Most attorneys wear the metaphorical career equivalent what I like to call the “won’t survive the zombie apocalypse” shoes. The shoes that are 6” stilettos, with big bows and little else attaching them to the feet. And hell yes, they look amazing. Trouble is, the only place you can really wear these and not break an ankle is in a carpeted office, doing a job that doesn’t require you to do any walking except to the loo. Do more than that, and you risk life and limb. You can’t outrun a toddler. If a zombie of career change suddenly appears and starts chasing you, and you keep those shoes on, you are going down first, before all the people who wear boring 2” wedges, or ballet flats, or even—gasp—Dansko and their ilk. So maybe it’s time to go shoe shopping for your alternative legal career.
Reframing is all about finding the good thing in the midst of the whirling sucking vortex of despair. At first, it is a really, really difficult mental habit to build. But it is a habit, and it’s possible to train yourself to do it. Actually, reframing is vital to building a happier, healthier life and career. Your life at work won’t drag you down nearly as much if you reframe it.
Humanity is not really a quick study, when you look at our emotional history. We keep facing the same problems of spirit, just in different guises, and we have for millennia. And lawyers for the most part have become lawyers because they make the same flawed spiritual choice that the Israelites did several millennia ago.
For attorneys, one of the most toxic beliefs from the past is that you must know exactly where each job will lead, and that there is an identifiable, predictable path to career success and happiness. For some relatively few people, the associate-to-partner track works beautifully. For most attorneys, it sucks. I talk to plenty of seasoned partners who are miserable, and plenty of young associates who desperately want something different. The time we live in now favors adaptability to change, and demands a creative response to new situations. Applying the same old solutions simply doesn’t work. Hence, attorney frustration and misery.
Working excessive extra hours to get that pile of money generally displaces two things: renewal and connection. In other words, the things that often give meaning to our lives, and that fuel our bodies and spirits, are sacrificed on the altar of money. That’s a pretty high cost.
So we have an entire profession that is showing up drunk to work and not performing anywhere near their potential as a result of working way more than 40 hours a week. If the intoxicating substance were alcohol or drugs, lawyers would be advising clients to either fire the intoxicated employee or send them to rehab. Instead, lawyers crack the whip on themselves. It’s nuts.
This fact of 6 good hours of brain work has some fairly serious implications for lawyers and their worship at the maw of the Billable Hours God. As I’ve said before, lawyers act like they are factory workers selling billable hour widgets, but really, their value is in the brilliance and quality of their work, not the amount of hours spent with nose to grindstone. With routine 10-hour days and 65-hour work weeks at BigLaw and elsewhere, lawyers overall are exhausted, making them functionally as impaired as a drunk, and therefore doing a crap job for their clients.
Many, many lawyers go straight through from college to law school, so they never get a sense of what work boundaries should look like or feel like. So what you think is normal—because it’s what you see in law firms—is actually highly dysfunctional. You might not understand that having boundaries between work and the rest of your life is important, because without them, you don’t have a zone of safety. You are subject to the whims of others, who usually don’t have your best interests at heart.
In case you haven’t already spend a boatload of billables reading, analyzing and gossiping about Sidley partner David B. Johnson’s
What if you pushed “making nasty idiots happy” to the very bottom of your priority list? What if “being perfect” got pushed off your list entirely, and got replaced with “being pretty darn good under the circumstances”? With those pointless time-sucks gone, what space would open up in your life?