Tom, a corporate lawyer, was ready to jump ship. He hated his life. In particular, he couldn’t stand his job. He felt his work was meaningless, serving no greater good.
Elizabeth was exhausted by years of big law time demands. She loved the idea of practicing law—working to help clients move through difficult life situations—but her passion was being crushed under the weight of pressures placed on her by a few toxic coworkers and opposing counsel.
Chris had an audible tremor in his voice when he talked about his future. He felt he was trapped in a profession that sapped his creativity and energy. “I’m just not sure how I can do this for 20 more years,” he said.
These lawyers expressed common fears and concerns—ones I have heard over and over again from individuals in the legal profession who have reached the end of their rope and are seeking help. Perhaps you recognize a degree of your own situation in their stories. And while each of these lawyers shared a sense of dissatisfaction and frustration, they each found a different path to fulfillment and reconnection with their professional passion.
At some point, most lawyers express a sense of meaninglessness in their work. While this is not unique to lawyers, their philosophical and analytical tendencies often seem to make these feelings more acute. And the negative public perception of law can compound these feelings, depriving lawyers of the social adulation and approval that may help buoy those in other highly demanding professions.
A sense of meaninglessness and lack of passion are common symptoms of professional burn out. Feelings of hopelessness and impotence at work can intrude into other aspects of life, creating a general sense of malaise. That’s why reconnecting with your professional passion is key to building a balanced, productive, enjoyable life. If you spend less time questioning whether your work really matters, you’ll have more time to focus on what you enjoy about your job and your life.
In working with many lawyers, I’ve identified two primary goals that attorneys often want to attain: a sense of meaning and passion in their professional life and a greater sense of life satisfaction overall. To achieve these, the first step is often to address immediate work pressures that suck the joy and energy out of professional activities.
For example, Tom was driven by a desire to serve others, but his contract work did not provide the individual contact and satisfaction he sought. “No one’s really better off because of what I do,” he said. We determined that by serving others in his local area, Tom might begin to feel an increased sense of fulfillment in general. As a corporate attorney, he brought invaluable skills to a local nonprofit board and offered to provide some pro bono advice to local service agencies. Connecting with his community in this way helped Tom achieve more overall life balance.
As Tom found, developing a sense of meaning in one’s work is critical to reconnecting with professional passion. Every profession contains both negative and positive aspects. Sometimes the negative overshadows the positive, and this can lead to a spiral in which one’s attention is increasingly on what one doesn’t like at the expense of the parts of the job one does like.
In Elizabeth’s case, shifting focus was crucial. As she began to focus more on the positive aspects of her work, she found her outlook in general improved. We began by dissecting her typical day. When we looked at all the tasks she performed, we found there was a lot to like. She enjoyed editing briefs, speaking with clients and mentoring associates. Yet her focus on a few difficult colleagues and opposing counsel could distract her from the things she enjoyed and affect her mindset for the entire day.
By compartmentalizing the unenjoyable portions of her work as much as possible, Elizabeth found a sense of relief and renewed vigor in her attention to the things she liked to do. She also trained herself to consider all the meaningful moments of each day during her evening commute. Conscious appreciation amplified her positive feelings and put her in a better frame of mind for the evening ahead.
Another method for reconnecting with professional passion involves revisiting the reasons you originally chose the legal profession. Some people seek a career in law because they liked debate even as a child. Others truly want to change the world.
Chris was in the latter group, but he was completely burned out. He was in a brittle state of mind and already looking for alternate career options when we began working together. However, it was clear from our first conversation that he cared deeply about the law—so much so that he had become afraid of the amount of passion he felt. He was dismayed at the failures of the legal system nationally and in his own cases. His challenge was using his passion to help regain a sense of efficacy in his work.
Over time, Chris broadened his practice to include more cases that were likely to succeed. Instead of working solely with economically disadvantaged clients who were not able to successfully navigate the legal system due to their extreme circumstances, Chris found he had to balance his life by seeking out work which felt more banal but was more likely to have a positive outcome, providing some important successes and closure to help balance and mitigate the stress of the most difficult cases.
There is more than one path to professional passion, and everyone should find his or her own way to reconnect with the passion that brings meaning and balance to one’s life. The important thing is to seek that path. Don’t settle for a career that saps your energy and makes you miserable. Your life is worth more than that, and the path back to your passion awaits.