How Did I Get To Be An Unhappy Lawyer? Part 3

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Unhappy attorneys—which is at least half of all lawyers, most likely—have one other thing in common in addition to their unhappiness: They are quite disconnected from who they are and what the dreams of their heart are.

You can do more than reconnect with nature when you climb a tree. If you aren't careful, you might have fun!

As I discussed in Part 1, law students tend to enter law school without a clear purpose in being there; they don’t have a strong pull toward anything else, and they’ve gotten good grades, so law school seems like a decent idea. After all, the money is good, and in a society as rampantly materialistic as ours, a money career is A GOOD THING.

Then, as I talked about in Part 2, these unpurposed law students get thrown into the law school pedagogy of divorcing their feelings, values, and ethics from their problem-solving tool kit. Using values as a means of analyzing a legal problem is mocked and derided; only cold logic and dispassionate analysis is given any credence.

So new attorneys emerge from law school disconnected from themselves, and then get thrown into practice where no one sees this disconnection as a problem. Right, there’s no problem here, Houston, despite the high rates of depression, anxiety, phobias, hostility, substance abuse and even suicide among lawyers. Those rates much higher for attorneys than almost any other profession, such as doctors and rocket scientists.

So if you’re one of those disconnected lawyers, the burning question is, what the hell do I do now? Leaving your current job will probably help, but if you pick something different that isn’t connecting you to your deep self, you’ll be back here reading this blog again in a year or two.

The obvious—dare I say logical?—thing to do is to reconnect with who you are. But for attorneys particularly, this is tricky business. You’ve spent years, maybe decades, supressing those parts of you that don’t fit in with the punch-list lifestyle of goals and achievement. Those interesting edges and quirks of your personality have been covered up or glossed over, or maybe even despised.

The Play’s the Thing

You’re going to have to do something big and risky to reconnect: You’re going to have to play.

Lawyers hate playing. It mocks every control instinct they’ve got. Play is unpredictable. It doesn’t lead inexorably to a result. It’s not a button you push and get the exact piece of candy you chose out of the vending machine. It doesn’t have a point, except to have fun. And heaven forbid that we do something just because it makes us giggle with a 4 year-old’s glee—how the hell do you put THAT on your resume, right?

Play, though, is what lifts the black pall covering your life. It helps you discover you, in all your oddness and glory.

Play Is Optional–If You Want To Reside in the Loony Bin

All animals play as youngsters. They use play to master survival skills. We tend to think that this means our play should involve things like learning to walk, run, throw stuff, fight, and interact cooperatively with one another. All of which is true, but there’s another lens here that we can use to look at play.

Play teaches us what we’re capable of in all sorts of areas. That big brain we lug around contains so much potential, and we don’t really understand it, let alone tap into it.

In fact, play does something neurologically wonderful for us: It helps us reach what Martha Beck calls Wordlessness. Wordlessness shifts the consciousness into the non-verbal parts of our brain, the ones that deal with creativity, intuition and the senses. This is a powerful move. As Beck puts it, “[T]he verbal region processes about forty bits of information per second. The nonverbal processes about eleven million bits per second. You do the math.”

When you engage those nonverbal brain regions, you get insight and ah-ha! moments. You get clarity. You connect to purpose and meaning. And you do it all much more quickly and effectively than if you use your verbal, planning brain alone. (You can read lots more about this in Beck’s latest book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World.)

There is play that is pure froth, and play that relates to mastery, or flow. Both are important for attorneys, because attorneys rarely do either. It’s one of the reasons that attorneys are so anxious, depressed, and generally kind of crazy: As I’ve discussed before, without play in your life, psychologists have shown that you quickly develop symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Those include irritability, sleep disturbances, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and fatigue. I’m sure you don’t know any lawyers who exhibit those symptoms, right?

In addition to staving off acute mental illness, play gives you a way into your larger self. You know, the self that is far more than a lawyer. Play is how you stretch and learn what you’re capable of at the moment, and what you might like to get more capable at.

Do What Feels Good

So reconnecting is deceptively simple: Go have fun.

It’s at this point that resistance sets in:

  • I have so much work to do!
  • Spending 15 minutes having fun isn’t going to get me a new job!
  • What if I do play and nothing comes of it? I’ll have wasted time I didn’t have.
  • I need to think of something better than going out and admiring shoes I would never wear in a million years.

Those are only a few of the (roughly) 21 gazillion reasons your verbal brain will come up with to dissuade you from playing. See them for what they are: resistance, no more, no less.

Play is not a one-shot deal. It’s a way of life. It’s making snippets of lightness and fun part of your daily routine—yes, even in the midst of overwhelm. The more little moments of dancing in the kitchen for the hell of it, of singing because you feel like, of getting totally into something frivolous—the more you get happy. It doesn’t work in reverse.

