All Former Lawyers Are Bitter!

Gosh, I feel I owe all you folks wanting to leave law a big apology. Not until I read Steven Chung and Jordan Rothman’s insightful—nay, psychically accurate analyses of why lawyers leave law—did I realize I have been leading folks astray for more than a decade. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

Here I thought that I was helping unhappy lawyers find work:

  • that was much better aligned with their talents,
  • that helped them be who they wanted to be in the world, and
  • in environments that didn’t make them want to start drinking by 11am daily.

But I WAS WRONG. So very wrong. I learned from Chung and Rothman that actually, I’m just bitter, and all my clients who want out of law are, too. I am so very grateful to have been set straight.

yellow traffic sign with Oops! on it, with a cemetery and trees in the background

You Chose That Stress, Baby

After all, when at least half of attorneys surveyed say they would not choose law again, obviously nothing is wrong with the structure and culture of the profession. It’s—‘DOH!—bad personal choices by those who went to law school.

I should have known that the people who “hate the stressful, adversarial nature of the profession,” are just not tough enough. People who don’t welcome the chance to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with opposing counsel and yell at them are not who we need in law. I mean, seriously, how did I not know this?

You fret that colleagues won’t even acknowledge your existence in the hallway? Hey, everyone is there to work, not win congeniality awards. Being pleasant to colleagues is not billable.

Why should anyone be stressed if their boss gives the same assignment to them and another colleague, without telling either one, just to see who will do a better job? Who goes to law school and doesn’t expect to participate in the Hunger Games, right?

All of my spouting off about ways to manage conflict without competition and adversarial pissing contests is just psychobabble, and I am aghast and horrified to have led so many of you astray.

There’s nothing wrong with your colleagues, either. The fact that many of them cannot even meet your eyes or manage a smile in your direction when passing in the hallway? Hey, everyone is there to work, not win congeniality awards.

Being pleasant to colleagues is not billable. Making social contact can distract you from the billable work you were thinking about on your way to the loo.

I am distraught that I ever suggested lawyers should exhibit some basic social intelligence; I guess I watched too many Brene Brown videos.

Questioning Billable Hours Reveals Your Weakness

Do you bitch about billable hours requirements? I did, too. Turns out, questioning billable hours standards means that the naysayers resent and resist accountability.

I am deeply ashamed that I have publicly questioned the utility and general superiority of the billable hours system, and that I have misled so many by doing so. It is a system that is utterly pure and unadulterated by base human motivations. It certainly cannot be perverted by petty things like padding hours or working inefficiently.

Nor could the billable hours model ever in a million years create disincentives to:

  • Training junior lawyers appropriately (and would never cause senior lawyers to mutter “I don’t have time to babysit junior associates!”);
  • Participating in local communities for selfless (i.e., not networking) reasons; or
  • Achieving a healthy balance between work and personal life.

Never, ever would the billable hours system be used to incentivize a ludicrous numbers of hours worked. All those bonuses based on hours billed would definitely not be worth about $20 per hour worked beyond the 1,900 billed hours base.

Besides, that extra $20/hour really adds up when you compare its value to the amount of time you didn’t sleep, missed seeing your family and friends, or couldn’t do something that wasn’t work, eat, or sleep. You don’t get paid a cent for any of those things, right?

Lazy Pre-Laws

I’m hideously embarrassed I didn’t see that bitter ex-lawyers are people who simply failed to do some basic research about what working in law is like.

If only all these unhappy former lawyers had simply buckled down and done some stinking homework before they took their amazing college GPAs and sparkling resumes to law school!

Man sleeping on branch of large tree. Branch is about 4 feet from ground. The man has dark hair and is wearing gray t-shirt and darker gray cargo pants.
Photo by Zhang Kenny on Unsplash

It’s not like making major life decisions is hard! That’s especially true with decisions that come with a $175K price tag that isn’t dischargeable in bankruptcy.

In fact, it’s easier to make huge life decisions when you’ve never worked more than a summer job or lived on your own. You totally know so much about yourself after living in college dorms or with friends off-campus.

All that mumbo-jumbo about the brain not maturing fully until 25 years old, especially executive function and emotional intelligence—excuses, all of it! Heck, some lawyer columnists make it to 40 without emotional intelligence, and they do just fine!

No Special Status for You, Unhappy Lawyers!

Chung is correct—lawyers are spoiled divas to think they are special snowflakes entitled to silly things like autonomy and a chance to gain competence in their work.

