Perfection, Depression and Lawyers

There’s been a lot written about depression and suicide in the wake of Robin Williams’ death. But nary a pixel of that coverage about depression and suicide has been devoted to lawyers’ struggles with these demons, with the notable exception of Lawyers With Depression.

What's your favorite mask to wear when you're feeling depressed, anxious, and wishing you could get out of law?

What’s your favorite mask to wear when you’re feeling depressed, anxious, and wishing you could get out of law?

The complete blind eye in the legal press about lawyers and depression mirrors the wholesale denial among most lawyers that we have a whopping problem, Houston:  (Skip ahead if you know these statistics by heart.)

  • 18% of lawyers exhibit signs of clinical depression, 3.6 times that of the average population;
  • 25% of lawyers exhibit symptoms of anxiety, the close cousin of depression;
  • 18% of lawyers who practice 2 to 20 years have substance abuse problems (nearly twice that of the average population); after 20 years of practice, the substance abuse jumps to 25% of lawyers; and
  • Lawyers are 4th on the list of professions whose members are most likely to commit suicide.

Indeed, a therapist I know once told me that between the elevated depression, anxiety, and substance abuse rates among lawyers, he estimates that 80% to 90% of the profession is suffering from Continue reading

The Summer Reading List for Miserable Lawyers Who Want to Change

It’s officially summer, though here in the South, it has been dripping hot for at least 6 weeks, probably more. The heat and particularly the humidity long ago fried my brain. But I digress.

If you’re working on a big deal, big case, or big project, you probably don’t much care that it’s summer. It’s not like you’re going to get to enjoy it, right?

Even if getting away to the beach isn't in the cards, a book could take you there, or lots of other places uninfested by lawyers.

Even if getting away to the beach isn’t in the cards, a book could take you there, or lots of other places uninfested by lawyers.

Yet even if that’s true, you can pretend, to a certain extent. One way I’d suggest doing that is creating beach reading time for yourself, even if your only travel plans are to and from the office for the foreseeable future. If you really want to embrace the idea, put on your bathing suit and find an umbrella to sit under. At the very least, get a cold drink, stick a tacky paper umbrella in it, curl up on the couch, and put your nose into a book for a few hours.

Most of the books listed below aren’t new, and aren’t necessarily bestsellers. But they’re absolutely worth your time.

1. Be Who You Are

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown.

If you really want to crack the code of your unhappiness, Continue reading

Jumping Without a Parachute: The Lawyer Approach to Getting Shit Done

When the work starts to pile on, lawyers not only fail to put on their oxygen masks, they head for the cabin door, rip it open, and jump out. From 5,000 ft. And then they wonder why they end up drained, dispirited and depressed about their jobs and their life.

What lawyers envision their 80-work weeks achieving . . .

What lawyers envision their 80-work weeks achieving . . .

You think I’m engaging in just a teeny bit of hyperbole? Possibly. But I swear there is a secret lawyer code of conduct that requires adherence to this routine. Nearly every lawyer I know instantly shifts to this behavior when they get that big, time-suck of an assignment, or when that looming deadline breathes down their neck with noxious, warm fumes. Yeah, been there, done that.

5 Steps to the Loony Bin

So in case you never got the secret memo, here’s what you do:

Step 1: Immediately start working much longer hours. Ignore any fatigue or feelings of being overwhelmed. Do not let yourself slack off. You have shit to do, and lots of it!!

Step 2: Within a few days, and certainly within a week, slow down or stop any exercise. You don’t have time for that kind of self-indulgent luxury.

Step 3: At the same time you’re scaling back or stopping your exercise, also start skipping lunch. Or at the very least, do not under any circumstances take a break and leave your desk for 45 minutes to get lunch and let your mind rest. You can make a quick pit stop by the vending machine Continue reading

Why Are There So Many Asshole Lawyers?

When people ask me why I left law, I usually tell them that my personality didn’t fit into law, that I found it excrutiatingly boring, and that I really wanted to do something I liked. Which is all true. I also sound less bitter than if I l tell them that frankly, I couldn’t deal with all the asshole lawyer behavior. That was the bottom line for me.

The most consistent complaints I hear from clients about law firms are the toxicity and dysfunctionality of firms, and billable hours. Those two things are actually related, but for now I’m going to focus on the asshole side of things. Fun!

