Dear Jennifer,

I’m a 56 year old woman who graduated law school in 1993. I’ve spent 25 years in public interest law, the first 5 as a public defender and the last 20 as a guardian ad litem for abused, neglected, and delinquent kids. I have enough credit in my state pension plan to retire with a pension check of 60% of my monthly salary.

I am extremely burned out from 25 years of heartbreaking situations and feeling often unable to help these people. I feel like I’m barely a lawyer anymore, and the niche of child protection is so narrow. I need a new kind of work, but I have no ideas and few skills.

Dear Barely a Lawyer:

The first thing I need to say is that YOU. ARE. AMAZING.

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Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

Most people who work in public interest law and deal with heartbreaking situations daily usually don’t last more than a few years. Compassion fatigue and depression drive them out. The fact that you’ve lasted 25 years in this area speaks volumes about your resilience and commitment to those in distress.

Depression Talking

Lawyers who say they lack skills are usually either 1) very new lawyers, or 2) very depressed lawyers. I think you know where you might fall.

If you aren’t seeing a therapist, please do. I may be completely off-base here, but it wouldn’t hurt to find out from a therapist that I’m totally wrong. And if I’m not, then you will get some great support during your transition to whatever is coming next.

More Law?

If you’re after a lawyer gig, one possibility is opening your own family law practice.

Yes, it’s daunting, but many resources exist about how to do it. Your experiences would be highly valuable to a divorcing parent who is worried about their soon-to-be ex’s (in)ability to be a custodial parent. You could be a fantastic advocate for those kinds of divorce situations, or negotiating modifications of prior custody agreements.

Skills, You Have Some

But let’s say you want out of law completely. Even though we’ve never met or talked, I am willing to bet you have most of these skills:

  • Keep composure in high-stress, high-stakes, volatile situations;
  • Mediate in the same types of situations;
  • Successfully handle/juggle competing priorities;
  • Pivot quickly when circumstances suddenly change;
  • Stay focused on end goals of client;
  • Evaluate complicated, emotional fact patterns objectively and compassionately;
  • Keep track of complex details in multiple cases simultaneously;
  • Interact with judges and other public officials frequently; and
  • Staunchly defend/argue client’s needs in variety of contexts.

I’m sure there are many more items that could be on this list. These skills are desirable and highly transferable.

Emotional Intelligence

While you may be thinking, “OK, but doesn’t every lawyer do these things?” the answer is no, they don’t.

Lawyers are usually poor at handling situations where emotions fly fast and furious. As a group, lawyers score below average in emotional intelligence. Many of the skills I’ve pointed out require an above-average amount of emotional intelligence.

Between your social/emotional intelligence and your lawyer training, I could easily see roles for you in non-profits that advocate for abused children, or for related areas like healthcare, justice system reform, or groups that support the less fortunate in our society.

Bypass the staff attorneys roles. Instead, seek out jobs in community engagement/education, or advocacy in state and local government settings. I could see you in an executive director role or operations chief, too.

Get Out—Into Nature

Regardless of what path(s) you decide to pursue, one important thing you need to do right now is start taking better care of your soul.

I understand that you are exhausted and grieving for those you couldn’t save. But have you ever stopped to count those whose lives are better for your actions? That can be very healing.

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Another key way to heal the exhaustion and heartbreak is adding doses of nature to your daily routine. Gobs of data vouch for the importance of outdoor time for calming the mind and lowering stress.

You don’t need to go on hour-long hikes; a visit to your own backyard for even 15 minutes daily can make a huge impact on your wellbeing over a few weeks.

Go Have Fun

At least weekly, do something fun and frivolous for an hour. The important thing is that whatever you do, it’s fun and festive for you. This is not something calculated to get a job or likes on social media, OK?

And yes, you must leave your dwelling. The more you immerse yourself in a different space, the more refreshed you will be. Our homes are comfortable refuges, yes, but also nagging reminders of undone chores and projects. Leave that burden behind for a little while.

Will this be easy? I doubt it. Changing a mindset rarely is.

But will it be worth it? Absolutely.

Stress kills us by triggering health problems that might have lain dormant. Plus it robs us of joy. Who wouldn’t want to trade poor health and misery for a chance at something much better?

Work on healing, gather your courage, and be open to possibilities and synchronicity. You got this.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who has never taken a psychology class, but maybe should to understand her affliction with plaids. She has been coaching unhappy lawyers on career change for a decade. You can email your question, or set up an individual consultation, by emailing her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com