Lots of you have hit that part of the year when you know, deep in your soul, that you do not want to be a lawyer any longer. And maybe, you’ve realized that you should never have started down the law path. But law is pretty much all you know; you’re floundering in the uncertainty of what you want to do instead.
Many of my clients are in this boat when they contact me. I encourage them to explore past interests, especially those from their younger years, regardless of whether those interests seem to have career potential. Knowing yourself, and listening to your likes and dislikes, is key to figuring out a happy, fulfilling future.
But some clients, like many of you, don’t have any hobbies, outside interests, or even a faint inkling of what else they would rather be doing with their time. They can be so burned out that their highest and strongest desire is to sleep for a week, go on a massive Netflix binge, or take a vacation to somewhere that utterly lacks an internet connection. I get that, because I’ve been there, too.
But once you’re tanked up on sleep and stopped your incessant thinking about work, numbing out isn’t really helpful. You need to head toward something, somehow.
A Really Powerful Tool: Strengths
are universal across all aspects of life: work, school, family, friends, and community. The 24 strengths fall under six broad virtues (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence) and encompass our capacities for helping ourselves and others.
The survey takes about 20 minutes to complete, and gives you your very own, individual ranking of the 24 strengths. Most of the time, clients look at their list and tell me, “Yes, that is totally me.”
Sometimes, clients see themselves in a whole new light. One client, who had worked in a big law firm and then in an attorney general’s office, found that “creativity” was one of his top, or signature, strengths. At first, he thought, “but I’m not artistic!” When he read the description of creativity, though, his world changed in an instant:
Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it.
He realized that opening a business aimed at an emerging type of health and wellness was highly creative, and went off to do just that.
How Does It Work?
The genius of focusing on your top, or signature, strengths, is that when they are all included significantly in your career and life, you feel fulfilled and happy. (“Significantly” means around 3/4 of your weekly time.) A lot of angst just disappears from your life. Things just feel so much easier.
Just for grins, we’ll use my own signature strengths to walk through how this works. My signature strengths are:
- Creativity, ingenuity, and originality
- Love of learning
- Curiosity and interest in the world
- Spirituality, sense of purpose, and faith
- Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
[I’m a little different from most of my clients, and probably most people, because 4 of my top strengths fall into 1 category: Wisdom & Knowledge. Make of that what you will. ;)]
Let’s look at those strengths in a typical lawyer role. I would of course use critical thinking. And there’s a certain amount of love of learning involved whenever you learn the facts of cases and research the issues. People who can groove with research generally have love of learning in their top strengths.
There is a little bit of creativity involved in writing motions and briefs. OK, a microscopic amount. Legal writing is highly formulaic and resistant to change; it’s usually the antithesis of deep creativity. It’s more like highly paid technical writing than anything else.
Curious people often ask “what if?” or “I wonder . . . .“ While questioning of evidence, etc. is encouraged in law, that curiosity isn’t tolerated in a very broad way. Curious people like to experiment—with ideas, plans, methods, and all manner of products, office supplies, design, and stuff generally. Hence my obsession with tweaking the fonts and colors in Word when I practiced. (See also, boredom.)
Typical lawyers, however, do not want to experiment. They want to know the most efficient, likely way to get from A to B. And you need to demonstrate that it works, preferably with 3 or more examples, thankyouverymuch.
When I moved from law into writing and publishing, it was incredibly freeing. I got to interview people without having a highly detailed outline. I could follow interesting ideas and see where they went, and IT WAS PART OF MY JOB! I had much more latitude to write as I saw fit, because the structure of journalism was far more flexible than legal writing strictures.
Journalism was great because I could exercise creativity, curiosity, love of learning, and critical thinking. Four of my top 5, all in my day job in large quantities.
I couldn’t believe how much lighter I felt in my new job. I got to drop the lead-filled albatrosses I’d been schlepping around in law firms. At the time, I thought it was just because I got out of dysfunctional, toxic law firms and got to write.
That was true. But now, I also see that I felt close to blissful on many, many days because my job functions aligned so well with my signature strengths.
How Can I Make a Living on Love?
A lot of clients get puzzled because they possess signature strengths that don’t sound very commercial, like Love, Forgiveness, or Appreciation of Beauty. How exactly can they make a living from a top strength like one of those?
