Lawyer’s Lament: But I Don’t Have a Calling

I suspect that many unhappy lawyers walk around with the unexamined belief that they will know what their calling in life is when they get hit by a bolt from above. Sometimes, this even happens: a traumatic event triggers some big realizations; a therapy session cracks open some baffling behavior pattern; maybe even a career coaching session leads to a big Eureka!! moment.

A few of us get callings this clear and obvious. The rest of us have to work a little harder to discern it.

A few of us get callings this clear and obvious. The rest of us have to work a little harder to discern it.

More often, callings don’t emerge with trumpets and fanfare. They fall into the still, quiet voice category. They are always with us, but we have to be willing to hear what they have to say.

Usually, we don’t listen, at least not for a good long time. Listening to a calling often means upending a lot in our lives that doesn’t seem so bad: that job with the steady income; parental, spousal or peer approval; following the smart, safe, low-risk course.

The trouble is, when you ignore your calling, you ignore the core of who you are, and what you are meant to do.

When you ignore your essence, you open the door to depression. When you ignore your gifts, anger
at life takes root. When you ignore that thing that fires you up and makes you feel alive, you start to die inside.

Many lawyers are, basically, dead people walking.

Why Don’t I Know My Calling By Now?

As someone who works with miserable attorneys, and as someone who ignored her own calling for a good long while, I can tell you that not following that call exacts a steep price indeed. Physical ailments, chronic illnesses, mental anguish, addictions, and dreading of every work day are only some of the consequences I’ve seen or personally experienced.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “What the hell IS my calling? I have no idea. I don’t think I have one.” Trust me, you’ve got one. But there are many reasons you may not know:

  • You believed your calling must also be your main income producer, and what you really liked to do didn’t fit in that category, so you ignored it as immature, wishful thinking;
  • You regarded your calling as something frivolous, or at best non-essential, and maybe you’ll get to it when you have time. Except that there is never enough time;
  • You were convinced by parents, teacher, or peers that what you truly wanted to do wasn’t worthwhile, or that it couldn’t get you into college, or that it couldn’t be a job, so why bother?
  • Your calling didn’t come with a nice, step-by-step roadmap and to-do list. It felt far to risky to consider for more than a nanosecond.

Looking Your Addiction to Busy Straight in the Eye

So how on earth do you even find that still, quiet voice, let alone listen to it? It’s pretty straightforward: You get quiet, and listen to your thoughts and desires without judging them.

This sounds deceptively simple. It is simple, but it’s not easy.

Probably the hardest part to overcome is your addiction to being busy. Many lawyers have embraced the stressed out, overworked lifestyle like a savior. And it does save them—from hearing what their true self has to say. From taking a long, uncomfortable look at the fact that their current life is not at all what they dreamed of.

If you stay busy, you can avoid some incredibly hard truths:

  • I don’t like this one bit, and I don’t know what to do about it.
  • I feel helpless, lost, and alone in this.
  • I don’t know where to find a compass and a map to get me out of here.

Many unhappy lawyers get close to this truth, but when they get a good, strong whiff of it, they high-tail it back to the land of overwork and burn out. That, at least, they know how to deal with. It’s the classic devil-you-know move.

And it’s a culturally sanctioned belief, followed with a religious fervor: If you’re busy, you’re important, and ergo worthwhile. The crazy-busy lifestyle helps lawyers (and others) hide from the truth they don’t want to confront: They don’t feel worthwhile. They hate feeling uncertain and vulnerable.

Don’t Just Do Something—Sit There!

Instead of checking one more item off your perpetual to-do list, I urge you to be brave, and simply listen to your own needs, wants, and desires. Not your job’s, your family’s, or your peers’ needs. You can work on accommodating those later. First, you must hear your own voice.

At first, your calling most likely is going to be faint: Maybe all you know is that you want to do more with animals, or you want to write something, or you want to interact more with people than with computers. Those are all good starts, but they really aren’t your calling in full bloom. They are a hint of which way to head.

