Unhappy Lawyers, Find Your Meaningful Work

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Most lawyers, especially the ones reading this blog, do not have a sense of accomplishment and purpose from their work as lawyers. Unless you define accomplishment as “not committing homicide and otherwise making it through the day without a trip to the ER for a psychotic break.” (If that is your definition and you work in BigLaw, then I’m betting you feel a big sense of accomplishment daily!)

happy face on businessman's thumb
You'll know it's meaningful work when you don't need to Sharpie the happy face on. Or if you Sharpie it on just because!

When you don’t get a sense of accomplishment and purpose from your work, you feel empty. The Wholehearted, as Dr. Bréne Brown calls them, have meaningful work in their lives.

Yet there is no one-size-fits-all definition of meaningful work. Sure, it sounds like we should all find meaning in working with drug addicts, inner city youth, or the rural poor, but the reality is that not all of us are going to find our unique definition of meaningful in that work, either. Meaningful work can be found in raising a family, gardening, painting, and yes even lawyering. As Brown puts it, “Culture doesn’t get to dictate” what meaningful is for you.

Meaningful work, as Brown outlines in The Gifts of Imperfection, contains several key elements:

  • Your gifts and talents
  • Spirituality
  • Making a living
  • Commitment

And, there are a couple of things that crop up in the search for meaningful work that are distracting, but very, very common, like “supposed to” and self-doubt.

Lawyers’ Gifts and Talents

Gifts and talents are usually the hardest single element for unhappy attorneys to grapple with. Frequently, they think the only gift  they have is one for analysis,

since lawyers usually have that ability in spades.

But the unhappiness comes from using that gift on the wrong kinds of problems. Legal analysis is not the only analytic skill game in town. Analytic skills are crucial in a host of jobs, and often give the performance edge to those who have strong analytic skills and are talented at something else.

You have other gifts. What they are, I don’t know. Maybe it’s writing, acting, cooking, or making connections, teaching, innovating, or exploring something deeply. I know you have gifts and talents, because you’re unhappy, miserable, and looking for a way out of what you’re doing now. When you don’t use your gifts, those miserable feeling are the result. As Brown says,

“Squandering our gifts brings distress into our lives. . . .  When we don’t use our gifts to cultivate meaningful work, we struggle. We feel disconnected and weighed down by feelings of emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment, fear and even grief.”

Let’s review that list: emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment, fear. Does that sound like a typical day working in law to you? Because it sure as hell describes almost every day I worked in law. If that’s how you’re feeling, you have your waving red flag of where to look to actually solve your unhappiness at work: Uncover those buried gifts and talents.

Not sure how to do the digging? Join me for the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club on July 6, 2011 at 1:30 – 2:00 ET to discuss how to start reconnecting with your talents and gifts. The book club is free! Just call (209) 647-1000. The access code is 535240# (yes you need to enter the # sign). You don’t even need to read The Gifts of Imperfection beforehand, though after the call I promise you’ll want to. (And yes, it’s available for immediate download, for you last-minute folks.)

Next time, I’ll talk more about the connection between meaningful work and spirituality, and also the gremlins of “supposed to” and self-doubt.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who took several years to figure out one of her gifts was writing. Go figure. She helps unhappy attorneys unearth their long-ignored gifts and talents. If you would like help digging up your talents and gifts from their burial ground, schedule a discounted sample coaching session by emailing  jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.


  1. I already work with drug addicts and the rural poor. We don’t have much of an inner city here.

    In fact, today, I got to go to a hearing with a woman who will very soon accomplish death by alcohol through irreversible liver damage. She is nearly completely yellow. I was honestly surprised that she lived long enough for the hearing.

    Also, my clients suffer from suicidal and homicidal ideation. The psychiatric notes from the psychotic breaks are sometimes quite interesting to read.

      1. The guy in the office next to me just talked to a client about his recent charge of assault on a police horse.

        And that’s my criminal story of the day.

        I don’t have any criminal tax stories. Just a story about graft in the Indian apple import business. That’s almost like a tax.