Part of the reason for that reaction is that they’ve been in an environment that values a pretty narrow set of strengths, and devalues almost all of the remaining ones. I’d say the typical strengths that lawyers as a group value are:
- Judgment/critical thinking
- Perseverance (*kind of; see below)
Some other strengths that are valued, but not as highly:
- Love of learning
- Appreciation of Excellence
The remainder of the Via Strengths aren’t valued highly by most lawyers, although there is a certain amount of lip service paid to some of them. If your top strengths are ones that seem non-commercial, you’re going to have to get way outside the lawyer comfort zone. You may need, for example, to focus on very people-focused careers like counseling, sales, or other collaborative, team- and values-oriented work.
The Thing About Perseverance
I put a big asterisk next to Perseverance, because on the whole, lawyers don’t persevere well in anything but the things they are already comfortable with, or feel some compulsion to see through to the end. For example, if they don’t get a motion finished or a contract drafted, there will be some dire consequences.
Perseverance does, though, have a significant relationship to industriousness, i.e., hard work, and we all know how lawyers feel about that. It’s a religion; the more billable hours, the better your moral fiber.
In a job search situation, though, I often see a huge disinclination to persevere. It often comes out as “well, that one resume I sent to the kind of job I really want didn’t work out, so I guess that’s a sign I should look at other options.”
(Side rant: You’re not allowed to say “it’s a sign to give up” after ONE STINKING EVENT, OK? If you’ve sent out dozens of resumes, found some ways to do that thing you’re crazy about in non-paid ways, gone on dozens of informational interviews, and had quite a few actual job interviews for the kind of position you really want in your heart, then, and only then, are you allowed to say that it’s a sign.)
Interestingly, the list of lawyer-valued strengths touches 5 of the 6 overarching categories for strengths; Wisdom, Courage, Justice, Temperance, and even Transcendence all have at least 1.
The missing category? Humanity.
I know, I know. I just validated every lawyer joke ever told.
Now, I am willing to be proven wrong here. In fact, I’d love it. But I just have not experienced, nor had any clients or friends tell me, that any of these traits were regarded as important in their evaluations, or in their professional interactions with other lawyers:
- Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated; being close to people
- Kindness [generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, “niceness”]: Doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them
- Social Intelligence [emotional intelligence, personal intelligence]: Being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations; knowing what makes other people tick
So if your top strengths are all of these, I can safely say you’re miserable in law.
Otherwise, it’s likely a mixed bag; you have some of the lawyer signature strengths, and some that are not those at all. This blog post on the Via Character Strengths website can help with that. Basically, once you intuit which of your top strengths is your defining strength, you organize your other strengths around that one.
Strengths and Personality Both Matter
One final note: Character Strengths are not the end-all and be-all of your career analysis. They are excellent at telling you what kinds of work will be a good fit. It is entirely possible, though, to be doing the right kind of work, but in the wrong situation. Often, Myers-Briggs can help you discern what is wrong with your situation.
For example, I teach art classes for 6 – 11 years olds in the summer. It’s got creativity in spades. Plus, I get to be really curious, and often learn a lot, about different kinds of projects we can do. I really enjoy it in many ways. But I am always, utterly overwhelmed after just an hour and a half of teaching.
It would be easy to say that maybe I don’t like teaching, but I know that’s not true. What I don’t like is the amount of energy, i.e., stimulation, that groups of young kids have. My Introvert personality can take about 10 minutes of young kid loudness, energy and general busyness before needing a cool drink, a soft pillow and a dark corner. After that, I start hitting overwhelm. Now, since I only teach a couple of these types of classes, and only once a year, I just grit my teeth and do that Southern “paste a smile on my face” thing.
If I had a whole job like that? I’d be turning in my resignation pronto. Or, engineering a mountain of quiet, down time in between the loud times.
You can take the Via survey for free in a couple places:
The Authentic Happiness website, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania (go to Questionnaires and find Via Character Strengths)
The Via Character Strengths website.
I have a slight preference for the Authentic Happiness website, because once you register, they store your results, and you can take a bunch of other cool surveys there as well. You can look at how your answers change over time, which I love.
Now that you’ve got a shiny new tool to play with, go have some fun with it! I’d love to hear if it worked for you.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who loves helping other lawyers who feel like they live on the Island of Misfit Toys find their true homes. If you’d like help in that journey, email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a discounted sample coaching session to get started.