To get your calling to blossom into its full glory, you need to spend time with. Treat it as an interesting new friend whom you like a lot, even though you haven’t known each other very long. Get curious about what else might be part of this calling.

Sadly, your calling isn’t going to call out in a clarion voice, “Hey, you need to take some dog obedience classes, so you can meet this certain person who is going to hand you a really important idea or insight about what you can do with animals for the long-term.” But that is usually how callings work: bit by bit, chance by chance, half-revealed, giving you what you need exactly when you need it, which is not necessarily when you want it.

Callings operate on the Universe’s time. They pretty much snicker at our 5-year plans and our detailed goals lists. This drives attorneys berserk, for the most part.

This isn’t to say that you can’t create some momentum. You absolutely can.

When you pay attention to a calling, start listening, and take some small steps to cultivate it, callings usually respond with gusto. As Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

Your calling’s response can be a deepening desire to do that thing you finally let yourself try. It can be a widening of things you find interesting and sustaining. It can be that chance meeting, or that amazing job listing that suddenly appears. It will feel like a path is opening up. Sometimes, it won’t make logical sense.

That is why the path of your calling usually feels risky, particularly if you’ve been living and working far away from your calling. For lawyers, who adore plans and certainty, staring down that riskiness and acting anyway feels utterly foolhardy.

But you’re taking a huge risk by not following your calling. You are risking that you will survive, physically and mentally, in good enough shape to one day be able to follow your heart’s desires. Considering the high rates of depression, addiction, suicide, and chronic illness among lawyers, that’s a pretty damned risky path, too.

Which risk will bring you bliss?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who ignored her callings—to write and help people get unstuck—for at least a decade after starting law school. If you need some help with finding your calling, email her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule a sample coaching session.

17 thoughts on “Lawyer’s Lament: But I Don’t Have a Calling

  1. Jennifer,
    I always love your blog posts and this one is no exception. I am still working on finding my calling, but in the meantime I am volunteering on the gubernatorial campaign in my state. I have met so many great people and I am excited to be working on something I really believe in. Sometimes when I get frustrated with my career progress, I briefly consider going back to being a lawyer. Then I read one of your pieces and I am reminded of all the valid reasons that law is not for me. Thank you for being the voice of sanity that I need sometimes.
    Cecilia

    • Thanks, Cecilia! You are so kind. The work you’re doing on the campaign sounds like it’s energizing—a good indication you’re going in the right direction generally. I can’t wait to hear how things progress.

  2. Gah!!! You are reading my mind. I know my situation is not original, but everything you say strikes a deep chord in me. I’ve got to find a way to feel safe walking away from the money. I’m a single, childfree woman. It’s just me. No one has my back. It’s tough to walk away from security. Even though I hate getting up and going to the office to do this mind-numbing job every single damn day. I’ll write (my calling) when I have more time, I tell myself. Time is not the problem. The problem is the legal job killing my creativity and will to do anything more than have a glass of wine and sit in front of the tv at the end of the day. I’m living frugally, saving more than half my take-home pay. But still it’s going to take a few years before I feel safe making the leap. And in the meantime. Drudgery. I’ll keep reading your posts, and maybe I’ll become less fearful of walking away.

    Thank you for helping me wake up.

    Ella

    • Sounds like you’ve got a good plan going there, financially.

      So here’s your caffeine IV question: What would it be like to let yourself write the stuff you want for 15 minutes a day, now, at the beginning of the day? Kind of like a morning workout, except with coffee/tea and a comfy chair. Think about it . . .

      • At the beginning of the day. That makes sense. Before my mind has been tainted by the day’s drudgery. I’m going to give it a whirl. I have nothing to lose but 15 minutes of sleep. Or of puttering about doing things that don’t need doing. Thank you!

