How Do I Even Start? A Power Tool for Unhappy Lawyers

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.

Fog on the AlpsBut 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

One tool I love using with clients is the VIA Survey of Character Strengths and Values. It is a nifty, free questionnaire that has been scientifically validated. It measures character traits that

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:

  1. Creativity, ingenuity, and originality
  2. Love of learning
  3. Curiosity and interest in the world
  4. Spirituality, sense of purpose, and faith
  5. 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)
  • Fairness 
  • Prudence
  • Self-regulation 

Some other strengths that are valued, but not as highly:

  • Love of learning
  • Leadership
  • Perspective
  • 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.

Resources

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 jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to set up a discounted sample coaching session to get started.

15 thoughts on “How Do I Even Start? A Power Tool for Unhappy Lawyers

  1. This coming May, it’ll be 2 years since I “left the law.”

    Specifically, I graduated (or was released from) law school in May 2013. I then mustered all the courage I could to make a stand to decide I wasn’t going to study for the bar because I’m not a lawyer in my heart and the practice of law would kill my soul. I wasn’t going any further with it. I then set my fears aside as best I could (by blocking out the enormous amount of student loans I owe) and identified what I would be happy doing. I like to be outdoors, especially in the wilderness. And I don’t mind working with my hands and getting dirty. I love to hike.

    About a month later I was cleaning bathrooms for the National Park Service on the east coast as a means to get my proverbial foot in the door. And I was grateful to be doing so. That temporary federal job led directly to another; this time with the Forest Service doing trail work. In turn, that job led back to the Park Service, doing trail work once again.

    As I type this, I’m living in Alaska where I work a seasonal-permanent maintenance job for the Air Force. And I love it.

    I would have never thought any of this possible because I was almost convinced I was sentenced to a lifetime of doing something I have no passion for (the law) because I’d invested so much time, money, and work. That I had no choice.

    But I was mistaken.

    *PLEASE* be true to yourself and leave the law if it’s not in your heart.

    Mike

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I did the test and my results were:

    1. Social intelligence
    2. Leadership
    3. Love
    4. Fairness
    5. Humour
    6. Creativity
    7. Honesty
    8. Perseverance
    9. Kindness
    10. Appreciation of beauty and excellence
    11. Teamwork….etc.

    I am a lawyer in a big firm and I have a great team who are quirky and really like me. I like them too and my social personality means im making great relationships with senior assiciates, partners and clients (I am a junior lawyer). Yet I feel so empty. I’m also an ENFJ, loved art in high school and was a straight A student who got honors in law at a top university. Anyway I got offered a job in sales and im afraid to take it as I don’t want to disappoint anyone! (My dad is a well known lawyer as well and he wants me to work in a safe career – maybe government). I know that doesn’t sound rational but I can’t stop feeling that way!! I really love your blog and I was wondering what you think I should do?

    • Even if I gave out client-tailored advice on my blog (I don’t), I wouldn’t dream of offering an opinion about your next move without knowing a lot more.

      But I’ll make a couple general observations.

      First, be very honest with yourself about how many of your top strengths (the top 5-7) get regular use in your work. If it’s less than 3, you will feel empty, angry, and/or generally dissatisfied with life and work. For real satisfaction and fulfillment, you need at least 4 of your top strengths in your work in a big way.

      Second, most lawyers worship the ground that stability walks on. However, what most haven’t noticed is that the number of jobs that actually offer real stability in this day and age are vanishingly small. Government can and does have RIFs (reductions in force, i.e., layoffs) at every level. Fortune 500 companies routinely have layoffs at least annually, if not more frequently. Getting into academia on the tenure track is extremely difficult, and if you accept an adjunct position, you WILL be grossly underpaid, as well as subject to whim of the school administration. Even in Lawyerland, there are thousands of out-of-work or underemployed attorneys.

      In short, we live in unstable times. Clinging to the notions that worked 40 years ago doesn’t change reality, but it does make it more wrenching to get through inevitable change.

      I’d suggest 2 books, both by one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Dan Pink. One is A Whole New Mind, which talks about how the economy has shifted in the last 50 years (from manufacturing-dominant to innovation-dominant), and what that mean for jobs and careers. The other is To Sell Is Human. It has a nice discussion of what selling means in the age of ubiquitous, pocket-accessible information. It’s also a great book for those who need to sell ideas to friends and colleagues.

      Good luck!

