I just spent a week teaching art camp to children between 6 and 11. We did some super-cool projects, and the kids got to do real art. As in, the non-Pinterest Perfect kind, with room for experimentation and failure, and the kids’ own brand of creativity. No one’s projects came out looking alike. It was all the things I love to teach about creativity.
But by the end of it, I was a an exhausted, irritable, impatient mess.
How can that be? you’re probably thinking. She’s doing something she loves and believes in. And, what does any of this possibly have to do with being miserable in law?
Only everything, grasshopper.
What’s in a Personality?
Let’s start with some personality basics. I’m an introvert, like 3/4 of lawyers. Introverts not only process life primarily in their heads, they also get overstimulated and thus overwhelmed by constant noise and action. When you’re dealing with a bunch of 7 year-old boys, trust me, the noise and action are non-stop. Every year, I walk away from this art camp in awe of pre-school to 2nd grade teachers, who every work day step into what feels to me like chaos. I could never, ever do their job and expect to stay out of the looney bin.
So if you’re an introvert and in a job that demands regular, sustained interaction with others, you’re going to feel stressed. Ditto if you are subject to constant interruptions. While it may not be 7 year-olds whining. asking for help or acting out, you may get constantly pinged by emails, texts, phone calls, or even actual humans appearing in your office. This creates a lot of stress, because you just can’t finish a thought or a project. It’s very stressful to many introverts.
On the other hand, if you’re an extravert and work constantly behind the computer, and don’t have much interaction with others, you will feel equally stressed and out of sorts. Lack of stimulation can be a very serious problem for extraverts, particularly if they’re in law. It can make them feel flat and depressed. Moreover, extraverts tend to be misunderstood in law. Their need to process out loud can be viewed as irritating, and as wasting their colleagues’ time.
Either way, being in an environment that pushes you way past your default personality traits can make you hostilejudgmental, anxious, brittle and impatient. I observed myself acting in all these unpleasant ways, and more, last week.
The Slippery Slide into Darkness
Even though I knew better, I let myself slide on some key things that I usually do to keep myself balanced and resilient.
- I didn’t give myself enough quiet time in the mornings. While 20 minutes daily can do if everything else is perking along in my life, I need more time, like 40 minutes, when things are feeling chaotic and stressful.
- I didn’t write. Writing is where I am often in flow for a long period of time, and not having that is a recipe for making me not like being around myself.
- I didn’t garden. Gardening soothes my nerves in a big way. It gets me outside and connected to nature and miracles.
- I didn’t walk. As much as I hate the truth of it, I need to walk in the mornings, at least twice weekly.
Part of the reason I didn’t do any of these things, despite knowing that they help keep me function, is because I was also juggling getting my son to his camp, plus of course clients. Even though I cut back on the number of sessions for the week, I was still stretched pretty thin emotionally and logistically.
The one thing I did do was give myself time for a nap each afternoon, because I knew I would be a yet more irritable, impatient, and unpleasant person if I didn’t get extra rest. Overstimulation is really physically exhausting.
In the end, I needed to crawl in a hole for about 2 days to recover. And that was after just 5 days of fighting against my type defaults, for a few hours a day. I know that many of you endure far more than that, month after month. In fact, I felt far too much like that unpleasant person I often was when I practiced law. There’s a reason you’re feeling depressed, stressed and hopeless.
Environment Matters as Much as Purpose
The lesson here for unhappy lawyers? When you’re looking to change jobs, whether it’s in law or outside it altogether, pay attention to what you actually need in your work environment. Make sure you understand the various aspects of your Myers-Briggs type.
- How much stimulation you can stand or how much you must have (the Introvert/Extravert dimension);
- Whether your job will require lots of forest thinking (iNtuitive) or trees thinking (Sensing), and which one you need to feel fulfilled;
- Whether your job requires use of empathy and values to make decisions (Feeler) or logic and adherence to rules and order (Thinker); and
- How much structure and organization the job expects. Is the expectation that to-do list boxes need to get checked off frequently and planning is important (Judgers love this), or that you need to be able to go with the flow and make it up as you go along (Perceivers’ heaven).
You can find the job that aligns really well with your purpose and gives your life meaning, but if the daily environment doesn’t match your personality needs, you’ll end up stressed and possibly confused about why.
