This week I was doing some research for SEO keywords. I was trying to find out what lawyers think about their own careers and lives right now. It’s so hard to figure out – after all most of the time I don’t even know what I think! But luckily Google knows.
Well, I made different searches and looked for clues as to what was bubbling beneath the surface, and nothing seemed to hit. Not new skills, not future threats, not global trends like digitalization or changes in work. Then I tried a combination of “leaving law” and bum, all SEO indicators went up. Meaning that this keyword combination is searched a lot. And it was a pretty shocking observation. Lawyers do not seek solutions or new perspectives for their work life, but a way out.
Lawyers are unhappy at work, as miserable as it is to admit. This is validated by several research: for example here and here. Personally, these research results do not surprise me, as I myself am a textbook example of a lawyer who at one time grew totally tired of her work and almost lost her health. But it makes me sad.
From idealists to over-performing miserables
Many enter the industry as idealists, bright-eyed young people who want to help people and be part of a respected profession. According to Susan Daicoff, who has researched and written about the identity of lawyers, the same idealists will later become lawyers, whose typical features are competitive spirit, performance orientation and materialism. This picture is not very far from the miserable stereotypical lawyer of lawyers who are only interested in money and how to do it more.
According to Daicoff, somewhere on their way from an idealistic newcomer to a legal professional, many lawyers lose themselves and their well-being. Young people start their law studies at a fairly normal level of stress, with the level rising 30% in the first year and continuing to rise in the coming years. Worst of all, the stress level never seems to return to pre-study levels. There is a change in the values of law students during their studies and this change is related to higher stress and student well-being. Students lose their inherent values of community, interpersonal relationships, inner harmony, doing good, and making a positive impact on the world.
What is wrong with the lawyer job? My own observations, which are also confirmed by research: toxic work culture, poor management, pressures of success, pressures of performance, fierce competition, work-life imbalance, experience of insignificance. Yes, yes and yes. I have personal experience in all of this.
I have sat in the monthly meetings where the billable hours of associate lawyers (that I was myself back then) were written on the whiteboard we were ranked and valued accordingly. I have fought the air space and interesting assignments with co-workers, I have tried to get appreciation from overtime hours and the length of my open projects list. I have held back the tears and forced myself to smile after backstabbing. I have moved papers from one table to the other, wondering why on earth I do what I do, what is the meaning of it all. In a way, though, I believed to myself that it is what it’s supposed to be. Work is work and miserable work is even better work.
As a lawyer, you somehow get used to the idea that if a job doesn’t feel difficult and even miserable, it can’t be a “real job”. Does this sound familiar?
In this kind of world it feels difficult to fit in the thoughts of helping people, of meaningful work or creativity. And this contradiction between one’s own values and dreams and the reality makes living and being really miserable.
And yet, most don’t leave. I didn’t leave for a long time either. Before there was no other way. Why is leaving law so hard?
One of the only things I miss from working as a lawyer employee is the regular salary. Just imagine the things I would do if the same amount of money now appeared in my account every month?! The lawyer’s salary and bonuses, as well as the comfortable life they enable, are a pretty big reason to stay. And often it’s not that money is my first priority that I value above all. I may value other things much more than money but at the same time still don’t make the decision to leave even if it seems like the right solution for me. Why?
It is because of fear. I am afraid of running out of money, poverty, ending up under the bridge. I’m unable to provide for myself, I am unable to provide for my family, so I lose my family and end up in the streets and die as a lonely bag lady. When you write it down, it sounds and feels ridiculous and embarrassing. But it is a genuine fear and it is also a very common one. Perhaps it is easier to understand this insanity by getting the fact that fear is biology, and very often fears are basically the fear of death, and that gives the emotions quite absurd proportions. The risk, which in common sense might be completely manageable, feels like a mountain-sized life-threatening leap.
