The Happy Horizon Keeps Unhappy Lawyers Stuck

I’d be willing to bet more than 80% of you live with a Happy Horizon in your head. The Happy Horizon is the fantasy you use to convince yourself that all your angst over your job is just a temporary blip, rather than the actual contours of your daily existence.

Here’s how it goes: My life will be fine as soon as

  • this case is over
  • this motion gets filed
  • this deal closes
  • the case settles
  • winter is over
  • summer is over
  • I find a boyfriend/girlfriend/mate
  • I don’t have to work for Ms. Asshole any more
  • I have a little time to rest
  • I can take a vacation and clear my head

While sometimes, these things could in fact be true, the chances are strong that they’re a delusion. Because another case or deal always comes along and eats your life. There’s always something icky about the weather. Depending upon another to make your life complete means you have given up some important part of yourself to the whims of another.

asphalt road
Oh look, there’s your happiness, right on the horizon! Shouldn’t be much further now.


Work, particularly within the law culture, is generally filled with assholes; even if you find a project without them, how long is that going to last? Law culture respects few boundaries, and little piffles like sleep and vacation are for gutless weenies.

Things Must Change! Soon, Really Soon . . . I Mean It

Maybe you know this, intellectually, but like the famous frog in water slowly coming to boil, you don’t think the problem is urgent enough to take some action. After all, you’re tough (you hope), and you can take a little stress.

So what will it take to move you to act? Where is your line in the sand?

Maybe it’s hitting rock bottom with alcohol or prescription drug abuse. Maybe it’s missing a child’s birthday party. Maybe it’s getting a really frightening diagnosis. Maybe it’s a spouse or significant other walking out the door.

Or maybe, you’re thinking, it would be good to avoid that level of dire circumstances. But you’re so busy . . .

3 Tools To Bring Your Life Into Focus

If you know you need to get out of law, or at least on the path out, you might need to use something tangible to keep you focused.

Morning Pages are a great tool. Every morning, you write for about 20 minutes, before you get ready for work or check email or ANYTHING besides getting a beverage. Empty your complaints, small and large, onto the page. Pour out your worries, petty as you think they are. No one else is ever going to see these, so good grammar and spelling are utterly optional and not especially recommended.

And yes, simply whining every morning can seem pointless. But after a while, when you start to get tired of hearing yourself talk about the same damned shit for the 43rd time, something will click. You’ll have that “I’m not gonna take it any more!” moment. And you’ll start doing something.

Keep a graph of how you spend your time, for a couple weeks at least. This certainly doesn’t need to be precise, and definitely not kept in 6 minute increments! Feel free to draw it, rather than mess around with Excel, which most of you fear anyway. Graph paper could make this easy. Track things like

  • time spent working
  • time spent commuting
  • hours spent with family (but not while multi-tasking with work)
  • time spent with friends
  • time spent exercising
  • time spent sleeping
  • time spent just doing something frivolous and fun
  • time pursuing a hobby
  • time reading for pleasure
  • time spent in your community
  • time spent on social media
  • time spent watching TV
  • time spent on chores

Color code each activity you decide to track. And be honest with yourself. No one has a perfectly balanced life. Your ideal life probably doesn’t look a thing like my ideal life, unless you are a textile and craft fanatic who also likes horses, local politics, singing choral music, writing snark, and helping people figure out their big, important issues. And even if that is you, you probably wouldn’t like my taste in TV.

The value of this tool is seeing, at a glance, where your time actually goes. If you don’t like what the graph tells you, you have a better chance of seeing where to tweak it, if you have been brutally honest in making your record.

Life Wheel. People who aren’t obsessed about careers, and even some who are, know that there is more to life than their job. This tool allows you to map your satisfaction with 8 different areas of the human experience:

  • family & friends
  • significant others/romance
  • fun & recreation
  • health
  • money
  • personal growth
  • physical space
  • career

CTI-Wheel-of-LifeFor each wedge, assign a value from 1 – 10, with 10 being the best you could possibly imagine and 1 being the worst/most miserable. Place a dot on the appropriate concentric circle. When you’ve completed evaluating all 8 areas, connect the dots. What kind of shape do they form—a perfectly round circle? (I know, that’s hilarious.) Maybe a circle-ish shape, with a few areas at the same level, and a few more one higher or lower? Or maybe some crazy jagged shape?

The question to ask yourself, when viewing this shape, is:

If this were attached to my car as a wheel, how bumpy would the ride be?

A corollary question: Do I like the feel of that?

Not everyone enjoys a perfectly smooth ride, after all. Sometimes the bumps add excitement and zest. But most people don’t care to have their teeth jarred constantly, either. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this. The only right answer is the ride that suits you best.

Whichever one of these tools you use, make sure you encounter it daily. You might post the graph or wheel on your mirror or at your computer. Just move it around weekly so you don’t get blinded to it. You want that daily, visual, visceral reminder that you don’t want your current life, and you need to change.

happiness horizon memeBy starting to take steps to change your hours, you change your days, and then your years. Don’t let happiness simply dance on your horizon. Get closer, a few hours at a time.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who uses tools like those discussed here to keep her moving with, or at least reasonably close to, her ideal life. If you need help with that, contact her at to set up a sample coaching session.

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