Top 3 Limiting Beliefs Most Lawyers Cling To—Do You?

People often mistake their thoughts and beliefs as actual truths. Yet it’s often not so. For example, we all believe that murder is bad, that we shouldn’t commit murder, and that anyone who commits murder should be punished.

Oh, except if it’s self-defense. Or it’s a soldier killing an enemy. Or it was an unforeseeable accident. Or if a helpless victim kills her tormentor after years of abuse, or . . .

You get the point. Our beliefs are not necessarily the gospel from on high, let alone the entire truth. Yet to hear many lawyers, you might think that these 3 beliefs are, indeed, handed down from above.

1. Work Isn’t Supposed To Be Fun, That’s Why They Call It Work

When you really break down this belief, you find that its roots are both from medieval society, and from America in the 1950s. No, really. 

In medieval times, most people were serfs/peasants/not royalty or landed gentry. To get by, emotionally and mentally, it helped if you did not have big dreams and aspirations above your station. The likelihood that you would be able to rise above your birth status was almost nil, so why encourage your children to dream about that? It would have been cruel.

Once democracy started dethroning royal regimes, it was more reasonable to aspire to something better. Maybe even something you enjoyed and could make some money doing.

People, especially unenslaved white men, were no longer tied to the land as their sole means of income. People moved around, seeking freedom and money. But then, this little trend called the Industrial Revolution happened. And it started dominating the modern economy, so that by the 1950s, manufacturing was the economic engine of America.

As Dan Pink points out in his brilliant book, A Whole New Mind, a manufacturing economy requires a huge amount of compliant behavior, and highly repetitive, perfect work. The number of people who enjoy that kind of work environment is pretty small, compared to the total workforce. 

By conditioning workers to believe that work isn’t supposed to be fun, employers convinced rebellious and unhappy workers that their expectations of work bliss were the problem: Work isn’t supposed to be fun!

neon light signage on wall

Photo by Christopher Farrugia on


The thing is, we haven’t lived in a manufacturing-dominated economy since the 1970s. We now live in an innovation economy. That means that the people who will make the best living are the ones who don’t follow the rules slavishly, and who tailor their lives to cultivate their creativity, i.e., problem-solving.

Newsflash: Having fun is one of the chief ways to foster creativity. With such rapid change in the business world, every company needs creativity. Ergo, work actually should be fun regularly.

2. No One Will Pay Me for Doing What I Love

There is a grain of truth in this. Because the truth is, no one will pay you for doing every single thing you love. For example, I post all kinds of snarky cat and grammar memes on my personal Facebook page. I love doing that! But sadly, no one has leaped forward with fistfuls of cash to ensure I continue doing it. I’m OK with that.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get paid for something you love to do. Plenty of people have:

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Bill Gates & Steve Jobs
  • J.S. Bach
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Marie Curie
  • Usain Bolt
  • Oksana Baiul

Plus, there are all the people in the world who like their jobs and would never pick a different one, but whose lives don’t make the headlines.

The Japanese have a fascinating concept to help discern what our ideal work is: Ichigai. It’s much easier to comprehend in a diagram:

ichigai venn diagram

Some cautions: Many lawyers get tripped up on the getting-paid part of the diagram. That’s because they are most familiar with fairly traditional, predictable ways of getting paid. Folks, it is not 1999. Entrepreneurship is having a heyday.

Before you decide you can’t possibly be paid for what you love to do, read at least 25 stories of unlikely startups that are making money. For example, pet cafes. Or take a look at the Experiences offered on AirBnb.

N.B.!! If you have long-term trauma in your past, or have worked in a toxic law firm environment for several years—realize that there may be unseen barriers for you. I strongly urge you to talk to someone who specializes in trauma recovery as you consider your future plans. After all, life throws enough barriers up, and you don’t want to be your own biggest barrier, through no fault of your own.

3. I Have No Marketable Skills Aside from Practicing Law

This particular belief can drive me to drink! I know it’s rooted in depression and anxiety, but still. 

Let’s review:

  • You achieved academically for your entire academic career through college.
  • You’ve probably had some jobs or volunteer experience along the way, in which you learned more things.
  • You made it through not only 3 years of law school, you probably passed the bar as well.
  • If you are working in law (or have), you have incredible survival skills.

