“I have to sit in the car and give myself a pep talk so I can go into the office every morning. At the end of the day, I often sit in my car and cry.”
This is what one coaching client shared during a recent call. From the outside, no one would guess this was her inner world. She has built a successful boutique family law practice. She has a loving husband, a 5-year-old son and a beautiful home—yet she struggles with longing for something more. I often see lawyers in this position: searching for meaning in their work and struggling with a deep sense of discontentment.
Lawyers are goal-oriented, and we tend to excel at following the rules. Do well in high school, get into a good college, do well on the LSAT, get into a good law school, graduate, pass the bar, get a job at a law firm, put in your dues and make partner. We falsely believe that following the script, checking all the boxes and earning the brass ring will lead to a career filled with a sense of meaning and purpose.
When I graduated from law school, I thought being a trial lawyer was my life’s work. There were certainly aspects of trial work that I loved—the client interactions, the strategy, the legal analysis. However, I loathed the incivility, the endless fights over things that really didn’t matter in the end and living in a world of conflict.
Even though I felt this early on, I told myself to just tough it out and continue doing it. Other lawyers told me: “Just give it time, it will get easier.” Eventually, it did get easier. The last-minute filing the night before Thanksgiving, the efforts of my opposing counsel to bury my client in discovery—all the maddening games lawyers play just became routine.
However, over time, I also noticed an inner yearning not to be a trial lawyer. It just wasn’t right for me. I realized my skills were better suited for finding the middle ground, helping clients find solutions outside of litigation and being a peacemaker.
WHICH ROAD TO TAKE?
When at a crossroads of choosing more of the same or taking the path of uncertainty, it’s helpful to have some framework or strategies for choosing the road less traveled.
As we head into the new year, it’s a wonderful opportunity to pause, take inventory and become more intentional about identifying your values and aligning your life with what is truly important. Mindfulness and meditation, as well as working with a life coach, were incredibly helpful as I figured out how to travel that unexplored path.
I have found that carving out a few minutes each day to sit in contemplation gives me an opportunity to realign myself, my time and my activities to my own values. It makes it easier to notice when I am out of balance, when boundaries have been crossed and when I need to make small course corrections.
It’s a way to acknowledge that your own well-being matters and to dedicate a bit of time to it.
Here are four steps for creating a more intentional, joyful and satisfying life for 2019.
Acknowledge. Change isn’t possible until you are willing to acknowledge where you are and how you feel about your current situation. Often, lawyers will resist even admitting that they are unhappy or that their life feels out of control or misaligned because this carries with it uncomfortable emotions. For example, if I admit that I don’t want to be a lawyer, does that mean I have to quit? If I quit, how will I pay my mortgage? How will I pay back my student loans?
Acknowledging involves embracing all of those fears and emotions. Grab a piece of paper and write down everything you’re feeling about your life right now. When fears or other uncomfortable emotions arise, jot those down, too.
Be curious. Once you’ve identified the parts of your life that perhaps need adjustment or you’re dissatisfied with, become intensely curious about them. For example, if, like my coaching client, you have to give yourself a pep talk before walking into the office, get to know the why. Is it certain aspects of your practice? Is it who you work with? Is it the type of cases? Type of clients? Is there perhaps a misalignment between the work you thought you’d be doing and the work you’re actually doing? What are the pain points?
At this stage, you don’t need to solve the problem or make any changes. You’re simply gathering data or facts. But also look for the silver lining. When in your day do you notice a spark of joy? When you feel at ease? Are there times when you are able to connect with a deeper sense of purpose? It may be helpful to do this exercise daily over several weeks. Buy a journal, and each day jot down the positive experiences as well as the pain points. Write down as much detail about each event as possible.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on actionable strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation. Jeena practices bankruptcy law with her husband at JC Law Group in San Francisco.