You don’t have to be able to articulate exactly why something feels fun. Just because something is fun doesn’t mean you have to marry it and have a career with it. You have lots of time to decide that later.

Starting to play is a first date after breaking up with that really toxic, awful person no one warned you about. It’s probably going to feel weird and awkward. That’s fine, and normal. The important thing is just to go on your play date and see what happens, with no expectations.

I have lots of list of things that could be fun (here and here, for starters), but really, you are the expert on your life, and the expert on what’s fun for you. So go to!

But if you are stuck, drop me a line. I’ve always got some crazy-fun idea brewing.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys reconnect to their happy places, and grow them into a better career and life. Find out what that’s like with a discounted sample coaching session. It’s one hour that can change your life! Email today to schedule yours.


    1. I’m always confused by these self-referential comments.

      Is the blog talking to itself?

      Is this an auto-comment?

      Does it mean anything?

      1. What do you mean JP? I think she is trying to reach people feeling unhappy and stuck as a lawyer, or on the way to being a lawyer. JP – You seem to be a happy lawyer, but you have been attracted to this website. Just wondering why…

      2. Yes, essentially it’s the blog talking to itself! Some WordPress weirdness I haven’t figured out how to troubleshoot. You can safely ignore it. ;D

      3. Meg says:

        “What do you mean JP? I think she is trying to reach people feeling unhappy and stuck as a lawyer, or on the way to being a lawyer. JP – You seem to be a happy lawyer, but you have been attracted to this website. Just wondering why…”

        I meant the WordPress weirdness. Sometimes blogs self-comment.

        I’ve just generally had it better than lots of other people with respect to working environments. I just enjoy working in law more than I enjoyed the college and law school experience. I’ve managed to increase my happiness from a 1 out of 10 to a 3 out of 10!


  1. I think it is a brilliant idea to play. I joined a quilt group that took me out of words and into shapes and colors which was wonderful. It was also safe enough…and structured enough…at any rate I did lose track of time. Just a suggestion.

    1. I’m not actually using the standard DSM-IV-TR general assessment of function, in which a 30 out of 100 would be as follows:

      “21 – 30 Behavior is considerably influenced by delusions or hallucinations OR serious impairment, in communication or judgment (e.g., sometimes incoherent, acts grossly inappropriately, suicidal preoccupation) OR inability to function in almost all areas (e.g., stays in bed all day, no job, home, or friends)”

      1. I guess I’m now a bit confused as well. Generally, your posts (JP) come across as in the exception to the rule category. That is, amongst those posting here, you seem uniquely very happy with your career as a lawyer. I don’t know if I’d characterize it as the loyal opposition, or as a perhaps needed counterpoint that not everyone hates being a lawyer or what, but generally, they seem to come across in that fashion. And some of that is needed, I think, even on a website which is focused on the significant number of lawyers who wish to depart the practice.

        Now, however, you are sort of coming across as resigned, and I sort of wonder if maybe your earlier posts reflect a certain desire to convince yourself that things are as good as they can get for you, or perhaps that things were really bad for you beforehand, and the law is comparatively better, while you still hope to get out?

      2. Well, if I just took “practicing law” away from my life, it would get me back to where I was before I was “practicing law”, which is precisely nowhere.

        It’s kind of like being on a large rock in the middle of a sea of magma. I could, indeed, step off the rock, but then I would be a small burning bubble of goo.

        But I sure don’t like being on the rock in the first place.

        This is along the lines of Alvey’s entire lizard brain series of posts.

      3. You know what’s really funny?

        Most of the work I have done is work that does not actually require a law degree to do, namely drafting and prosecuting patent applications and Social Security disability hearings.

      4. Bless you JP. I don’t know you, but I am thinking of you and hope things have improved since 2012.

  2. Another great post! Glad you mentioned the Martha Beck book. I ordered it, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Occupational hazard these days! (Too many interesting books to read, I’m afraid.)

  3. “Unhappy attorneys—which is at least half of all lawyers, most likely—have one other thing in common in addition to their unhappiness: They are quite disconnected from who they are and what the dreams of their heart are.”

    Very insightful indeed. We end up in this career, and our natures are elsewhere. That’s a recipe for discontentment to be sure.

    There’s something really wrong with a system in which so many people are funneled for some reason into a career that their natures oppose. It’d be interesting to know if that funnel is societal pressure or something else? I’ve sometimes wondered if we haven’t built a society, or at least an economic system, that doesn’t comport very well with our basic natures.

    1. Yeah, a materialistic society will do that to people. Most people’s true natures aren’t concerned with money and security to the exclusion of all other values.

  4. Thank you so much for this, Jennifer, both this entry and the blog as a whole. I was starting to wonder if it was a failing within myself that meant I wasn’t enjoying the law as I thought I might – thank you for showing me that I’m not alone.

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