The real reason we lawyers are unhappy (and how we can turn it around for the better)

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We are unhappy as lawyers now. We’re just not clicking in life as much as we’d like to. We’re in a funk. We are not as optimistic as we want to be. We’re wondering where all of our potential went.

I have had and still have a lot of moments like this. Self doubt, anxiety, malaise, fear. I wonder how I got to this place. I wonder if I still have more time to “make it”. I wonder why everyone else seems to have it all figured out. I wonder why I’m not as happy as I thought I’d be. This isn’t how it was supposed to be!

And then my thoughts invariably creep back to law school, and I invariably come to the same conclusion, that this unhappiness must in large part stem from my decision to go to law school.

Law school wasn’t the best moment for me. While some of us may have liked and excelled in law school and while some of us may be lukewarm about it, I can’t say it was my best time. I floundered. I lost confidence. A good student in high school and college, I was middle-to-low in my law school class. I didn’t find the courses interesting, I was disenchanted by the grade curve, I was overwhelmed by the competition. But I still plugged on and I graduated. But I wasn’t happy. I really, truly wasn’t happy for one of the first times in my life.

For all of us, looking back, there are a lot of different ways to phrase this period in our lives. A waste of time. A mistake. A thing we actually enjoyed at the time, but looking back not something that helped us professionally. Something that has brought on a lot of debt. An education that provided little insight into what a law career really is. A great degree to have and talk about and flaunt, but not something that has been a stepping stone for genuine career and personal satisfaction.

And I’m sure there are more (feel free share in the comments below). And this fact can be a hard thing for us to face.

So why did we go? We went because we were pressured to do so. We went because we wanted to avoid having to try and find a job. We went because we wanted to remain a student. We went because we wanted another degree. We went because there were no jobs in the market, and we thought a law degree would make us a more attractive candidate once we graduated. We went because our ethnic or familial traditions dictated that we do so. We went to make other people happy, to make other people satisfied, to get other people off of our back. We went because we just did. We went for a lot of reasons, but many of us often didn’t go for the main reason we should have: We did not go to law school because it was in alignment with what we wanted and what we were good at.

But even in this despair, what’s phenomenal is that now we can pinpoint the reasons that drove us to attend law school, and once we do, we can clearly see we went to law school for the not-so-right reasons. We just shouldn’t have gone in the first place.

And once we see that we’ve pursued an education and a career as a lawyer for not-necessarily-the-best reasons, while we want to just kick ourselves, it also explains a large part of why we’re unhappy now. It explains why we’re not that good at being a lawyer, it explains why we don’t like being a lawyer, it explains why we want to leave.

And once we realize that we are right to be feeling the way we are now, that our current pain and unhappiness and anxiety and hopelessness that we wrestle with is in part just a result of a not-very-strategically-thought-out-course-of-action we took years ago, then we can stop feeling that we are wrong to feel this way. We can stop beating ourselves up. We can stop feeling like a failure. We can stop with the guilt and self-doubt. We can stop with the murky unhappiness.

Instead, things become clearer. We can see how we are in the right. We’ve been living a life we shouldn’t have been living. We’ve been living a life to please other people. We’ve been living a life to live up to some social norm or standard we actually don’t care that much about.

And when things become clearer for us, we can embrace our opportunity for liberation and let ourselves feel empowered. We can subscribe to exploration and begin to push our comfort level and take some (gasp) risks. We now no longer need to subscribe to perfection and no longer want to please everyone, and we can stop procrastinating and begin to act, for ourselves.

And as we act, there are three things we want to keep in mind:

  1. Our life is waiting to be ours again. By going to law school for many not-so-right-reasons, many of us we have correspondingly built a life that may be out of touch from our skills, our enjoyments, our talents, our desires. We have been living a life that has felt like it wasn’t really ours. Once we begin to explore our Unique Genius and begin to understand truly what we want and what comes naturally to us, we can begin setting a course directly by us and specifically for us.
  2. This new life is going to take a lot of work. Leaving the law is simple … but it’s not easy. Yes, there is a structure to follow and a community of like-minded people to fall back on. But it takes courage and hard work and smarts and energy and time and hustle and patience and self-reflection. And it takes all of this hard work because it is worth it.
  3. But all it takes is a first baby step. As daunting as all of this hard work is in abstract, the first step is usually extremely doable. And so is the second. And the third. And the fourth and all that follow. While the big picture can be overwhelming, when we take small steps, it makes the risks smaller, the failures easier to take, the experiments more likely to happen, the side gigs more possible to develop, the networking more feasible to begin, the confidence easier to grow, the momentum easier to pick up. It all begins that with that one step.

Admitting that we were unhappy in law school hurts. Probing and analyzing that pain even more so just about kills. But what we learn through the pain is liberating and down right necessary.

