GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2005

There’s No Place Like Home

It may surprise people to hear that the most common issue presented to me as a counselor in an attorney assistance program is career dissatisfaction. Weekly, I see lawyers who want to change their areas of practice, leave solo practice to join a firm, and, in some cases, leave the practice of law altogether.

They come to our office seeking answers to a major source of discontent in their lives. And, not unlike Dorothy and her friends on their trek to visit the mighty and powerful Wizard of Oz, they are certain that there is one simple yet elusive answer that is locked away in a seminar, a book, or in a counselor’s brain.

Unfortunately, I don’t have magical powers, or even smoke and mirrors. But my experience with both my own career transition and that of many other attorneys has led me to know that the best answers start with some questions. Solutions to the most troublesome career dilemmas lie in self-examination—not over the rainbow.

I begin by suggesting that each person look at what he or she really wants but isn’t getting right now. Is it more money? More free time? A sense of satisfaction? Although leaving the law may be the right choice for some people, it is rarely the only choice. Frequently, we feel that the only solution to a problem is the most drastic one, but I have found that realistically it is much easier—economically and psychologically—to make changes in your current career than to start all over again in a different job, practice area, or location. There is a Japanese term, kaizen, which means continuous improvement through small, incremental changes. Over time, this strategy can bring about dramatic change without provoking the anxiety that the prospect of an extreme career makeover can produce. Like Dorothy in the Emerald City, many of the lawyers I work with discover that they had the answer to their issues all along, but never realized it.

One relatively new lawyer came to a workshop on time management and productivity. He explained that if he didn’t increase his efficiency, he would have to leave solo practice because he was struggling financially. I asked him about his practice and discovered that he was so concerned about making ends meet that he took on any and every client who came to him. He was losing money because he was spending extra hours researching unfamiliar matters. Then, he felt so guilty about charging clients for his “learning curve” that he billed only half his time. I suggested that, instead of trying to find more hours in the day, he should try focusing on one or two areas of the law with which he was comfortable. Months later, he reported back that he had less anxiety about making mistakes, had more clients in his specialty area, and had forged good relationships with other lawyers in his community by referring cases to them.

Sometimes, learning how to set boundaries and gaining another perspective can prevent burnout. One family law practitioner complained that her life was out of balance because of demanding clients who required a lot of attention and frequently were short on payment. At a seminar, a colleague provided her with some feedback, saying “What I love about family law is watching my clients move through change, but I had to learn the hard way not to set myself as their rescuer. Now I am clear from the start about billing and my policies about phone calls. Remind yourself that you don’t have to take every case, and follow your instincts. Whenever I hear lawyers complaining about a problem client, invariably they say the same thing: I knew this case was going to be trouble, but I took it on anyway. Listening to what your gut tells you will save you a lot of grief in the long run.”

For some lawyers the root of their discontent is difficult to target but can become clear when they understand their own motivation. They no longer feel engaged by their work and want to leave the law or their specific area of practice. Examining what attracted them to a career in law can be a way to regain that lost passion. Whose expectations are they pursuing: their own or others’? What did they most enjoy about their practice at the start? What can they do to reclaim that? While pro bono work or volunteering for a charity outside the office can rekindle a sense of purpose, what really matters to each of us requires a personal reply.

Ultimately, whether through reflection, talking with friends and colleagues, or consulting with the local lawyer assistance program or a career development professional, it becomes apparent that the answers are closer than we imagined. In our wide-ranging search for career contentment, we may discover that there truly is no place like home.

 

Meloney Crawford Chadwick, JD, CADC III, NADC II, is an attorney counselor at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program. She can be reached at meloneyc@oaap.org.

 

 

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