Smart Lawyers, Dumb at Life, Part 1

You wanna know why your legal career and your life suck? It’s because you’re too damned smart for your own good. And no one has been in your face telling you that you can, and should, do a lot of stuff that is hard, and that you suck at, so you can have a better life and career. Except me!

Attorneys attending the school of life. Not always pretty.

Attorneys attending the school of life. Not always pretty.

It’s more than a little heretical to say this to even the most well-adjusted lawyers, all 77 of them. But it is the path to a more balanced, satisfying, and sustainable life and career.

I don’t know if you caught the Quora answer a little while ago that has, um, motivated me to say this stuff out loud. The question was: What does it feel like to be a smart person?

Are Smart and Happy Mutually Exclusive?

Most attorneys are indeed very smart, but many, many of them are miserable, or at the very least not happy. And that matches up with the bottom-line answer on Quora:

Overall, being smart brought many accolades and successes, but it also made me anxious, afraid of failure, and eager to quit at the first signs of hardship.

The guy—a former high school math whiz, ranked 25th in the country—is right: Being smart has its downsides, and usually they center around the crippling unwillingness to persevere with stuff you’re not naturally good at. Say, working with those who aren’t like you, or keeping on in a hobby or even a job that you’re not performing brilliantly at.

Essentially, being smart in a culture that prizes the punch-list lifestyle can lead you Continue reading

Edit Perfect Out of Your Alternative Legal Career Search–and Your Life

My torts professor was terribly fond of saying that you only remember something after you’ve heard it at least 5 times. He would then intone, 5 times, “Negligence is not a defense to an intentional tort.” And whaddya know, after 20-plus years, I DO remember that! And, unfortunately, quite a bit about Mrs. Palsgraf and her trouble with crashing objects that got repeated endlessly. (If only there had been YouTube when I was in law school, we could have just watched this and moved right on.)

perfection entry in dictionary

Perfect and its cousins may fill a dictionary page, but it won't fulfill you in work or life.

The same principal works on what we say to ourselves, too. That’s why I’ve been working to eliminate one word from my vocabulary: perfect. I use it way too much, and I don’t like the way it makes my brain tilt.

It’s a little odd, this obsession I have about ridding myself of that word. Mostly, I use it to describe something that works really well, or that fits the circumstances quite nicely. What’s so damaging about that?

For starters, it awakens my dozing inner lizard, Guido, who first gets excited about something finally being perfect; it’s about damn time! Then, Guido starts picking out all the flaws with whatever I’ve just described as perfect. Since that only takes a second or two, and since he’s up and about anyway, Guido then looks for other things whose flaws need pointing out. At this point we often veer into topics like money, my dowdy shoes, my singing, the amount of carbs I’m consuming, the exercise I’m not doing, or other fulfilling subjects.

Also, the stickler in me tends to pipe up annoyingly about how nothing on this amazing, gorgeous, wonderful earth is perfect, and so essentially I’m lying to myself and maybe others Continue reading

In the Garden of Lawyer Perfectionism

It’s fall, so I’m thinking garden thoughts again. The new mum is blooming beautifully, and I have 50 tulip bulbs and a flat of pansies to plant. And of course, weeds to pull. Lots of weeds to pull.

Pulling weeds out before they take over is so satisfying. Not perfect, but satisfying.

I was marveling at a several neighbors’ little strips of garden along the sidewalk, and how they never seemed to have any weeds or tattered plants. On the other hand, weeds grow with taunting abandon in my garden, and the slugs chew my salvia until it looks like green lacework.

I did pretty well keeping after my weeds this summer, so that the bindweed and wild violets did not take over by July, for once. I thought my neighbors must be energetic indeed for weeds never to appear, but then it hit me: ‘Doh, they use herbicides and pesticides. Weed-killers and bug-killers. I am now so much less impressed with their weed-free patches and unchewed plants.

It’s very like how I’m not impressed by lawyers in very pressed, expensive clothes, with lots of iGadgets, European cars and a house in the Hamptons. Because I’m pretty sure I know how they achieved those things Continue reading

The Magic Perfectionism Turn-off Switch

Perfectionism is a really hard beast to defeat, particularly for lawyers. We’re surrounded by a culture of “no mistakes,” despite the fact that lawyers are people, people are not perfect, and people therefore make mistakes all the freaking time.

Creative experiments may not turn out perfectly, but they can magically turn off the awful perfectionism switch.

It’s easy to confuse perfectionism and striving to do your best. The outward appearance often looks the same: a good, or better yet, stellar result. In fact, most perfectionists attack the idea of not trying to be perfect as an idea of settling for failure, of settling for much less than can be achieved.

But that’s not it at all. As Dr. Brené Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” (emphasis mine) It’s the toxic idea that you are your performance.

The opposite of perfectionism is what Brown calls healthy striving. Striving asks the questions “How can I improve?” and “How can I do this better?”

If the question you’re asking is “What will they think?” that’s a red, Continue reading

Tips for Lawyers To Exorcise the Perfectionism Demon

One of the hardest things about battling perfectionism as a lawyer is that you are surrounded, nay drowning, in other perfectionists. Law is about conforming, after all, and that is the heart of perfectionism: The more perfectly I conform (my thinking, my reasoning, my writing, my desires), the better I am regarded by others in my profession.

cartoon of demon emerging from man's mouth

Begone, you demon of perfectionism! I now have tips for getting rid of you . . .

