Most of the lawyers I talk with enjoy practicing law, at least to some degree. They may not love it, but there’s some part of practice that works for them, whether it’s the intellectual challenge, the stand-up work that can harness the acting bug, or even the money. I don’t think I’ve ever met a lawyer who thinks her practice is just perfect, with no need for growth or adjustment, but the majority of lawyers aren’t desperately searching for a way out of the profession.
I find that one trait is almost universal among those who are unhappy in practice, though: a sense of being trapped, with no alternatives, no escape, just a decades-long future in the same miserable position.
The source of the misery varies, of course. Sometimes it’s working too many hours, with the accompanying pain of a distant or angry spouse/family, no time to develop a relationship, or feelings of burnout from trying to please clients, employers/partners, family, friends, etc., but lacking time to enjoy personal pursuits. Sometimes it’s feeling trapped in a job that doesn’t fit, because of the practice type, clients, colleagues, the way the firm (or company) operates, or because the money is an insufficient reward for the effort required and there’s no passion to balance it. And sometimes, it’s the result of years of academic competition without any particular direction, yielding a terrific but unwanted legal career.
Lawyers talk about golden handcuffs, and especially in view of law school debt, that’s a real phenomenon. However, I stand for the believe that no one is ever truly trapped. There’s always an option, usually a variety of them, though it may take the help of someone else to see what those options are.
Sometimes the choices only require an adjustment. For instance, burnout can often be countered with rigorous energy management. (If that intrigues you, read The Power of Full Engagementby Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.) Sometimes, the choices are much more difficult — a new job or practice, perhaps with a pay cut. And sometimes, the path is undefined and the first steps of moving into it are exhilarating and also terrifying.
So, for anyone who’s wondering: the trap, though it looks real, is an illusion. In Einstein’s words: “The significant problems we face can not be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them,” and One cannot alter a condition with the same mind set that created it in the first place.