One of the reasons it takes unhappy lawyers so long to make a change is that, just when they’ve had it with their dysfunctional job and are ready to throw in the towel, something decent or even good happens. They get an interesting assignment that doesn’t require endless 12-hour days. They get assigned to work with a partner who treats them humanely, most of the time. The case goes into a lull. Hey, things are looking up!

Until, they’re not. The plum assignment ends, the nice partner kowtows to the asshole partner, the case explodes.

average guy in tutu with magic wand
Probably not the look you’re aiming for in your legal career search.

Yes, I’m always preaching about reframing the stuff in your life more positively, developing your optimism, and such-like. But thinking that due to this one positive event, your job environment is going to change and now you’ll be happy in law is magical thinking.

Driven by intermittent rewards, magical thinking keeps you in the wildly dysfunctional environment of law far too long. It’s the same dynamic that keeps gamblers addicted: This time, it’s going to be different. I can feel it!

Even though we all know that the odds are not the gambler’s favor over the long-term, intermittent rewards, aka intermittent positive reinforcement, skew the gambler’s perspective.

Intermittent Rewards or a Healthy Optimism?

How do you distinguish between healthy optimism—the faith that good things will happen for you—and the crazy thinking of intermittent rewards? It trips most of us up, at least occasionally.

One way is to look at the payoff you’re pining for: Gamblers are in it for the adrenaline rush, and the money. Neither of these are long-term, sustainable values that fuel healthy personal growth.

When you’re optimistic about something, for example focusing on creating a real change in your life connected with something you really value, the dynamic is totally different. Your thoughts circle around that vision, and create a positive energy that attracts things that help that vision become reality.

Yeah, I know it’s sounding a bit like magical thinking, but it works much differently. Healthy optimism works like this: Walk into a coffee shop or networking event, and focus your thoughts and energy on “I’ve gotta get out of law. I’m so miserable. I’ve gotta get another job, soon, or I’m going to have to check into the funny farm.” Really let yourself sink utterly into desperation. And observe how strangers react to you. Notice how they avert their eyes, distance themselves physically, and the like? This exercise is really good to try with a trusted friend stationed several feet away, to provide a neutral observer.

Now, on another day, walk into the same place, but focus your thoughts on your dream work. Think about how exciting it’s going to be to do that work, how you are so well suited to it, and how you can’t wait to get started. Really envision what it will look, feel, and sound like. Now walk into that coffee shop or networking event. Notice how people smile at you, engage you in idle chit-chat, and don’t back away like before.

That is how the magic of optimism works.

The Rough Patches

If you keep doing this, you will eventually, and sooner rather than later, bump into things that will help you along your right path. As Edna Mode says in The Incredibles, “Luck favors the prepared, darling.”

It’s not just about positive thinking, as valuable as that is. It’s about connecting that optimism with your purpose. When you are working on your purpose, the intermittent rewards of life are what keep you going through the rough patches. (There are always rough patches. Always. It’s the way the Universe helps us grow.)

So, back to that intermittent rewards and law firms. How do you tell if you’ve been in a bad patch and things are looking up, for reals, or you’re just engaging in magical thinking?

What Flavor Is Your Pie?

You might ask yourself where, on the continuum of change-your-hair-color to change-your-height, does the problem fall? In other words, can you make a fairly easy change in yourself and fix the problem? Or would the solution involve changing the attitudes of other people, particularly those who have little interest in changing? If the threat of you leaving your job isn’t incentive enough for people to change, you’re firmly in the tilting at windmills arena.

One way to discern when it’s time to give up hope that something is going to get better is to draw the problem as a pie chart. Let’s take, just for grins, the problem of whether or not to leave law.

Think about what the pieces of the dilemma are. Some of them could be:

  • you’re surrounded by nasty people who care more about your billable hours than the fact that your beloved grandmother just died;
  • billable hours reward people who can grind steadily, and often inefficiently, along, and you are not a steady 10-hr day grinder and are instead highly efficient in short bursts;
  • you’re bored with, or just flat-out hate, the work you’re doing;
  • you like one or two aspects of the work you do—maybe the research, or the writing, or the industry it’s for;
  • you like working with the paralegals, who are actually much more fun than most of your lawyer colleagues;
  • you like working with some clients, because they are much more sane than anyone in your firm and more fun to have dinner with;
  • you can’t stand working with the clients from a particular industry or on a particular kind of matter;
  • you feel like the work you do merely helps large institutions trade money via the legal system;
  • you’re tired of missing, shortening or rescheduling vacations;
  • you’re tired of never seeing your family, friends or your pet.

Figure out your pie pieces, and then assign a percent to them: How much time do you spend doing or fretting about each one in a given week or month? Then asses how much of the total pie is pleasant, neutral and unpleasant. (OK, you can also mark things miserable and euphoric.) Is there anything you, personally, can do to make at least 65% of your chart neutral, pleasant or euphoric?

If not, yet you still think you can be happy in your job, you might just have a case of magical thinking going. I’m just sayin’.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who teaches unhappy attorneys to practice the magic of optimism in their lives and careers. Find out what that magic is like by scheduling a discounted, sample coaching session. Schedule your session today by contacting Jennifer at