By Goli Kalkhoran
Ok, obviously, the headline is a little dramatic. I’m not here to convince everyone to quit the law. If you love your career, congratulations! I’m genuinely happy for you and so relieved that there are people like you to do this work because it is necessary.
But this article is for those who find themselves miserable. I know there are quite a few of you because there’s this funny phenomenon in the legal profession: most people are miserable and no one seems to think it is worth talking about.
You don’t even think about it when you’re in it. It all seems normal. But everyone at work is miserable. All of your lawyer friends hate their jobs. We all try to talk prospective law students out of attending law school. You rarely (if ever) meet a lawyer that LOVES what they are doing. We simply seem to tolerate it.
And we all commiserate about how miserable we are: about the hours, the partners, the clients. And no one bats an eye. No one stops to question why everyone is staying in a situation that makes them so unhappy.
Instead, we have discussions about substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and even suicide in the profession. We hear stats, take CLEs, and learn of the various resources available to combat these serious disorders.
But all we’re really talking about are band-aids. We talk about coping mechanisms and how to deal with these issues. But we rarely, if ever, talk about the fact that the profession itself might be the cause of so many of these issues. Because if we did, we’d realize that no amount of job-hopping or coping mechanisms are going to make up for the fact that the job itself is not right for so many of us.
I realize there are a lot of reasons for not talking about it. We’re raised in a society that constantly affirms that work is not fun but you do it anyway. We look down on the woo-woo hippy culture of “following your dreams”. That’s for children (and Instagram Influencers). In the real world, we have to work to pay bills and support our family. It is just the way it is. Or so we’re told.
The expectation is compounded by the fact that so many of us are burdened with crushing debt from law school and that we are technically “successful” in society’s eyes. It is no wonder we genuinely feel stuck. It seems almost cruel to mention that we should try to find something else.
I get it. I was there too. I nearly flipped over the table when my husband casually suggested that I should find a job in a different field if I was so unhappy. What?! The nerve.
But he was right. And I did.
It didn’t happen quickly. It took me almost a year to admit, mostly to myself, that I wanted to walk away from the one thing that I had worked for my whole life. I worried about what people would say, about the opportunities I was giving up, whether I’d end up living in a van down by the river, etc. I fretted about it all. Until I realized that working for the next 30-40 years in a profession that was making me miserable in order to have “security” was insane. So I quit.
The most liberating and terrifying thing you can learn is that you have agency. You can leave anytime you want. You choose to stay. And once you accept that, you can either choose to make your career into something that you don’t despise every day or you can leave (or you can continue to stay miserable. You do you, boo.).
A friend once described lawyers as “caged birds with the door open” and I can’t think of a more appropriate description. Now, this is where you jump up and down and scream but, but, but…I have debt, I’ll never make this salary anywhere else, I’ve worked so hard to get to this point, I’ll look like a failure, it’s not that easy, what if it doesn’t work?!
All valid concerns. And, yet, none of them should stop you.
I interview people weekly (with no shortage of guests in sight) on my podcast, Lessons from a Quitter, who’ve had all those same concerns but were able to figure out a way to quit and start over. Is it hard? Sure. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
We are spending 60-70% of our lives doing something we actually hate because someone told us that’s what we have to do. Our health suffers, our families suffer, our friendships suffer and, yet, we push on because the fear of the unknown keeps us in the miserable.
A couple of months ago, I read the heartbreaking op-ed by the widow of a Big Law associate who took his own life. Obviously, there are many factors that play into such a tragic outcome but she explicitly blamed his work as playing a major part. In one portion, she described how she had begged him to just quit and move to Mammoth to figure something else out.
Anyone reading that gut-wrenching article would unequivocally say that they wished he had taken her up on it. Go. Do anything else. Work in a Starbucks or wait tables. Who cares?! His life was way more important than anything keeping him there.
And, yet, I wonder why it has to get to that point? Why aren’t you deserving of that same sentiment? Why isn’t it enough to just say you are unhappy and not waste the next 20, 30, 40 years doing something you don’t like?
It doesn’t. You are. And it is. You just have to get out of your own head. I hope you do.