It’s unbearably audacious to expect useful training, mentoring, and to be given an idea of the purpose of their work in the overall project. That kind of bleeding heart nonsense is for ordinary, average people, not lawyers, for crying out loud!

Lawyers are the Army of One—we don’t need no namby-pamby cooperation or collaboration with colleagues.

“Trauma” Is Just the Excuse du Jour

Chung does concede that some former lawyers may have been subjected to more stressful situations than others. But for various career-advancement reasons, “they had to keep quiet about all of the abuse they had to put up with from their bosses.”

But honestly—partners said mean things to you and about you? Who cares, right?! Abuse is just something to shrug off, like a hurricane off a duck’s back. As Chung points out, the very worst part of abuse is that you can’t tell everyone about it. Because then you’re a whiner and complainer, which could get back to the abusers and definitely jeopardize your career.

It’s not like years of verbal and emotional abuse from someone with power over you causes deep, debilitating trauma that requires years of therapy to kinda, sorta heal from.

The Complex PTSD that people whine about if they’ve endured years of office abuse is just more of that airy-theory pop psychology. The tragedy of working among narcissists, sociopaths, and generally angry and hyper-reactive people is that you can’t talk about those people over drinks. That’s all. Big deal, right?

If you’re any kind of decent lawyer that’s a small price to pay.

Law Is Nothing To Recover From, You Ninny

Obviously, Chung is correct that calling myself a “recovering lawyer” is really just a weird attempt at self-deprecating humor.

It’s laughable, really, the idea that law has left deep psychological scars on anyone, or irrevocably altered their view of the world.

It’s true, I’m just a weirdo! All those decades of post-practice disturbing dreams—in which I live in terror of being found out for not entering my billable hours promptly—just proves it.

It’s laughable, really, the idea that law has left deep psychological scars on anyone, or irrevocably altered their view of the world.

All us bitter recovering lawyers had a skewed view of the world before law, and law corrected those silly ideas about fairness, compassion, the greater good, and all that other touchy-feely nonsense that decent lawyers rightly reject as frippery.

In light of these revelations from Chung and Rothman, obviously this whole coaching unhappy lawyers gig is a sham. Maybe I should start doing stand-up comedy about that?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer whose gig on the Island of Misfit Toys is still going strong after 22 years.

If you would like one day soon to join all the other legal misfits on the island, and maybe even wear that Recovering Lawyer label with pride, you can schedule a sample session with Jennifer via jalvey@jenniferalvey.com. She can get you running down the path that’s ideal for you.

Leaving Law Bingo

You know those drinking game bingo cards that pop up when it’s presidential debate time? For a long time, I’ve recommended that same tool for clients who know they are walking into a contentious or uncomfortable situation, and they just can’t avoid doing it.

(Not so much for the drinking aspect, mind you. Though there is a version of that, see below.)

Bingo winner in Montreal, 1941. One day, you'll feel this excited about winning your own personal bingo game.

Bingo winner in Montreal, 1941. One day, you’ll feel this excited about winning your own personal bingo game.

I remain amazed at how well this technique works to defuse anxiety, so I thought it was high time to share it. The holidays are filled with potential (likely?) landmines of unmet expectations, both yours and those foisted on you.

Rather than get all worked up about Aunt Gertrude’s insensitive comments about your weight, your lack of children, your lackluster career or your lack of $1M in the bank, put her likely carping on the card.

Here’s one sample card. Instead of Bingo, I call it Uh-Oh.

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 12.36.34 PM

You may have family or friends who say some of these things to you, and other favorites that get lobbed frequently. Use your very own, special pet phrases and make this yours to enjoy.

Why does this work? It doesn’t spoil the effectiveness, so I’ll just tell you: Psychologically speaking, it creates a detachment from the comments. Rather than experiencing them as truth, your mind treats the comments more like neutral data. When it comes to hurtful, untruthful things, detachment is very, very good. It keeps you from expending energy in a hopeless defense. Because most likely, you’re not going to change many minds, no matter how brilliant your reasoning is against the assertion. Plus, it might help you see how these comments say much more about the speaker than they do about you, or any alleged truth.

Instructions For Use:

There are many ways to play.

