Turning Your Life Around


Lawyers often sense that their lives have gone off track; they just don’t know how to fix them.  They’re hit by daily demands that make it difficult to find their true north.

There are the demands that hurtle at them from the lives they occupy – the boss that’s yammering for more billable hours, families that feel upset by all the hours they spend at work or you-name-it-crap from this frenzied world.

Then there are the demands that emanate from somewhere inside of them; the part of themselves – their true selves – that wants a life with less stress, more meaning and a sense of connectedness to other people.  While they pine for such a life while looking outside their law office windows, such reverie gives them a brief respite from the grind.  But after the moment has passed, there’s an abiding sorrow.  A sense that something has been lost that can’t be found.

Perpetual stress can keep lawyers from ever dealing – in a constructive and persistent way – with what they really want in life. They check their Blackberry’s more than check in with themselves. They don’t really know what they want most of the time; they just know that it’s not this.  Emotional pain may be leaking out of them; for some lawyers, this has been going on for years.  The pain might be mitigated in healthy (e.g. exercise) or unhealthy (e.g. drinking, drugs) ways.  But, it will not go away – until they turn around and face themselves.

Lawyers need to become conscious of the choices they’re making during their waking hours.  Of course, there’re exceptions, but the majority of lawyers have choices.  They aren’t victims that are being forced to stay at their jobs.  They’re choosing to stay at their jobs and do the work they’re paid to do. 

Most lawyers, however, just don’t see it this way.  They feel stuck in their jobs and lives with few viable alternatives.  As odd as it may sound, they feel like victims.  Friends of mine who aren’t lawyers scoff at my observation:  “Lawyers victims?  Give me a break.”  Nonetheless, it’s true on an emotional level for many lawyers.

Lawyers can feel this way because (a) the “golden handcuffs” in which they’re just making too much money to quit; (b) they’re in too much debt; (c) they’d rather complain than face the abject fear that comes with making tough changes; or (d) they’re simply paralyzed by stress, anxiety or depression.

However, by turning from a stuck-victim status to a choice-maker posture they can begin to awaken to their true potential. They might have to make small changes in their lives or maybe a closet full of whoppers.  Perhaps they’ll have to go back to the drawing board of their lives and sift through and separate what’s really important versus what’s trivial. This will take time; let nobody fool you on this one.  People in our country are basically impatient; we want relief from our distress NOW.  But, meaningful and realistic changes never seem to unfold this way. That’s just the facts-o-life. 

Turning your life around may come down to this:  What are you willing to do to change your life?  Lots of people — not just lawyers — know that their lives aren’t working.  The same group approaches their lives with all the right intentions of changing it for better.  Most, however, will not change despite the chorus of voices from within telling them to do so.

I had a friend who would call me once a month and lament how unhappy he was.  I’d listen for thirty minutes and then he, having discharged his discomfort, would say goodbye only to repeat this weather pattern about thirty days later.

Finally, six month in this telephonic waltz, I said “Tom, what are you willing to do to change your about life?”  The question must have stunned him like a taser because there was silence —  a dead silence — on the other end of the line.  He evaded the question, said we would have to get together soon for lunch and hung up.  Tom never called again.

Tom didn’t really want to change – – he wanted to bitch, a common past-time for many lawyers.  He wanted my sympathetic ear to appreciate just how much he’d been screwed over by opposing counsel, an irate judge or his cranky wife.  I had sympathy for Tom, but also a good deal of frustration because I realized that I wasn’t really helping him.

I would ask you the reader:  “What are you willing to do to change your life” Are you willing to the feel the free floating anxiety that’s inevitable if you are to start changing your life?  The longer the discontent goes on, the bigger the changes will have to be.  The longer we delay, the bigger the kick in the pants from Life to wake us up.

Yes, work is only a part of life and many lawyers no doubt find outlets of meaning and joy along other avenues.  However, as Gregg Levoy, author of Callings:  Finding and Following an Authentic Life, such sizing up of our days miscalculates the energy and time we must invest in our daily jobs:

“Work is merely one of the arenas in which you play the game – the one the Gods are watching from the press-box atop Mount Olympus while sipping mint juleps.  It is only one of the arenas in which you express your humanity, search for meaning, play out your destiny and dreams, contribute your energies and gifts to the world and spend your precious nick of time.  It is also an arena in which you spend two-thirds of your waking lifetime and it is legitimate to love your work!  Life is a thousand times too short to bore yourself.  If someday your life does flash in front of your eyes, the very least you want it to do is hold your interest.”

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15 thoughts on “Turning Your Life Around

  1. One of the really great things about this website is that it seems to penetrate through our own thoughts. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if Daniel is writing directly to me. Here is one such instance of that.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have asked myself the same question. I complain, but what am I doing?