  3. I can’t add much to what has been said in the two previous comments but it is uncanny how every word in this post and these comments resonates so strongly with me.
    Although I have been certain for some years now that I desperately want to quit being a lawyer and leave Law altogether, I haven’t had the “guts” to actually go through with it because I wasn’t sure what my calling was since it had been squashed by all the reasons you mention.
    Thank you so much for writing this and letting me know that I’m not the only one that suffers from this. Your post is a much-needed nudge to actually pursue my aspirations and quit being miserable.

  4. After 13+ years as a prosecutor, associate in a big firm, and seven years with my own firm I’m over being a lawyer and don’t care anymore what contemporaries or my family think. However, the problem I’m having is convincing potential employers I could do a great job for their company as a contract analyst, investigator, or risk manager. I feel my skills are not only transferable, but superior to those without my level of training and experience. Forget merely investigating a claim: I’ve had to prove and/or defend allegations publicly, in front of judge and jury. If that doesn’t teach you how to dot your I’s and cross your T’s, nothing will! However, I feel as if I’m wearing a scarlet “lawyer” around my neck because that’s all I’m perceived as. As a result, I can’t even get a stinking interview for these jobs in which I KNOW I’d kick ass.

    I can’t imagine I’m the only one who has faced this. How does a burned out lawyer get the hiring manager’s attention that my prior experience as a lawyer would make me an awesome candidate?

  5. Steve, I hear this a lot. And as much as it kinda sucks, the real solution to getting past the round peg/square hole problem, which this is, is via personal connections. The HR bots are definitely going to see your resume and say, uh uh. That may even be true for the hiring manager.
    But if that same hiring manager gets your resume via a connection, or from you after s/he has met you in person, then it’s much easier to overcome that bias. This is where using LinkedIn, Twitter and FB come in handy. In addition to seeing who you know who knows someone, you can also do searches on the company, and see if you can find out who does the hiring, or who works in the department you’re interested in.
    Also, attending industry meetings is a great way to make those connections. Every industry has groups and meetings. Trust me. Do some searching, find out what the local ones are, and go to their meetings regularly. Pitch in and get to know people by working on projects with them.

    Hope this helps. Good luck!

  6. Hey Steve, I feel your pain. I am a former prosecutor also. I’ve been in private practice now for 14 years. I’ve wanted to leave for the past six. it all came to a head for me in 2008 during the banking fiasco. I had shifted the focus of my practice (once again trying to find something that didn’t suck the life force out of me). I had been heavy into litigation but found that the pace was not to my liking because it was go, go go! and there was never an end. Always a new case or an old case to catch up on even after a big win. I was doing a bunch of real estate and office related stuff when the banking thing hit. It was like somebody flipped the “off” switch and things stopped almost in the course of a single day. Instead of shifting focus again I decided to take the “opportunity” of no business and just shut it down and do something non-lawyer. I applied for a bunch of contract manager, contract analyst jobs. Even a non-lawyer real estate foreclosure manager job for a bank. I got as far the second interview a couple of times. It always came down to the same thing. People did not really believe that someone would be happy leaving the “wonderful” practice of law behind and do a (near six figure, 8-5) job that I would probably find to be easy. One of the hiring managers was a frustrated “I should have gone to law school” type and had a romanticized view of it. Another had previously hired (years ago) a lawyer for that type position and they used it as a stepping stone to get into the bank’s legal department (not my desire AT ALL). One of those banks ending up being taken over by the FDIC so it’s probably just as well. A few of them were private companies and would have been good jobs. I got frustrated with it and actually quit looking for a couple of years because I decided that nobody was going to hire a lawyer to do a non-lawyer job. Probably not true, but I gave up anyway. This led to depression. My heart wasn’t into rebuilding the law practice so it just kind of stagnated. Not great, but better than any prospect I had before me. It got to a point where SOMETHING had to be done because I was miserable and getting worse.

