The Summer Reading List for Miserable Lawyers Who Want to Change

It’s officially summer, though here in the South, it has been dripping hot for at least 6 weeks, probably more. The heat and particularly the humidity long ago fried my brain. But I digress.

If you’re working on a big deal, big case, or big project, you probably don’t much care that it’s summer. It’s not like you’re going to get to enjoy it, right?

Even if getting away to the beach isn't in the cards, a book could take you there, or lots of other places uninfested by lawyers.

Even if getting away to the beach isn’t in the cards, a book could take you there, or lots of other places uninfested by lawyers.

Yet even if that’s true, you can pretend, to a certain extent. One way I’d suggest doing that is creating beach reading time for yourself, even if your only travel plans are to and from the office for the foreseeable future. If you really want to embrace the idea, put on your bathing suit and find an umbrella to sit under. At the very least, get a cold drink, stick a tacky paper umbrella in it, curl up on the couch, and put your nose into a book for a few hours.

Most of the books listed below aren’t new, and aren’t necessarily bestsellers. But they’re absolutely worth your time.

1. Be Who You Are

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown.

If you really want to crack the code of your unhappiness, this is an excellent place to start. Lawyers are often slaves to perfectionism, and justify it by saying that their work has to be perfect or else malpractice, ridicule, embarrassment, lost clients, etc., etc. While it’s certainly true that you want to do good, solid work, it doesn’t have to be perfect. First, that’s not an attainable goal, because you’re human. Having a law degree does not actually make you less than or more than human, despite various cultural mythologies. Humans make mistakes. And, you know perfectly well there are scads of lawyers out there who make horrendous mistakes and yet keep their license.

Brown is the daughter of a lawyer, so she knows a lot about perfectionism, both from him and from herself. (Her TED video from 2010 is a wonderful discussion of that, among other things.)

One other concept that Brown talks about, which basically everyone in America would do well to understand, is about numbing out to our pain, and the serious consequences of that.

“[Y]ou cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. . .  You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”

The chief ways people numb out? TV, food, alcohol, and shopping. If you see yourself using one of those to numb out, get reading!

2. Change the Stuff About Yourself that Makes You Unhappy

Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman.

Martin Seligman is the driving force behind positive psychology. The basis of positive psychology is that most people are not mentally ill, but often struggle to feel deep satisfaction and well-being in their lives. Seligman’s most recent formulation of this is that positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment are the rock-bottom fundamentals to human well-being. A good life, he maintains, is pleasant, engaged, meaningful, achieving, and connected.

I imagine if you’re reading this post, you aren’t feeling all 5 of these things in your life. You may not feel a single one. Sadly, that’s a pretty common state of affairs for attorneys.

Lawyers struggle greatly with achieving positive emotion. While there are other elements to it, optimism is the bedrock of positive emotion. Yet lawyers are typically pessimists, either by wiring, or training, or both. As Seligman points out in Learned Optimism, law is one of the few professions in which being pessimistic actually makes you better at your job.

As I’ve discussed before, envisioning the parade of horribles for clients and protecting against the downside risks are the essence of good lawyering. But most lawyers don’t know how to dial this skill back when they aren’t working on a legal problem. Seligman’s book gives you tools to learn how to do just that. Plus, if you visit the Authentic Happiness website, you can take the free Optimism Test (under Questionnaires) and see where you fall. I should probably warn you that if you like tests and surveys, the site has a treasure trove of researched, empirically valid ones. You might want to set aside a couple hours!

3. Get a New Perspective on the Economy and Work

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, by Dan Pink.

Pink’s premise is that the age of lawyers, accountants and programmers, all those left brain professions, has passed. “The era of ‘left brain’ dominance, and the Information Age that it engendered, are giving way to a new world in which ‘right brain’ qualities—inventiveness, empathy, meaning—predominate.”

This idea scares the complete crap out of most lawyers, so of course they deny it’s happening. But if you look at the profession, a lot of what Pink talks about is happening. Document review and basic legal work are being shipped to India or the Middle of Nowhere, USA, for sharply reduced rates. Clients are in open revolt against billable hours, which are a relic from the manufacturing economy mindset. Legal jobs have not bounced back from the 2008 meltdown, and they aren’t likely to.

Suddenly, law doesn’t seem like that secure career. What do you do? Pink has some ideas about using your creativity for fun and profit. Take some of those ideas and pair them with a more how-to approach found in The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future, by Chris Guillebeau, and you could be on your way to embracing a completely different, entrepreneurial life that you love.

4. Start Pursuing Your Wild Dreams

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron.