    But then, I have a day like to today.

    I will spare everyone the details, and indeed, I have to. But let me add the following thoughts.

    Why don’t I quit? Is it the golden handcuffs? Well, they’re not that golden.

    But, on the other hand, what else can I do. I’ve applied for other jobs, and looked and looked, but few offers are coming. When they do come, they’re pay a fraction of what I’m not receiving. Granted, what I’m now paid only puts me in the middle of the middle class, but I live where I live, and moving isn’t highly realistic. Like Zhivago, in the novel, I find that I can’t “leave Russia”. So here I stay, and endure.

    Locally, there’s few middle class jobs available, so I suffer through, looking for something else.

    But despairing.

    And part of the despair is economic. What else can I do?

    Part of it has to do with my family. My wife doesn’t understand my grief, and perhaps it’s asking too much to ask her. My mother, my father has passed on, does not gasp it either. “Your lucky to have a job in this economy” my mother seriously notes. “Maybe if you were paid more money”, or “maybe if you took more time off”, I’ll hear from my wife, who has behind that comment both desperate support, desperate hope, and fear.

    And, behind it, is the question, “why don’t I like this?” I’m smart, I’m good at this, why don’t I like it? Am I a hopeless dreamer? Why would I despair of working at a career that people claim offers so much? Why can’t I see it?

    I really don’t know.

    So, I look on, hoping to find something else.

    But, after 20 years, I know I won’t. I’m stuck.

  2. And if I am stuck in this swamp, how can I fool myself I like it?

    I’m not joking. I’d rather be delusional, if you will, or perhaps re-engineer my thinking, if I have no other choice. And I don’t know that I do.

  3. I could have written this! Do you know why? Because I wore the golden handcuffs, and I despaired, and I bitched, and I drank a bit too much to deal with it all. Finally, I simply walked out. I spent a couple of weeks in a haze wondering what the hell I’d done, thinking I’d lost my mind. I supported my family! I just gave up a $200k a year job in the worst economy in decades!

    But now, a few months later, I know that you can survive it. And thrive. I scrapped EVERYTHING in my life that didn’t work–I moved to where the cost of living didn’t require my biglaw job, left a marriage that didn’t work anymore, and I haven’t been happier in 5 years. It isn’t easy, but how do you want to look back at your life?

  4. As for me, for a renewed effort, I cut off all distractions at work, and all thoughts that there were a way out, and dove into it. Oddly, it was better. Indeed, I was not only more productive, but this resigned approach wasn’t depressing. Perhaps this is the solution. We’ll see.

  5. Yeoman–I’m still a lawyer, but I am taking a very different approach to it. I don’t think that the law is the problem, necessarily. We went to law school for a reason; this is interesting and mentally stimulating stuff. And it’s important. We like to be challenged, and we like to be important. What we don’t like are the personal and emotional trade-offs that law firms (large ones at least, anyway) demand for the privilege of practicing law. I propose that those trade-offs are not necessary to have a pleasant, if not rewarding legal career.

    What are the distractions you cut off at work? I’m not judging, really, but being resigned doesn’t sound like being happy, it sounds like being numb to me. I think that’s what I did too, and I know a LOT of others who are in the same boat. It does work, at least for a while. But this is the only life you have, make the best you can out of it, don’t just resign yourself to it.

  6. BigLawRefugee, how is your approach different?

    I’ll confess, I didn’t go to law school because I thought it was important, and I think that few of us do. And while I found the law in law school to be interesting and mentally stimulating, that’s not why I went either. And, while it’s probably a product of my personality, I don’t even grasp the concept of “liking to be challenged”. Indeed, I frankly do not believe that people like to be challenged. I do believe that people like to excel, or at least a lot of people like to excel, at things they like and are good at (but I think a lot of people are good at things they don’t like doing). But I don’t think people like to be challenged at all and I see no evidence of that anywhere. Most people prefer not to be challenged if at all possible, and hate it when they are. Competitive people (and I am not one) like to compete but this is actually different. Exploration of new areas, while difficult, is something some people like to do, but that is due to the love of learning, and has nothing to do with being challenged. Challenge most people in most settings, including the law, and you’ll make them angry.

    I think a high percentage of lawyers are there as it’s a compromise career. That it is a compromise career is what sets so many of us up for misery. They liked all sorts of things, and the law’s a dabblers paradise, up until you have to actually practice it, at which time that same dabbling instinct can be come a delight or a nightmare. I suspect very few lawyers have any real interest in the law, but rather they’re smart, but not interested in any one thing strongly. They lack that interest in one thing that many people in other careers have, so they wonder into the law, which is an interest in nothing in particular.