  1. You can keep your own, private scorecard, and check off each box. When you get a row, reward yourself with a small treat. It can be food, time away from the madness, a trip to the bookstore, other shopping, etc. You get the idea. If you are stuck in the situation long enough to rack up checks in every single box, a large treat is in order. Think vacation, a somewhat extravagant purchase, or heck even a couple months of career coaching.
  2. You can make your card, and a friend can make one. During that precious family visit, text your friend whenever you get a checked box. Have your friend do likewise. Agree on a prize beforehand for whoever gets a row first. Maybe lunch somewhere nice. Maybe a massage.
  3. If (and only if) you are not social media friends with anyone likely to trigger a checked box, you can always post the running score, and the moment you complete a row, on Facebook or other social media. Avoid naming names, though.
  4. Of course, there is always the drinking option. I’m not a fan of misusing alcohol to numb out. But if you are laughing about the card and drinking anyway, go ahead and take a swig whenever you get a checked box.

You don’t have to save the Uh-Oh game for high drama like holidays. You can use it for difficult conversations with semi-unreasonable people, annual reviews, or even your inner critic’s sniping. Anything that can precipitate anxiety, or even exasperation, is fair game. Get creative, and have fun with it.

I’d love to hear if this tool worked for you. Drop me a line and tell me about it.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering attorney who still hears the voices from her long-ago escape from law practice. She just thinks they’re amusing, now. If you need help laughing at the voices inside or outside of your head, schedule a sample coaching session by emailing Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

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, Continue reading

Shedding Light on Lawyer Creativity

When I first read The Artist’s Way (still the best book on creative recovery out there), I kept searching and searching my memories for those Creative Monster moments. Those are the ones seared in your memory, where someone makes you feel about 2 inches small over some creative effort. The teacher who crumples up your precious doodle and throws it in the trashcan, and lectures you about not wasting time. The person who sniffs at your very first attempts at writing poetry as “not exactly Shakespeare, is it?”

Play by the moonlight, or anywhere else. Just play, and the light will follow.

Play by the moonlight, or anywhere else. Just play, and the light will follow.

Except, I couldn’t really dredge up anything. I had no huge scarring experience to heal from. I felt so wimpy—why couldn’t I just get over my fear of doing something highly creative, of writing the novel I long to write?

Hell, I coach people all the time about vulnerability, and I practice it in many ways. I am pretty darn good, I must say, at detaching from a lot of society’s judgments and not feeling “less than.” I often go without makeup (at 47, this is getting more and more daring!), I don’t value myself by how much stuff I have or whether or not I go on exotic, glamorous-sounding vacations.

But yet, the fear ran deep. And I kind of despised myself for being unable to just get over it. (Yep, we all have our issues, life coaches included.)

Peering into the Past

A few months ago, I got together with both of my sisters and their kids. It was the first time in a couple years we had all gathered at one of our houses. We embarked on a game of Quelf. (If you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it. Lots of wacky yet intelligent fun, great for a wide age range.)

In Quelf, one of the possibilities is drawing a card that requires everyone to come up with synonyms to a word. The word on one particular turn was “night.” There was the predictable “dark,” and a few other equally predictable synonyms. Then it was my turn.

“Inky,” I said.

“WHAT????” exclaimed both sisters. “How is that about night?”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

“No, how is ‘inky’ about night?” they demanded.

My inner dialogue went like this: “Am I wrong? Maybe they’re right, maybe it’s a big stretch. Maybe I am just weird. No, wait Continue reading

What Flavor Is Your Fear, Miserable Lawyer?

All those happiness experts often talk about confronting fears as a way to happiness and resiliency. I don’t disagree with that thesis, exactly. But lawyers are so completely fueled by fears, small and large, that it’s helpful to learn how to discern what flavors your fears come in. That way, you’ll know which ones are worth tackling.

Some fears are actually useful. The ones you have when a car is heading straight toward you at 40 mph, or when a gun is brandished. Those are real, direct fears that require immediate action for your safety and survival.

business guy scared by large shadow

Is this the main flavoring component to your fears?

Then, there are the ones that we rationally know aren’t deserving of the level of fear we give them, like my fear of spiders, or someone else’s fear of heights. We know we’re being a little (or a lot) crazy, but still, we’re scared.

Or, maybe we’re scared of having to do something that we are actually really bad at and don’t have any interest in doing. Like, my deep-rooted desire to never, ever again get into a roller coaster simulator at the science center. While some 10 year-olds think it’s awesome, I did not find it awesome to have to hold my nose, squeeze my eyes shut and pray like hell I didn’t throw up before the end of the simulation.

But mostly, these kinds of fears don’t keep us from finding a fulfilling life and career. The fears that keep us from a satisfying life seem completely rational and logical. You could probably explain them to your best friend or maybe even a therapist, and you wouldn’t sound like a nut-job. Heck, you might even get some enthusiastic nods of agreement.