And you want to tell people you don’t know how to do anything that isn’t law? Seriously??

man wearing red leather jacket

Photo by Ricardo Augusto on


Off the top of my head, here are some things I’m pretty sure you know how to do (and I do not even know you):

  • Think critically. We need only take a look at the news to see that this quality is sorely lacking in the world, in businesses, medical decisions, politics, and on and on.
  • Problem spotting. You know enough about how the world works, especially the legal and government structures, to have a Spidey sense about a looming issue.
  • Research your bum off. Like, digging through 30 or 40 of the top search hits, not just the top 10 (and going down many rabbit holes).
  • Evaluate the credibility of research findings, of sources, of people’s testimony or statements.
  • Sort through a huge amount of information quickly, to find the important facts/documents/statements/theories.
  • Assign value to factors in a decision. In other words, you can bottom-line with the best of them.
  • See the forest and the trees, depending upon what the circumstances call for.
  • Solve complex problems. Because seriously, lawyers rarely get hired for the things that are easy to fix.

A fabulous place to dig around for skills and talents you already have, but don’t know you have, is a Department of Labor site call O*Net. Look in the Find Occupations area, for example, at the Lawyer information and data. See how non-lawyers view what we do. This site is a freaking gold mine of information on all kinds of jobs, despite its 2007 appearance. Wander around it, and get informed and inspired.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who believes in coffee, chocolate, and Kentucky bourbon. When she isn’t pursuing her unpaid passions for gardening or making things, she helps unhappy attorneys get their groove back. To set up a sample coaching session with Jennifer, contact her at 

When Leaving Law Plans Don’t Work Out: Moving to Plan B

Editor’s Note: We welcome Nick Lindsay, a solicitor from London, who shares his experiences with leaving law and dealing with what came next. Enjoy!

When you’re sitting at your desk and thinking about leaving the law, you want your next step to be perfect. It’s only reasonable. After all, you’re leaving a career that you spent years of your life on, and probably a considerable chunk of money as well.

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry] ”

—Robert Burns, To a Mouse

The problem is, even a perfectly planned, low-risk next step could go wrong. For those of you considering something very different, the chances of your plan working out may seem remote.

This, though, is something to embrace and accept rather than to fear, as I hope my own story illustrates. Even when things don’t go to plan, opening yourself up to new opportunities can be incredibly beneficial.

Road sign with options for different plansPlan A: By the Book

I’m a UK corporate solicitor who trained and practised in the City of London. Like many people reading this blog, I wanted to branch out and try something different. For reasons that seemed crystal clear to me at the time (though slightly less so now), I decided that an online furniture store was the plan for me.

Whilst still working in the law, I wrote a business plan. I taught myself basic website coding; I visited furniture fairs and networked with furniture designers; I worked on the logistics, marketing, sales and administrative side of the new business. In short, I did everything that the websites and the books told you to do before setting up a new business.

I was prepared and confident that it would be a success. I quit my job and launched the business.

As you can probably guess, the business failed. In fact, it never really got off the ground. I won’t go into the detail, partly to save me from too much embarrassment, but largely because it would take too long. Suffice it to say though, a lack of capital and a lack of deep industry knowledge were probably the largest reasons for the failure.

Thank Heavens for Plan B

For a while this flummoxed me. Luckily though, I did have a fall back plan that had been germinating in my mind. It involved me returning, not to the law, but to a related industry: company secretarial services (or corporate secretarial, as it is known in the U.S.).

Whilst in private practice, I had used a variety of company secretarial firms and had been hugely unimpressed with the quality of service they delivered. So, along with a business partner, I launched Elemental. We had the aim of delivering the quality of advice and support in company secretarial services that I was used to delivering at a City law firm. I knew the clients and the law firms and I knew they were willing to pay for a quality service.

This is meant to be the part of the story where everything goes well and is a huge success. However, even when things go well, they still rarely go to plan. Although the core of the business plan worked, we were struggling to gain the volume that we needed to grow the business. Clients were happy, but there is only so much that you can charge for company secretarial work. We therefore weren’t achieving the revenue that we needed to.

Less Planning = More Flexibility

However, in many ways, the fact that I had spent less time planning Elemental allowed us to be more flexible with what the business looked like. We were less committed to a single way of working.

When a client is happy with your work and trusts that you will deliver, they often ask you to do other work, even if it’s not in an area that you are actively pushing. If we were comfortable doing the work, we’d happily oblige. After we’d been asked to provide the same service to a number of clients, we’d refine the offering and market it to all of our clients who might want it.