  3. Thank you very much for your thoughts. I will definitely look into the books that you suggested. I know everything that you say is correct and I have thought those things too for a while now. I just need to be brave and trust my own feelings rather than try to please everyone else who is close to me – no matter how strong their opinions are. 🙂

  4. My top strengths are as follows:

    Love of learning
    Appreciation of beauty and Excellence
    Kindness
    Love
    Perspective

    I work in house for an insurance company. Is it any wonder that I am absolutely miserable?

    I have said for the last few years that I would leave law when I figured what else I want to do. For my own health (mental and physical) and that of my family, i think it’s time I figured that out. Thanks for linking to this survey – it has been eye-opening. Looking forward to exploring your site and resources (I found you after googling “recovering lawyer”, ha!) and getting intentional about this journey of discovery.

  5. I am at that moment where I feel that I will implode if I do not get out of the practice of law. My strengths are forgiveness; honesty; fairness; love of learning; bravery. I am not feeling brave, just very confused about what to do – trying to visualize myself in another job after twenty years in this one is very difficult. it is remarkably easy to know what it is I do not want to do, but am finding it very challenging to know what i do want to do

  6. 1) Kindness and generosity
    2) Fairness, equity, and justice
    3) Social intelligence
    4) Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
    5) Leadership

    I am right there with you Kate, and I am only five years in. From day one I knew that there was something about my law firm’s environment/culture/personalities that caused me to be very uncertain, isolated, anxious, and fearful. In hindsight, the issue was that I do not work well with people who bully their underlings for the sake of bullying all the while leaving the underling scared haven been yelled out for some unclear or even absurd reason and left with no expectations or constructive feedback on whatever it was that made the guy act like a jerk in the first place.

    Just last week I decided to abandon the law firm track and figure out what’s next. What will be fulfilling and interesting to me. The problem is, I have no idea where to start!

    • Hi Scooter and Kate. Thanks so much for sharing. I completely empathise with both of you! I “left law” a little over a month ago and am now in the slightly scary position of trying to work out what it is I want to do, with no real clear ideas or directions. Jennifer – thank you for the links – I will take the VIA test and see what comes up. I took a free online form of the Myers Briggs rest and it seems me and law aren’t that compatible at all. Scooter and Kate – I would love to hear more about your thoughts on self discovery and finding the right path for you, if you don’t mind sharing! Best wishes!

      • Good for you. Leaving law for me was probably the most difficult step, and though the acute stress was gone, things also got pretty difficult for me as I was trying to figure things out/get it together. Here’s what I concluded though, finding something you enjoy is good, but I think trying to find that perfect fit can also need to a lot of frustration. The reality is that people can do a myriad of jobs, they can get good at many of them, and simply love it.

      • Hi Will! Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. I wasn’t sure anyone had read my comment. I totally understand you mean about things getting difficult in trying to figure it out or get it together. I feel the same – that the acute stress (great phrase to describe it!) is gone but replaced with a different sort of anxiety. I am trying to be forgiving of myself as I try to work it out and know there is no perfect job or magic answer. My hope is just to try something new, see how it goes and take each day and week as it comes….! Great to hear your story about being an app developer – that’s really so cool. Thanks for sharing! Thanks again for your reply and very best wishes!!

  7. I really like ‘building’ (writing, design, woodworking, and now coding), and it wasn’t something that I discovered about myself until after law school when I started working as an associate. As you can imagine, being at a firm as an associate 12+ days wasn’t good for my body or my mind. I zig zagged a lot between jobs after I left, and now I’m a software developer making iPhone apps – go figure.

  8. I am not a US lawyer (though I got a law degree from America). But I decided to leave the law practice to teach in a law school in 2008. The usual jokes about being “found out” (about mistakes) or feeling existential question was actually happening to me during my two years as an IP lawyer in Bangkok. I worked from 8am to 9pm everyday and we ever had to work half day on Saturday. And I was always working on big national holidays when people were supposed to travel home to see their families. Working culture in a big law firm was also super stressful; basically your colleagues and your boss were not happy people and that affected you. At one point, the fear of being scolded for mistakes kept me awake for three days. When you didn’t have a wink of sleep for 3 days, you started thinking in an existential way: why am I still not collapsing? Does a human being really needs sleep?

    A big law job was cool; you represent big companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi. But you also know how greedy your big clients can sometimes be. At that point, you became envious with other people’s job and wanted out. If I had a family then, I would hang on to it. My father worked in academia (a professor of dentistry) and he knew of a vacant teaching position. So when I told him I wanted a new job, he helped introduce me to people in the faculty of law.

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