Continue reading

Leaving Law, Warts and All

Taisha Rucker gives a searingly honest, uncomfortable account of her journey out of law in Full-Disclosure: How To Quit Practicing Law With No Savings, Massive Debt, No Supportive Spouse, and Not a Single Clue About What’s Next. While I think most unhappy lawyers could benefit from the wisdom she acquired along the way, many of you may simply freak out at the thought of lurching along on an uncertain path as she did, and quickly put the book down. That would be a mistake.

Full Disclosure coverRucker does not give the step-by-step plan that most unhappy attorneys, formed by the punch-list lifestyle, deeply crave. After all, aren’t we supposed to set a goal, figure out the steps to that goal, and then march, march, march?

That’s how most lawyers got to law school, whether or not law school was the goal. Lawyers, especially those that go to the top tier schools, are masters of achieving the goals of good grades, leadership positions that look good on the application, and that myriad of things that schools and corporate America say we need to do to be successful and have a future. At least, one in which we will not be living under a bridge.

Yet what we often need to do is stop moving, and listen to what our true selves want and need. Rucker focuses on this crucial, yet usually derided, part of planning our career paths and lives.

The Original Plan

Unlike so many of my clients and readers, Rucker did not go to law school because she lacked any better idea of what to do with herself after graduating college with some stripe of liberal arts degree. No, she knew since she was 11 that she wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer.

This was her plan: Continue reading

Please, Unhappy Lawyers, No “New Job This Year!” Resolutions

I know what you did over the holiday season, you unhappy lawyer, you. You decided that the solution to your misery was simple: FIND A NEW JOB, THIS YEAR!!! I won’t say that a new job can’t make you happier, because of course it can. The question is, will it make you happier just to be in different circumstances, or will it make you happier past when the novelty wears off?

list of things to do: buy coffee machine, repair roof, buy face cream, paint bathroom, then get job

A better list of priorities for the new year. Coffee is #1, as it should be.

I’ve had many clients over the years who were bound and determined to simply get the hell out of their current misery. It almost didn’t matter to them what the new gig was, as long as it wasn’t their current one that had them working constant all-nighters on meaningless deals or TROs with toxic colleagues. They were so unhappy they just knew that anything was better than their current hell. And in many ways, they were right. By the time they had gotten to that soul-depleted, sleep-deprived point, even time in a mental hospital would have been better. At least they wouldn’t have to bill for that.

What happened next for these clients? They took the first job that was remotely palatable, usually not in a law firm. It varied in the details, but typically, yes, they felt better . . . for a while. That while may have been a few weeks, or a year, but in the end, they weren’t actually a whole lot happier. Less stretched past their limits and less exhausted, yes. But not so much happier, as just less abjectly miserable.

Whoo-hoo, what a fabulous New Year’s resolution result: I’m not abjectly miserable, Mom!!

Don’t Hold Out for Your Dream Job

Mind you, I’m not advocating staying in your soul-destroying current gig until you find that dream job, because

  1. I doubt you know what it is yet,
  2. You probably don’t have all the experiences and skills for it right now, and
  3. It may not be time for it yet, according to the wisdom of the Universe (see also, 1 and 2).

What I am suggesting is that you put some serious thought into what that dream really looks like, feels like, tastes like, and sounds like. Journal about it. Make a vision board. Read obsessively about jobs that seem interesting, even if you’re not remotely qualified.

Do it now, not when you have some spare time—because you know perfectly well that if you wait for your life to settle down, you will never take the time to dream. Life rarely settles down when you want it to. By the time it does, you’ll be so exhausted that all you’ll do is sleep. Or take the first job offered, regardless of whether it makes an ounce of sense in the long-term.

The Bridge Job

Once you’ve got a good feel for your dream, work back from there. Think of it as a trip from Boston to Key West. You’ll need transportation and a new wardrobe, and some snacks. You probably won’t need that snow-blower and wool fisherman’s sweaters once you get past Richmond or so. You’ll need to stock up on sunscreen and bathing suits, and learn how to make mojitos instead of Irish coffee. If you garden, you’ll need to learn all about dealing with sandy, not rocky, soil, and about a whole new array of plants and flowers. Bye-bye, tulips, hello, beach sunflowers and palm trees!

In more job-oriented terms (because I know how some of you hate metaphor when you can’t figure out the basics), if you want to write a novel but haven’t written anything but grocery lists and motions to compel in years, you would maybe take a class in fiction or poetry or journalism. Or, if that seems too daunting, a class on improving your business writing skills (better website copy, anyone?). If you want to run a non-profit, maybe you look for an in-house job where you would gain management experience, or volunteer for a group that you like and needs fundraising help.

