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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org today to schedule yours.