Lessons For Unhappy Lawyers From Legendary Judge Samuel

Unhappy lawyers often think their pain is unique. They can certainly point to some impressive data points, like the level of discontent within the profession, or the appalling career satisfaction level that compares quite unfavorably to doctors or rocket scientists.

Torah scrolls

The root cause of lawyer misery isn’t so new. Nowadays, it just wears clothes from Brooks Brothers.

But here’s the news flash: Miserable attorneys, the decisions that got you to unhappiness are the same ones that people have been making since Biblical times. And probably before.

Humanity is not really a quick study, when you look at our emotional history. We keep facing the same problems of spirit, just in different guises, and we have for millennia.

I got a reminder of this in church recently, when one of the readings was from 1 Samuel (chapter 8, if you care). You don’t have to be Christian or Jewish or really any faith to get something out of this story.

Failing the Test of Faith

Basically, Samuel had been the judge of the Israelites for quite a while. Israel at that time didn’t have a king, just Judge Samuel. Eventually, Samuel appointed his 2 sons to help with the load of traveling around helping the Israelites sort out their disputes. It was great in theory.

But the reality is that the sons were corrupt, and the people got tired of them. Plus, Samuel was getting on in years and wasn’t going to be around much longer. The elders went to him and asked him to appoint a king, “like other nations.”

Well, Samuel got miffed that the people wanted to be like other nations; this was the nation of Israel, and it was supposed to follow God and God’s laws, not mere mortals and their self-serving laws. God was supposed to be the only king and his laws the only ones the Israelites needed. So, like all the famous dudes in the Old Testament do, Samuel asked God what to he should do.

Among other things, God told Samuel to remind the people just what it was like to live under a king like everyone else did. In particular, God said, remind them that kings will do things like:

  • Take your sons and force them to be soldiers;
  • Take your daughters and force them into servitude;
  • Take the best of your vineyards, fields and olive orchards and give them to his cronies;
  • Take another 10%  of your grain and vineyards to pay his lackeys;
  • And eventually, take all your stuff and make you slaves.

Yet despite these pretty graphic reminders about how kings operated in those days, the Israelites insisted they wanted a king. They wouldn’t consider any other path or solution.

Why? Why would anyone subject themselves to such an outcome? It sounds ridiculous.

Ah, but there’s always denial. “Oh, that won’t happen. Even if it does, I’m smart enough to avoid the worst of it. Plus, look at those shiny coins the king makes!”

Same Song, Different Verse

A few millennia later, most lawyers have done the exact same thing, for the exact same reason: They sacrificed uncertainty and vulnerability for certainty. Instead of stepping out into the unknown and trying to create another solution to their career and life dilemmas, they chose the sure thing, the lawyer life. Instead of trusting that God or their own inspirations and intuitions would lead them to where they needed to be, they chose the well-traveled road, despite the gory travel photos. And lawyers, rather than live with the knowledge that they are vulnerable like everyone on this planet, have chosen the illusion of certainty by opting for jobs and lifestyles that look like a sure thing.

As a culture, we believe that having anything below a $75K family income is akin to poverty. We’ll trade our own well-being, health and spiritual, to get that certainty. Your need for certainty will certainly kill your soul, and you’ll give up everything you have for the trappings of success.

Even though you’re already a lawyer, it’s not too late. You have the evidence—the exhausting, dispiriting billable hours treadmill, the nasty colleagues, the mind-numbing, soul-sucking work—and unlike the Israelites, if you leave the kingdom you have plenty of places to go where you’ll be accepted, welcomed even.

Go for less certainty, with the likelihood of significantly higher happiness dividends. Get your creativity on, and figure out how to live well with less, so you can break the law firm/corporate America stranglehold on your life.

Otherwise, you may look just like the Israelites, but with Netflix, a smartphone and a latte.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys get their creativity on  and craft solution for a happier, more fulfilled life. You can find out what that’s like by scheduling a discounted sample coaching session. Email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com today to set yours up!

8 thoughts on “Lessons For Unhappy Lawyers From Legendary Judge Samuel

  1. Another great post. My counselor told me just yesterday that it’s not too late to change paths. Thank you for the continued inspiration to stay true to my heart and find what will make me have joy in my work.

  2. This is another great post. I couldn’t quite see where you were going, until you noted the security angle. You are exactly correct.

    Indeed, this is exactly what keeps me from leaping. And when I’m near leaping, it’s what causes me family to hope I don’t.

  3. Great post. I know the title of your blog is Leaving the Law, but I would point out the obvious – that you can probably achieve 90% of the optimum results by not leaving law entirely but getting an inhouse job that doesn’t come with “the exhausting, dispiriting billable hours treadmill, the nasty colleagues, the mind-numbing, soul-sucking work”. I did it, after years of convincing myself I couldn’t live without the Biglaw salary (which was the ONLY item listed on the plus side of my pro/con list). Guess what? I can get by on a lot less than I thought I needed. Most of what I “needed” were shiny toys to distract me from how miserable I was. Take away the misery and no need for shiny toys.

  4. Jennifer, I just wanted to say thank you for your blog. I read pages and pages of it when I was feeling down and depressed about the fact that I felt stuck in a job I hated – Big Law in London was not what I wanted, but it was where I had ended up. Things came to a head when my health began to be badly affected by my emotional unhappiness. I stepped back and re-evaluated what I wanted. I am so pleased to say that I handed in my notice last month, and next month I start a new job with a company where I will be helping consumers rather than filling the coffers of another large corporate. There is, naturally, a pay cut but I am so excited by what the future holds. Thank you for the part you played in helping me make the jump.

  5. Thank you all! It’s funny, I was feeling very vulnerable about this post. But I try to heed Brene Brown’s excellent advice about vulnerability being the birthplace of creativity, because she is Just. So. Right!!

    • Don’t you think vulnerability is just a catch-all name for not thinking the next few steps ahead with a “so what” mentality? As in, they won’t like it…so what? I wil have disagreements…so what? Most of the time, answering the so what completely obviates the vulnerability.

  6. Excellent article.

    As a young associate at a regional firm in a small state, this is the one dilemma that has slowed my escape from the legal profession. Even without the absurd billable hour requirements of Big Law (and even though I work with a group of attorneys that I actually like as individuals), I still find myself sucked of soul and consistently drained by my interactions with boring, pretentious lawyers. Only that bi-weekly deposit to my checking account has kept me from turning in my notice thus far.

    Fortunately, I am making a conscious effort to remedy that. And, it would seem that my subconscious has been forcing my hand a bit along the way: I’m consistently fatigued to a point where my productivity is at an all-time low; I have almost no motivation to complete tasks as assigned; and for the first time in my working life, I am utterly unconcerned about the potential ramifications of poor production–in fact, it’s as if I welcome a confrontation with a partner as the final straw.

    Reading that, and recognizing that those thoughts are genuine, makes me cringe. Further, it illustrates–to me, at least–that I am not meant for this profession. I spent my entire life pre-law as a passionate person who refused to do anything less than excel. That attitude led me to law school because I believed a JD to be one of the few remaining tangible indicators of success. Boy, was I a sucker! Now I spend my days attempting to invest the least amount of time and effort into a job while doing just enough to collect a check for “security.”

    I have officially (though recently) surpassed the one-year mark as an attorney. I will not “celebrate” this anniversary next year. I can’t. It is time to recognize this “security” for what it truly is: an illusion and a burden.

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