The point is, if your dream job and life seem like a million miles from where you are, your next job probably won’t be your dream job. But with some dreaming and then some thinking, you can make that next job one of the bridges that gives you more of what you need to get you there in the end.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys discern their dreams, and then figure out the supply list and map for getting there. If you’d like to get some advice for going on your own journey, email Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for a discounted sample coaching session.

Unhappy Lawyers and the Myth of “I’m not creative”

When I say “use your creativity” to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, I get some highly revealing responses. Sadly, a common reaction is “I’m not creative.” I blame traditional schooling, Martha Stewart and Pinterest, and our consumerist society for this false belief. Every human being is born creative. At its most basic, creativity is solving a problem for which there is no known (to them) solution, or for which the current solution isn’t working. The artistic expression part of creativity is often just icing on the cake. Icing is yummy, mind you, but it’s not the whole cake.

School Conformity Nukes Creativity

With their focus on correct answers and conformity, schools tend to squash the creativity of all but the most abundantly talented creatives. As Dan Pink points out in his book A Whole New Mind (which you need to read if you haven’t), when children in 1st grade were asked if they are artists, all the hands flew up. By 6th grade, none of the hands went up. (pp. 68-69)

rubber ducks in colors

Education’s idea of creativity. Hey, the ducks may be in rows, but look at those different colors!

My own belief is that tween social pressure—when, developmentally, conformity pressure crescendos—exacerbates the message kids have gotten from most of their teachers: There is one correct answer, and one correct way to get there. Creativity is weird, and should be hidden from view.

Standardized tests ram this message down everyone’s throat. I’ve seen this pressure to conform thinking to a standard pathway again and again in worksheets my 4th grade son has brought home over the years. Far too many times, Continue reading

From Star Student to . . . Poet?

“She was chosen as one of the best high school students in the country, to visit the President of the United States. Her parents assumed that she would go on to be a doctor or a lawyer, so when she announced that she wanted to be a poet, they weren’t sure what to make of it. ‘She said, ‘My father swallowed once, and said, ‘Well, I’ve never understood poetry, so don’t be upset if I don’t read it.’ ‘ Her teachers at college told her she was throwing her education away if she didn’t study something more practical.“ The Writer’s Almanac, Aug. 28, 2013.

photo of Rita Dove

Rita Dove, one courageous woman who chose not to do the expected and become a lawyer.

“She” was the now-renowned poet Rita Dove. At the time she chose the path of a poet,  and not that more practical path as a lawyer or doctor, she was not a Pulitzer Prize-winner. She was not the first African-American Poet Laureate of the United States. She was not the winner of so many awards and honors it takes paragraphs to list them all.

Dove was young, and the daughter of a man with a master’s degree in chemistry. He had worked for a time as an elevator operator, because companies wouldn’t hire a black chemist. Eventually he became the first African-American chemist hired by Goodyear Tire. Dove’s mother was a high school honors student who never went to college, but always encouraged her children in academics.

But She’s Never Been A Lawyer

Why am I writing about this, a blog about lawyers and their career struggles? Hearing Dove’s story, I was struck by the amazing courage it took to decide on poetry as a career. Dove later told the Chicago Tribune, “As a young black person in college I was expected to be a professional. . . Writing poetry was unthinkable then. I was writing but not showing it to anyone yet because I couldn’t see myself as a writer.”

Dove’s struggle is no different than that of many lawyers wanting to leave law to Continue reading

Smart Lawyers, Dumb at Life, Part 2

I stand by my assertion that lawyers are, by and large, a bunch of quitters. Not in the sense that accusation is usually hurled, mind you. At work, lawyers tend to be tenacious and will dig their heels way in when they think they’re right, i.e., every other minute at the very least.

A magnanimous gesture, lawyer-style.

A magnanimous gesture, lawyer-style.

No, what I mean is that lawyers quit when the going gets tough at anything they’re not already pretty good at. Things they tend to suck at, like relationships, compromise, and dreams, for starters. Because they’re so used to being smart and good at the smarty-pants stuff, they’ve set themselves up for motivation by external validation, and haven’t worked much at resilience.

Resilience is, essentially, the ability to bounce back after a failure or set-back. To have hope in the face of disappointment. Looking back, I can count on my hands the number of lawyers I’ve known who are resilient at anything but work.

But if you’re performing well at work, why does that matter? And surely, career coach, you’re not saying we should all go and find a job that we suck at just to learn to be resilient? Continue reading