I sometimes find myself having the same conversation with different colleagues several days in a row. It may be that my thoughts find their way into the conversation or that there are certain trends. It may be pure coincidence. In the most recent version of the repeating conversation phenomenon, I have heard colleagues complain about the nature of practice. And here is the three-fold refrain.
- The market is flooded with attorneys where I practice. And I cannot provide the service that I want because I am getting beaten on price by attorneys who will not do the same good job I would do.
- Every year the legislature/sentencing guidelines/judges/parole board/appellate courts (we could continue to fill in these blanks for a while) makes it harder for me to provide very much to clients.
- Client are so difficult. They have unrealistic expectations, and they want to micro-manage their case.
I have a couple of thoughts about what I am hearing. And when I approach it this way, I tend to gain a new perspective.
- The suffering is real for them. Every lawyer worked hard to get to law school, to get through law school, to pass the bar, and arrive at where they are. And yet things are not so good. If you google terms like “alternatives to the practice of law” or “leaving the law,” you will get quite a few hits. Many lawyers hate what they do. And I don’t know that this is anything new. When I decided to go to law school, there were more than a few lawyers who advised me to get out before it was too late. So, there is real suffering in this profession. One need look no further than the rate of substance abuse and mental health issues in the profession to see how real the suffering can be.
- Why do lawyers struggle in their practice? I think that it can be difficult to put on the lawyer hat and stop what is otherwise normal in the human experience. Conflict does not feel great in our personal lives, and it can be difficult to make it normal when we are playing a role. So, it may be that the conflict is hard to do on an ongoing basis. But the problem is deeper. We sought to do this for a living because there were things we wanted. We wanted to make a great living. We wanted to be successful (sometimes without actually defining what that word even means to us). All of us sought to be lawyer because there were things we desired from it. And if we were not careful, we could always notice a colleague who had a little more “success,” and we wanted to step it up. We have all experienced weeks (if not longer) where we feel is if we are drinking through a firehose. We get so busy and overwhelmed that we have lost the ability to reflect on what we are doing. We’re just going from fire to fire trying to put things out. We lack insight in to what exactly it is that we are doing. There are things we want, and we are not getting them.
- There is a way out. And it does not necessarily involve leaving the profession. Perhaps we are looking at this law thing the wrong way. I find that when I’m unhappy as a lawyer the this is what I am doing. As much as I thought that I had “arrived” the day I received my Bar results, I had not actually received a golden ticket in the mail. The profession will not satisfy my every craving or want in life. Neither the Bar nor any other institution can provide that. The trick, I have found, is to re-examine what I want and why the lack of it is making me unhappy.
Here are some of the small adjustments I make when I find myself overwhelmed or unhappy. I try to understand what is going on. Why is the judge/client/family member upset? I try to remember that they were in crisis when they came to me and that they are all going through something stressful themselves. In fact, the stress of being a defendant, a defendant’s parent, or even a judge trying to manage a calendar is likely more stressful than my job at the moment.
I can think about things differently. We create our reality even as we describe it. And in our constant description of it, we perpetuate it. So, it might help to describe a different reality. It can be important to think about how we are thinking about being a lawyer. And when the client or judge is yelling or speaking to us unkindly, we can choose to speak softly or compassionately. And even if we must speak an uncomfortable truth, we can speak it thoughtfully.
We should make sure that we know what is motivating us. A few weeks ago, a civil attorney in a matter related to a criminal case I am handling did something that I believe to be unethical. I contemplated taking a punitive measure in my case and almost did it several times. But ultimately, I was reminded by myself and others that I trust that the action I contemplated would have been for me and not for the client. My motives were wrong. And my contemplated effort would have been misdirected.
And if all else fails, the best thing for us is to take five minutes, go outside for walk, and refocus. I do not believe that I have ever regretted taking too long to answer an email that I was angry about. There have been plenty that I wish I had waited before I sent. I’m not saying to take a month off (but maybe we should). But we can always take five minutes to re-focus and clear our minds before we act.
We have chosen a difficult profession. But we are lucky that we have the opportunity to do what we do. We can take some steps to make our experience of it even better for us and those we serve.