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18 thoughts on “The real reason we lawyers are unhappy (and how we can turn it around for the better)

  1. Thanks again for sharing your words of wisdom. It chips away at the doubt and affirms that I’m doing the right thing in plotting my escape from the law. Peace.

  2. The short answer is I went to law school because I hated my boss. If I had liked him I would probably have stayed where I was. I also knew I was capable of a lot more than the customer service jobs I had had all my life. I still believe that and I still have hopes that I can find something in the law that I do enjoy. (Criminal defense is NOT it.) But I am keeping an open mind about what other possbilities are out there.

    1. Hi Dianne

      Thank you for the comment. Many of us have gone to law school for not the most accurate reasons, you’re not alone. Focusing on one’s skills and strengths now can help inform which jobs and paths are the best suited.

      Thanks
      Casey

  3. Excellent entry. Indeed, like animals in a zoo that pace back and forth, a lot of us are just out of our natural environment, the agony made worse by the fact that we were deluded when we went to law school in the first place, and now have to acknowledge that.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment. Yes, when our starting point (law school) is not in alignment with our skills and strengths, it can compromise the rest of the downstream process (jobs, life, happiness).

      Casey

  4. Relieved that I found this article. I experience punishing amounts of anxiety from what I feel has been a failed career that has amounted to nothing but disappointment and a lifetime of debt. I thank God that I have a good support system.

    In my attempts to take back control over my career path I jump, obsessively so, from one scheme to another. What’s worse is that my peers are starting to take notice. By trying to push, and by being proactive, I am coming across unfocused, manic and desperate.

    This article has made me realize that slowing down and taking a breather to do more adequate research and to feel confident in one endeavor is a better strategy than attempting find a quick fix to my career woes.

    Thanks, Casey.

    1. Hi Anthony

      So happy the article resonated with you. Nothing like feeling untethered and aimless to pour fuel on the flames of self doubt.

      Yes, take your time, focus on your skills and strengths. Don’t be afraid to take a risk or try things, but if you do it in small steps, the failures are much easier to take, and much easier to learn from. Let your strengths inform your plan.

      Please be in touch
      Casey

  5. I went to law school for a few reasons, all of them wrong. Part of me liked the idea of being able to tell girls I’m a lawyer (yes I’m aware of how completely immature and ridiculous that is). But, if I had to pinpoint the main reason, it’s that growing up, whenever I said I wanted to do something creative with my life, like write or draw, some well-meaning adult said “you should be a doctor or a lawyer”; or if not that explicitly, “you should have something to fall back on”.

    Now here I am, 10 years into a career that I don’t want, successful (on paper, at least), and talking myself out of calling out sick every single day.

    I don’t quite know what to do. I know this isn’t what I want, but I also know I have bills to pay. I just have no idea what my next step should be.

  6. I love this blog, because you literally take the words right out of my head. This is EXACTLY how I feel, and it’s nice to know I’m not weird or wrong for feeling this way, and that there are others who feel this way too. Thank you!!

  7. I found your blog a short time ago. I went to law school thinking it would be the best way to support my two children. I hated it. I’m an introvert so I don’t like public speaking or being called on in class. Most of it bored me to tears but I finished because I didn’t want to be considered a failure. I thought maybe I would like it more when I started practicing.

    Twelve years later, I still hate it. I’m being pressured by my better half to keep going even though the thought of it depresses the hell out of me. The question is always, “What else would you do?” I have no idea is my response.

  8. I could tell you a story. I was a reserve JAG who received an honorable discharge. Luckily I have my PE and coaching degree to fall back on and I’m going to use it. Life is short and it’s best to trust GOD with moving you forward. Write me and I’ll share my experience.

  9. Reading this article two years after it was published. Found it on Google because I am so unhappy where I am. Dead end legal job, I know I’m better than my colleagues who are lawyers but the fact that Elitism exists and others are preferred sums up how messed up the legal field is.

    The legal field shows how you can NOT progress because of who you are, not being able to gain experience in other areas of law (especially the one’s you want to get into) and doing administrative jobs rather than doing legal work.

    Had enough of it i’m bailing myself out, do something dynamic, interesting, stress free ……… GET MY LIFE BACK!

    1. I just brought this article up as well from August 2014 when i first discovered it and saved the link. 20 years practicing law and have disliked it for 19 (I can’t think of when I actually enjoyed it, but over 20 years there must have been some happiness at some point). I have made some attempts over that time to get out (2 different career counselors, numerous informational interviews and intro. classes for a different vocation) but always talked myself out of it. Once again, I am now ready and trying to move forward. One of the most significant blocks to moving forward with a new career is answering the question of what to do instead! Add in the other issues that you may deal with related to ego, depression, thought of being seen as a failure, fear of failing at the new career, making the same mistake again, too old to start in a “young man/woman game”, etc. and it becomes very difficult to make headway. Anyone who is unhappy in law, I wish you good luck and that you do not experience what amounts to “hopelessness” over many years, time and time again.

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