        As a well-educated chemical engineer, I’m not quite sure I’m the best person to be working with drug addicts and the rural poor. Although it’s more fufilling than working for a global megacorporation. Mostly because it’s not related to the competitive profitability of global megacorporations and doesn’t involve billable hours. Those two items are a big plus.

        Yesterday, I declined to take the client who smelled stronlgy of alcohol. And not because he smelled strongly of alcohol.

  2. @JP. Awesome.

    I know what you mean about who serves who class-wise. I’m stuck in the middle myself. One professional and two graduate degrees, and a nerdy intellectual disposition, makes me a tough fit for the poor and troubled, and I don’t relate to many ordinary women’s lives (and vice versa) but when I interact with the super-rich clients I’m too normal (and insufficiently driven to buttkissing by their wealth). Also, their wives are mostly plastic and don’t work, so I am again (YET AGAIN) thrown into the role of “that woman who works and boy we wish she’d go away so we could fart in the office more.” Sigh.

    However, if you want to look at it in terms of being different makes you more creative and more compassionate towards other different people, I’m golden. Set up for life.

    1. Sounds like you need an S.J.D. degree. I think I’m going to recommend that all lawyers get one.

      That way, we will cut down on the number of practicing lawyers while expanding the glory and awe of law at institutions of higher education everywhere.

      It would make for great conversations at coctail parties.

      Here’s the link from Harvard, so that you can say “When ah was studying for My Es-Jay-Dee at Havaaaad”:


      Mabye Alvey will get on the bandwagon and change her blog from “Leaving the Law” to “Getting My Harvard S.J.D.”. I’d look forward to reading about her day to day adventures in doing whatever it is that S.J.D. people do. You know, reading important legal thingies and writing important legal thingies and just being really really important and, uh, just plain old thinking about important legal thingies in an important manner.

      1. @JP, the things I learn from you!

        But I think you got the accent wrong. It seems like a degree for people not from the upper classes of the United States. Maybe the upper classes of India, Japan or Saudi Arabia . . .

        I’m pretty slow to hop on bandwagons. Not a bleeding edge adopter–more like a second wave adopter. Before the whole world, but not by light years.

      2. Better yet – philosophy grad school. With that PhD under my belt I could expound endlessly (just like 2 of my law profs) on normative concepts and philosophical analysis, and Socialist interpretations of contract law, and gendered interpretations of tax law, no one would EVER have a clue about what I’m saying so they’d just back away and leave me in my bubble of hot air. Tenured bubble, of course.

    2. I think that you definitely need to join the academy and enter the bubble of tenure. It’s safe there. And warm.

      You could bridge the gap beteween the practice of law and the philosophy of legal education by introducing the principles of competitive profitability and the billable hour to the sleepy world of law professors.

      If law studends could just bill hours, they would make lots of money and not be in so much debt! And if law schools were part law firm, the law students could adjust to the world of document review *before* getting out into the real world. BigLaw would be able to justify the $160,000 salaries to their clients *and* outsorce their work to law students.

      That would also enable law students to gain a sense of accomplishment and purpose from their work by actively internalizing the corporate ethos as they drank deeply from the law in their formative years. Since they would enter the world of the law firm already exicited about the prospect of serving the best and largest megacorporations, more of them would make partner, which would enable more of them to give back to the law schools. And if you didn’t make partner, you could just go start your own law school. And junior associates would gain more magerial skills as they could directly supervise the law students. The junior assosciates could even be the ones providing the reviews for the law students. Instead of laying off associates, BigLaw could lay off law students, instead. But since they are students, they wouldn’t really be losing their jobs. By the time they graduated, those bright shiny $160,000 a year jobs would still be waiting for them.

      It’s a win-win.

      1. I was thinking about this idea, and about my law school and how the student lounge was in the basement. So thoughts of ‘just keep the students in the basement, billing’ turned to thougths of a past job where we joked about locking the summer associates in the basement overnight with the roaches, rats and a cryogenically frozen partner (Survivor: Law Firm Ghost Story!) and then ….hell, I should just go watch more Cramps videos on You Tube. It’s almost the weekend anyway….

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