In this manner we’ve been able to grow our business into areas that we know our clients want help with, rather than trying to make a plan for what we think our clients want. As a result, we now provide a range of successful services, including accountancy and tax services, legal advice, HR support, Process Agent and Escrow Agent services.

Elemental does not look much like the business described in our original business plan. Planning is a useful process, but the plan needs to be adaptable, as things will always change.

Even if you’re not starting your own business, your life after leaving law is unlikely to follow the plan you’ve made for yourself. So try and keep your options open and a flexible approach, rather than worrying too much about a 5- or 10-year plan.

Nick Lindsay is a director of Elemental, a UK based corporate and company secretarial firm. He still practises law for some clients, but the majority of his time is now spent managing the business, in particular looking after clients and staff. You can reach him via the Elemental site.

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

How Ignoring Feelings Makes Lawyers Look Like Idiots: The Donald Sterling Edition

Sometimes, Myers-Briggs realizations about lawyers hit me over the head. Like last week, when I watched lawyer commentators on The PBS NewsHour talk about Donald Sterling and the possible consequences when his racist diatribes became public.

The day the scandal broke, NewsHour interviewed 2 lawyers from academia: Michael McCann, Director of the Univ. of New Hampshire’s Sports and Entertainment Law Institute and legal analyst for Sports Illustrated, and Kenneth Shropshire, Director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative and a Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics  of the University of Pennsylvania.

Some lawyer personality traits can make attorneys look like doofuses.

Some lawyer personality traits can make attorneys look like doofuses.

McCann, who is white, was first: “It’s outrageous that someone would hold these views in 2014.” Good start. Then he continues, “The NBA has to approach this under the rules of the league, and ensuring that it doesn’t take any steps that prove to be wrong.” We’re worried about the NBA’s contracts, first and foremost?

Shropshire, who is black, came out swinging with “I think what is important at this moment is for the league to really recognize that this is a moment in time where they have the opportunity to make the rules right.” Um, the rules? Oh, such a Thinker lawyer point of view.

McCann then dredged up the horror the NBA could face with a wrong step: “The league could also pursue a more radical approach by trying to force him to sell the team. But the league constitution, which is the key legal document at stake, doesn’t likely give the NBA that authority. And if it were to pursue that path, Donald Sterling could sue the NBA and not be leaving any time soon.” Noooo, not a lawsuit! Anything but that!!!

And then Shropshire goes on to raise another subject important to lawyers: Money! “Well, the immediate economic effect on the team will be negligible. And it really will not have that much impact. But Michael makes a good point. The idea that it could last for the long term, that that could be pointed to as a reason to at least move forward and try to divest this ownership interest.”

Thinking Too Much Gets Lawyers in Trouble

Now I am sure that both McCann and Shropshire are quite excellent lawyers and decent human beings. I am sure that personally, they were disgusted and appalled at Sterling. But did ANY of this inform their views? Continue reading

How Pessimistic Attorneys Are Like Whining Dogs

Pessimists are better at lawyering than optimists, Dr. Martin Seligman tells us in his 2004 book Authentic Happiness. That doesn’t surprise me, because the essence of lawyering is looking for the downside and trying to protect against it. The better you are at imagining those downsides, the better you are at your job.

Muzzled dog

Don't let pessimism muzzle your life and career dreams.

But there is a high cost of pessimism on life happiness and functionality, as Seligman discusses at length in his earlier work, Learned Optimism. Pessimists are more prone to depression (hello, lawyers have a 3 times higher rate of depression than the general population) and ill health, among many other things.

Also, pessimists don’t persevere at the same rate as optimists, which means pessimists often don’t achieve goals that are achievable. Like, say, finding Continue reading

You’re Miserable? That’s Great News!

If you’re miserable at work and you got past my headline enough to read this far, I want to give you a high five. I’m not sure I would have read on when I was in the midst of grinding career misery. Misery was not my idea of a great time.

present wrapped in black

Misery feels dark, but it can be a gift.

What inspired the headline is some emails and comments I get from the golden handcuffs prisoners. They aren’t happy, for sure, but they aren’t desperately unhappy, either.

And so they continue to lead their outwardly successful, inwardly unrewarding life for lots of good-sounding reasons:

  • The mortgage I just signed on for,
  • My family’s standard of living would take a nose-dive if I left law,
  • My kids’ tuition for private school,
  • My family would think I’ve lost my mind if I left what most people dream of achieving, especially in this economy.