Lawyer’s stable and sizable income can enable such a lifestyle, and at the same time generate such a monthly cost level that the alternatives feel really scary. If you think you can’t get the same pay for anything else, you might be right. At least temporarily, your income level may drop. But you can still make it. Take out Excel worksheet and start putting your life into numbers and figure out what you are paying for and what you would be willing to give up. Realistic calculations and conscious choices silence your fears and release energy to think about the next step toward your own choices.
For a long time now, my own situation has been such that I have not received income for myself from just about anything. All the money that has come in has gone to the development of ideas and businesses. So for long I have already been living in that situation I’ve been afraid of. And even if I live it to be true, I still fear it! Just a few weeks ago, I caught myself in a loophole thinking about the catastrophic outlook for my own economy. The more I thought about it, the more real the thoughts became. When I got a little distance from my thoughts, that is, after sleeping for a few nights and one visit with my work counsel, I realized that the leap from the current situation to poverty does not happen overnight and that there are countless options and concrete things I can do to improve the outlook.
What would others think if you left your job as a lawyer just because you are not happy? Your family, friends, colleagues? The question itself contains the idea of underestimating happiness – “Just because”. The expectations we have been raised and socialized to. And even if you yourself place great value on wellbeing at work and in your life, you may still think about what others think of your choices and ultimately let those expectations resolve the decision to stay put to maintain others’ expectations and your own valued role in the community.
These thoughts, too, are based on fear, a very primitive fear of being left out of your group. If you don’t fit into the pack, if you make different choices than others, you may fall outside the pack and in nature, the one left outside the pack will die. Yes, there’s the reaper hiding again.
Expectations come from family and relatives as well as the environment. And the further you go down the path, the more people there are whose expectations you try to anticipate and meet. However, this is a megalomaniacal scam and trap. The truth is, no one really cares. They really don’t. If you change your title from lawyer to gardener on your Linkedin profile, there may be a slight fuss in your contacts, and behind the screens they may shake their head in disbelief, but tomorrow no one will remember it anymore. Everyone is in such a hurry to go through the same stuff in their own lives. It may be that the fuss is largely due to admiration as well. That’s awesome, how did she do it! I wish I could dare too.
This insight has been one of the most liberating for me. Where “no one cares” may seem cynical or a little miserable for a moment, it’s really a very liberating idea. You can be exactly what you want to be, free from the social pressure to make a career in a certain way or in a certain direction. Liberation usually doesn’t happen overnight, and above all it requires strengthening yourself and your voice, but it’s the key to being able to start making good choices for yourself about your work.
Not the job but the way it is done
Ta-daa! There it is. The great secret of a lawyer’s happiness revealed.
The problem is not the work, the law itself, but the way it is being done.
Indeed, many are genuinely interested in the substance of lawyer work, safeguarding justice, resolving disputes, writing contracts, arguing, negotiating, and making a significant impact on clients ’lives. However, the same people are at the same time dissatisfied and unhappy in their work – in the same work which content they love.
The question is how to do the work of a lawyer in a way that suits you. What kind of vision do you want to work for? Why do you do what you do. In what kind of work community, with whom, in what new ways and tools, in what new channels. And you have the opportunity to impact all of this. You can design any kind of work for yourself in the way you want without having to leave the law altogether. You can be creative and happy and still be a lawyer. Don’t believe what is being fed to you from the environment. You get and can do whatever you want with your life.
When I quit my law firm soon 3 years ago, I thought I was leaving law. But that has not really been the case. I still continue to work in law, yet from a very different perspective, as an entrepreneur redesigning the legal work and the space. It is therefore very possible to work in law without doing the traditional work of a lawyer. New job descriptions have been created and are being created all the time, and you can also develop a completely new job for yourself, one that no one else has found yet. And hey, most of all, it’s very possible to be happy at work.
So don’t give up. The change begins with the first step, the first nibble, the dipping of the first toe into the water. The next step can be found after the first step. Perhaps the next search you can type into Google is “how to do law differently”.
Source: Susan Daicoff: Lawyer Know Thyself: A Psychological Analysis of Personality Strengths and Weaknesses. 2004.
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