CRAP! Why Am I Still Here?

A few months into the nightmare that has been 2020, a lot of you unhappy attorneys were making plans. You realized that life was short. You were done with all the intolerable, dysfunctional nonsense of law practice. And you were not going to spend your wild, precious life being miserable.

So how is it almost the end of this oh-so-memorable year, and you haven’t figured out what you want to do instead? Or you have, and you don’t know how to get there? Or you just haven’t sent out any resumes, even though you’re pretty sure you know one or two things you’d like to try?

If you are berating yourself about laziness, or questioning whether any job exists that you would enjoy and be good at—STOP. We are all struggling.

Welcome to Club Paralysis–We Have Hot Towels and Drinks

I hope you’re not beating yourself up for not being on top of your new life quest. For starters, even if you didn’t suffer from depression and anxiety (at least a third of you did) before last spring, the chances are that you do now. Rates of depression among the general populace has tripled since the pandemic began.   I haven’t seen data about lawyers specifically, but I would be gobsmacked if our industry’s rate hasn’t at least doubled. That means at least 65% of lawyers (probably way more) are in the throes of mental illness while trying to work during a pandemic. And there was an election that was far from normal, just to ratchet up the stress level.

Depression and anxiety often result in paralysis and inaction in our lives, making getting the dishes done or clothes washed a real albatross. Things that are difficult to tackle, like figuring out a whole new career and life path? Exponentially harder.

I’m not saying that you should give up on making a change. In fact, I’m begging you not to give up on yourself.

But if you are berating yourself about laziness, or questioning whether any job exists that you would enjoy and be good at—STOP. We are all struggling. People may be posting stuff about how they have embraced a new yoga practice,  or started a cool new side gig giving virtual workshops, or whatever. But remember, people post their highlights reel, and that highlights reel may or may not be completely transparent.

Plus, even if these folks are brutally honest about their success, so what? You have to start where you are, not where Karen or Chad say they are.

Photo by Julia Peretiatko on Unsplash

So give yourself some grace. Take that warm bath if you need it. (Just not during a Zoom meeting, K?) Binge watch that series that makes you laugh so hard you need adult underwear. Eat some chocolate or other dopamine enhancers. Get some movement from the chicken dance instead of something serious and “good for you.”

Don’t Go It Alone

From law school onward, we have been so very conditioned to figure things out by ourselves. Once we’ve been practicing for even a few months, we aren’t all that used to asking people for help. Even if we desperately need it, we have been shamed so often for not knowing something, that we hate to ask for anything.

Now, though, is the time to start overcoming that rugged independence—at least in some areas. Regardless of how self-starting people are, they usually do better with some kind of accountability to another person when they are trying to make a big change. There’s a certain magic to telling another human how you’re doing, and why you are or aren’t doing what you said you wanted to. Checking off to-do lists just isn’t the same.

woman climbing side of mountain alone, with ocean in background
Photo by Luigi Pozzoli on Unsplash

Selecting Your Sounding Board

So find someone you can talk to about your quest to escape law. Spouses, family, friends, maybe even colleagues, are all potential accountability partners. A good brainstorming session with them could do wonders for your quest.

Some tips on picking a good sounding board:

  • Look for people who don’t have an agenda for you. Some people are great at setting aside their own wants and needs to focus on what you need. Others, not so much. Be honest with yourself about who those people are in your life. Your spouse may be wonderful in hundreds of ways, but maybe not when it comes to taking an objective look at an idea that is new to them.
  • Avoid other practicing lawyers. While they will intimately understand your constraints, they may not be very gifted at understanding what is really holding you back. (Perhaps because they have their own struggle there.) Or, they may just be too judgey for this stage of your journey.
  • Seek out people who have broad interests, work experience outside conservative industries, or who are just quirky thinkers. You don’t need someone just like you. You need someone who can complement you, and help you see situations in a different light.

Of course, if you try an accountability partner or two and still aren’t getting anywhere, you can always reach out to a career coach who works with attorneys.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer with diverse experiences or a checkered past, depending on how you frame it. Pro-tip: It’s always about the framing! You can set up a sample session with her by emailing her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.

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.

