The unhappy lot of the lawyer

“It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.” — Thomas Merton, No Man is An Island

The (deeply) unhappy lawyer: been there; done that; got the slightly creased T-Shirt. (And I take no pride in the fact that, in the process, I forgot who the bloody hell I was and ignored so many obvious relationships.)

Perhaps it’s me, but I still don’t get it; namely, the familiar obsession with PEP, the allure of partnership (see PEP), faux marketing speak and a slew of other non-client centric items that do nothing to address the most pressing issue of our day: people who go to work simply for the money, without any hope of ever connecting soul with role.

Why is it important (…or perhaps you couldn’t give a fig)?

Because, believe it not (‘ha bloody ha’), happy or heart-centred people, who ipso facto enjoy what they do are: (i) more productive — and not just in an economic sense — and (ii) deliver that elusive WOW in client service that’s so often lacking. When I say WOW, I don’t mean some cheap euphemism for ‘snag ‘em and bag ‘em’, but, rather, a means to connect a firm’s values, people and passion with a willingness to go beyond the expected, beyond the extra mile and literally love what they do so that (almost) there’s no clear division between work and play. (This isn’t some nirvana I’m talking about but an organisation where people care because they care and not because prima facie it’s making them rich etc.)

You might think this militant piece is informed solely by my own hang ups. It’s not. In fact, it stems from some fairly intensive reading that I did last week that, if anything, only reinforces my fundamental belief that unless and until the profession changes the narrative — profit to people — that whatever market forces proliferate, the lot of the unhappy lawyer will remain the same.

And yes, I see how circular this is, and there are a million and one things a firm could look at, but when everyone spends so much time talking up the USP, ROI and excellence and still gets the same result (which is fine for some!), then, surely, it’s about time something else was investigated.

At this juncture, I could jump on the mindfulness bandwagon — every other sector seems to think it the tool to fix all ills — but, for the moment, I’ll resist the temptation. No, the starting point has to be a more open dialogue about mental health, wellbeing, the meaning of success, right thinking, i.e. the place of kindness, and the competitive makeup of lawyers that seems central to their disposition of being such a miserable lot.

I like to think of this as a contrast between the shadow (of our personality) and the light. I’m not suggesting that we can drive out all shadow issues, but I am making a play for an environment within firms where one person’s frailties isn’t someone else’s weapon of choice to block promotion or the development of a more rounded person.

And yes I’m sure there are firms where fear doesn’t rule the day, but there are way too many who have fostered an environment that deforms the very character that could, if applied in pursuit of WOW etc., make them great. (Is that too much to expect?)

But a conversation is just that — a conversation. And even if you managed to see a brave new legal world where the great and the good were prepared to open up about depression, bullying or repression, I’m not sure it would make much difference to those people in the trenches. They’d always be thinking ‘that’s fine for you to say that as someone who’s made it, but I value my nascent career too much to speak out’.

In my case, in the early days when I knew no better, I spoke up. But I quickly realised that it marked me out not just to management but to my colleagues who didn’t want to bathe in my view of the firm. And frankly I’m no isolationist meaning that I thought it better to keep my head down and say as little as possible, even if it meant I was dying from the inside out. Trust me, even promotion doesn’t get you much further or a slew of client wins, despite what the Rainmaker Manual says.

In the end, I jumped. Not completely out of the profession but I took off the practising cloak, knowing that I could no longer bury my true self beneath the BS and fear. Even if I changed firms I knew things would be no different.

What about you?

Do you face the prospect of remaining stuck in a role that you no longer joy?

I suspect the answer is yes. In fact, for many lawyers, even the ones that have had the patience to read this far, they’ll either dismiss this wellbeing stuff as Woo Woo nonsense or accept that to earn what they earn they’re willing to sacrifice as much of their true self as needed to make sure they can continue the same lifestyle as hitherto.

That’s fine. Seriously. It’s your life. But I don’t believe people can forever stuff down the real you — the person that stands on their own two feet — without something breaking. (My reading reconfirmed this with high levels of alcohol addiction, depression and a general melancholy.)

There are many things I would recommend you do but, at this stage, I’ll resist the holier than though temptation. However, if nothing else, you have come to a place where you feel sufficiently in command to make a decision. How that arises will be a matter of self-inquiry, largely driven by the need to connect with your innate beingness. You might speak to someone, attend an event, listen to someone online or read a book. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is you commit to change, accept that life is short and even if you’re prepossessed of the need to please everyone, your soul, if ignored for too long, will eventually bring you to your senses, whether you like it or not.

In my case, I resolved to take the insight I gleaned from being hospitalised in March 2010, studying Zen Buddhism, non-dualism and the writings of people who had been there, done it etc. but with a different reflection and resolved that my life and those I was responsible for were too important for me to be miserable all the time.

Am I a better person for it? Hell yeah! But not better where I’ve swapped one label (lawyer) for another (CEO and coach). It’s better in the sense that I’m connected deeply to who I am. That’s not to say I don’t get out of whack from true self more often than I would like but now I at least feel I’m standing on firmer ground than the place I came to inhabit as a lawyer.

One last thing. I’m here to help. That’s not a sales pitch but a genuine offer to anyone who feels that speaking to me might help their current predicament. (See my contact page if this is of interest.)