Why most unhappy lawyers never leave the law behind

Being the toughest helps us in our job as a lawyer. We need to negotiate for our client. We need to posture and stand our ground in order to gain concessions from the other side.

Being the smartest helps us in our job as a lawyer. We want others to think we know it all, so they’ll defer to us, hire us or send us referrals.

Being self-sufficient helps us in our job as a lawyer. While we can look to other colleagues for help, we often don’t. We just end up doing it ourselves, to show the partners in the firm that we can get the job done.

While being tough, smart and self-sufficient may be necessary in order to practice the law, these characteristics are often detrimental in order to leave it. To leave law behind, we need to flip our normal train of thought on its head and do the one thing as lawyers we may often never do: Ask for help.

What does it mean to ask for help? It can mean a lot of things, but at its core, it means showing that you are vulnerable. This does not mean being “weak” or lacking strength and energy. Rather, asking for help and embracing vulnerability means opening yourself up to discussion and collaboration and constructive criticism. It means hearing things about yourself you may not (yet) be ready to hear. It means recognizing that you are not always right about everything. It means realizing that you don’t always have (or need to have) the answer all the time. It means recognizing that you may have more questions than answers. Being vulnerable means really, really, really realizing that you have a lot to improve upon.

But when you are at your most vulnerable, you also can begin to see your highest potential. You see the energy that you possess and can re-create daily. You realize new things about yourself. You see new strengths and skills and passions that you may have suppressed or glossed over or shied away from on your path from LSAT to law exam to bar to firm. You begin to uncover (really, really uncover) why you are unhappy. And you being to identify (really, really identify) what you need to do to become happy. Being vulnerable is very difficult to do, but the reward is more “aha” moments and more creativity and more disruptive thinking and happiness.

But assuming you want to make yourself vulnerable, it can be difficult to do so. You need to find someone you trust and who knows you well or can understand you quickly and who wants to help. You need to find someone who won’t laugh or judge you. This can be difficult for many of us, who often count lawyers as the bulk of our network. But once you find this person, the following can happen:

– You find out that this person feels the same way you do, and can share experiences and let you feel less lonely.
– This person knows where you are coming from and can point you in the right direction.
– Your friendship becomes stronger with this person.
– You realize that opening up won’t mean the end of the world, that the world won’t laugh at you, that this person won’t think you’re crazy or weak and you can open up more to others down the road, and get more help and then become stronger and stronger and happier and happier.

But, as we mentioned, to reap these rewards, you first need to open up and be vulnerable. And while no set of tips or tricks exist to fully mitigate its anxiety, the following sample questions can serve as a nice lead-in or discussion starter (edit, re-word or paraphrase as appropriate for your situation):

1. Tell this trustworthy person that, looking back now, going to law school was a mistake, or that you just didn’t think that critically enough about going to law school, and if you could do it all over again, you may have chosen a different path. Now, let’s be clear: Your law degree is not a waste. But let this person know that you now need to find other, non-traditional ways to use your degree. Then ask this person the open ended question of “What do you think?”
2. Tell this person that you are not happy in your life right now, particularly as a lawyer. The grind, the lack of mentorship, the unclear partner track, the lack of collaboration (and more) is getting you down. Tell this person you’re not even sure what happiness is supposed to look like. Ask this person “How do you think I would be at my most happy?”
3. Tell this person that you are approaching (YOUR AGE HERE) and you think that you haven’t reached your potential, or that you’re not close to what you think is your potential. Tell this person that you’re wondering what you need to do in the next few years to be satisfied with your life, personally and professionally. Ask this person “What do you think I’m good at?”
4. Tell this person that you don’t feel like you’re fully “optimized”, that as a lawyer you’re leaving some skills on the table when you think of your day to day work. Tell this person “I like to do (THIS) and (THAT), but I don’t do them currently at work as a lawyer. What type of job do you think would be a good fit for me?”

Asking for help and being vulnerable is the first step in being happy … because dreams (and skills and boasts and hurdles and fears and goals and strategies and plans and questions) need to be told to someone.

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6 thoughts on “Why most unhappy lawyers never leave the law behind

  1. Great article Casey. I am going to post it on my website. While there is a difference between unhappiness and depression, many of the reasons you list for unhappy lawyers sticking with their jobs are the very same ones too many depressed lawyers hang on for too long.

    Dan

    1. Hi Dan

      Thank you very much for the comment, and thank you for sharing on your website (which is a fantastic resource, I’ve been going through it).

      Casey

  2. Excellent entry. There’s a lot of truth in your observations. Indeed, I can seem myself in your comments.

    It may be because I’m so very jaded, but on this item:

    “Tell this trustworthy person that, looking back now, going to law school was a mistake, or that you just didn’t think that critically enough about going to law school, and if you could do it all over again, you may have chosen a different path. Now, let’s be clear: Your law degree is not a waste. But let this person know that you now need to find other, non-traditional ways to use your degree. Then ask this person the open ended question of “What do you think?” ”

    I don’t know that I wouldn’t go so far at this point to say its a waste, and I know that I don’t want to use my degree anymore after a quarter century of using it. I guess that makes me all the more blind to the path out.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment. I think what stood out the most for me in your comment is “I don’t want to use my degree anymore”. While I do think the benefits of our legal degree are always with us (a positive thing), I do think that the stand you just took with that phrase is courageous and positive and full of light. The path is there – I have laid out steps, and I know many other coaches around the country who focus on helping attorneys leave the law. Their is a path, and while you feel blind to it, there is a whole like-minded community ready to help you begin to see it! Email me at casey@leavelawbehind.com if you’d like to continue the conversation.

  3. Who are the coaches mentioned? Could you email me some names and how much they charge if applicable? I practice in Sebastian, Florida.

    1. Hi Mari

      Thanks for the post. The coaches I know well are both former lawyers, one based in Nashville and one in Houston. I unfortunately do not know of any in Florida. Would you like an intro to the Nashville and Houston coaches?

      Casey

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