Walk Into Your Creativity, Unhappy Lawyers

Many of you unhappy lawyers would love to be more creative. But you finally sit down to confront the page, or the canvas, or whatever your creative urge, and you get a big, fat, nothing. And you conclude that you really aren’t creative at all, that it’s a pipe dream, and you need to just buckle down and get your real work done.

A walk can take you to all kinds of places. Some are even physical.

A walk can take you to all kinds of places. Some are even physical.

Problem is, what you’ve just done is akin to concluding that the tiny seedling that just sprouted should be a huge, whopping sunflower, already! So you pull up the seedling and call the whole experiment a failure.

Like anything important in life, your creativity needs nurturing first, not command performances.

How do you do that? Naturally, I have a few ideas. One of the best ideas I can give you is to simply go for a walk, without any electronics or screens.

No Screens = Room to Ruminate

I’m on a bit of a tear about getting away from screens and constant stimulation lately. I see people in the park, walking or running tuned into earbuds and tuned out of their surrounding, and I just don’t get it. Yes, I know, many people want something to help distract them from the discomfort of running, in particular, or maybe just for motivation when they hit the wall (or whatever it’s called these days; I wouldn’t know).

When I walk, I never listen to anything that comes over an earbud. Yes, I am probably ruining my life by not taking the time to listen to a really great podcast. Oh well! For me, walking time is time to let go of all the crap sloshing around in my brain, so that new and better stuff has room to wander in and take up residence.

This is how I got my idea for this post, in fact.

It started out as a simple wish. I had finally managed to turn off my phone and Facebook addiction, and very reluctantly get out of my car. I did not want to walk. I wanted to go home and catch up on the sleep that I missed via my other current addiction, Criminal Minds. (Ten seasons on Netflix, people! I’m on season 5.)

So I wished for something interesting, maybe even magical, to present itself as I walked. And then Continue reading

What (Unhappy) Lawyer Isn’t Anxiety-Ridden?

I remember the exact moment that I found out that my regular intense jumble of feelings when I got stressed at work had a name. (And, I was usually stressed.) The repetitive thoughts that I couldn’t banish, even when I caught myself and said out loud, “Stop. They aren’t renting space in your brain.” The jumpiness, the lava spew of irritability that could erupt from the slightly prickly exterior. My inability to get shit done because I couldn’t focus. “Oh, so you have anxiety,” the psychiatrist said.

anxious guy burying face in hands

Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness, ahead of depression and other mood disorders. And it often looks just like this in attorneys.

Me? Anxiety? “Huh,” I said thoughtfully. “I never thought of it like that. Pretty much every lawyer I’ve ever known is like this.”

Indeed, I suspect a lot of you who are unhappy lawyers are also anxiety-ridden lawyers. Sure, there are reasons for your anxiety, but if the anxiety doesn’t disappear when the reason is over, you may well have a problem with general anxiety disorder or some of its siblings. And if you feel like the reasons never disappear, that, too, can point to a problem with anxiety.

If you have 3 or more of these 12 typical anxiety symptoms (there are many; these are some common ones), at least consider getting formally evaluated for anxiety:

  • Obsessive Thoughts (such as Excessive worrying/problem-solving, What if . . . ?, and Arguing with yourself);
  • Feeling powerless;
  • Irritability or explosive anger;
  • Difficulty concentrating; Continue reading

How Did I Get To Be an Unhappy Lawyer? Part 2

As I talked about in Part 1,  you entered law school already disconnected quite a bit from what you’re really all about. But that alone isn’t what makes you so miserable now that you’re an attorney. Nope, it’s the law school pedagogy itself that is a huge part of the problem, and really deepens and almost cements that disconnect. It’s the second whammy.

Lawyers are, in fact, in their own special hell. Thank you, law school!

I got this insight just recently, while having lunch with Dave Shearon, an attorney with a master’s in positive psychology who was instrumental in leading Tennessee to be the first jurisdiction to approve resilience coaching for attorneys as CLE-eligible. He is working on a fascinating book, Thriving Through the Five Challenges of Law.

As we were talking, Shearon noted that law school does a real number on people psychologically in many ways. Law students enter law school with the same rate of depression as the general population (6% – 9%), but within 6 months are depressed at 3 times that rate. (More on that below.)

Law School Deepens Disconnection

One of the chief reasons for this spike, Shearon thinks, is that legal education teaches us to disconnect from our emotions and moral code—our values—and instead Continue reading