What these prisoners don’t have is the gift of misery. Continue reading

Savoring Your Life Even When It Sucks

When people tried to talk to me about appreciating my life, and I was hating most of it, I wanted to smack them. Hard. And then shriek and carry on a bit about “can’t you see how sucky my life really is???

So I get it if you’re rolling your eyes about now, but I hope you’ll bear with me anyway.

foil wrapped chocolate hearts

Mmmm, chocolate. What do you like savoring? Image courtesy

Savoring is really necessary to a fulfilled life. But it’s a lost art in much of our modern lives. It seems a simplistic solution to a complicated problems: What do you mean, I should just pay attention to good things, and my life will get better? Ha!

But savoring works on a couple levels.

First, of course, is the actual moment–the luscious taste of some really excellent chocolate, the feel of silk against the skin, the sight of mist rising off a lake, the sound of  a cello played well. Or, insert your own favorite sensation. Pay exquisite attention to what you’re experiencing, with every sense you can. Focus. Continue reading

There’s More Wrong Here Than a Personality Mismatch

One of my dear friends is working her way out of law. Now, for most of my friends, this would not be surprising. But for this particular friend, I was completely staggered. She has the perfect personality for law. I don’t mean that as a slam. I mean that she is able to keep her cool in trying circumstances, doesn’t get overly ruffled by emotional or even mean outbursts, is very smart and very capable. But she’s had it.

Why now? Because she’s fed up with getting shit on, to be honest.

The way that law firms, particularly, let dysfunctional assholes ruin the workplace is unconscionable. Continue reading

Educating Lawyers

No, this isn’t a rant about legal education (though I should do about a dozen of those, shouldn’t I?) It’s about how our educational system pushes bright, talented kids to pursue crap they don’t honestly have a passion for. Like, say, law. And all too many of you know how that ends up—talented people who are depressed, miserable, and not really making use of their innate talents and abilities. Bleah, all the way around.

I got to thinking about this when I read a debate in Jay Matthews’ column in the WaPo, over the education of really and truly gifted kids—the kind who read The Hobbit in first grade, and get it; the kind who can do calculus in sixth grade. THAT KIND of gifted, not just smarter-than-the-average student type of gifted.

Continue reading

BigLaw Associates Happy? Puh-leez, part 2

So I finally got around to thinking about how Hildebrandt can come out with a survey that suggests nearly 95 % of associates are not unhappy, let alone miserable. Their exact finding is:

In the region of 45% of associates are highly satisfied with their work, another 50% are more or less satisfied, and only 5% express strong dissatisfaction.

These findings are completely at odds with the reality documented just a year or so ago by the AmLaw 2006 Mid-level Associate Survey (and probably the 2007 survey, I just found the 2006 one first). That survey found that mid-level associates in 2006 were almost exactly as dissatisfied as mid-levels were in 1986, and for almost exactly the same reasons (workload, and the black box of partnership decisions). Yet Hildebrandt expects us to believe that in one year, law firms have changed so radically that nearly everyone is happy.


I can’t speak to what Hildebrandt’s motivations were in doing its survey. Maybe after dishing out very expensive advice to law firms for years, they wanted the firms to think that some of those suggestions had made a difference. I can only guess.

But let’s look at the Hildebrandt data a little more closely. Buried down in the executive summary conclusion (I’m not paying for the survey, but if someone has it and wants to give me more details, please do) is this gem:

Associates are not the unhappy collection of unfulfilled employees portrayed in the media. As a group, they are engaged, interested, and happy with their compensation. Very few show any interest in leaving the profession. On the other hand, only a small proportion aspires to partnership. Many are seeking alternatives.

Um, if so many are seeking alternatives, shouldn’t that be alarming to law firms? Human nature being what it is, I doubt that all those seeking alternatives have a Zen-like acceptance about the likelihood they won’t make partner.

And that 50% that are more or less satisfied? My guess is that Hildebrandt didn’t ask quite the right question. Associates are more or less satisfied because — my guess, at any rate — they know they’re not staying at the firm for very much longer. They’re more or less satisfied because making $200K for a few more years seems OK — as long as they don’t have to do what it takes to make that money forever.

And did you note what Hildebrandt said associates were actually happy about? Their compensation. Not their work environment, not their future in a law firm. Not even the people they work with.

The take-away? You are not the only person in your firm who isn’t happy; you still have lots of company. Don’t let Hildebrandt’s silliness make you feel isolated.