Billable Hours, Pain Avoidance and Your Alternative Legal Career

Unhappy lawyers often confuse their attitudes, which are malleable, with personality traits, which are much more hard-wired. There’s no denying that both lawyer attitudes and their innate personality traitscan make an alternative legal career search a challenge. But here’s the key: attitudes are choices, and to the extent they are making your life or job search difficult, you have the power to change them. Innate personality traits, on the other hand, you should work with. As in, play to your strengths.

expressions drawn on white paper held up by businessman

Which attitude will help your alternative legal career search? You have the power to decide.

Today I’m focusing on two common attorney attitudes: validation through productivity, and avoiding discomfort. Attorneys are uniquely vulnerable to wanting validation through productivity, largely due to the pernicious billable hours system. Many people avoid discomfort, not just attorneys, but lawyers are particularly good at it due to their large amounts of disposable income.

You’re Only Worth What You Kill

Once they’ve spent more than about a year in the billable hours gulag, attorneys become particularly vulnerable to feeling worthwhile only if they are doing “billable” work. It’s a nasty, insidious attitude that worms its way into not just work, but even leisure time.

I use billable to mean something that you can show to somebody else as evidence that you did something that impresses them with your worth. In a work setting, this means devaluing anything that cannot immediately bring in cash. So there goes time for skill development, mentoring, indulging curiosity, or even—gasp—doing something because it’s fun. Using productivity as your sole value stick creates a cold, sterile work environment for everyone. You end up feeling guilty when you take time to laugh and be human. Yet those moments are what most frequently lead to a new idea or approach.

Outside of office life, this billable mentality often translates to weekends jammed with to-do lists and activities, or exotic vacations with lots of tours and photo ops. Or a spotless, perfectly organized house, or time spent online shopping for the best, most perfect thingie at the best, most perfect price.

None of these activities are inherently good or bad. When your life is stuffed with them, though, and you don’t have time to

  • simply experience a gorgeous fall day,
  • savor a child’s glee,
  • savor your own glee,
  • read a novel,
  • contemplate your navel, or
  • enjoy doing something without posting a photo of it on Facebook

you might ask yourself why. Why does your life look like this? Is this how you want it to feel, all jammed and scheduled to the hilt with no time to breathe, reflect, renew, enjoy?

What would happen if you stopped moving and accomplishing to-do lists or bucket lists? Would you have a friend to call? Whose voice pops into your head and takes you to task for doing nothing productive? More importantly, do you tell it to eff off?

This can be a hard demon to shake, even if you know intellectually that billable hours are a crap way to measure work worth. Even after a decade-plus, it follows me in weird ways: Currently, I feel like I’m wasting time and avoiding writing my novel if I take time to research the time period I’m writing about. Because, yanno, research does not put words immediately on the page. Crazy, I know.

There’s not a magic bullet way out of the billable hours mentality, but it helps a lot simply to be cognizant of how it works in your life, and to call yourself on it, hourly if necessary. Also, point out to yourself the long-term benefits of training, recuperation, and dabbling. These are the keys to discovering the nucleus of your new legal career. Remind yourself, even write it down 10 times daily, if you need to. You need to lay a new thought pathway for this, and it will take a bit of effort until it’s more automatic.

The Trap of Pain Avoidance

(Irony alert: I was avoiding writing this section because I felt unsure and uncomfortable!) While counseling and therapy have done much to improve the mental health of us all, one unintended side effect has been the growth of the idea that we should avoid emotionally painful situations at all costs. And if we can’t avoid the situation, we need to erase its pain as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, as a culture we’re not good at knowing how to heal and recover from pain. What usually works is some kind of creative processing–reading a novel, creating an image or object, writing, dancing, singing. Most therapy encourages us to re-live our pain, but falls short on the processing and metabolizing of it. And then there’s the perennial favorite, to numb ourselves to pain.

A lot of unhappy attorneys numb out and avoid their feelings of misery with creature comforts. They have the cash to lash out on an impressive scale, after all. A nice dinner out to ease the sting of a miserable week morphs into increasingly expensive and frequent restaurant visits as a way of life, because most days practicing law kind of suck. Massages to relieve aching shoulders or back become mandatory weekly events without which you struggle to exist. Confronting a loathsome task like cleaning the toilet or enduring another migraine-inducing conference call requires some kind of treat as a reward–maybe an iPad? silk knickers? some pricey gourmet chocolates? Planning that glorious, perfect vacation? Until suddenly, you can’t conceive of surviving, let alone thriving, in a life that doesn’t include those comforts. Problem is, they’ve become expensive, and not just in cash value.

Instead of numbing out, tune in. Letting yourself feel the pain and discomfort of your current situation can be a powerful motivator.

But importantly, don’t forget to tune into what brings you joy and laughter. There is even more power in that. That’s what you’ve forgotten while focusing so much on the treats to get you through the hideousness of your current daily existence: how staggeringly great you feel when connected with what brings you joy. Experiencing joy in the midst of pain metabolizes our pain, and clears it out of our system. That’s some of what guest blogger Amy Jensen was talking about in her post on her post-law life. The echoes of those joyful experiences will carry you through the transition to a new career, and through all of life’s slings and arrows.

(If you missed them, here are some posts on how to tap into that joy: here and here, for starters.)

Please understand, I’m not asking you to suffer for the sake of suffering. Instead, allow yourself to use your discomfort to motivate some much-needed changes. Like working on your resume instead of surfing online for a new, expensive toy that will solve all your woes, or like going to a networking dinner you’re a bit scared about, rather than numbing out in front of the TV. Like setting aside time to paint or sew instead of playing a video game. You get the idea. Only when you start to connect to your joy are you going to get that brainstorm idea of what you really want to do with your career and your life. Only when you connect to that joy will you suddenly find the strength and courage to pursue your own personal road not taken.

Next time, I’m taking a shot at the biggest lawyer attitude problem of all: MONEY.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on valuing themselves for who they are, and finding a career and life that holds meaning and joy. If you could use more meaning and joy in life and work, schedule a discounted, sample career coaching session with Jennifer. Email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com today to get the ball rolling.

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