for people. Now, how satisfied would you be if you were working in an environment that had a high concentration of NTs, a function pair that really likes work requiring an impersonal and analytical approach to ideas, information and people? Hello, oil and water? Add to that the insane demands and stresses of the current workplace, and it’s like the spark that sets up complete flame-out.
Maybe that’s where you are now. The good news is, you don’t have to hope, like the lilly does, that someone will come along, uproot you from the desert and plant you in the right place. You are the one who wields the shovel.
So how do you figure out where to transplant yourself?
- Listen. Listen to yourself and your honest likes and dislikes. Quit discounting them just because others around you do. You matter, and what you prefer in this world matters.
- Look for jobs that value your innate preferences, rather than violating them constantly.
- Stop doing your job search the way most people do, by totting up your skills and looking for job descriptions that match them. The only thing that method will produce is more of the same work life. Isn’t that what you’re trying to escape?
- Look for what excites you. Even in a great job, there’s a certain amount of drudgery and ick. Having enthusiasm for your work overall will carry you through those tough spots more easily and gracefully. As opposed to now, when the tough spots feel like every single day and threaten to drown your spirit oh, say, hourly.
- Pay attention to what MBTI types concentrate in which jobs and industries. Move toward the ones that have a fair number of your type. Being surrounded by people who share similar approaches and values is a big part of what makes a work environment feel supportive.
All these suggestions are simple in theory, but the execution is where things get hairy. If you need help with maintaining focus while you are executing your brilliantly simply plan for a happy lawyer life—well, I know this career and life coach who used to be a lawyer . . .
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who played against her type for a decade or so, before she discovered that working with her strengths required a lot less therapy. She helps attorneys maintain their focus while executing their brilliant new career plans. Contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org for a discounted sample coaching session to get you going on your path.
[…] law school, do yourself the biggest favor of your life: Make sure. Make sure you’ve got the right personality to succeed in law with relative ease. Make sure you understand what the work is going to be like […]
[…] it’s not if you aren’t actually suited to being a practicing lawyer. For those whose personalities and interests actually do match what’s involved in daily law […]
[…] focuses on breaking down tasks to the nth degree and tracking the hell out of them, and as an INFP, I’m constitutionally incapable of doing […]
[…] are. That info should at least keep you away from wildly unsuitable work. (I talk about that here, with links to the series.) And the suggestions for what people with your type generally like can […]
Thank you, Jennifer! I’m an NF and was wondering if going into environmental law would work for me. Hmmm…you just saved me years of drudgery.
[…] are much more hard-wired. There’s no denying that both lawyer attitudes and their innate personality traitscan make an alternative legal career search a challenge. But here’s the key: attitudes are […]
I was thinking of going to school for law. I am INTP, and I thought that would be a good fit. Unfortunately, I have lots of info (including here) that make me think otherwise…
I was a vocal performance major, and spent my entire life thinking I would be an opera singer….
I don’t know what else to do!
