What Lawyers Can Learn from Dragonflies

Lawyers searching for an alternative legal career are a lot like dragonflies, it struck me this morning.

Maybe you don’t know the story of the dragonfly. I only heard it about 2 years ago, likely because I took all those social science classes instead of hard sciences in college. Those of you who know it, feel free to skip down a couple paragraphs.

red dragonfly on leaf
The dragonfly becomes more colorful and enters a new world when it leaves the water that no longer serves it.

The dragonfly hatches from eggs laid under water. They grow into nymphs, swimming merrily through their pond, waiting for prey to come near, and living the teenage dragonfly life.

But then, after a few years, it’s time. Dragonflies are compelled to follow a deep, instinctive urge to go somewhere they’ve never gone before: above water. Because their bodies are morphing, and they aren’t going to be able to survive much longer under water. And so, they find a branch or a stem that they can climb up, to get into the air, to meet the future in which they can survive and thrive. So they can dry out their wings, then spread them and fly.

Lawyers, Divorced from Their Natural Instincts

With lawyers, the problem is their instinct for who they truly are and what they need to do to follow their unique path gets muted, ignored and plain buried during their nymph years. Instead, nascent unhappy lawyers chase accolades for grades and accomplishments. They please parents and teachers and then law firm partners, by squishing themselves into the success box rather than looking inside themselves for their truth.

The good news is, that truth is still there. It might not feel like it, because it’s being suffocated by staying in a pond when its gills are shrinking. That’s what the anger, depression, dissatisfaction, and all those other crappy things you feel when you’re at the law firm/are with lawyers are about: trying to keep breathing water when what you need is air.

As Brene Brown puts it in The Gifts of Imperfection, it’s time to draw on your courage. To tell the true story of your heart, even though it feels like that story will be mocked, dismissed, or discouraged.

Be brave. Go find your stem to climb up into the air you need to breathe, to keep living. It may feel impossible, because you don’t know what it’s going to be like above water. You can’t map out a detailed strategy for the unknown. Hell, you have a hard time even imagining a future without law can exist.

The thing is, all of us recovering lawyers who are happily living above the water can’t wait to welcome you here.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who broke through the water a decade ago, and is still enjoying flitting about in the open air. Join her on the phone July 6 at 1:30 – 2:00 pm ET for the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club (it’s free!!) to discuss how you can find the story of your true heart. Or schedule a discounted sample coaching session to get more personalized help by emailing jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.


  1. Great post! I can totally relate to this analogy, especially the fear of being mocked or discouraged if you try to escape legal drudgery for a more fulfilling life. Some of my family members think I’m crazy for trying to find a life outside the law. I’ve taken to not even telling people about my decision and avoiding career talk all together because so many people don’t understand what it’s like to be trapped in a world where you have an obligation to be perfect at doing work that you hate. It’s different from being in an average office job where you can phone it in and maybe just get fired if you screw up out of sheer laziness. When you’re a lawyer and you screw up, you could get sued. I am still trying to find a life above water, and I feel like I am getting closer every day. Please keep posting!

    • @RL–Glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful.

      Though most of the perfectionism I hear about is the $5,000 comma variety, if you KWIM. The mistakes that will truly get you on the hook for malpractice aren’t nearly so common as the piddly ones that toxic lawyers like to use as evidence against others. Unless perhaps you are a solo or boutique lawyer?

      • There isn’t any malpractice quite like patent malpractice.

        I seem to recall that a not to be mentioned BigLaw firm got nailed by one of those several years ago when they helped destroy the rights to a multimillion dollar piece of technology through the sophisiticated and levered use of an inexperienced overworked junior associate.

        Otherwise, the million dollar malpractice insurance should cover you.

        It’s hard to do more than a million dollars worth of damage by running your average statute of limitations.

      • I think I’ve heard this before. I remember in law school a professor told us that it’s the older lawyers who do the most damage because they have more responsibility and people tend to get sloppy the longer they practice. I’m not sure if it’s true, although I do know of an attorney who’s been in practice for 30 years and just did a major boo-boo, so he had to inform his malpractice carrier. It just gets better and better I guess!

  2. Recovering Lawyer1, I hear you. You are not alone. I just decided, finally, and told my parents (and I’m 41, no kid) that we cannot ever talk about work again. Every time I open up, I end up feeling like a dirty, violated failure (and they end up either mocking or patronizing – i.e., “if I were you, I’d be proud of myself, I’d tell myself how wonderful I am every day” – well, you aren’t me). Non-lawyers don’t understand. Take care of yourself first and F everyone else.

    • @MJ – Just tell your parents that you think your body is morphing and that you won’t be able to breathe water much longer.

      That will confuse them enough that they won’t be able to construct a mocking or patronizing response.

      On the off chance that they can muster some sort of response, just tell them that you are trying to enter the “goo phase” of your life.

      • Thanks JP, now you’ve made my bored lawyer ADD want to go listen to The Cramps “Goo Goo Muck” and make my own law firm video…there goes 3 billable hours…..

    • Actually, @MJ, I think the people who don’t understand are those who have sold their souls for a few pennies and the illusion of security those pennies give them. Sad that they can’t construct a better fantasy world, huh?

    • To paraphrase John Bender, I think your family and my family should get together and go bowling. I hear a lot about what they would do in my situation. Funny thing is, none of them went to college or grad school, and none of them have much responsibility at work, but they seem to know an awful lot about the choices they would make in my shoes. (By the way, I’m not looking down on anyone for not going to college. I’m just pointing out that it’s easy to say what you would do in someone else’s situation when there is absolutely no chance you will ever actually be in that situation.) I feel guilty for not living up to the expectations they have of me to make the family proud, and then I feel angry at them because of the guilt. A vicious cycle indeed.

      • “none of them went to college or grad school, and none of them have much responsibility at work, but they seem to know an awful lot about the choices they would make in my shoes”


        This is some kind of weird aspirational thing – “if I were you…” WELL, YOU AREN’T!!!

        “I feel guilty for not living up to the expectations they have of me to make the family proud, and then I feel angry at them because of the guilt”

        Are you sure you aren’t me? Maybe at some point in the goo phase we split into two organisims???? Because this IS my issue too.

        To paraphrase K Fed, it’s like each of us to the other is a dissatisfied lawyer sibling “from anotha mutha.”

      • My family and in-laws are littered with various professional degrees: neurosurgeon, psychaitrist, pathologist, school superintendent, professor.

        In fact, no one ever told me to go be a lawyer.

        Nope, came up with that one all on my own. In fact, the one cousin who was a lawyer hated being a lawyer and tried to go back to med school.

        I now understand why. It never occurred to me to go ask him why he disliked it so much.

  3. MJ, it sounds like we have a psychic connection. Let’s get together with Dionne Warwick and start a late-night hotline for fellow disgruntled attorneys. We can predict exactly what their families will tell them if they dare speak the truth about how they feel. 🙂

    JP, I also look back with regret about my unilateral decision to attend law school. So many attorneys (not in my family) told me to steer clear and I didn’t listen. I guess that’s youth for you, thinking I knew everything and I would never be “like them.”

    • Yep, best friend’s lawyer father kept telling me “don’t do it” and did I listen?

      Nooooo. I was going to be the big impressive success, because don’t you know that professional degrees are guarantees of money and status, and money and status make you happy?

      Uh, yeah.

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