Am I Miserable in My Legal Job or Is It Just an Adjustment Stage?

Q: How do I know whether I am hopelessly miserable in my legal job or if I am just going through the adjustment stage that every young associate must endure with when beginning life at the firm?

I stress about whether I am working enough hours, whether I'm working efficiently, billing enough time, or spending more time than is necessary on a given matter. I stress about the quality of my work. I stress about my relationships with the partners and other associates I work with. I come home and I cry to my spouse or to myself at least once a week from exhaustion, stress, frustration and anger. When I'm feeling less out of control emotionally, I have to acknowledge to myself that my work has been mediocre at best, my billable hours are pitiful and I don't exactly feel like a part of the "team" among the lawyers I work with. What's worse, on those rare occasions when I can step back and look at what my job adds to the world, I can't say I even believe that its a good thing.

All of the career guides say that I should determine where my interests lie, but at this point, I think I would take a job cleaning nuclear waste sites if I could go to work without worrying about whether I am up to par.

As much as I feel like this job is not working out, I can't imagine leaving. I worry that I am just feeling sorry for myself. I don't want to be a quitter and I don't want to leave for a less promising career if the worst is almost over and I'm just about to hit that point in my career when the light bulb goes on and I wake up the next morning as a capable, satisfied and successful attorney.

Help.

A: There is no easy answer to your question, which is very well stated and highly compelling. This is exactly the type of situation that I deal with every day in my consulting practice. I expect that there may be several angles that you will need to explore in finding the right approach, and that it may take some time for you to work this through. I know that finding the patience to take a serious account of your dilemma will be difficult, because the level of emotional pain that you are experiencing is quite high. Like many lawyers who experience similar difficulties, you are no doubt eager to find the "right answers" and take corrective action immediately.

The following are several perspectives to consider as you proceed:

  1. Keep in mind that you are not alone in your frustrations and disappointment with your law practice. A high percentage of lawyers, if they are honest with themselves, will acknowledge a similar experience. Many suffer silently, afraid that an honest expression of their despair, except to a trusted spouse or friend, will jeopardize their career. This experience is not limited to new lawyers, but can occur to a lawyer at any stage in a career. In my practice, new associates and senior partners describe much the same experience.
  2. A first step is to rule out the possibility that you are suffering an emotional condition, such as depression or an anxiety disorder, that may have its source of origin outside of work. This is a difficult issue to address on your own; it is often helpful to talk this through with a trained counselor. If you wish to reflect on this issue on your own, a factor to take into account is whether you or any family member has a history of emotional distress. To determine whether or not your distress is "situational" (i.e., caused by your unhappy professional experience), consider how you feel in the early part of a weekend (before the Sunday night blues may set in) or on a vacation. Generally speaking, if you feel good when you are not at work, you are not likely to have a clinical condition. You may also wish to consider whether any non-work situation (e.g., your marriage or other family stressor) may be taking a toll on you.
  3. Vocational testing might be helpful in determining whether your personality, interests and values, as well as your aptitudes, are suited to law practice. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ("MBTI"), which can be found in abbreviated form on the Internet, is one useful instrument. Many of my most unhappy lawyer clients are "feeling" personality types, using MBTI typology, who stumbled their way into a "thinking" type of profession. "Feeling" types can find satisfying legal work, but it may not be easy.
  4. Of course you will wish to consider whether or not law practice in a setting other than a private firm might be more suitable for you. In Washington, D.C., where I live and work, many unhappy private practitioners find happy refuge in federal government service. Government service is also an option elsewhere, as well as other innovative careers that use legal background and skills to do something other than practice law.
  5. You may find useful any one of several useful reference guides on this subject. I recommend especially Deborah Arron's book, "What Can You Do With A Law Degree?" (in its 4th edition).
  6. Finally, of course, there is the possibility that you are simply adjusting to your new career and practice in the early, most difficult period. The answer to this question may take some serious reflection and soul-searching.

Remember, you are not alone.