Feeling Your Way to an Alternative Legal Career

If there is one thing that most of us hate during a job search, or in almost any aspect of our lives, it’s feeling vulnerable. Lawyers, as a group, particularly despise vulnerability. After all, lawyers spend their time defending against attacks, right?

business man clone on conveyor belt

This is your soul, numbed out. Any questions?

Even those of you looking for an alternative career to law, you don’t want to feel uncertain, unsure, or unsettled—trust me, when you talk to me, you all want the magic map that takes you to the instantly empowering, successful career that just happens to be not practicing law. You definitely don’t want to feel open to damage (from exploration that doesn’t pan out) or attack (from people around you judging).

One of the ways we combat vulnerability is by numbing out, according to Dr. Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who We Think We Should Be and Embracing Who We Are (Hazelden, 2010). I recently stumbled upon her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, and truly, it will be the best .3 billable hours you will spend today. Maybe you can call it client development on your timesheet, but however you do it, watch it.

There are so many ways to numb out in our culture. Indeed, one could argue that much of our culture exists for no reason other than numbing out.

How To Tell You’re Numbing Out

Lawyers are particularly good at getting numb, because they have a good chunk of disposable income. Money enables numbing out really, really effectively. With money, you can buy some pretty stunning distractions:

  • TVs bigger than some kitchens and bathrooms;
  • iGadgets that let you text, surf, play games, find/read/listen to whatever you like;
  • exotic vacations that take lots of planning;
  • nice homes and lives that need filling with stuff; and
  • exquisite foods that take extensive searching out,

just to name a few.

None of these things is inherently bad—or good. Sometimes, a little distraction is just the thing when we’re overwhelmed with emotion and need to calm down so we can cope and address the problem.

But lawyers, especially, have allowed their workplaces and profession to become so toxic and damaging that if we really let ourselves experience the emotions they stir up, that feels like the only thing we’d have time for—experiencing the awfulness. Rather than confronting that problem directly, and actually fixing the dysfunctional elements, we’ve chosen the path of distraction.

I get that, because change is incredibly hard work. Even those who see the need for change and want to change find it difficult; trying to convince those who don’t see a need for change that they actually need to do something different is like scaling a cliff without a rope.

No Sorrow, and No Joy

Problem is, Brown says, you can’t choose which emotions to numb—all of them decline. Becoming numb to pain also means you become numb to joy. Think about when you’ve had your mouth numbed for dental work: You can’t feel the pain of the drill, and you also can’t feel a lover’s soft caress of your cheek.

Being cut off from your joy means you have no idea what direction to head when you decide you need out of the toxic environment of law. That’s one of the reasons I spend probably 50% of my time working with clients on ways to tap into what fires them up. They can be so cut off from their own joy, they simply don’t know anymore what joy is for them.

This week, try noticing how often you numb out, through food, alcohol, entertainment, or spending. No need to judge it, just notice it. You might also notice what sets off that need to numb out. Maybe it’s not your job, per se, but one particular boss/colleague/situation. Maybe it’s a relationship outside of work. For now, just notice.

And if you find yourself feeling more strongly, either positive or negative—super! That means your numbness is wearing off. I’ll talk next week about how to handle that.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys to numb out less and find joy, both in their work and their lives. She offers discounted sample coaching sessions so you can find out how coaching can help you become more alive and more joyful. Email Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule your session today.

7 thoughts on “Feeling Your Way to an Alternative Legal Career

  1. Such a great reminder, thank you. I watched the TED talk about a week ago as well and thought it was one of the best explanations for lawyers and anyone else in modern life. We have to remember that the phoenix burns before it is reborn. Thank you for bringing us back to our joy, even if it means feeling some of the pain. Perhaps that is the kick in the rear we need to find our true paths in life.

  2. I’ve got to listen to that TED talk today when I can close my door for .3 – very, very familiar with the numbing (though it is improving, I’m not finished yet either).

    • I don’t know that we ever truly get rid of that urge to numb. After all, it was pretty useful for our ancestors when faced with the predator that had just killed a family member and they had to get out of there and process later. Wow, that’s gory, isn’t it? But anyway, I think it’s a hard-wired tendency that we need to dial down, rather than try to eliminate.

  3. LeavingLaw:

    “Even those of you looking for an alternative career to law, you don’t want to feel uncertain, unsure, or unsettled—trust me, when you talk to me, you all want the magic map that takes you to the instantly empowering, successful career that just happens to be not practicing law. You definitely don’t want to feel open to damage (from exploration that doesn’t pan out) or attack (from people around you judging).”

    This is a pretty good explanation of what I experienced in college. Expecially the exploration angle. I just wanted to know the track I needed to be on to get where I was supposed to go.

    At least where I was in engineering, I couldn’t really “step off the track” because I was locked in due to scholarship money. So, I didn’t really choose my college (because I went where it was free, rather than any place I actually wanted to be) or my major (again because it was free.) I supose it’s kind of odd to lock youself into a career path for purely economic reasons when you are 18 having absolutely no experience in anything except test taking. Engineering is something that people do for purely financial reasons, too, sort of like law.

    Law school/law was my only “exploration” that I did.

    • I am an engineering student aspiring to practice law, and I feel that this could have been written by me verbatim. I started in college when I broke up with a girl whom I loved so that I could escape emotion and pursue who I wanted to become. Then, I read Albert Camus’ essays (an existential-esque philosopher who wrote famously on the numbness of the individual). It had a profound effect upon me. Anyway, It is good to read your post. Recognizing that we are numb and why we are, I believe, is intensely valuable. Being numb has different levels of numbness, and recognizing that is also important. We can feel slightly more alive than we did, while still staying numb and protected in order to pursue what is objectively important, and I think this is the ideal state to reach. As for vulnerability, I am trying to let it enter my love life while simultaneously keeping it to a minimum in my career. This is the new beast I plan to tame and master. For someone like me, who likes challenges, I welcome this new era of my life. With all do respect to my former self and others on this thread, the numb black hole is overrated and a cop out. Bests.

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