Q. When I started practicing, I was excited to represent clients, try cases, and resolve serious problems. Now I feel like I’ve lost my “mojo,” lack the energy I once had, and dread going to the office. Any advice?
A. With unrelenting deadlines, the pressure of billable hours, and the constant demands of clients in crisis, it’s easy to understand why lawyers face higher levels of anxiety, depression, addiction and job dissatisfaction than most other professions.
In my own career, there were many times when I let the profession overwhelm me. Starting at a large law firm in my early 20s, I learned the importance of the billable hour in an environment that rewarded those who sacrificed other aspects of their lives to put their clients first. Late nights. Weekends. All-nighters. These were the trappings of seemingly successful lawyers whose priorities matched the objectives of the firm.
As a single man striving to succeed in private practice, a one-dimensional life devoted exclusively to the law was an asset. But as life evolves, this asset became a personal liability that hurt other aspects of my life and left me anxious, depressed and disillusioned.
It took me 20 years and a failed marriage to learn that our clients do not come first. We do. Our families do. Our health does. If we sacrifice these aspects of our lives for the sake of our clients, we will lose the passion, the energy and the stability we need to serve them well.
To reignite our passion for a profession we worked so hard to join, we must carefully examine the trajectory of our careers. But we must recognize that a rewarding career requires more than a license to practice law.
The pursuit of happiness requires a balanced perspective that pays equal attention to our lives beyond the law:
➤ Get Back to Basics — if you feel unfulfilled, ask yourself why you became a lawyer in the first place. Are you doing the type of work you envisioned when you started? If not, are you willing to leave a “comfort zone” that no longer satisfies you to venture into areas of practice that would?
➤ Search for Meaning — by the end of your career, will you have more to show for it than completed timesheets? As lawyers, we have a unique opportunity to “change the world,” or at least a small part of it, for the better. Even if your “day job” has you handling cases that don’t excite you, are there other opportunities to use your skills on matters that do? Though we often look at pro bono work as a way to “give back,” they provide intangible rewards for those wishing to make their mark on the causes they believe in. By contributing to society in this manner, we find purpose and a strong sense of fulfillment.
➤ Just Say “No” — if you don’t like your clients or the cases they bring, you have the power to change both with a single word: “No.” Many of us lack the courage to use it for fear of lost revenue. But saying “yes” to things which make us unhappy will cost us much more.
➤ Find Balance — too many of us take perverse pride in a work ethic that sacrifices our own needs for the sake of our clients. Spending long hours at the office, we make little time for our families, exercise, sleep, recreation, vacations and the intangibles that lead to happy and healthy lifestyles. If your life is focused entirely on your cases, this one-dimensional approach will leave you resenting the very clients you wish to serve. Without the energy and passion you once had, you cannot serve their interests as effectively and, in the end, both you and your clients will suffer.
➤ Adjust Your Attitude — if we dwell on the parts of our lives that leave us wanting more, are we ignoring things we ought be grateful for? Are we ignoring our strengths and focusing on our shortcomings? If we feel hopeless, are we honestly confronting things we have the ability to change? An attitude of gratitude and an honest approach to things we can do to improve our lives are critical to achieving our goals and fulfilling our purpose.
Like any journey, our careers take us on a long and winding road. Along detours we never planned, we will discover areas we may dislike and find unexpected treasures in places we never thought to look. At times, we must “pay our dues” on uncomfortable toll roads that give us the experience we need to reach our desired destination.
But if our destination is happiness, sacrificing our health and wellbeing will deplete the energy we need to get there. For the sake of our clients and ourselves, this personal toll is a price we must never pay.