Smart Lawyers, Dumb at Life, Part 1

You wanna know why your legal career and your life suck? It’s because you’re too damned smart for your own good. And no one has been in your face telling you that you can, and should, do a lot of stuff that is hard, and that you suck at, so you can have a better life and career. Except me!

Attorneys attending the school of life. Not always pretty.
Attorneys attending the school of life. Not always pretty.

It’s more than a little heretical to say this to even the most well-adjusted lawyers, all 77 of them. But it is the path to a more balanced, satisfying, and sustainable life and career.

I don’t know if you caught the Quora answer a little while ago that has, um, motivated me to say this stuff out loud. The question was: What does it feel like to be a smart person?

Are Smart and Happy Mutually Exclusive?

Most attorneys are indeed very smart, but many, many of them are miserable, or at the very least not happy. And that matches up with the bottom-line answer on Quora:

Overall, being smart brought many accolades and successes, but it also made me anxious, afraid of failure, and eager to quit at the first signs of hardship.

The guy—a former high school math whiz, ranked 25th in the country—is right: Being smart has its downsides, and usually they center around the crippling unwillingness to persevere with stuff you’re not naturally good at. Say, working with those who aren’t like you, or keeping on in a hobby or even a job that you’re not performing brilliantly at.

Essentially, being smart in a culture that prizes the punch-list lifestyle can lead you, unwittingly, to living a life and making career choices based on fear. You choose stuff that you know you’re good at, which provides little room for growth. Problem is, you won’t stretch your boundaries and your sense of who you are by staying in your safe little box of intellectual prowess.

Your life, mentally and emotionally, shrinks year by year, until you become the miserable partner who is afraid to even look for a job at another firm because someone might find out you’re looking. Because of course if someone found out, you would be fired because you were looking at other options. And that would be devastating, the thinking goes, because you couldn’t recover from being fired. That would doom you to living under a bridge. Or, you would only be able to get some horrible, underpaying job that you hated, and at least now you have a well-paying, horrible job you hate.

Stop me if this brittle, unresilient thinking sounds completely unfamiliar.

Yeah, I didn’t think so. See how small the world can get when you let fear grab the wheel and steer?

The Kool-aid of External Validation

Inflexibility is the hidden curse of being smart for too many lawyers: They do stuff because they’re good at it and get praised for it, not because they actually enjoy it. Plus, they are mortally afraid of doing stuff they like but aren’t actually exceptional at.

Many lawyers’ experiences as they progress through school are being great at stuff, and their worldview gets skewed; they equate having to work at something with not being any good at it, and so things they’re not good at hold no value for them. That’s why they don’t learn how to slog through the hard work of bouncing back from failures small and large, since they’re used to praise and adulation for motivation, instead of intrinsic pleasure.

As the anonymous Quora guy put it:

While I’ve worked hard, most of my successes came from my innate intelligence. As a result, I got used to being naturally good at things. Recent studies have shown that people who believe intelligence is innate tend to give up much faster than people who believe it can be developed, and that was definitely true for me throughout most of my 20s. I’d try things once or twice, then stop if I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, which was often. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance when you’re not good at something you expected to be great at, and the easiest way to resolve that dissonance is by quitting. (emphasis added)

I am not insinuating that lawyers just need to suck up a toxic job environment and their lives will improve. What I am saying is that you need to detach from that IV of external validation, ‘cause it’s killing your soul.

And yes, I am saying is that lawyers tend to be a bunch of quitters when it comes to the important stuff in life. More on that next time.

 Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist who coaches unhappy attorneys on creating happiness in their lives and careers. Contact her today at  for a no-strings, discounted sample coaching session


  1. It’s funny that the hardest thing to quit is the thing I hate doing the most. Every time I get to the point of “enough is enough” and decide to start looking for non-legal jobs, I quit the search because the leap to non-legal seems so big.

    • It’s so true–many lawyers won’t pay attention to what law is doing to their soul, until their bodies start breaking down. It took cancer for me to start really paying attention!

    • The writer of the Quora question was male. The dynamic is the same, though, for either gender. I see it in many of my female clients, too.

  2. Jennifer, this is so awesome. (All 77 of ’em – hahha!)

    I’m not in law, but all my life I’ve been counted as a ‘genius’ and I posted some heartfelt stuff in that Quora thread, and I resonate with most of what was said there.

    Love the emphasis on quitting as dissonance-solution.

    It gets more complex, because it seems that “intelligent” people are expected to be good at everything and have no problems or challenges, and need no help, lest they topple from their ‘perch’.

    Developing humility and an awareness of where we shine and where others can help us is key, I’ve found.

    P.S. Do you have a post on what ‘law’ does to your soul, I’d be interested in sharing something like that with friends.

  3. Yep, I’m very good at quitting anything I care about, and sticking with law (since it was killing me, I must have deserved it (for not wanting to be a MD, JD or CEO), right?).

    I think that another hard thing for smart people is that our parents/families get so excited over how smart we are (especially if you are the genetic fluke born into a C student family) that we’re trained to be circus animals at an early age – be perfect, be pleasing, do your trick so everyone can see how fantastic we are for having had you, don’t get out of line. So you have to overcome that and then also the loneliness and anxiety of the high performance thing, and if law has screwed you up in the interim it just gets even harder. But it can be done, I have to believe that (and that the bit of progress I’ve seen will grow).

  4. I am kind of the exact opposite. I have always attributed my success to worker harder than everyone else, especially those with “innate” intelligence. While no dummy myself, I do not consider myself to be mensa material. However, I do believe that if one applies oneself, you can become “decent” at just about anything.

    The problem for me is the work/reward trade-off. I was the straight-laced, bust my a$$, chain-smoking, pot of coffee drinking student/law student/new lawyer my whole life. My motivation was always that I could “do better” than people with natural intelligence or who came from money by just working harder.

    Now, I am at a point in my life where I am burned out, tired, and physically cannot put in the same hours as before. Also, I have nothing to look forward to professionally. Winning cases doesn’t do it for me anymore, because winning a case has so little to do with actual hard work or smarts. There is no “promotion” for me to aspire to because I have no interest in becoming business partners with the soulless people with whom I work. The only thing keeping me going is the fear of being poor.

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