What You Know About Your Legal Career Can Hurt You

I talked last time about how blinders of knowing can keep you from seeing what your heart really wants to do. Lawyers, even unhappy lawyers, tend to have industrial grade blinders, because in law, there’s one dominant career path: Get a job as an associate, and make partner.

hand reaching images streaming

Pick your new career from your wildest dreams.

Sure, there are variations, but all of those variations have the whiff, if not the stamp, of alternative legal career. As in, deviating from the norm. That’s a pretty narrow mindset with heavy-duty blinders.

Here’s how “knowing” how things are works against you, from my own personal vault of experience: I knew that I should try to be more like other lawyers, because then I would be successful at law. And I didn’t question that I wanted to be successful at law, because why the hell else would I have gone to law school?

Why You Might Suck at Law

But the truth was, I often sucked at law and therefore at working in general, because I didn’t think and do like other lawyers. For example, as a young associate, I read deposition transcripts with one overriding question: What the hell is this person’s story? It dawned on me when I was, say, 4 or 5 years into practice that most attorneys read depos solely to find facts that supported or undercut a particular legal theory. They absolutely did not look for stories.

I kinda, sorta, looked for facts and all, but really, all I cared about was character development—what makes this person tick? For a long while, I saw this reading-depos-for-plot-and-character as a flaw in my lawyer skills, which of course it mostly was. Though one can certainly argue that looking deeper into the deponent’s personality could give you a real advantage at trial. Except that my cases never went to trial.

But this flaw in how I read depo transcripts was also shrieking at me, do something that has to do with characters and plot and story! Do something that has to do with what makes people tick! So, um, yeah, no wonder I’m much happier writing and coaching people as my main work these days.

What Do You Know?

I couldn’t see what I needed to do for, oh, years. More than a decade, if you count the years in law school (and I do). And that’s because of all the things I knew:

  • That I had to use my law degree
  • That I had to make a lot of money
  • That I couldn’t give up and walk away from the blood, sweat and tears I invested
  • That I wasn’t working hard enough
  • That the problem was me not being able to accept the way things were in the workworld
  • That work wasn’t supposed to be fun, which is why it was called work
  • That I wasn’t talented at anything much except analysis because I would know by now if I were good at art, music or writing or whatever else
  • That someone had to give me a job

The key to seeing the evidence of what your heart really wants is to stop using the knowledge lens.

Capture Your Heart on Paper

Instead of using the knowledge lens, try this exercise. Make a bunch of 1” x 4” (or so) strips of paper. Use whatever type of paper makes you feel happy and free. If you like a particular color or texture of paper or ink, use it. Write one thing per strip of paper:

  • that you’d try if you had all the resources in the world;
  • that you do now to avoid your day job work;
  • that you used to do and miss doing;
  • that is goofy or embarrassing but you would do if no one knew about it;
  • that you did as a kid and loved—especially before the high school achievement sweepstakes began;
  • that is your guilty pleasure;
  • that you read a story about someone else doing and thought “that lucky dog, how fun would that be to have for a job/do that!”; or
  • that you do a little of now but want to do way more of, if only you had the time.

Create as many strips as you can.  The more, the better, since you’ll have more data to work with, but if you end up with just a few, that’s fine.  Finishing your strips can take anywhere from a half hour to several days. Take the time you need to generate strips; sometimes ideas bubble up at the oddest times.

Strip Your Way to a Theme

Once your strips are complete, sit down and make an initial sort. You’re looking for common themes. Maybe you had some strips that said, “Walk outside more,” “Work on my garden,” “Spend more time playing frisbee with Rover,” “Go horseback riding,” and “Raise chickens.” They all seem to center around being outdoors, so you might want to group them together under that theme. Or, maybe the theme is physical activity. Just start making some preliminary piles and see what occurs to you.

Don’t overthink this. Go with your gut, even if your gut seems momentarily batshit crazy. There aren’t right or wrong answers, just interesting, and hopefully new ways to see what it is your heart longs for.

If you get really stuck for themes, ask a friend with good insight, a therapist, or even a career coach for help.

Once you’ve got some themes, get a sheet of paper, a filing folder or some posterboard. Make columns with your themes as headings, and tape or glue the strips for each theme under that heading. (If you’re not sure yet, you can always use some restickable glue.)

Hang your categories near your desk. If you don’t want people at work to see it, you could take a photo of it and use that as a screen saver.

Keeping the list within frequent sight will let your heart know you are taking its desires seriously. When you do that, you’ll get inundated with great ideas about how to change your career and life so they match your heart’s desires.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys discover their heart’s desires for career and life. She offers discounted sample sessions—schedule yours today by contacting Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

12 thoughts on “What You Know About Your Legal Career Can Hurt You

  1. Holy cow, were you rooting around my brain recently? Mental doppelganger? This is me, every day:

    “That I had to make a lot of money
    That I couldn’t give up and walk away from the blood, sweat and tears I invested
    That I wasn’t working hard enough
    That the problem was me not being able to accept the way things were in the workworld
    That work wasn’t supposed to be fun, which is why it was called work
    That I wasn’t talented at anything much except analysis because I would know by now if I were good at art, music or writing or whatever else”

    Add – “put kids through Catholic school/high school/college” and “Moderate talents at fun things like fishing, tying flies, drawing, handiwork, etc. don’t pay bills” – and you have my etched-in-stone mindset. Ha! Fun! Every day when I wake up!