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

For the 25 or so years I’ve been in and around law, the disdain the majority of law firm lawyers have for feelings and values has done nothing but grow. I recently read that as far back as the Stone Age, aka the 1950s,  this has been a problem for the legal profession. No less a luminary than Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School in the 1950s, said, “Many lawyers never do seem to understand that they are dealing with people and not solely with the impersonal law.”

One of the big drivers of lawyers’ inability to appreciate and deal with emotions stems from a core skill of any competent lawyer: the ability to analyze problems in a detached, objective,  and logical manner. This is the Thinker default, in Myers-Briggs personality terminology. In other words, being dispassionate and logical is the default, the comfort zone for the vast majority of lawyers. (The opposing end of the Thinker axis is the Feeler, who are primarily concerned with values and what is best for the people involved.)

According to research of Dr. Larry Richard, a legal consultant, psychologist and former practicing attorney himself, about 70% of lawyers are Thinkers. Some place that number even higher, near 80%. I’d take a wild guess that for law firm leadership, it’s more like 90%. The high percentage of Thinkers controlling law firms, and the almost universally dysfunctional work environments of law firms, are not just an accident or coincidence.

Lawyers Are Emotional Idiots

Just because people default to Thinking as their preferred problem-solving tool doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings, or that they cannot use a Feeler approach to solve problems. But what it does mean is that they often are not very adept at situations that require facility with managing feelings.

Another way of looking at the source of law firm dysfunction and toxicity is via the Calpers Personality Profile. I’m not any kind of expert on it, but Ronda Muir, author of The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers (an excellent read), is. She pegs something important about law firm dysfunction when she says:

[S]kepticism is a trait that ranges from being cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and self-protective on the high end to accepting, trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt on the low end.  The general population has an average score of 50 on skepticism, while among lawyers it is consistently the highest scoring trait, averaging 90.  This trait can be very useful in the practice of law, particularly litigation, tax and M&A.  However, most people tend to use their strongest traits in every arena of their lives, so this high level of skepticism is also carried over into partnership meetings, team deliberations and committee work (as well as personal relationships) that may call for more trust and collaboration. (emphasis added)

Also, when it comes to emotional intelligence, Muir points out that lawyers often don’t perceive their own, let alone others’, emotions. So “the emotional data that they are analyzing day in and day out is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate Continue reading

Special Snowflake Illusions: Lawyer Edition

So this last couple weeks, my life has been turned a little upside down. But not as much as my friend, Mark’s, life has. Mark was moving to California from the East Coast, and stopped in Nashville along the way. We sent him on his way last Tuesday morning, expecting to hear from him that evening that he’d made it to his next stop.

Maybe you're the special snowflake that will walk the Golden (Handcuff) Path of law. Do you even want to? Photo credit: Snowcrystals.com

Maybe you’re the special snowflake that will walk the Golden (Handcuff) Path of law. Or keep your law job. Or maybe you’re just hiding behind an illusion.
Photo credit: Snowcrystals.com

Instead, I got a call a few hours later. Mark had been in an accident caused by a patch of ice, in which he spun around 360 degrees, then flipped over twice. Miraculously, Mark was the one calling me, and not from the ER. He had walked away with a bruise on the arm, a scratch on the head, and in the end, barely even any aches. He stayed with us for a week as he sorted the tedious details out. That was the part that turned my life a little upside down, just by having another person in the house for a week. (And not that I minded!)

Mark is out a car, but of course he could have paid a far, far higher price. Things like this always make me think about how much we carry around illusions of safety and certainty. Even though car accidents are the #1 cause of death for people under 44 years old, we get in our cars every day without a microsecond of reflection that we could be taking our last ride.

The Safe Path of Law

And yet, there are so many of you out there who are utterly convinced that staying in law is a path of safety and certainty, and that you would be wildly irresponsible Continue reading

Compassion for the Asshole Lawyers in Your Life

I imagine your first reaction to the concept of compassion for the asshole lawyers surrounding you is “Are you fucking kidding me? They are making my life a living hell, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?” Well, not exactly. Feeling sorry for someone and feeling compassion are two different things. Compassion is rooted in empathy, while pity objectifies and distances us.

boy with angry sneer on face

A mean little kid, or a kid who just got told by his step-dad that he wasn’t included in the lavish vacation plans to Disney?

But drawing that distinction is avoiding the bigger question: Why should I care about people who are mean, nasty, and making everyone around them miserable?

The Buddhist response, roughly, would be that we are all one, and being angry with others is like being angry at your finger for having gangrene. For most of us, that stance is simply too unfamiliar and uncomfortable to adopt, at least right this second.

