I knew not long into practicing law that I made a career mistake. But, I felt trapped. My ego, my financial situation, my student loans, my expectations of myself, the expectations of others — all of these things made me feel as though I had no choice but to make a go of it. So, made a go of it I did for 12 years. Hell, I knew I hated being a lawyer when I started this blog, but all you have to do is read the title I chose – ProfMomEsq – or the “About Me” page to see how I nonetheless wrapped up law practice into my personal identity.
It probably isn’t worth it to rehash all the reasons why I don’t like law practice. There are too many reasons, and I’ve written about it before. I suppose some of the reasons apply to lawyers in general, but many apply only to me. The truth – which took me a very long time to realize – is that the reasons I hate being a lawyer are neither “right” nor “wrong.” They just are. So, ultimately, I had only a simple choice: did I want to be happy or unhappy? Pretty easy, right?
Yet, it took me 12 years — 12 YEARS — to find the strength not just to say I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore but to actually do something about it. You know what I did? I quit being a lawyer. Friday is my last day. I sent my goodbye email to my colleagues yesterday. I start an entirely new, non-lawyer job on Monday. And while I am a little nervous, I am mostly so thrilled that I feel as though I float down the hallways of the firm now, leaving a trail of pixie dust and the vague scent of warm chocolate chip cookies in my wake. I keep looking at myself in the mirror with this feeling of relief and surprise that – yep – I still exist even though I jettisoned the bar card.
As sunshine-y and rainbow-y as I am for myself, I can’t help but be sad for the lawyers I’ve talked to this week – colleagues, opposing counsel, clients – who remark about how jealous or envious they are of my decision to leave the profession or how brave I am to take this step. It wasn’t bravery that got me here. It was desperation. And, the envy is wasted energy. I want to tell each of them to spend that energy finding their passions. But, I know that the words are not enough. Like losing weight, quitting smoking or ending a bad relationship, leaving a career takes will power, and it is so hard to find the will. This is true even if your head understands that the change would be “good” for you, because we easily confuse “good” the feeling with “good” the outcome. Eating chocolate cake feels good. The rush of nicotine feels good. The momentary affection of someone you desperately want to love you feels good. But, that kind of “good” works some mischievous chemical voodoo on our brains and hearts that makes what is truly “good” (e.g, healthy) for us seem less desirable – to hell with logic and reason.
I had to get to the very edge of my sanity to understand this and – more importantly – to do something about it. So, while I listen to the stream of lawyers expressing envy or jealousy at my escape from the billable-hours grind, my heart aches for them. The answer is so simple it is literally unbelievable: do something else. But, we humans are so good at “justifying” where we are when we believe we are stuck. I won’t make as much money. I still have student loans. It will be better when I make partner. My clients need me. I don’t want to waste my degree. My family/friends/peers will think I’m a loser/quitter/weak/stupid.
What I learned (thanks to the happy coincidence of meeting a social worker who “got” me) is to stop evaluating my life choices as “right” or “wrong” and to start evaluating them as “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
Well, hey there, you know what’s not healthy? Spending more time doing a soul-sucking job that you absolutely hate than you do with the family and friends you love. It makes you a surprisingly unpleasant person. Paradoxically for me, it also made me put up with a lot of crap that I never in a million years would imagine tolerating.
Many folks I know are fond of the expression, “God gives you only what you can handle.” I don’t think that’s true. I have complicated feelings about God, but even when I’m open to the idea of a supreme being who has a plan for my life, I would have to believe that God grossly overestimates my threshold capacity for stress if he thinks I can “handle” the competing demands of law practice, raising two children, being a wife, addressing financial setbacks and learning/navigating the ins and outs of special education in a public school bureaucracy. Rather, I think God/life/karma/the universe deliberately presents us with events we can’t handle as a means of getting our attention and forcing us to make a decision. If I really bought into the God-gives-you-only-what-you-can-handle philosophy, I honestly believe I would be dead. I would’ve struggled mightily to continue to balance all those things, and I would’ve had a heart attack – a literal, chest-crushing heart attack. Instead, I saw it (eventually and after a lot of therapy) as a message: decide what is most important and focus on that.
My children are important to me. My husband is important to me. I am important to me. Being a lawyer is not important to me. I don’t view working as optional because of our family’s financial situation, but “needing” to work doesn’t mean I “need” to be a lawyer. And, funny enough, there are actually other (better) paying and more satisfying jobs out there!
So … what’s my point? Don’t waste your life doing what you think is “right,” when you can dedicate your life to doing what is healthy. Don’t confuse what feels good with what is good. Start small – plan every day to do just one thing that is healthy for you, and watch it snowball. Two months ago, I walked into an intensive outpatient therapy group for my panic disorder, and I stunned a room full of people dealing with abuse, addiction, disorders and depression into absolute silence when I told the story of my life. Five weeks later, I left that group hearing the applause of its members when I announced I had a new job and was on the path to a new career. That happened because every day I had to commit to doing something better, and every day I was held accountable for it by others until I was strong enough to hold myself accountable.
I know a lot of you reading this are balancing or juggling your own competing responsibilities, so I challenge you to find one thing – no matter how big or small – you will commit to doing today to help make your life better. Not your child’s life, not your spouse’s life, not you parent’s life — YOUR LIFE. Then, feel free to share it if you want some accountability.
In the meantime, I’ll be over here, thinking up a new name for this blog.