Bethany, I’m in a similar position to you… asking some of the same questions, hoping to make an informed decision. I’m an ENTP, very strong NT but weak E and P that I can flip to I or J and be totally content as long as I balance it in some other aspect of my life. I’m mid 20’s seriously considering law school in a real way. I Majored in Chemistry, have worked in the National Science Foundation and several other top level research positions. I’m competitive, achievement focused and good at what I do, but I absolutely hate the culture and lifestyle of chemistry. I’ve come to the point where I just can’t tolerate it any longer, and I’d rather take the initiative to actively change careers than get suck having to conform to a culture/mentality that I do not appreciate. This website raises some concerns for me too, especially related to working in biglaw… It gives me a lot to consider and definitely points-out some pitfalls that I need to watch out for, but it also confirms a lot of my reasons for pursuing law. The most important thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years is to actively define my own professional identity and make independent career choices. I met with a career counselor focused in law, took the MBTI and I’d look at it this way, STJ’s; NTJ’s; and NTP’s can all be very happy in law – but each faces a unique set of challenges. In my opinion, the NTP’s greatest challenge is to make sure that they define their profession and themselves, rather than allow their profession to define them, which would be a potential problem if one allowed themselves to be stereotyped by a big firm – and law has a strong stereotype. Most of my STJ friends (many of them chemists or doctors) are perfectly happy being stereotyped and actually embrace the culture of their discipline, they’ll walk around in lab coats on the weekends, hang out almost exclusively with chemists/doctors, and dress up as hydrogen peroxide for Halloween; to them that’s cool, to me that’s fake and superficial. I don’t find these articles to discourage me from pursuing law, especially sense my alternative is to not make an active career choice and let myself be defined by circumstance. I think they are an awesome resource in considering how I should pursue law without losing myself in the process. For me that means that I’m going to keep kayaking, dancing salsa, and driving a beat up Subaru, even if every other car in the parking lot is a new Mercedes.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head–maybe inadvertently–about why so many find the law oppressive: it’s the culture. The very toxic, dysfunctional culture that reigns in most law firms of any size. If you want to get a real taste of how nasty it can be, check out the comments to the posts on the Above the Law website. A lot of toxic, unhappy BigLaw lawyers post there, and you can get a real quick read on the culture of the average big corporate law firm, especially those in New York (but not exclusively).
The one problem with the Myers-brigg test, imho is that it does not take into account one’s “functioning” level. I tend to meet all of the “typical” personality traits–thinker, intuitive, judgmental, etc. However, I do not like “executing.” I like planning, organizing, categorizing, and problem solving—once I find the answer, I find implementing the solution to be boring and tedious. Thus, I am great at research and memo writing; but I hate dealing with other lawyers, talking on the phone or going to court. Law school prepares you to think like a lawyer; it doesn’t prepare you to act like one.
Sometimes, leaving doesn’t mean you’re a quitter. It just means you get to live free.
[…] sure. Make sure you’ve got the right personality to succeed in law with relative ease. Make sure you understand what the work is going to be like […]
Quitting has a stigma attached. Americans focus too much on “never giving up.” Moreover, we teach our children to never give up. I find this concept can be quite damaging to a child, psychologically, and as adults we drag this dis-empowering belief into our career, personal and family life. In fact, some of my greatest achievements in my career and life have been because I DID give up.
Don’t confuse persistence or tenacity with not knowing when to quit. That is like confusing stubbornness with strength. They are two completely different concepts.
John, you nailed it. Well done!
I’ve been licensed and practicing (litigation) for 8 years and now find myself laid off seeking a career transition. I stumbled upon your sight and wondering if you have suggestions for an INFJ?
F’s tend to find it very difficult to stay in law firms, and in most areas of traditional law practice. There is so much conflict, from small to large, and it is extremely draining over time. You just get emotionally exhausted, and even if you took 2 solid weeks of vacation annually, that would probably not be enough to recover.
INFJ’s tend toward idealism, but unlike INFP’s, they are often very, very driven. So if there is a cause you believe in, you may find that a legal role in such an organization is worth it enough to put up with the friction. Also, most non-legal work environments have a much lower level of aggravation generally. There are more extraverts and more Feelers than in law, which mean that good relationship skills are valued and the work environment is more balanced.
I’m planning to go to law school in the fall (a dual program: JD and masters of public service). I want to work for a women’s health organization that is involved in policy decisions and lawmaking. I’m 27 have been in the workplace for 5 years, working in women’s health specifically for 2 of those years, and I feel like this is the path I should be on. BUT I’m an INFP. After all the things I’ve read about INFPs, I’m very nervous about law school and burn out. Or going, spending all that money, and then not being a lawyer (which is the point..?). Do you have any advice?
Hello Jennifer,i am presently a law student and considering changing my course to something else entirely like economics or even sociology.I have always felt that law is not for me,considering my personality type.As a young child i was very confident about my choice of career but now i am not even so sure,it has even led to some sort of depression that is affecting my grades.I am quite melancholy i just love peace and order.i can’t imagine spending the rest of my life fighting in a court,arguing and oh i hate i arguments a lot really.i also love my privacy in fact i cherich it so constantly talking to clients and going to court, i am not so sure i would enjoy it.The scary part is i don’t know how to tell my parents this i have spent two years already and they have spent lots of money on me and sacrificed a lot the worst part is that my Dad actually told me to read another course but i insisted.I keep telling my self i can do this ingnore that voice and go on but whenever some one tells me you are too gentle,quiet or soft try and toughen up u need it as a lawyer i just get so weak and i don’t know how to just change my personality.i feel stuck in a rot.