    JB

    • I always used to say to partners that I did not practice psychic law. (As in, I refuse to read your mind when you change it every 20 minutes, darling.) But I guess I’m doing psychic coaching!

      So, are you going to try the exercise???

      • In some form or fashion, probably. Although, I’ve tried similar exercises in fits and starts over the years – even one I made up myself, in order to try and explain to some very nice headhunters the impossible task I represented for them (i.e., (a) they ain’t looking for square pegs, and (b) I ain’t paying their fee, so little motivation for them there…).

        I seem to always circle back to the starting point. I am no good with a compass and map, either. Or a GPS.

        JB

    • JB says:

      “Add – “put kids through Catholic school/high school/college” and “Moderate talents at fun things like fishing, tying flies, drawing, handiwork, etc. don’t pay bills” – and you have my etched-in-stone mindset. Ha! Fun! Every day when I wake up!”

      I admit I toyed with the idea of becoming a Lutheran minister, then converting to Catholocism, thereby becoming a married Catholic priest.

      Considering that my college roomate was fired from the Catholic priesthood when he married the church secretary, I would find the entire scenario amusing. I would probably be foreced to withhold communiion from him. Just think about that one for a minute.

      The guy across the hall from me ended up converting to Catholcism and becoming a Benedictine monk.

      And I went to Penn State, not Notre Dame.

      • Wow, I’m really intrigued by being fired “when he married” the church secretary – was he fired afterwards or upon announcement of intention? I guess he would have seen the firing coming “afterwards.”

  2. Alvey says:

    “that you did as a kid and loved—especially before the high school achievement sweepstakes began;”

    Somehow, I don’t think “reading fiction until 2 a.m. and playing computer games until 4 a.m.” are going to get me anywhere here.

    In fact, this was part of what got me into law in the first place. If I had attended class and done the required engineering work in college instead of reading books and playing computer games, thereby getting a reasonable GPA instead of the 3.1 garbage I ended up with, I would probably not have decided to go to Duke for law school and become a lawyer in an effort to “make a lot of money”.

    She also says:

    “that you do now to avoid your day job work;”

    Economic analysis, of course. In case you are wondering, we are in a sluggish recovery and jobs are being created. However, I am unable to make any meaningful projections until QEII ends this summer.

    Also, the earliest you should expect short term interest rates to rise is in 2012.

    Plan accordingly.

    • JP, I’m just mystified that you’re not a financial planner, you seem to enjoy that kind of thing so much!

      I wonder what kept you reading until 2am? Curiousity? Interest in the specific plot? the characters? Lots of way to view this and glean some clues.

      • My financial advice would consist of telling people that since all financial instruments are overpriced, there is no way on earth they will make any significant money over the next decade. Sad, but true. Very pessimistic. Also very accurate.

        If you liked the first decade of this century, financially speaking, you’re going to love the next decade, too!

        Really, given the state of the financial world right now, the best thing people can do is get rid of debt and save money. I don’t think you can make money by telling people not to speculate in the stock market.

        Potential client: “I’m 50 years old and don’t have any savings! How can I get 20% returns on the stock market so that I can retire in luxury at age 65?”

        Me: “You can’t do that. The only way that you are ever going to retire is to get rid of all of your debt and save 50% of your gross income. Otherwise, you will be flipping burgers for the rest of your life when your corporation lays you off at age 60 with no severance.”

        Potential client: “I can’t do that! I have a lifestyle to maintain! I hate you! I’m going to find someone else who will tell me pretty lies!”

        With respect to reading, I probably read for plot and character development. Sci fi/fantasy/horror. Eventually, I got bored with unreal things. These days, I stick closer to the actual world and read history, including economic histories.

  3. “That I wasn’t working hard enough
    That the problem was me not being able to accept the way things were in the workworld
    That work wasn’t supposed to be fun, which is why it was called work
    That I wasn’t talented at anything much except analysis because I would know by now if I were good at art, music or writing or whatever else.”

    Are you sure you aren’t me? Because I always thought these things too! Boy did I waste a few years beating myself up over “if I just tried harder I could conform, think like a 20 year practitioner and love working around the clock on deal closings.” Nyeah, wasn’t my personal fault.

  4. And if you want my economic take on law school, here’s one of my old blog posts over at Street Rat Crazy Saloon on the Race to Nowhere article:

    “streetratcrazysaloon.blogspot.com/2010/10/race-to-nowhere.html”

    I would link, but I’m not sure how to link here.

    Here’s the moral of the story:

    “The equation for this economy is Stress (High School) + More Stress (College) + Even More Stress (Law School) + Six Figure Debt = No Job + Six Figure Debt.”

    A major problem is that law students won’t even get Average Law $$$, but No Law Job $$$.

    Long live extrinsic motivation!

  5. Love your comments JP. The world needs more skepticism. Have you read “Bright Sided” or anything else by Barbara Erenreich yet? I think you might like it.

    • I had browsed Nickel and Dimed at one point. I hadn’t realized that she had a book on irrational optimism.

      Since I do disability law these days, half my clientelle is basically the Nickel and Dimed crowd. Bankruptcy and general financial crisis is pretty normal for my clients.

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