Reframing Your Life and Legal Career

With the advent of digital photography, we are all now experts at framing and cropping pictures. Focusing in on a detail, tightening the focus to get rid of an unsightly background, hell, even changing up some colors—we all now get how with images, the difference between ugly and great can be a simply matter of how you frame it.

It’s the same with life and career. Really.

Star Wars Legos clones
Sure, it’s an OK picture here . . .
Star Wars Legos clones
but you can really appreciate the awesome creativity if you focus on what’s important and leave all the distraction out.

I’ll share something that happened to me not long ago, to show how the way you mentally frame the crap that comes along in life makes a big difference in the quality of your life. And career.

Vulnerability and Uncertainty—the Hardest Part

I’m at “that age.” In other words, that amorphous period of life when your doctor starts prefacing things with, “Well, at your age . . . “ and is usually followed with a suggestion of a test or medication. And of course, being a woman close to “that age,” I’ve been getting mammograms for several years. This year, I got a call instead of a letter. They saw something that might or might not be a change since last year.

I did OK at first. All that work over the years of learning Martin Seligman-inspired optimism did pay off. I breathed. I did not get on the Internet and diagnose myself into Stage IV incurable breast cancer. (There was a time I would have done that, trust me.)

Instead, I called my friend Isabella, a radiologist. She was very calming, and explained that the bar for calling women back for follow-up mammograms was set really low—much better to have a false positive than a false negative. Something like 8% to 10% of screening mammograms are called back, and nearly all of them turn out to be nothing. Even if I got to the biopsy stage, Isabella said, 80% of those were benign.

This was good information to have. It calmed me down considerably. But still, that little part of my brain thought, “What if?” Yes, there could be some bad news at the end of this. But I chose not to dwell there. Sometimes, it takes constant reminding, yet it is a viable choice.

So I arrived at the imaging center feeling confident this was simply a fire drill. And I kept that calm state of mind until, literally, the 7th or 8th image. (Usually there are about 3 or 4 images, tops.) Then the tech mentioned that the area they were looking at was near the lymph nodes and she was finding it hard to get a good picture.

The Moment of Doom?

At that point, mentally, I wigged out, very quietly and to myself. I just knew I had cancer. I’m a cancer survivor (non-Hodgkins lymphoma) from 16 years ago, and I knew quite keenly that any mention of lymph nodes was NOT A GOOD THING. But my reaction was so different this time. As I’m standing there while the tech is trying to make a great boob sandwich without hurting me (bless her heart), my thought literally was “Thank God the screening tech squeezed like the dickens and caught this way early.” And then I started planning how my altered summer would go, and what I needed to do to make sure the 8 year-old was OK.

Note what the reaction was not: It wasn’t

  • Panic
  • Rage
  • Hysteria
  • Quivering fear
  • Paralyzing shock

I assure you, I had all of those emotions and many more on the first go ‘round with cancer. None of them was the least bit useful, and they all dragged me down when I needed energy the most. It was not a good scene. Those mental stories of dread that I told myself made every test, every doctor visit and every round of chemo that much worse.

And in case you were worried, it turns out I am not going into round 2 with cancer: Everything turned out just fine.

Dodging the Avalache

But in that moment, when I was convinced I was heading into round 2, reframing and finding something positive about a likely bad situation saved me from an exhausting avalanche of emotional wear and tear.

Reframing is all about finding the good thing in the midst of the whirling sucking vortex of despair. At first, it is a really, really difficult mental habit to build. But it is a habit, and it’s possible to train yourself to do it. Actually, reframing is vital to building a happier, healthier life and career. Your life at work won’t drag you down nearly as much if you reframe it.

Now I’m not suggesting for a second that if you just think happy thoughts, that dysfunctional, toxic law job is going to become wonderful. As if. But your response to the stuff that happens there can make the difference between having the energy to get creative about getting out, or not.

Start Slow, But Start

Start with the small stuff. For example, we all have those times when we walk out the door in a rush, and remember after 20 steps that we left something important. Before I started working on reframing, I would most likely curse and think, “Crap, I can’t remember anything! I’m going to be late! Why can’t I get myself together?” or some variation on that general theme. (All you Perceivers on the Meyers-Briggs, you know what I’m talking about!)

You probably have your very own special mantra for this situation. Observe what it is. Then the next time you forget something, replace it with something that reframes. For example, I now say to myself, “Oh, I’m so glad I remembered before I got in the car/drove down the street/got there without it.”

This will feel really fake and awkward at first, I know. It might even be a mighty struggle. That’s because we’ve trained ourselves, and been trained by those negative lawyers around us, to see everything as a problem, rather than an opportunity. Being negative is a choice. Being positive is a choice. One is not more real than the other. One choice may feel more real because it’s so familiar and ingrained. Kind of a Pavlovian response.

So, Pavlov, how are you going to train yourself today?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys to retrain themselves into a more positive mindsets, lives and careers. Find out what that is like with a discounted sample coaching session. Email Jennifer today at to schedule yours and get going!


  1. PS I’ve just read the post now (I added my comment before reading!) and am very glad to hear that you do NOT have cancer. More power to you, and thanks for sharing this with us – this is truth: “we’ve trained ourselves, and been trained by those negative lawyers around us, to see everything as a problem, rather than an opportunity. Being negative is a choice. Being positive is a choice. One is not more real than the other.”

    Take care!

  2. Well, I just found out what my wife has been looking at. Let’s try this again.

    Yo, Alvey, it’s time to crank up the blogging again. It’s bar exam time, which means that there’s an entirely new class of soon to be disillusioned lawyers who are going to be underemployed and larded up with massive amounts of non-dischargable debt!

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