    I have a brother who left a career in finance and business and became a CRNA. Our father was an anesthesiologist and we were both pre-med at one point and had a bunch of science courses. He makes phenomenal money and tells me that he looks forward to going to work each day. I started taking pre-req courses at night and am nearly halfway through nursing school now. (You have to be an RN before you can become a CRNA.) It turns out that I am by far not the first to pursue such a path. There are many lawyers that have gone on to become RN’s and CRNA’s. There are websites and message boards dedicated to the subject. Men are going this direction too. Actual men. I’m 6′ 3″, weigh 240 and played defensive tackle in college. My nursing class is about 30% men. All of the CRNA’s that my brother works with are men. (Although, one of the anesthesiologists is a woman – and he just married her!)

    I have been able to work this around my legal work by referring out all the litigation and taking only paper pushing type stuff, mostly from existing clients, that I can schedule whenever I need to and not have to worry about a conflicting court appearance. I’m not saying that this has always been my dream. However, if I had the option of going to either job when I left the house each morning I have to say that I would end up at the hospital at least 90% of the time. This is as much because of my dislike of practicing law as it is my affinity for nursing. The two things that appeal the most to me are one, knowing that I’m going to get paid on payday and two, and mainly, when I am AT work, I focus totally on work and do the best I can, but when I leave, I LEAVE it all there. I don’t carry it home with me and work on it until bedtime. I don’t think about it all weekend and on vacation. I don’t get out of bed in the middle of the night to go check on something, etc, etc.

    I am not saying that this is for you. It might or might not be. What I am saying is don’t rule anything out. I never thought I would even consider the path that I am now, but I am glad to be here. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. “There is no box.”

  7. Jennifer, you have articulated the deepest of my thoughts in a very touching and ‘hey…wake up’ manner. Thank you for a beautiful post. Motivating.

    Keith, sincerely appreciate sharing of your story. It is helpful….indeed there is no box. Thank You.

  8. I attended law school after a 15 year career in nursing. I suspected that I would not enjoy practicing law early on, and my instinct was correct. Nonetheless, I gutted it out in a med mal practice for 5 years. Not surprisingly, I crashed and burned (to a crisp). I ended up in healthcare risk management. Fast forward eight years and I’m ready for a change. I’ve considered getting back into law, struggled with the decision actually. After much soul searching, I’ve concluded that that the feeling that I “should” go back to the practice of law is a misplaced attempt to get another chance to “get it right.” I have to learn to forgive myself for going to law school, incurring debt, and then hating being a lawyer. It’s very hard to let it go and move on. I’m still searching for my fit and sometimes I panic about my inability to find my purpose. Long story short, I appreciate your website. Much of what I’ve read resonates quite profoundly. Thank you.

  9. Denise, thank you so much for sharing your story. I think it’s really valuable.

    I am so sorry you burned out of private practice. I have found in my own life, though, that many times the eventual fruits of big, alleged “mistakes,” is that I end up learning a lot that I end up using later. The wait is often hard, I have to admit. In my less groovy and relaxed moments, I get really ticked that the Universe takes the time it does to get around to making things make sense. I want it on MY SCHEDULE, DAMN IT!!!

    Then eventually I calm down, make myself do a gratitude count, get some coffee and a nap (maybe not in that order), and go do something that feeds my spirit in some small way. After all that, I will finally feel better.

    Here’s hoping you find your way to peace and some compassion for yourself as you search.

  10. This really resonates with me, too. I have had a short legal career (graduated 5 years ago) that would seem successful to many people, but I have been very unhappy and anxious the entire time. I pretty much knew right away that practicing law would not be for me, but convinced myself that I would find the “right” job in law. I currently work part time and am able to do that only because of the kindness and generosity of family who let us live in a house for very cheap rent. Now with a young child (and hopes for a second) and a husband who does not have a big salary (although, he is wonderfully supportive), I feel like I need to continue trucking along and to make more money. I have no idea what my calling is and have been in therapy laboring over this for a few years now. Any time someone asks me what I’m going to do next, I practically burst into tears. I wish someone would just give me a solution with a bow on top.

  11. I sometimes ask clients this question, when they have been working on their purpose for a while and seem stymied: What are you afraid to know? Write down any answers that come to you, and sit with them for a while.

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