August 29, 2016 Asked and Answered

Is it time to leave your current job? (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Are you unhappy at work? Is it time to leave your job, or should you look for other options to improve your current work conditions? Trust your intuition, and don’t beat yourself up with negative thoughts about workplace problems being all your fault, says Gayle Victor, a Chicago-area lawyer and social worker who counsels attorneys and their families. She spoke with the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward in this month’s Asked and Answered podcast.

Podcast Transcript

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Stephanie Francis Ward: Some lawyers think there’s not much of a future in the jobs they have, but the idea of finding something else and leaving can cause significant anxiety. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, Gayle Victor, a lawyer and therapist, is speaking with us about what you might want to think about when considering if a job change is right for you. Welcome to the show, Gayle.

Gayle Victor: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So we hear about a lot of lawyers who are unhappy with their jobs, unfortunately. Do you have a sense of whether the unhappiness comes from work, or the people they work with?

Gayle Victor: Well, they generally come to see me when they have a generalized sense of anxiety or they have anxiety in the workplace. And before we answer that question, we kind of hone down whether that’s coming from their personal life or their work life. They generally have an idea of what they’re unhappy with at work, and sometimes it can be the nature of the work. Sometimes it can be the people that they work under and sometimes it could be the hours, anything like that.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you tell me briefly, what are some tools that you find that people that you work with have been successful in managing anxiety? Because managing anxiety is hard, but it’s something—it’s a skill that is wonderful, but one that takes work. So what’s your advice on that?

Gayle Victor: It does take work. It’s especially hard for attorneys. You know attorneys have common personality traits in general of many times they’re perfectionists and they also are pessimists in the sense that they are looking for things that go wrong. So, taken to the extreme, that can cause a lot of anxiety. Managing anxiety can be handled obviously through some physical attempts at exercise, breathing, those typical ways.

It also can be managed by challenging the anxiety and finding out what are the triggers and paying attention to the triggers, then paying attention to and seeing if you can absent yourself or reframe what it is how you see a situation. So that we do a little cognitive work on and look at why you reacted that way and what beliefs you have that lead you to the conclusion that you did that causes you the anxiety and then we try to rework it and see if it has to come to that conclusion. Sometimes you can get some control over your thoughts and that can help anxiety.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you find that most lawyers, they’re aware that they have anxiety and they own it because it seems like if you know you’re an anxious person, you can kind of just use yourself that way. Just, “OK, I have anxiety. I’m going to expect the worst.” It usually doesn’t happen. It works out, but do you find that most people in the profession realize they tend to be much more anxious I think than other professions?

Gayle Victor: I think they think—they by and large think they’re pretty confident, but I do think they don’t have any problem admitting to anxiety when they come in, generally. That also can be coupled with depression sometimes, but they own their anxiety.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK, well that’s good, and back to the job question. Do you find that for a lot of lawyers, is it mostly the job that creates the anxiety or maybe it’s a little bit of personal as well?

Gayle Victor: Well, that’s kind of the job to tease that out in the course of some therapy work. It can be anything from the nature of the work that somebody is doing, to the people they work with, to a supervisor or senior attorney that is giving them a hard time, to the hours, how long the hours are. Then that can be coupled with pressure from their personal life about work-life balance and not spending enough time at home. So I think it’s important to manage anxiety to tease out the components of it and figure out what it really is about.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK; and you mentioned the supervisor’s role in it sometimes. Do you see a lot of lawyers who are unhappy with their work? And perhaps there’s some workplace bullying that plays a role in that?

Gayle Victor: I’ve actually seen quite a lot of that over the last couple years. People come in really feeling abused by a senior attorney who has some power over them. Bullying is on the rise and it obviously is fed by a lot of the culture in law firms. People are shouted at. They’re sworn at. They can be singled out for some kind of unjustified reason. They are subject to language which can embarrass them or demean them or humiliate them.

It takes a little bit to rise to the level of bullying. It’s not a one-time incident. It needs to have repetition. It needs to be lasting over a long period of time. Usually it escalates, with increasing aggression. The person that’s doing it usually has power, and there’s a power disparity; that the target lacks the power to defend themselves usually. Also, it has the intent of humiliating or demeaning someone. It’s a very difficult thing to deal with, because people assume that there’s absolutely nothing they can do to manage that.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m sure it depends on the situation, but are there some behaviors you’ve seen that have actually worked out well for the people you work with, to manage that?

Gayle Victor: Well, unfortunately most of what I’ve seen is people end up getting comfortable, over a period of time, with the fact that they have to leave. You know, they’re scared to leave. They are scared that the bullying is based on some deficit in their work and so it erodes their confidence to be able to leave.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think it’s hard sometimes—especially if you have anxiety—to realize, “This isn’t about me.” Because I think especially for lawyers, it’s like they tend to be hard on themselves anyway, and you take everything to heart and it’s personal. And you have this ego but, a lot of times, if you have a real problem with a boss, there’s a good chance it’s not you. It’s him or her.

