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From Agony to Ecstasy: Unconventional Strategies For Unhappy Lawyers

from agony to ecstasy cover

When lawyers approach me who are dissatisfied or unfulfilled with their professional life, the first thing I do is assure them their experience is actually a terrific opportunity. In a very real sense, when we feel discontented with our work, we are being called by an inner impulse to expand and grow into the next chapter of our career—in effect, to realize more of our potential. When harnessed productively, professional unhappiness can be an incredibly powerful fuel for a profound transformation of your career—and your life.

Maybe you feel “stuck” in your practice, that you’ve reached a plateau, that another job might be a better fit, that you need new challenges. Whatever the details, the bottom line is you are being called to adapt and make some changes. You may not know what or how yet, but it is clear that you face a choice: continue being unhappy—or do something about it.

Many lawyers avoid this conclusion ferociously. I know I did. For years, I felt unhappy and stuck in my corporate practice, yet I resisted change because I had no idea what to do next. It took hitting a serious brick wall (in my case, a serious illness) before I finally resolved to take some long overdue actions to create the career I really wanted.

As lawyers, we are experts at rationalizing and justifying, especially to ourselves. “I make good money.” “I have job security.” “Millions are unemployed.” “People are starving in Africa.” These are all valid arguments. They also do not address your basic dilemma, which is that you are not where you want to be in your career. The question is what are you prepared to do about it? What can you do about it?

Using Career Dissatisfaction As Your Roadmap To Renewal

In any process of career renewal, the necessary first step is making the internal decision to take action. Until you make this resolution to yourself, there is virtually no chance of transformation. The process is demanding, and it requires genuine commitment.

On the other hand, once you do make this decision, everything changes. You move into a position of great internal power as your energy becomes empowered and focused on creating the career you want. Often, as soon as clients move into this place of responsibility, they experience a great surge of energy and momentum. They know the steps they need to take and quickly take them, regaining that crucial sense of vitality and purpose in their careers.

Just as often, however, I see clients who are eager to take action - but just don’t know where to begin. The challenge these clients face is that of tuning in and listening closely to the voice of their own dissatisfaction. When we are discontented, it tends to be for specific reasons. Sometimes we just need to quiet down long enough to listen. You can do this, for example, by carving out an hour of quiet time to write in a journal, answering questions like, Why am I feeling discontented right now? What changes do I need to make?

Interestingly, your answers may have little or nothing to do with your career. They may relate instead to other areas of life, such as your relationships or health. If that is the case, your next steps might be to address those issues directly—for example, by having the difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding or hiring a nutritionist or personal trainer.

When the dissatisfaction is career-related, your answers may sounds a lot like frustration or restlessness—like an impulse for greater expansion and expression in your career. “I want to be more entrepreneurial.” “I want to be more creative.” “I want to be a leader.” “I want to work with people more directly.” “I want more travel, more spontaneity, more adventure.” “I want to make a difference.”

There is an easy tendency among lawyers to dismiss these kinds of impulses as foolish or impractical (“That’s naïve”, “Yeah, but I have a spouse and kids”, “It’s too late now”). But this is doing ourselves a grave disservice. In fact, these impulses are the raw material of your career renewal. They are a roadmap that will lead you to authentic professional fulfillment.

Embracing Your Possible Selves

In her exceptional book Working Identity, the psychologist Herminia Ibarra describes how we each carry within us a series of “possible selves”—different visions of who we might become in our careers. As our careers progress, we feel the impulse to explore, express and integrate more of these visions into our careers.

Using myself as an example, though I was making a good living as a corporate lawyer, I also felt a great urge to be more entrepreneurial and to use my passion and training in psychology more directly. I saw myself not only as a legal advisor, but as a business leader, a counselor, a writer, and a psychologist. It was only when I acknowledged my desire to explore and integrate these other “possible selves”—in my case, by developing a business plan, pursuing graduate work in psychology, and launching a training and coaching practice—that I began to reconnect with a sense of passion and purpose in my work. Now, I have a legal practice representing entrepreneurs and a training and coaching practice where I get to use my training in psychology to help professionals lead more fulfilling and successful lives.

So, if you are professionally dissatisfied at this time, a question you might ask yourself right now is: What are your unexpressed possible selves? Do you envision yourself as business executive? Founder of a non-profit? A rainmaker in your firm? A free-spirited surfing instructor? A progressive politician? A crusading journalist?

Be honest and allow yourself to think as big or small as you can imagine, without concern about practicalities (for now). If you are having difficulty, ask yourself questions like: What kind of work would you do if money or social approval were no object? Whose careers do you most envy or admire? If you had $5 million to spend on something work-related, how would you spend it? What sort of books do you love to read? Assuming you had all the resources you needed, what business or organization would you launch today?

When you are done with this process, you may have a list of several, perhaps as many as four or five, possible directions to explore - and your next step will be to investigate how or whether to integrate them in your career in a practical manner. This does not mean quitting your practice to try out for the New York Yankees. It means devising simple, low-risk actions you can take to explore, investigate, experiment and learn.

Your first steps might be reading a book, going to a networking meeting, researching an organization, or having an informational coffee meeting with someone involved in the direction you are exploring. Through simple actions like these, you begin to test your theories of what will bring you more fulfillment. You learn about specific opportunities you might pursue. You develop new relationships. You learn ways you might acquire the skills and experience you seek.

As you move forward, you may find your enthusiasm for a particular direction growing, and you naturally begin to invest more time and energy in that direction. You take on a volunteer role or a board position or a consulting engagement. You enroll in a new course of study. You start a small side project while maintaining your full-time legal practice.

In this way, you develop new competencies and round out your professional skill-set. You develop a broader knowledge base, gain access to new ideas and possibilities. You get some of the experiences you’ve been craving. You start to see more clearly the kinds of more permanent changes that might work for you. Perhaps most significantly, you develop a new network of professional relationships—relationships through which new opportunities ultimately will present themselves when the time is right.

As simple as this process seems, over time, it can result in a profound transformation—one that you never could have planned or foresaw when you began. This is what I call career renewal from the inside out—a career transformation that is based on your innate interests, passions and beliefs, that is driven by who you are and what you most want to express in the world. This kind of transformation is not superficial or cosmetic. It is deep, lasting, and profoundly rewarding. It is a transformation not only of your career—but of your life.

Francesco Barbera

Francesco Barbera is the founder of Barbera Corporate Law. He is a Harvard Law graduate and veteran corporate attorney representing development-stage companies and established corporations in a wide range of industries. He counsels entrepreneurs, investors and established companies on the full range of their business activities, from formation through raising capital, growth and acquisition. He works with key specialists in tax, executive compensation, intellectual property and other specialized areas of practice to deliver to clients the highest quality representation available on the legal market today. Website: barberacorporatelaw.com. Office 310-896-8392.

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Filed Under: Personal Development

About the Author: Francesco Barbera is the founder of Barbera Corporate Law. He is a Harvard Law graduate and veteran corporate attorney representing development-stage companies and established corporations in a wide range of industries. He counsels entrepreneurs, investors and established companies on the full range of their business activities, from formation through raising capital, growth and acquisition. He works with key specialists in tax, executive compensation, intellectual property and other specialized areas of practice to deliver to clients the highest quality representation available on the legal market today. Website: barberacorporatelaw.com. Office 310-896-8392.

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