It’s weird but going crazy might be a really good thing for us unhappy attorneys

 August 22, 2014

By  Casey Berman


For so long, we were normal. Ever since we could remember, we got good grades. We did well at our extracurricular activities. We had energy, independence, ambition, goals.

We happily did what we were told. We pleased most everyone. We were liked. We moved through life at a nice clip. We had a plan.

And now as practicing attorneys … well … this isn’t always the case. Just like that, we’re kind of now the odd ones out.

We’re not ourselves. Our confidence as an attorney, and as a person, is lacking. Our direction seems off. Our sense of hope is not strong. We may even feel desperate. We’re down.


We’re going a little crazy.

We feel our schedule is no longer our own – we know too well that pit in our stomach when the partner hands us that assignment on a late Friday afternoon.

We feel we’re not good at some essential aspect of our job – we feel that we’re weak negotiators or we really hate to litigate or we’re horrible at managing a trial calendar or we just can’t build up a client base or we just can’t cite case law like we feel we should, and yet our job requires us to do this, day in and day out.

We don’t feel comfortable around clients – we may be introverted or just quiet or we feel anxious advising them because, really, we don’t feel we know what we’re talking about.

We feel tremendous pressure to keep up with the law – but we just can’t handle keeping up with the changes in the law or our research skills aren’t the best or we just don’t care enough to be up to date on every aspect of the law … but then we feel nervous that we might be missing something, and our brief won’t be that watertight and our work product won’t be that good and then we could be looked down upon or reprimanded or fired or worse yet sued for malpractice.

We view our life now in 6 minute increments – we are resigned to the fact that billable hours is how we measure our self worth and progress through a year, even though we know there are so many other ways to measure success.

And on and on and on. So much misalignment with our jobs as attorneys. We are confused and wonder how we got here.

And we’re scared. We are scared to admit that we have failed in some way. We’re scared to say that we have let people down. We’re scared to say that we wasted time and money in our lives. We’re scared to say that we may just not be all that great. We’re scared to think that we should just be grateful we have this job, even though we’re so unhappy. We’re scared to think that we’re going crazy.


But wait. Wait a minute.

Maybe now is the time for us to go a bit crazy. Just a bit. Hear me out.

Maybe now is the time for us to just set our gauge off a bit. We’ve been on a straight path for so long, and maybe our bodies and mind and spirit are calling for us to adjust course slightly.

Not to be crazy to jump with no net. Not to be discourteous. Not to disconnect from our loved ones. Not to retreat from society. Not to be harmful to ourselves. Not to be irresponsible.

But to be crazy to think just of ourselves for once. To let our skills and strengths and enjoyments (and not stature or prestige or money or title or because-we-should) to inform what our professional steps should like. To listen to our inside voice. To read more into coincidences.

To be crazy to put ourself out there. To have nothing to lose. To not worry about being embarrassed. To not worry about making a (small) mistake. To not worry about taking a (small) risk.

To be crazy to iterate on something. To be open to producing. To begin to create. To begin to help people.

To be crazy to make money off selling something we love. To be thought of as an expert in a certain area. To be interviewed. To be read about. To be followed. To be admired.

To be crazy to be courageous. To be motivated.

Crazy to love. Crazy to do good. Crazy to stand up for something. Crazy to care about yourself. Crazy to care about others but not care necessarily what others think. Crazy to do something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t.

“Some people never go crazy,” Charles Bukowski said. “What truly horrible lives they must lead.”

The crazy ones are the ones who help the world, for themselves and for others.

Let’s be crazy. And let’s do it together.

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  1. A little essay I wrote about worrying:

    All of my attorney friends worry. Some worry more than others. Most worry about what you would expect–missing deadlines, clients complaining, bringing in enough revenue each month to make the nut.

    We worry what our clients will say if we lose, if they will still pay the bill. We worry that law schools churn out worker bees by the thousands each year, full of hope and laden with debt, and increase our competition exponentially. We worry about the next grievance that never comes. We worry that the next client never calls.

    We worry what was so easy to do ten years ago is becoming a lost skill. And we wonder if we ever had that skill in the first instance. We wonder if muscle memory will get us through a hearing instead of an understanding of the issues.

    Its what we do. We worry. We worry if we are doing enough for the client who could care less if we gasp our last breath climbing the stairs to the courtroom to apologize for their errant actions, we worry about what the judge thinks of us–a public servant who could not pick us out of a line up with six Islamic Jihadists standing to the right and left. We worry that our parents– living or passed on–would think we did not try hard enough.