Gayle Victor: You’re right. It always feels like it’s about you.

Stephanie Francis Ward: It takes a lot.

Gayle Victor: It takes an awful lot to separate it out. That’s a lot of the work that we do, because it takes a lot of work to separate it out and, while you can’t get an accurate psychological assessment of who’s doing the bullying because you’re not there, it really helps for people to understand that people get something from the bullying and how it serves their general personality. You know it’s a form of abuse and abuse is about power and control and people that are giving themselves permission not to moderate their own feelings internally, but to take it out on someone else.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious is there kind of three or four scenarios you hear about that just repeat, repeat, repeat with senior lawyers that are just making their people who work for them just miserable with their behavior?

Gayle Victor: Well, it can range from picking out very small little errors and just going berserk over very small errors and mistakes to an implied threat about their job and job stability, demeaning their intelligence, and generally it’s done with a raised voice. So the whole thing is difficult to manage.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Interesting. We’re going to take a quick break to hear a message from our sponsor and, when we return, we’re going to talk about what management can do to cut back or end bullying behavior from supervisors in the workplace.

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Stephanie Francis Ward: And we’re back. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, we’re speaking with Gayle Victor. She’s a lawyer and a therapist and we’re speaking with her about what lawyers can think about if they’re unhappy in their work—and maybe other things to think about to find some career satisfaction. We just spoke about patterns that she sees with lawyers who do bully in the workplace.

I also wanted to ask you, have you seen or heard of situations where employers are really good about managing behavior that makes people anxious and want to quit? Because it seems like one of the problems is, sometimes people whose behavior is really inappropriate are also big business getters.

Gayle Victor: That’s exactly right. It’s often tolerated. The lawyers who do it are tolerated because they have a lot of business or because they’re extremely productive. I personally haven’t seen positive ways of handling it, because those aren’t the people that come in to see me, but I’ve noticed that it’s getting a lot more press lately that larger firms are developing policies that address it and procedures that people can follow in order to voice their concerns.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have a sense of whether those policies are meaningful in the legal sense?

Gayle Victor: Well, that’s the case, isn’t it?

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah.

Gayle Victor: Everybody assumes that it won’t do anything and it won’t go anywhere and of course then you still have to work with the person afterwards. In a smaller context, or even in that same context, if you feel up to it, and that’s partly what we work on is to get somebody to the point where they can, talking to the person involved directly is probably the most effective way to do it, but you have to get your thoughts together first. Be sure you know what you’re going to say. Try it out with family and friends. Get people behind you so you feel supported in it.

Pick your time and don’t expect immediate results because it doesn’t always work and it can take time for somebody to change. If you’re in the middle of an event and it’s particularly abusive, you don’t have to stay. You could say that you’re going to have to leave now or you don’t want to be talked to like that or, if he can’t control himself, he’s going to have to leave. But you should stay positive about the work in talking about the bullying, how much you want to contribute, you want to be productive about it. You don’t want to become a criticizer yourself. You want to have productive suggestions.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you find that with some people if you look for something to give you intellectual stimulation in your work and maybe you really don’t like your job, if you can find some aspect of it that gives you some satisfaction, is that helpful if maybe you’re in a job you don’t like that much?

Gayle Victor: That’s actually the best thing, to find something about it that you do like or people that you like or community that you like, to focus on the things you do or to try to bring more of the aspects of what you do like into your work. Of course another way to manage it is work-life balance. Make sure your life is balanced and, the parts of life that you do find satisfying; you spend enough time in your life on those.

Stephanie Francis Ward: If you are a practicing lawyer and if you’ve had a variety of jobs and you just find yourself unsatisfied with all of them, what are some things you can do to rethink about what you need for career fulfillment because I would imagine, if you come to that conclusion, “I don’t want to practice law” that is huge and you may not even have that choice, depending on your financial situation. But what are some things to think about what you need for career fulfillment?

Gayle Victor: Well, there are diagnostic tests that some people give that kind of help point what traits you have and what jobs you’re suited for, but I think an internal inventory is probably the best way to approach that. You tease out what are the elements of something you like? What’s the thought pattern you like? What don’t you like? It’s a big thing to throw away all that investment in law because you’re unhappy.

Stephanie Francis Ward: That might be you’re questioning yourself sometimes too.

