Unhappy Lawyers, Get a Tribe

Do you have a tribe? I’m not talking necessarily about the one you are born into, though that could work. I’m talking about the kind of tribe where you see each other regularly, have a common purpose for being there, listen, talk, and suggest, but don’t judge. Fires are optional. Marshmallows are good.

preschoolers around table playing game
Finding your way through life---and to a new career---is easier with a tribe.

In our crazy, hectic lives, we tend to pooh-pooh the notion that we need this kind of refuge. Somehow, the priorities of the nut-case, dysfunctional colleague/partner become more important than the needs of our souls.

Humans have lived in tribes or similar groups for, oh, pretty much all of their history. Banding together for protection and community is what differentiates mammals from all the other types of living creatures on the planet. Alone, we are limited to just our strengths, and to our weaknesses. Together, we are more than the sum of our parts. We grow wisdom in community, and draw previously unknown strength from each other.

I’ve been reflecting on this as my own personal tribe, my Artist’s Way group, nears our 1-year anniversary. I started the group because I wanted to work through The Artist’s Way again, but not by myself. I knew my commitment would flag if I went it alone.

Well, we all did work through the book, and kept right on rocking from there. Last spring, we plunged into new-to-us art forms, to discover and push through our many fears about creativity. This summer, we’ve been (allegedly) reading Creative Is a Verb. This fall, it looks like we’ll be tackling Walking in This World, by Julia Cameron, and Raw Art Journaling, by Quinn McDonald.

I’ve gotten so much from this group. Deep friendships, caring sounding board, nurturing, motivation to tackle some hard things. Regardless of the book or activity, what we end up doing a lot is figuring out how creative work helps us to confront problems with:

  • our motivation,
  • what we want our work to be,
  • what we want our life to look and live like,
  • our spouses, and
  • our families and other friends.

The gift of having a group to keep you focused on these important things is, really and truly, priceless. You get reminded about what is wonderful about you. You do the same for others. You get encouragement to just try a little bit. You don’t have to do it all alone.

Assembling Your Tribe

I’m betting most of you don’t have this kind of tribe. I never did when I was practicing. I had people whose offices I bitched in about the batshit craziness of law firms and their inhabitants, but we never worked to find solutions for each other, and for ourselves.

So put a tribe together for yourself. Make it a priority. A really big, honking, #1 priority, that you work on for a few minutes daily.

I’ve found that having something to center the discussion around is a key to this group. It’s too easy to lose focus and drift into complaining if you don’t. Some books you could use as your centering place might include:

I purposefully did not mention job-searching books, because those who want to leave law usually don’t have the foggiest idea what it is they want to do instead. Remember, focus on what you want your destination to be first, then when that’s good and solid you can pick up the how-to-get-there books.

More logistical suggestions for gathering your tribe

1.            Who should you invite to your tribe? People who are looking to change, not just for a change. People who are open, whether it’s to new thoughts, new ways of doing things, or new ways of looking at themselves and the world.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t invite people whose inner critic is out of control and are super-needy. Everyone has critic moments and times of profound need. But if someone is unaware of the critic dynamic in her or his life, that person has other work to do first before joining your group. If they haven’t done the work, they will derail it with all those issues. People in your group should be aware of the critic dynamic and committed to corralling it.

2.            Meet in a neutral place, like a coffee shop, a quiet restaurant, a book store or a library. Meeting at people’s homes can be burdensome, because it can invoke turf issues, clutter issues, and sharing issues.

3.            Have a facilitator, probably you. That person’s job is to be part of the group, but also be the one who reels everyone back in to your book/theme when you’ve strayed too far away. (I know, that would never happen, but just in case.)

The facilitator also asks questions of those who aren’t participating as much, and gently redirects those who are talking a bit much. The questions work best if they’re open-ended, such as “I wonder if this would work . . .?” or “I was curious whether anyone else thought that the author was trying to say . . .” or “What resonated the most with you about this chapter?”