As you search for your next job, remember that you make better decisions if you are more balanced. Figure out what your non-negotiables are that keep you fairly functional, and stick to them like a barnacle.
Not sure what your MBTI is? You can find some pretty good free tests online. Two I like at the moment are http://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test and http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp. I suggest taking two or three different ones, to see if you get the same type. Or, you could take a paid version, which is likely a bit more accurate. (mbticomplete.com is one) Again, there are many options online for that.
Want more in-depth discussion of attorneys and MBTI? Check out my series of posts I wrote on that a while back, starting with More on the Lawyer Personality.
And if you still need help sorting through the lawyer personality stuff, I’m just an email away.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who finally started paying attention to what her INFP type meant after 8 long years in law. Her life and career got a lot better and happier after that. You can schedule a discounted sample career coaching session with Jennifer by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another one where you really hit the nail on the head.
People often wonder how on earth there can be attorneys who don’t love what they do. I’ve heard the litany. “You get to travel!” “You get to meet people”. And the classic, “you get to go to court.”
Well, for us introverts who went to law school because we didn’t know what else to do, and it seemed like a good career for somebody who likes to study, all this is a special kind of agony. Yes, I get to do that stuff all the time. I get to travel by myself with people I don’t know, which I hate. I meet people all the time, which I don’t like doing and don’t want to do. I’d rather stick to myself and not meet people, sincerely. And I have to, not get to, go to court where I argue with people I don’t know in front of a group of people I don’t know, and my ability to do that effectively determines my ability to put food on the table.
I wish I could get out of law entirely, or if not that, switch to something else in the law, but I’m sure having no luck at all doing that.
Preaching to the introvert choir brother (or sister). I love analyzing tough things, figuring out puzzles and writing up my analysis. Walking into a room of financial planners to schmooze when I’d rather be home pursuing a hobby? Existential torture. Court would be unspeakable.
Boy, sounds like you are surrounded by a bunch of extraverts! I’ve heard of a lot of reasons that people think being a lawyer is a great gig, but “you get to meet people” is a new one on me.
What about some form of consulting? Usually there’s a lot of behind-the-computer time with that. Meetings are usually with people you have some connection with (clients), and these days, so much of marketing is done via social media, which, again, is computer time, really. Just a thought!
Just wanted to thank you for this post, and for this website in general. I’m considering leaving the law myself, and it’s nice to know that there are others out there in the same boat I’m in. It’s not easy to confide in anyone other than close trusted friends about my feelings (since the people I work with are obviously lawyers themselves), so reading this site is incredibly inspiring.
Welcome, J! We’re glad you’re here. And you a definitely not alone!
Hello, I have tested as an INFP many times and sometimes as an INTP. I work as a therapist and I can say the introvert part in me is sometimes worn down by dealing with people. You are a life coach and an introvert. How does this work for you?
I somehow found this website in the process of making major career changes. The “letting go of certainty” that you often discuss is exactly what I have been facing, and as a 50 year old it is not easy, and it takes time. But I have been in and around the practice of law for 15 years and though I wish I had found the wherewithal earlier on, as you did, to make the jump, one is never too old. Though this has not been easy, because I am quite good at actually being a lawyer. But not so much at the bill, bill, bill at all costs, win, win, win at all costs and the godawful office politics which seem inherent in the profession,
So three years ago I took the risk of quitting the “certainty” of practicing law, and moved to Australia for a year with my wife and child (she had a chance for a temp assignment Down Under). Talk about expanding perspective. Yes, it was scary, And financially challenging in some ways. But amazing. My friends tied to their desks 24/7 could not fathom such a decision, but they have never lived with Lorikeets and Sydney Harbour a train ride away. And more recently I worked with the U.S. Army on some projects in Afghanistan, which opened my eyes to how some of the poorest people in the world make do on incomes of $100 a year and constant violence, often with a kind and generous view of the world. I like being around real people, honest colleagues, and looking at life via a non-lawyer’s perspective. At this point, the money thing is irrelevant – I know that will come with time. Just being at peace with my own values is well worth the challenge. And indeed, having a real challenge – a big picture, life-affirming challenge, makes one feel alive again.
Please keep up this message. You do a beautiful job of presenting the various issues and hurdles one faces in moving up and out of this dysfunctional, too often abusive, profession.