Smart Lawyers, Dumb at Life, Part 2

I stand by my assertion that lawyers are, by and large, a bunch of quitters. Not in the sense that accusation is usually hurled, mind you. At work, lawyers tend to be tenacious and will dig their heels way in when they think they’re right, i.e., every other minute at the very least.

A magnanimous gesture, lawyer-style.

A magnanimous gesture, lawyer-style.

No, what I mean is that lawyers quit when the going gets tough at anything they’re not already pretty good at. Things they tend to suck at, like relationships, compromise, and dreams, for starters. Because they’re so used to being smart and good at the smarty-pants stuff, they’ve set themselves up for motivation by external validation, and haven’t worked much at resilience.

Resilience is, essentially, the ability to bounce back after a failure or set-back. To have hope in the face of disappointment. Looking back, I can count on my hands the number of lawyers I’ve known who are resilient at anything but work.

But if you’re performing well at work, why does that matter? And surely, career coach, you’re not saying we should all go and find a job that we suck at just to learn to be resilient?

Well, no, I’m not. But you need to step out, way out, of a world in which you only do stuff when you’re pretty sure of the outcome.

Big Egos + Surviving Them = Resilience

Sure, resilient people do stuff they’re good at. Smart, resilient people can become excellent and highly successful in their fields. But what separates most lawyers from this career nirvana is that they don’t like what they’re doing, and they’re too afraid of disappointing people to stop doing crap they hate but happen to be good at.

As our Quora friend put it, “When you have a big ego, disappointing people is really painful.” So lawyers stay stuck in careers they hate, because they can’t bear the thought of disappointing Mumsy or Pops or Spousey or Spot, or just generally not living up to the cultural expectation that money + prestige = great life.

Lawyers also stay stuck because getting out of the traditional legal career track takes resilience, by soldiering on in the job search when you don’t get squeals of delight from hiring managers. It takes resilience to keep on slogging when instant, lucrative offers for fascinating work don’t materialize. It takes persistence to keep networking when you don’t see immediate payoff. It takes courage to step into the uncertainty of searching for a job that’s off the well-worn path most lawyers tread.

What’s So Wrong With Playing It Safe?

So why not stay where it’s safe and lucrative? For starters, it’s very hard indeed to be great at something you despise. Of course it can be done, but at what cost to your soul, and the souls of those around you? Your misery affects everyone around you, even your goldfish.

What’s that, you say? Matters of the soul aren’t going to pay the bills? Well, you’d be surprised. Happy people are more productive, which often translates into better job performance and therefore better compensation. And as reams of research demonstrates, happier people are also healthier. It sure is a lot easier to hold down a job if you’re healthy.

It’s the Relationships, Stupid

As a recent article in The Atlantic discusses, the key to happiness lies not in your status, but in your relationships. The more you have a supportive network of family, friends, and colleagues, the more satisfied and happy you feel. It’s not about the money; in fact, happiness studies find that Louisiana, one of the poorest states, boasts the highest level of happiness, while California and New York, with their pots of affluence, rank pretty low.

Lawyers, like most good overachievers, usually value relationships about as much as toe fungus. Plus, with the very strong Thinking predisposition (of the Meyers-Briggs type), most lawyers are usually not so hot at social interaction and relationship-building.

resignation letter from Burger King employee

Future lawyer, demonstrating those winning social skills already!

Wounding, hurtful actions, which lawyers often excel at, are a sign of poor social skills. See how devaluing what you’re not good at works? It’s why most legal environments are quite toxic: Most lawyers aren’t naturally good at social skills, and rather than trying to get better at them, they simply ignore (or deny) their value and then allow themselves to give up on improving their relationships.

Good relationship skills take work, and resiliency. Lawyers are brittle, brittle people, socially. They don’t know how to greet people in the hallways and elevators, and so they simply ignore them. That happened to me endlessly as a young associate—partners would rather look at the ground or the wall than look at me and simply smile and say hello. I know from my current clients that this way of (non)interacting is still alive and well in firms.

What’s the Solution?

You will hate this, but I’ll say it again, anyway: Start doing some stuff you like, or are interested in, but may actually suck at. Pick something solely because you find it intriguing, not because you have any innate skills or experience in the area. In other words, substitute curiosity for fear.

Cultivating an attitude of curiosity, rather than one of performance, takes practice. For perfectionistic lawyers, it’s going to take, oh, years. So the best time to start is Right. This. Second.

At this point I probably should confess that I started this post about 6 months ago, and then let it sit because I wanted it to be fantastic, the kind of post that goes viral and helps thousands. (Who knows, it could!) But I had to get over myself and my deeply rooted perfectionism, before I could even finish writing it. I had to let go of the idea that this post had to be something brilliant and wondrous.

And, yes, I’ve been a professional writer for more than a decade. I’m not kidding about it taking years to get a handle on this perfectionism demon. You’ll probably never eradicate it, but you can learn to manage it, not let it control you, and live a much happier life.

One Small Step for Lawyer-kind

My suggestion is to start small. Take a one- or two-session knitting class. Learn how to build a birdhouse before you tackle a table. Learn how to draw a vase before you try sketching a face. Write a short story or two before embarking on the Great American Novel.

Resilience and curiosity are your new best friends, and they will need cultivating and daily tending. You don’t need to spend hours daily on them, but a little bit of attention every day works wonders over time. Keep trying to connect with what excites you, thrills you, maybe even scares you a little. Focus on that, and not the end product, and you will one day look back with gratitude at how far you’ve come in your happier life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist. She helps unhappy lawyers find the things that thrill their souls, and helps them substitute curiosity for fear. If that sounds like something you need, email Jennifer today at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule a discounted sample coaching session.