    Or, alternatively, they’re interested in things that they can’t make a living at. That’d be my case, partially. I like the region I’m from intensely, and would care to live no other place (one of the things I truly hate about the law is traveling, I have no desire at all to see a lot of places I have to go to, if I travel a great distance.) I’m from a highly rural region, I myself am intensely rural, but I’m not wealthy enough to make a living just farming, and it’s now unlikely I ever will be. I’d love to be left alone all day, or only have to work with livestock (seriously), and never talk to a soul with a problem all day, but I can’t make a living doing that. So the law’s a fall back. I have to work at something, and the law is one field that actually exists everywhere. Entering it seemed like a good idea, as I could stay where I am (which was correct), and it seemed interesting in a dabbling sort of way, which is incorrect in my case in actual practice, as I didn’t count on the intense stress and win or die competition, which I do not like at all.

    Now, however, I’m a long time in, and there’s nothing else I can seem to do. I can’t fund just farming, and I have no other skills. I’d hate living in a larger city than this one, so I’m regionally stuck as well. What I wish I could do was to have the interest in the abstract nature of the law I once had as a student and as an early lawyer, but seeing the meat grinder nature of the application of the law has taken that away from me, and I don’t know how to get that back. Numbness may be right, or delusion, but that’d be better than agony.

  7. My approach has changed in that I’ve moved from a huge market to a much smaller one and gone out on my own, at least for now, and I’m making connections with others who are doing the same.

    I think you have misunderstood what meant by liking to be challenged–I meant being challenged by learning new things and solving complex problems. I think that’s true of any lawyer, otherwise we never would have made it through law school. It sounds like we are different in that, at its core, I like what I do–I just hated big law firm life and the corresponding lack of control it gave me over my life. In order to change that, though, I had to make a lot of other changes. Since my big-city life required my big firm salary, I left many a dear friend, all my professional contacts, and a beautiful house behind. The interesting thing that happened, however, is dear friends and good business contacts continue to support you no matter where you are. I am also making new friends and business contacts where I am now, and I am growing to love it, even though the winter weather is really making me wish for spring.

    However, like you said, you got into law because you could make a living at it, and do it anywhere, even in a rural area. But clearly your firm isn’t the only place to practice law? What about going out on your own? You say you don’t like the stress or win or die competition, but not every aspect of the law involves that–at least to the same degree. Court-appointed child advocates, for example, don’t have the same type of litigation pressure, and are found everywhere. Plus, you can’t argue with the side benefit of doing something good. Maybe you could expand upon your idea of what it means to be a lawyer.

    Another thing I think it’s hard for lawyers to do is not to be solely defined by their jobs. So buy a horse and spend some time doing what you love, and make sure you have that outlet. You never know what that might lead to.

  8. I have a horse, simply no time to ride him, or not very much. But the rest of your suggestions give me a lot to think about, and I will think about them. Thanks for your replies.

    The hard part of switching to another area of the law, I think, is that it would require me to go out on my own, and gamble on their being enough work for me and the family. That’s a scary proposition, and I know my wife would be concerned. Another aspect of that is that I hate to think of investing in a business that I really would drop immediately, if I could. But perhaps those are irrational fears.

  9. By the way, BigLawRefugee and Daniel, thanks for putting up with me, as I realize that my replies can be somewhat argumentative. An occupational hazard, I suppose. I’d like to argue myself out of what I feel, but I can’t.

    Over time, I think the last time I really liked the law was when I was a law student. The first five year or so of being a lawyer I thought that when I was a partner, I’d feel better about it. That turned out to be wholly incorrect.

    As I’ve stayed at this, a lot of the assumptions I had about the law in the first place have evaporated, which I think the Times article sort of summarizes. Some evaporated while I was a law student, truth be known getting into a law school and getting through one is extraordinary easy, which I think contributes to the low human quality of many lawyers today. That easiness was a surprise, but the fun intellectual quality of the topic was also a surprise. Since then, I’ve found that a lot of the members of this profession are just mean, not smart, and it’s really a very base occupation, at least in litigation. People hate us, lawyers hate each other, it’s all fighting, and I really do not think, as a profession, that we help people much, if at all. When we do, we carry their hopes and dreams on our backs, which is a terrible burden. At least litigation is a nasty, dull, line of work, with little reward, and exceedingly long hours.

    I wish I could go back 23 years and never darken the door of the law school. I wish I could get out now. But that’s proving to be difficult, to say the least. I’m happy for you guys, who at least seem to still like some aspects of this line of work, which I do not think I’ll ever be able to do again.

  10. Loving obama’s passion for energy but I’m doubtful this initiative will help the economy at all during this next year. I know i’m pessimistic, but I think there is a lot more bad to come before we see the economy recover. Lots of foreclosures to come this next year…

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