How happy should you try to be?

brown_liz_400x600I knew that the article on leaving BigLaw had been published when I started getting emails from people I hadn’t heard from in years.  Last fall, Law360 was kind enough to take an interest in my work counseling unhappy lawyers and in my magical transformation from disgruntled patent litigator to chipper business law professor.  That transformation took a few years, but it taught me an enormous amount about how to handle a career change effectively.

What struck me most, reading the article a few months after I had given the interview, was how much happier I am now than I was when I was a litigator.  As a practicing lawyer, I was proud of my skills and, after several years of faking it, genuinely confident in my abilities in handling a case.  I had learned to be a skilled adversary and a trusted advisor and all of the other stuff I thought I was supposed to be as a big firm litigator in order to justify my outrageous salary.

Now, on my first day back on campus after the holiday break, I feel very differently about my work than I did as a lawyer.  I’m eager to get back to being a professor, at least to the teaching part of it (the writing of articles is still something I struggle with).  I look forward to meeting my students and helping them understand whatever we have to grapple with this semester.  Although their tuition helps to pay my salary, I don’t feel the same kind of client-hired gun relationship with them that I had with the GCs (who were generally fabulous people) in my law firm life.  When I can help my students understand something like negligence or contracts or how a patent works, we all feel good. We all feel accomplished.  We help each other.  In the process, I get to stride around and write on the board and show off my powerpoints (without reading from them, of course).  We ask each other questions, and at some point, we get almost all of the answers right.   In a nutshell, my work fits my joys.

When the post-article emails from former colleagues started coming in, I thought back to how my life was when I worked alongside those attorneys, great as they are.  That was a darker time, but possibly only for me.  If my other colleagues were unhappy, they didn’t show it.  Did I?

I think a lot of lawyers hesitate to leave the law because they feel weird about their unhappiness.  It’s kind of a lonely spot to be in, if you are surrounded by people who are getting on with their busy lives, paying mortgages and not worrying about airy-fairy things like happiness.  It can also feel ridiculous to contemplate giving up a good job, if by “good” you measure in terms of income and social status.  I understand that feeling very, very well.  And I am here to say that it is absolutely possible to love your work if you find work that aligns well with the skills you most enjoy using.  Happiness at work comes from (1) doing what you enjoy being good at (2) for and around people who value those skills.  I help people figure out how to do this all the time.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s not even appellate work.

That’s why I’m glad that this article focused on the possibility of change by highlighting examples of it, not only my own but also those of several other post-lawyers.  I focused on telling the stories of thirty former lawyers in my own book, Life After Law, because there is something so powerful about recognizing yourself in another person’s history.  The Law360 article also features the work of Casey Berman and Amy Impellizzeri, two writers and speakers whose work is tremendously helpful to lawyers considering a career change.   We are three of many, many former lawyers who are genuinely, sustainably happy.  Please join our ranks.

Here’s a copy of the Law360 article:


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