Who’s Designing Your Life, You or Your Law Job?

If you ask the average 3L what they want their life to look like in a year or two, the most likely response is “employed.” Hardly surprising, right? Aside from the iffy legal job market, it really is hard to know what specifically they want their life to look like. Most law students have almost no idea what even a week of law practice is like.

The funny thing is, it’s harder to get experienced lawyers to give a detailed answer to the same question. I usually couch that question to clients in the guise of “If you won the lottery and had zero financial concerns, what would you want your life to look like?” 

tan beach umbrella over plush brown beach chairs on Thailand beach

Image by MustangJoe from Pixabay

I typically get 3 types of answers:

  1. By far the most common is a version of “Live on the beach and do nothing.”
  2. Many times, I hear “Spend more time with family and friends.”
  3. Then, there are those who seem utterly confounded by the notion of freedom: “I don’t know . . . I’ve never really thought about what I could do if I didn’t have to work.”

What is missing from all 3 answers is the idea that you actually have the power to design the kind of life you want. Or indeed, that you can have legitimate preferences that supersede any employer’s desires for your time.

Start With the End in Mind

Design thinking has been popular for a while now, because it makes a lot of sense: Figure out what the people at the receiving end of a solution want and need—in detail—before starting a project. Then, organize your efforts and strategies to get you to there.

Design thinking works in all kinds of contexts. It works in the writing business when you consider what your audience’s background, needs, and likely actions will be after reading your content, before you start blathering endlessly on a topic you’re obsessed by. 

In law, it can work by asking a client what the ideal result in their conflict or deal would look like, rather than simply telling them that they should mediate, litigate, or accept standard contract terms.

And, it works for non-work things, like deciding what you want your life to be like.

What Is Your Ideal Life, Anyway?

I’m reminded of this because Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen died last Friday. He is known in business circles for his work on disruptive innovation, but I know him chiefly for a brilliant article he wrote in 2010, How Will You Measure Your Life? (He later authored a book by the same name.)

Man sitting on workshop floor with wooden guitar parts around, placing glue on inside back of guitar

Image by endri yana yana from Pixabay

One of the most insightful, moving parts of the article was this:

Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.

No matter if you’re at the beginning, middle, or end of your legal career, it’s not too late to design your life. How do you want it to look? 

  • Are professional accolades & expertise your purpose? 
  • Maybe helping and serving others with your knowledge and skills?
  • Perhaps cultivating close connections with family and friends?
  • Moving to something completely outside of law?

Whatever it is, you can start right now to include the most important things to you into your life. You don’t have to dramatically upend your life right away (if ever); start small. 

two women windsurfing on bay with city in background

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Maybe commit to a weekly activity, or dinner with a beloved, and refuse to let your colleagues or your own insecurities pressure you into skipping it, absent a true medical crisis or the specter of imminent jail time. 

If you really don’t know what you want your life to look like, commit to spending some time daily to meditate, write, or talk about that. Your life’s purpose may be fuzzy at first, but the more you focus on it consistently, the clearer it will get.

Or, you can shove that uncomfortable question aside, and let the forces around you shape your life instead. It’s your call.

But I’m rooting for you to choose happy.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer whose purpose keeps unfolding and evolving. She is often annoyed by this, because having a static answer seems so much easier to get to. Eventually, she realizes (for the zillionth time) that going with the flow of uncertainty has led her to the most rewarding parts of her life. 

If you would like help to discern your life’s purpose (for the near future, anyway), you can schedule a session with Jennifer by emailing her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com. 

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 jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to set up a sample coaching session.

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.

Simple Tips for a Less Stressful Lawyer Life

I have been just the teensiest, tiniest bit totally sucked into some local school board politics for the last month or so. And for the first time since maybe 1991, when I graduated law school, I have been channeling my inner, loudmouthed idealist daily. It’s been awesome!

Relax ConceptWhat this has looked like is me attending a lot of board meetings, plus smaller meetings among like-minded parents, lots of emails, and throwing together a totally new blog in 12 days. Plus the other parts of my life, like, oh, work, parenting, singing in the choir, and such.

I mention all this because all this interaction and activity wears me the hell out, frankly. I also have been pretty obsessively thinking about this stuff in every spare moment, plus a lot of moments that aren’t spare.