    We worry.

    Its a tough thing we do–the practice of law.

    I bought a book the other day, called “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” The author (a sage Dale Carnegie) writes that worrying comes from a feeling of being overwhelmed–trying to do everything at once.

    Carnegie writes that completing a task is like the physics of sand moving through an hourglass. That is, only one grain of sand can pass through the opening at a time. We can only–we SHOULD only– try to do one-task-at-a-time and then move on to the next.

    It is a nice little metaphor, but pretty well lost on me. I can not focus long enough to complete one-task-at-a-time. I would have been better suited as an ER doctor. Constant crisis, solve the calamity with honed skills from $300,000 of schooling, say goodbye, don’t get the stitches wet and please leave now thank you, and then move on.

    As to the Carnegie book, “Stop Worrying…,” I carry books with me and read them when I can. I am worried I will leave the book somewhere and forget it.

    But I am trying to focus on the good. So perhaps worrying is not that bad. I could be full of dread–worrying’s big cousin.

  2. I left the private practice of law 1 year ago after 26 years on practice. This article, in particular, hits the nail on the head. Well done.

  3. This article is right on. I particular experience not feeling confident about what I do, which not only makes me uncomfortable in front of clients but makes it hard me to talk about my work to potential referral sources. I also am not able to concentrate on the work it takes to keep up with the law, which causes worry.

    My challenges on leaving the law are 1) relating my skills to other careers (even though I think my skills are totally transferable convincing employers of that is challenging) and 2) my student loans.

  4. This blog is superb. It’s only once you realise how many lawyers think about leaving the profession that you become emboldened enough to think about doing it yourself. It is so refreshing to know that you are not alone. So thank you Casey, and all contributors, for the blog.

    This entry really grabbed my imagination, because sometimes I think I’m crazy to be thinking what I’m thinking, and what I’ve set out below. I’d love to know what others think…

    I’m a 27-year old litigator working in a large corporate firm in London. I’ve been qualified for 2 years, and been at the firm for 4 years. The thing that differentiates me from some people is that I don’t hate my job. I don’t hate the firm. I don’t hate the people. And yes, I love living in (what I consider to be) the best city in the world (the UK at least), having a great salary which enables me to enjoy it, and being around friends who have similar high-paying high-flying jobs. I still (just about) get a buzz from putting on a nice suit and getting on the train in the morning and my hairs still stand up on the back of my neck a little, when I walk across the bridge during the morning rush-hour, to the city and its skyscrapers.

    I can tolerate the minor tyranny of dividing my life into 6-minute blocks, and can deal with the internal politics and rivalries. I like the people with whom I work. I’ve only ever had good appraisals. I hit my targets. I get my bonuses. My hours, while long, aren’t as bad as some others.

    So – why am I even thinking about quitting?

    Well, it’s this. I don’t think it’s going to get any better. My enjoyment of what I do, and the lifestyle I lead, has reached its zenith.

    I don’t envy the partners. I’m happy now, at 27, doing what I do. But will I be happy at 28, 38, 48? I see the more senior associates, and the partners, and I don’t see myself becoming happier or more fulfilled if I stay and become one of them. I don’t see where they are as a progression from where I am at the minute. You see – unlike some others, I quite like what I do at the moment as a young associate. Drafting the documents, interviewing the witnesses, preparing for the trials and the mediations. It’s all fine. But: dealing with clients’ constant demands and pandering to their needs regardless of whether you like them, the constant imperative to bring in business, and being measured by the revenue I bring in rather than the quality of the legal advice I provide, doesn’t look like something that I want to do with my career.

    I’d much rather leave before I feel like I have no choice but to leave. I’d rather make my decisions with a clear head, than wait until I become jaded, cynical and disillusioned about my job. I want to be a shepherd, not a sheep. Living in London with other high-flying friends is never going to be better than it is now, and I don’t want to be the last man standing, the one who stuck around after the music died, the one still drinking in the kitchen at 4am after everyone else has gone to bed. Within the next 5 to 7 years, everyone will have gone, to the suburbs, to quiet family life, to – if I can put it this way – adulthood.

    If I leave now, I’ll still have my memories of having lived like this in my mid-twenties. Nobody can take those away from me. Law school is already paid for, and then some.