At least, that’s how the thinking goes. It doesn’t necessarily match reality. When you think of the brilliant lawyers, what makes them brilliant is actually their ability to put together reasoning and arguments that haven’t been made before. That, my friends, is not conformity.

But for those of you who are faking law, who are not lawyers at heart, trying to appear like other lawyers is crucial. Because if they find out you’re not really one of them, you are out on your bum. You just know this. You might have to actually figure out that alternative legal career thing on a less leisurely schedule.

First, Accept Your Authentic Self

As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, perfectionism is driven by the fear that we are not enough, and by the belief Continue reading

The Lawyer’s Demon: Perfectionism

Perfectionists love to say that they’re not trying to be perfect, they’re just trying to do ________ right. Semantics, people.

Perfectionism is about trying to stave off blame and shame. And as we all know, lawyers have superpowers when it comes to inflicting shame and shifting blame, and they use them for evil in a nanosecond.

businessman and devil figures

Perfectionism makes all kinds of deals with the devil, including in your career and worklife. Maybe it's time for an exorcism.

The reason this shaming behavior works so well in the legal profession is that almost all lawyers grew up living to other people’s standards, not their own. They bought in early to earning approval and acceptance through achievement and performance.

As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, those are things like:

  • Grades
  • Rule-following,
  • Sports,
  • People-pleasing
  • Appearance, and
  • Manners

The foundation of this belief system is that “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” That’s why BigLaw attorneys, for example, can’t cope with the idea of moving to a small firm that isn’t a prestigious, high-profile boutique. Brand-name law firm equals accomplishment, Continue reading

Workaholic Lawyers, Avoiding Life

So did you actually take any time off during Memorial Day weekend? Maybe even the whole (gasp) 3 days? I hope so. Too many lawyers have no boundaries about holidays any more. Well, actually they don’t have any boundaries when it comes to work, period. Never mind that constant work makes the work that you do suck big hairy donkey, um, parts.

man sick in bed with laptop

If you've ever worked in your sickbed, you might be a workaholic.

But did you know that overwork, aka workaholism, is a way of numbing out? I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so rampant among lawyers: Lawyers are so often depressed (3 times more so than the general population, remember?) or perfectionists, or both. One way to avoid feeling or dealing with pain is to work. Because then you have something to focus on besides those horrible, painful feelings.

Trust me, I’ve used that tactic. It works—for a little while. Eventually, though, the work novocaine wears off Continue reading

Career Goals That Actually Work

So if most lawyers set questionable career goals—ones that are extrinsic, and won’t actually bring them happiness and fulfillment—what then? How do you set goals that are truly helpful, rather than an office version of ‘roid rage if you don’t meet them?

To-do List: Win!

Im thinking this might be an extrinsic goal, Charlie Sheen.

The logical answer, of course, is to set intrinsic goals. Yet what is simple and logical is often fiendishly difficult.

Goals From the Inside Out

Part of the problem is that our culture is product-obsessed. Products are end results, and we expect them to be some version of perfect, even it’s a $5 semi-designer t-shirt from Target. Unlike a product we buy, though, once we select a goal that’s a mistake, we can’t simply return it and continue as if the transaction never occurred. If we set a chosen goal aside, most of the time we feel we have failed in some way. Persistent feelings of failure lead to decreased motivation—and so our goal-setting often derails us.

An intrinsic goal Continue reading

Forget That Perfect Alternative Legal Career

Here’s what happens when I talk to some lawyers about exploring alternatives to practicing law: Their eyes light up, and they get all excited. Until they realize that I don’t have some secret job up my sleeve that they never knew about but that suits them perfectly, and that they might have to give up something (usually high salary or certainty) to get out of the legal profession and into something that satisfies their soul.

beta testing logo

Your first job in a post law-practice world probably is a beta test, not the perfect job you’ll have forever until you die.

They want the perfect alternative legal career. There isn’t one, folks. That’s not the world we live in. We live in a world of choices. Some choices work out much better for us than others. Some choices are so much better for us that they do, indeed, feel pretty close to perfect. They’re perfectly imperfect.

A wise boss of mine was fond of saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” That’s so true of an alternative legal career job search. If you insist on perfect, you won’t get out of law. There will always be a reason to stay with the known, because the unknown isn’t perfect enough to leap into.

Part of what underlies this yearning for the perfect job right after leaving law is the belief that THIS IS IT. That this is your one chance to find the right thing. Which is demonstrably silly. Lawyers have on such blinders about career paths, because they get indoctrinated with the idea of the one acceptable career path that law glorifies (that would be law school, maybe clerkship, then associate, then equity partner, then die of heart attack. Perhaps I digress.)

You have more power than that, if you choose to exercise it. You have the power to make a good choice, to find a job much more suited to who you actually are. To conduct your own beta testing. You can choose to search for a good first job to get you out of law and start walking a different, more satisfying path. Or you can choose to wait for the perfect alternative legal job to appear.  It could happen. But I wouldn’t give much for your chances of fulfillment in the meantime. How long are you willing to wait for perfection?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist. She coaches unhappy attorneys to find careers and life that fulfill them, warts and all. Contact her at for a discounted sample coaching session to explore your perfectly imperfect path.