In many ways, it has felt like I’m right back in the corporate and legal world overload. But this time, I’m handling it better than ever before. I chalk this up to 3 or 4 practices 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

Saddest Lawyers: “I Don’t Even Know What I Like Doing”

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there's iPads for distraction, right?

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there’s iPads for distraction, right?

A lot of you know you hate law. But a lot of you also do not know what you would do if you had free time, except maybe sleep. I’m not talking about taking any steps toward making a career change, mind you; I’m talking about the basic concept of doing something purely for fun.

People who have no idea of how to have fun have been marching along to society’s, parents’, and teachers’ idea of what they should do for a very, heartbreakingly long time. They have become numb to their own desires and their own voice.

Far too many lawyers fall into this category. One-third to one-half of my clients usually fall into this category when they initially contact me. It’s often the result of being a smart kid who does well in school. Those around you think all those A’s should be encouraged; after all, those grades will be terrific on your college application.

And that may be just fine with you, because great grades sure look like the start of the path to a good life, and you like school anyway. In fact, you internalize all this and don’t explore non-academic things that won’t help that college application, like art, dancing, writing poetry, ultimate frisbee, or making goofy videos. Because unless you have some unbelievable gift in a non-academic area, these things aren’t likely to win you awards and praise. They are, sadly, usually viewed as time-wasters.

Except, they’re not. Exploring stuff simply because you’re interested in it is how you get to know yourself and honor Continue reading

What It Takes For Miserable Lawyers To Blossom

The hardest part of a life change for lawyers, whether it’s your career or other important parts of your life, usually is the waiting. In our go-go, get-it-done-NOW culture, waiting is seen as weak, passive, and therefore completely unacceptable.

Punga tree fern frond

Your inner wisdom may be curled up in a ball and rocking inside, but give it a little attention and love, and it will unfurl in ways that will astound you.

Unfortunately, it’s also very necessary for any big change to occur. Miserable lawyers, especially, hate this fact. They fight, they rail, they apply to any job that looks like it will propel them out of their current misery into something new and at least different.

Adjusting to the new is at least something to do. It serves as a fine distraction indeed from facing the harder questions of any real job or life change: What do I really, truly, want?

Note that the question is not, “What do I want that allows me to maintain my career status and income and doesn’t make me miserable?” I get that question a lot; it’s usually from folks who want a menu of 5 things they can do with their law degree that aren’t practicing law. People who can answer that question for you abound, and if you’re not willing to put your heart and your true self into career change, I suggest you contact one of them. Everyone will be happier, at least in the short run.

But if you’re at the point where you’ve tried changing law firms, or even given up law firms for safe alternatives like government or in-house, and still you can barely get yourself into the office, Continue reading

Thawing the Frozen Souls of Unhappy Lawyers

At this point in winter, even people who aren’t miserable lawyers are growing desperate. The eternal cold (except on the odd day when it’s 50 degrees), the oppression of snow, and the stingy daylight are, obviously, going to go on forever. Your life feels frigid, meaningless, and depressing. And that’s if you’re a fairly happy, life-ain’t-bad person.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, plunging, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, radically warming up, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

For unhappy attorneys, the situation feels yet more dire. Your soul was already stuck in permanent winter before the actual cold and dark encroached. Now, getting out of bed and getting to work are sheer acts of will and heroism. More than a few of you may have sneaked a look at your insurance policy’s coverage for being a mental health in-patient, and wondered if you could convince someone you are a danger to yourself or others. Three days away from billable hours and all your other worries sounds like a sweet deal.

If you are at this point, don’t despair just yet. I have some tricks you can use to summon back a few flickers of light. Soon enough, actual sunshine will start to appear, the Heat Miser will again triumph over the Cold Miser, and life will feel a bit better.

1. Consider Hibernation.

Winter is a time of quiet and stillness, and of dreams. If we insist on keeping the same frenetic pace year-round, we miss out on the renewal time that is crucial to long-term, sustainable functioning. If you feel like you need to sleep more, then turn off the TV early, and GO TO BED.

2. Consider a Polar Plunge.

OK, I’m not really suggesting you do one of those crazy jump-into-a-34-degree-lake things. Unless that’s your thing. I am suggesting a plunge into something that makes you stretch and sweat and generally reach a bit, physically.

This can be as simple as 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.