    So I look at myself in the mirror and, if I am honest about why I would stay in my job, I know what the truth is. Vanity. I’m a clever guy. Of course I am. Litigators in big firms always are. And because I’m clever, I’ve always felt like I should be doing something clever. And practising law requires you to be clever. If I left to become a teacher (which is what I plan to do), people might think I’m less clever (never mind that teaching is also a respected profession in its own right). That’s been my “brand” ever since I was at school. I was the clever one. I’ve never had to really think about it, because until now it’s always got me what I want. It’s always got me to the next stage.

    If I stay on, I know it’s for the wrong reasons. Until now, everything has been hard – law school is hard, law firm applications are hard, qualifying in a litigation department is hard. If I stay, however, it’s because it is the easy choice. The comfortable choice. From there, it’s not a long way to stasis. To stagnation. To regression.

    So, if I stay, other people might still perceive me as the clever one. The one with the sharp suit. The one who appears to have it all. But I’m the one who needs to look at myself in the mirror every morning. I’m the one who is alone with my thoughts at night. And I will know that whatever others think of me, I’m a fraud, a phoney, a fake. Not the clever, ambitious one any more, but just keeping up appearances for the sake of it.

    That’s why I’m planning to leave and re-train as a teacher. Yes, a lower salary, a much lower salary, but something that I want to do because I want to do it, for the right reasons and not the wrong ones. I want to help people, to work in communities and to make a difference, and to make use of the long holidays to travel and to get involved in politics or professional writing. Really, I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and see someone looking back at me who took a chance, who didn’t settle for the easy route, and who is true to himself even if others arrive at their own conclusions and have their own thoughts as to why he did it.

    In my darker moments I wonder whether I’m going crazy, and what on earth I am doing thinking about quitting a job that I’ve never had any real complaints about. I worry that when I have difficult times in my new career (and there will be difficult times, annoyances, bureaucracy, internal politics and long hours in teaching), or if I run for office and don’t get the votes, or if I write something and don’t get published, I’ll look back to my time as a solicitor and wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to pack it in.

    1. Joe

      Thanks so much for the comment, I really appreciate it. So insightful and honest, it was a real pleasure to read.

      One point: I like to put off discussing a job, until someone has really explored and identified their Unique Genius. You like to teach. But do you need to become a (low paid) teacher? Or can you find a role in a corporation or non-profit or an organization where the “teaching” skills you enjoy and excel at (speaking, leadership, mentorship, helping) are required? There is a lot of teaching needed all over our world.

      I hope that helps. Keep us posted.


    2. Wow Joe. Your writing is so amazing. I think about so many of the same things that you do and it feels amazing to have read something by someone who just gets it and is brave enough to admit what they are thinking.

      I am in a large law firm in the city – I got the job everyone wanted. It is a beautiful glass building with the latest features and an amazing view. We have a whole client floor with waitors etc. When I walk through the lobby in my heels with my prada handbag strangers on the street see me and think I have made it. I have made it because I have wanted this job simce I was a little girl. I got honors in law at the best university. I come from lawyer royalty as my dad was a law professor at a top university and I have numerous lawyers in my family.

      When I first came to the firm I was bullied by my boss for no reason and it was horrible but I started playing the political game and moved to a new group that love me and where the hours are great. I have really made it but now I don’t want it.

      I am a kind happy extroverted person and being around depressed and angry people who don’t know how or refuse to mentor their peers or act as a team impacts me. Also being alone in an office all day makes me sad and go really crazy. I miss human interaction and being creative and efficient. The building im in feels like a glass fishball now in which Big Brother is watching me.

      My bosses are great and I am so greatful for the chances they have given me but I do not want their job. The thought of being them makes me sick. I feel guilty that I have changed my mind about law especially when I got offered a job in Tokyo today (for example).

      My grandmother died this year and there were 200 people at her funeral. She was not rich. Shecwas a poor single mother and a teacher at a public school. She gave up a lot of her time to counsel youth in crisis. People went to her funeral because she was a great loving lady and I realised that she is the person I want to be. Making money is important but making a lot of money does not mean you have lived a good life. So I think you should decide what type of person you want to be and follow your passions. If the law was not prestigious barely anyone would sign up for it. I know if I quit my bosses will say that I am yet another annoying gen Y who can’t stick anything out but I will just have to brush off their comnents and look ahead to my future.

  5. Casey,
    We’d be crazy not to figure out what makes us gasp (in a good way) and to rediscover who we are. You’re so right that lawyers tend to figure out how to please others; it’s probably how we got those good grades and pats on the back. And that creativity you mention can be a great way to rediscovering the wonder in life. Thanks for posting.


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