4.            At first, you might err on the side of inviting more than your ideal number of tribe members. If you ultimately want a group of 5 or 6, try inviting 10 or 14. People who you think will drift off will surprise you and stick around, while many others will do the opposite.

5.           Meet at least twice a month. Weekly is better in the beginning.

I know you’re saying you don’t have time. Or, asking how on earth you can find the time? But the better question is, do you have time to be deathly ill? How much time are you spending on being miserable, and avoiding work? If you can find time for therapy a couple times a month, you can find time for a tribe. It costs you less and it might just help you more.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer whose life is immeasurably better when she is surrounded by her tribe. Having trouble forming your own tribe? Jennifer can help you overcome those stumbling blocks. Find out how with a discounted sample coaching session—email her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule yours.


  1. Thanks, this is a great suggestion. Sometimes a tribe, or a similar type of person, tends to accrete, and it’s not necessarily good. I seem to be surrounded by people who don’t care much about their job, don’t have a concept of career, and probably aren’t doing me much good in terms of either blooming where I’m planted, or moving on to something better. So, I guess I need to assemble a tribe. I’ll digest your suggestions and get to work.

    Also wanted to say that I enjoy your blog and appreciate your suggestions. I’ve almost finished Brene Brown’s book about imperfection, and am enjoying it. I’ll read it again. Gotta get that exercise/healthy eating/mindfulness/play/sleep etc etc thing happening!

    • Good point!. I’m trying to get out of a tribe of people who are SO INTO LAW and won’t entertain any ideas about work or life that aren’t driven by convention and what we “should” do. UGH. There is more than one way to do this life thing.

      • I’m not sure whether being tribeless (pretty much my current state – not counting immediate family) or having the wrong tribe of people (my previous adventures) is worse.

        Although, I suppose you could say that having the wrong tribe of people led me to my current tribeless state.

        I’m not good at tribe selection/creation.

  2. I think the reason a lot of us, lawyers or not, are so unhappy is that we don’t have a tribe, a community, really close friends, whatever label you want to put on it. We have allowed our busy-ness to take over the space that used to be available for friendships to blossom. Somehow deadlines seem more important than making the weekly poker game, but when you look back, you can’t remember the project or why the deadline was so important, but you will remember the emptiness you felt when having to face something difficult unsupported.

    Wow that was a lot more grim than I intended! So yeah, make time for a tribe. (JP, just cause you’re not good at it doesn’t mean you can’t try again–it’s how we get better at stuff).

    Tribes are such an awesome addition to your life, and it gives back so much more than you think it will. Heck, mine helped me declutter 3 rooms before my sister visited last spring–now THAT is love, my friends!

  3. […] The right light helps you grow. Some plants need full shade or they burn up; others need blazing sun all day long or they stall and die. People are the most common source of soul light. You know, it’s that old Debbie Boone song, “You Light Up My Life.” If you’re a creative soul planted amongst a bunch of “just the facts” people, you aren’t going to get the stimulation you need. In fact, those people will drain your energy. (The reverse is also true.) You need the right kind of light around you, like the right tribe. […]

  4. […] In the last couple years, I’ve kept on track and in touch with my strengths with a creativity group. Finally, we are meeting again after our holiday hiatus, and oh, how I love that group! I always gets inspired, and see things in a new way. They’re my tribe. (If you don’t have a tribe, work on joining or assembling one. It’s one of the best things you can do for your alternative legal career search. A few thoughts on how, here.) […]

  5. “Banding together for protection and community is what differentiates mammals from all the other types of living creatures on the planet.”

    Polar bears don’t.

    Ants do.

    Tribes weren’t necessary when Western civ was more of a meritocracy. Things are changing.

    • Fair point on the ants! But polar bear mothers do care for their young and relatively helpless cubs for quite a while.

      Not so sure about the whole Western civ thing, because I’m not sure there’s ever been a time of meritocracy.

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