In more Western terms, this quote might get at the heart of compassion toward those who are assholes:

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” –John Watson

For example, I just had to go turn up the heat from 66 to 68 degrees, because my husband turned it down. The fact that he turned down the heat pisses me off, a lot. This is one of our longstanding, ongoing battles. Despite my thick wool sweater over a long-sleeved T-shirt, two scarves, and wool socks, my hands and nose were freezing. (Yes, there is a reason I live in the South.) My instant reaction is to judge my husband as not caring about me and my needs.

But when I can step back and exercise some compassion, I can see that he is worried about money, and wants to make sure we as a family have enough savings to tide us through any uncertain future. And, his money fears are not entirely rational, but stem from a not-quite-impoverished childhood in Peru. He is, in many ways, like the survivors of the Great Depression.

I don’t necessarily agree with his judgment that the way to accomplish the worthy goal of increased savings is through keeping the house frigid, but by exercising compassion toward him, I can at least step back and go from Defcon 4 to Defcon 2. This actually helps me, by lowering my heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and anxiety levels. That’s a pretty nifty and immediate benefit.

Feeling compassion for those who oppress and hurt us, right in that moment, is the work of many, many years. It’s a sort of Continue reading

Working Hard Won’t Solve Your Career Problems, Unhappy Lawyers

It’s heresy to suggest that working hard won’t solve your problems. Especially in the dysfunctional billable hours culture that lawyers have constructed for themselves. Since my job is to be a heretic, though, I’ll just say it: Hard work is not going to get you out of the miserable mess of a career you’re in.

While I rail a lot about how working too many hours makes you about as useful as the average lush in your job, this rant is not about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about when  you need to cut your losses. That’s right: when to actually quit, bail out, cut and run—you get the idea.

The Theology of Hard Work

But first, let’s focus on the whole theology of hard work. I’m not actually suggesting that hard work doesn’t have a place in your life. It absolutely does. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl, author of Flow and several other superb books, talks about how hard work is what gets you to mastery, to the place where you are so deeply immersed into your work that you lose time, in a very connected, joyful way.

guy in front of desk drowning in paperwork

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Problem is, most lawyers don’t work on hard on stuff that they even like, let alone love. They just grind through the task list. Think about it: Is there anything, even one little item, on your to-do list today that you’re looking forward to? Something that lights you up a tiny bit? Or is it more like a list of mildly to completely loathsome tasks that lie before you?

That, my friends, is why the theology of hard work fails us so often. There are certainly many things in life we must do that don’t bring us particular joy (dishes. laundry and cleaning toilets are at the top of my list). But when the vast majority of your time and energy gets sucked into a list of loathsome tasks, you become depleted rather quickly. Is it then any wonder that it’s hard to get out of bed, and go to face that list of loathsomeness?

So when I hear clients say, “But I’ve put so much time and effort into law, I don’t just want to walk away,” I quietly gnash my teeth. In my head, that statement translates to “But I’ve put so much time and energy into killing my soul, I can’t stop now!”

Value First, Then Work Hard

For hard work to work, you need to value the thing you’re pouring that effort into. There has to be something about it that feeds you, nurtures you, and has meaning for you. And please, when I say has meaning, I’m talking about your very own, personal definition of meaning. Not your parents’, your schools’, or society’s definition of meaning. If the reproductive cycle of newts holds meaning and fascination for you, then THAT, dear reader, is what you need to work hard on. There is a reason for that attraction, and your job in life is to follow the Universe’s lead and figure out more about it.

Do you have to quit your job to follow that pull? Maybe. Maybe now, maybe later. My crystal ball is on backorder (dammit), so I really can’t say. But what I can say is that refusing to follow a call means you are putting all your hard work into the wrong thing, and that is a sure-fire recipe for misery.

If you cannot scale back the demands of hard work on stuff you hate in your current job,  or if you cannot add things that bring you some slices of joy, then yes, it is probably time to get serious about cutting your losses. Figure out the direction of your dreams, and then find a job that will put you closer to them. Find a job that requires hard work on something that you can look forward to.

Work hard on what matters to you. For everything else, there’s phoning it in. Or outsourcing!

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who works on hard on her writing and other creating, and on helping unhappy attorneys discern the thing that would light them up if they worked hard on it. If you need help with finding your inner light, schedule a discounted sample session by contacting Jennifer at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

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.