If you have ever dreamed of writing, fiction or nonfiction, for fun or for a living, but have only written briefs, contracts, grocery lists and maybe a snippet of a story, poem or essay in the last few years, these books are for you. Anne Lamott is like your eccentric aunt who is nonetheless sharp as sin. Julia Cameron is the wise, yet nurturing grandmother you always wish you’d had. Both know a heckuva lot about getting started writing.

What they both excel at is calling you on your BS about why you just don’t have time to write. In their own inimitable styles, they introduce you to the real reasons: fear and your inner critic.

One of the best chapters in Bird by Bird is “Radio Station KFKD.” (Say it out loud, K-FKD.)

“Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.”

She goes on to tell you exactly what to do about this, and having written for 15 years now, I can tell you she’s pretty much dead on.

Julia Cameron introduced me to a bedrock concept that has helped my writing enormously: laying track. (Anne Lamott calls it “shitty first drafts.”) This is the way around your perfectionism and agony in trying to write:

“Early in my writing life, I tried to polish as I went. Each sentence, each paragraph, each page, had to flow from and build on what went before it.  . . This meant long, stubborn hours writing and rewriting, crossing out and then adding back in again. Writing this way was frustrating, difficult, and disheartening, like trying to write a movie and cut it at the same time. . . I learned to write setting judgment aside and save a polish for later. I called this new, freer writing “laying track.” For the first time I gave myself emotional permission to do rough drafts and for those drafts to be, well, rough. . . Freed from the demand that it be instantly brilliant, perfect, and clever, my writing became not only smoother but also easier and more clear.”

I use this technique nearly every time I sit down to write. Most of my posts, including this one, are written in little unconnected bursts of thoughts. I start at what becomes the beginning of a post maybe half the time. When I run out of steam, I go back and figure out mundane things like order and organization, transitions, wordsmithing, and sometimes even think up new or better stuff. I would also add that you can use this technique really successfully in legal writing.

If you want to stretch your wings creatively, but not in writing exclusively, you could try The Artist’s Way, also by Cameron. That book changed my life. It’s all about getting yourself from blocked creative to happily functioning creative. It can be an intense process, but if you’re really looking for a change, The Artist’s Way is a wonderful guide.

5. Belly Laugh

The last entry is one that attorneys often ignore, but it’s completely vital to change: laughter. Humor helps us see ourselves in a more hopeful light. I often tell clients that if something upsetting is eventually going to be a funny story, the quicker they can get to that place, the better.

With that in mind, I give you a varied list of fun reads. I’ve read some myself, and others come highly recommended by attorney friends or other friends who are ridiculously well-educated.

Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, which begins with The Eyre Affair. As Fford describes them on his website, “Thursday Next is a detective who works for Jurisfiction, the policing agency that works inside fiction. The books are set in an odd alternative world, and blends SF, Fantasy, Literature, Horror, and a bit of romance.” English majors and other readers of large amounts of classic fiction will howl at some of the character names and plot devices. They are clever and make me giggle. A lot.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. Funny and irreverent as hell about sums it up. “By the way, his name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It’s the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed. I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him. Me? I am Levi who is called Biff. No middle initial. Joshua was my best friend.”

The Stephanie Plum series, starting with One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich. Yes, I know, you can buy her books in airports and grocery stores, so how good could they be? Well, according to several of my attorney friends, they’re a guilty, giggly pleasure. One friend said that “Stephanie Plum is the only character I’m guaranteed to have to put the book down because I’m laughing so hard.” I’d count that as good for the soul!

Anything by Carl Hiassen. As one friend puts it, he writes “eco-mysteries with over the top characters.” He’s been compared to Mark Twain, favorably. He’s the son of a lawyer and an English teacher, and writes things like this:

On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm. His wife flew to the bow of the boat and tossed her breakfast burritos.

“What’re you waiting for?” James Mayberry barked at the mate.“Get that thing off my line!”

The kid tugged and twisted, but the barb of the hook was imbedded in bone. Finally the captain came down from the bridge and used bent-nose pliers to free the decomposing limb, which he placed on shaved ice in a deck box.

James Mayberry said, “For Christ’s sake, now where are we supposed to put our fish?”

“We’ll figure that out when you actually catch one.” 

From Bad Monkey.

What are your favorite summer reads? Share them in the comments!

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who used to read a lot more before she started working as a lawyer. There was more reading while she worked in publishing, but then she became a parent. She’s working on recovering her reading mojo. If you need help making a change or adding fun stuff to your life, set up a discounted sample session with Jennifer by emailing her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com

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