August 16, 2018

Are Lawyers Unhappy? (Part 5)

rhodesEditor’s note: This is Part 5 of a series. For Part 1, click here; forPart 2, click here; for Part 3, click here; and for Part 4, click here.

You’re not happy with the course of your life in the law. Do you cope, or do you change?

There’s a certain connotation to the word “coping” that gives it a sour taste, and you may have seen the recent bit on Yahoo! about common coping strategies that don’t actually work, but coping has its uses. It can give us some short-term relief, and can set the stage for learning new thoughts, behaviors, and other life skills that help in the longer term.

Coping is less of a reach than change. We don’t have to launch out on the journey of a thousand miles, we can just start taking small steps. We can learn to notice how we’re reacting to things we don’t like, and learn new adaptive behaviors. In the short term, a less-than-happy situation becomes more bearable, and meanwhile we’re creating a platform for longer-term transformation.

After a while, though, coping can outlive its usefulness. I came across a great quote recently (unfortunately unattributed) that helps us know when we’ve reached that point: “Being realistic is just socially acceptable pessimism.” When coping becomes a guise for depression and defeatism in the name of being “realistic” about our lives, then it’s no longer working for us. Instead, it’s become a way of trying to dull the pain of a situation that will just keep eating away at our insides no matter how much we try to learn to grin and bear it.

At that point, coping turns into rationalizing, which is our way of trying to foist cheap substitute goods on ourselves. We don’t accept them because we want to; we do it because we don’t believe we can actually have what we really want.

So what do we do if we’ve reached this point? Often, we simply resign our souls over to the slow process of living lives of quiet desperation. Better if we can find a way to take the strong medicine and ask the hard questions, like the one Douglas Litowitz framed in the last chapter of his book The Destruction of Young Lawyers: if you’re unhappy in the profession, are you going to commit to reforming it, or are you going to walk away from it? Strong medicine indeed.

In my observation, most of us know when we get to that point, but the real challenge is admitting it. Plus, we don’t know those kinds of things in our heads, we know them in our hearts, and we’re rarely practiced in listening to the latter.

Fortunately, we can learn, but if we’ve reached that point, no amount of coping will teach us how.

To be continued…

Kevin Rhodes is on a mission to help lawyers be happy. No kidding. In his writing, workshops, coaching, and consulting, he helps individuals and organizations to make transformative changes. He leads workshops on change for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. Check out his website at

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