Gayle Victor: Right. So what I like to do is talk about how the elements of that can be found in maybe other law areas. I look at it like a divorce in the sense that you have to try everything before you’re going to give up. I think the law degree, I think in order to peaceably move on, I think you have to really look thoroughly and try everything before you abandon it, unless of course there’s something that you’re particularly interested and that you want to pursue.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Have you worked with lawyers where they thought they just hated being a lawyer and then they thought about what they wanted to do, went to a different job, and it just dawned on them, “I like this. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Do you see that much?

Gayle Victor: Well, you see people that are much happier after they leave. I’m an example.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, let’s stop for a second. So you’re a lawyer and then you also have … you’re a therapist.

Gayle Victor: I don’t practice. I’m not a practicing lawyer.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right, but did you practice at one point?

Gayle Victor: I did practice for about 25 years.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Wow. What was the focus of your practice?

Gayle Victor: It was in business litigation, consumer finance.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What prompted your change?

Gayle Victor: Well, I found that the parts … I actually had a little light bulb and I found that the parts of my day that I enjoyed the most was when I was talking to people on the phone and they were telling me their problems.

Stephanie Francis Ward: The hand holding.

Gayle Victor: Yeah, the hand holding part and I realized that I would much rather work with the people that were being sued than the people that were hiring me.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Mm-hmm, interesting. I’m curious, do you have a fair amount of people you work with they decide they want to go into therapy too? I know that especially in Illinois, it’s not a great time to go into therapy right now.

Gayle Victor: No. The agencies have no entry level jobs available, right.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah, it’s pretty bad.

Gayle Victor: I do find that people do want to do that and, when you’re teasing out the components of law that you enjoy, you can also get down to the ways in which a lawyer is a therapist in some ways, the way in which a lawyer does counsel the people that they’re working with, and you can actually find some fulfillment in getting a little more human with your clients.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Ah, and that could make your job more rewarding?

Gayle Victor: Right.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you give us some examples of how you can work on building your confidence when you’re looking for work?

Gayle Victor: Well, the work that we do in session would be to pull out things that you can feel good about in what you’ve done, even if it was a bad and a negative work experience, to focus on the things you like about the area of law and to also get very specific about the kind of firm culture and environment that you think you would succeed in the best. So when you go towards it with things you know you want rather than, “Who will take me?” it changes the power balance a little bit.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Let’s say you’ve been looking for work and you have an offer, how can you best assess whether this new position will be the right fit for you?

Gayle Victor: I think paying attention to firm culture is kind of key because firms do have, in my experience back years and years and years ago, when I did a little part-time headhunting on the side, it was very obvious the minute you set foot into a firm how they were, what their culture was, and how the atmosphere felt different from firm-to-firm. You have to pay attention to that. Don’t ignore red flags.

Don’t ignore things that cause you cause for concern and assess how much you like the people that you’ve met. Try to meet as many other people in the firm. You can always ask to talk to other people. That’s very helpful in figuring out if they’re like you and then if they like where they are. Pay attention to what’s going on, even in your walks to and from the interview room, and how the support staff looks, if people look happy, if they look miserable, and if they’re a fit, if you can see yourself there.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So it sounds like it comes back to so much of what our conversation is about it’s been listening to yourself and not thinking it’s just you.

Gayle Victor: Exactly.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Trust your intuition, have confidence in yourself, and your assessment of a situation.

Gayle Victor: Exactly, exactly and look for repeated red flags or repeated patterns. If you see in the interview that this is likely to be a similar situation to what you’re leaving, it takes strength but it would be wise to really think about that before you jumped into the same situation again. Sometimes changing the area of law can make somebody happier. If they really can’t stand the adversarial nature of what they do, they can move to more transactional work, but it’s all based on self-knowledge.

It’s based on that exploration of yourself of what really is fulfilling to you, of what excites you intellectually, and what kind of situations. Do you need a firm with more people around and you like the community? Do you want a firm where they leave you alone? Do you want flexible hours? You know the kinds of things that you need to flourish in a work environment.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Got it. That’s everything I had to ask today. Did you want to add anything else?

Gayle Victor: No. I think it takes courage to make that switch and, just because you hear how hard it is, doesn’t mean there aren’t other opportunities out there for you. I’ve worked with some people that have gone on interview after interview after interview and get discouraged, but it only takes one match. It only takes one to click and end up finding something.

Stephanie Francis Ward: That’s a really good way to think about it. It only takes one.

Gayle Victor: It only takes one.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah. All right, thank you so much for joining us, Gayle. Listeners, thank you for listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. We’ll see you next month.

[End of audio]

Updated on Sept. 2 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Gayle Victor is a lawyer who also has a master’s degree in social work. She uses her unique perspective as a former attorney to provide counseling to attorneys and their families through CareForLawyers.com. Her practice is based in Chicago.