11 thoughts on “Smart Lawyers, Dumb at Life, Part 2

  1. Jennifer, this is sage advice for all perfectionists. Without having to insult lawyers as a group as anti-social, which has not been my experience, it still is wise to stay challenged beyond what one is naturally good at. As a silly example, after a thirty-year hiatus, I took up piano again. I put it off not because I am bad at it but because I got to be so good when I was younger that I was too embarassed (yes, in the privacy of even my teacher’s studio) to be less good now than where I left off. And I am considerably worse. But, so what? The experience is both humbling and edifying. It is great to just do it for its own sake, because it is pleasure in itself, and not a means to later pleasure. I’m convinced the process has made me more open minded and forgiving of imperfection at home and at work. So, thank you for the reminder. Your writing is clear, concise and full of substance. So don’t take 6 months to mull it over next time!

    • Hi Karina,
      Thanks for your sweet reassurance. I’m really glad to be back in writing mode. And good luck with the piano! I’ll bet it comes back very quickly. And if it doesn’t–well, you’ll appreciate it all the more when you do make progress.

  2. I wrote such a letter when I resigned from the Harvard Law Review. To this day, I don’t know whether it went to the outgoing president or the incoming president, who just happened to be Barack Obama. Guess I burned that bridge! I know what it is to feel such a level of frustration and anger that you now longer care if the bridge is burned. I also know what it is to continue hitting your head against the lawyer wall and expecting different results. I’m one of Jennifer’s clients and I am taking her advice and trying to add more fun to my life so that, until I can transition to work I love, the spirit-murdering work I currently do doesn’t consume me. It’s funny,though, i’ve always been the Chatty Cathy of any law workplace I’ve been in, which is why I always get the, “You’re a lawyer?” question, I guess.

    Jennifer, thanks so much for this. I’ve posted this and the previous installment to my Facebook page.

    Terrie

  3. I’ve just discovered this blog and I’m pleased that it exists. I got a 1st class BA in 2006, then I wasted two years of my life doing law afterwards. It still haunts me. However, your blog makes me glad that I didn’t waste any more time in it, as some of my friends encouraged me to do.

  4. I still remember, with great affection, a resignation letter/email that was making the rounds around 200-2007, when I was in a truly hellacious corporate law setting. The resigner (ATL probably has this archived) wrote a much more polite note, but did manage to confess that he didn’t like the law, the work, the issues, the issue spotting, the deal structuring, the choice of entity making, the research, the memo writing, the document drafting, or anything else. THANK YOU I thought. Someone is finally HONEST!

  5. Re: the social interaction. I know I have poor social skills. But, it is not from lack of trying. I have read all the books about networking, being a “people person”, “personal branding” and “selling.” The problem is, I just don’t like people. Really. I find other people annoying. I really don’t care if they are having a good day. I don’t want to chit-chat about some meaningless TV show or sports game people watched last night. I find it dull and mundane. The legal profession is about the only industry where non-people people can excel—although that is changing. I will never make partner because I don’t want to and suck at “selling.”

    Right now, that is the one of the largest sources of my unhappiness with the law. People used to appreciate hard-working smart attorneys who did a really bang up job. Now, the only thing that matters is bringing in business. It doesn’t matter if you are actually any good at what you do. So long as you don’t commit malpractice and can convince your client to pay you, you are a superstar. But, the guy like me that can recite rules of civil procedure by memory, answer complex questions about the economic loss doctrine on the fly, and write kick-a$$ briefs is not valued at all, because I can’t “sell.”

  6. If I had actual skill in the practice of law, I would probably enjoy it more, to the point where I could actually tolerate doing it.

    I’m not even resilient at doing work.

    Granted, if I had been resilient, I would never have ended up in law school in the first place because I would never had failed academically to the point where I was faced with law school as being a “good” outcome.

    Really, though, a lot of this this comes from not being challenged early in life to the point where “Straight A’s” would actually be an achievement rather than a baseline establishing that you were doing the minimal amount of work required.

  7. If you are in the law business you know the importance of communication with the clients. Although it is required for every business owner; however especially an attorney needs to be in touch with his clients all the time.

  8. I have a friend at work who is our head legal counsel. I am not a lawyer but we work on many things together. She has absolutely no concept of when she says or does things that can hurt someones feelings. She once told me she is terrible at staying in contact and the few friends she has (most pre law school) know it. She said law school wreaked her some. She also said that many people view her as cold hearted. She hates chit chat. She hates compliments. I can see why when I see how short she can be when she is focused. You can walk away feeling like crap and it is never noticed.

    Being friends with her actually takes active effort. So why the heck do I even do it? I stick with it because I really do love her to death as a friend for some reason. I know she is warm hearted inside and I know it bothers her that people think she is cold hearted because she brought it up twice once while saying..”see I am not cold hearted”…. . I can see it. I admire her drive, her intelligence, her dry humor, her dedication, her smile, her laugh, her love of sports and of her kids. I love her laugh and how her eyes spark when she talks about certain things. She sees things no one else sees when you sit in a room. She really is a beautiful person.

    I am the complete opposite of her. I m outgoing, love interacting with people, feel things deeply, etc. To me relationships are the most important thing. She once commented that we were exact opposites. I relied that to me that is a good thing. It creates balance.

    Maybe that is why we are friends….we can rub off on each other. I could use being a little bit more like her too.

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