In my experience, ignoring that inner voice leads to more bad decisions than anything else. Have you asked your parents what they would think? (rather than assumed) Do you really think they want you to be unhappy for a decade? That’s the usual timeline before people reach out to me or people like me. School, job for about 5 years, then burnout.
If your strength is creating peace and order, you won’t find many chances to do that in law. It is highly contentious, even when you’re not in the courtroom. After all, lawyers are a bunch of people who always want to prove they are right and others are wrong . . .
Take the Meyers-Briggs and the VIA Character Strengths and Values, and see if they don’t give you some insight. Being tough is way overrated.
Thanks Jennifer,grateful for the advice.
I’m an ISTP. I too dread repetition and get bored easily. I also crave excitment though. I would die if i had to sit ina cubicle all day. But i’m also seriously considering criminal law- its seems relatively fast paced and you actually can make a different (not necessarily dealing with exhausting, toxic, money hungry ppl). Do you think law’s a sensible choice for me, considering my personailty type wasn’t mentioned?
Thanks in advance!
So what you are telling me (ESFP), i should stay far far away? All jobs that have been suggested for my personality type are all mediocre, for lack of better word. I’m currently a dental assistant, and have a huge urge for higher education. I want to go and get a couple of degrees, because i will never feel satisfied/accomplished without it. But i’m feeling like my options are greatly limited being an ESFP. This is discouraging me very much, as i’m 25yrs old and time is ticking.
Did you know that the human brain does not fully mature until about 25? Maybe a tad later for men than women. You say time is ticking, while I see someone who just now is getting enough maturity to make really informed decisions about life.
I only view Meyers-Briggs as a starting point, not an end-all and be-all. Also, keep in mind that many very interesting jobs exist now that simply are not listed on any MB type. For example, social media manager, or lots of web development jobs.
That said, it’s worth knowing what attracts you to law. Most of law is done by yourself, behind a computer. I can’t imagine that sounds appealing to an extravert. Also, are you comfortable thinking about problems very dispassionately, even somewhat coldly? In other words, using rules to work out the solution, rather than what seems fair or right? Because that is the guts of what lawyers do, day in and day out. You can always find people to help you with organization, so I don’t think the P is an instant disqualifier.
If your idea of going to law school is to have a steady, decent-paying job, I would urge you to look at what has been happening in the legal market in the last 10 years. In a nutshell, the number of jobs has shrunk, and there is an oversupply of JDs. That is not the recipe for a steady, stable career.
Trust me, a degree in and of itself is not satisfying. With luck and attention to who you really are, a degree can help you get to the work that IS satisfying. But you first must know yourself, before you decide on what that path to satisfaction really will be.
Great post. I’m an INFJ lawyer almost constantly pondering whether I’m cut out for this or not. The hardest dilemma is whether one should try to adapt his law practice to her/his MBTI personality or just take the leap and do a career turn. I’m currently in this crossroad ~
Hi Jennifer, I wondered what your thoughts are on my situation. I am an ESTJ (I have had the test done three times, 2x was an ESTJ – once in college, later at age 31, and most recently was an ENTJ at age 39). I am very high on the extrovert scale, and noticed one your last comments was that most of the work lawyers do is solitary, behind computer. I’ve known for (almost 20) years that lawyering does not suit me as an extrovert. Who, then, are the happy ESTJ lawyers? I have just come across your blog, and will read more articles before inquiring about how to change or what to change to.
I have usually come out as an ISFJ on the test as I am 33 now, still ever since I was 20.
I just started a MA in Urban/Planning after much thought.
I am curious what type of law careers best suit ISFJs even if I never plan to pursue law ever again and hoping my current degree being pursued is the final degree for life to serve me well.