Is your Success as a Lawyer Making you Unhappy?

unhappy success

How to avoid your talent blocking your much-needed career change.

The vast majority of successful lawyers are quite unfamiliar with feeling like a failure.

The law is such a competitive field that anyone who has established themselves as a qualified lawyer has already had to “win” at many things.

They sailed through school and college, did well in a degree, had no trouble passing the LPC or the BPTC, and beat off hundreds (potentially thousands) of others to land a training contract or pupillage.

Landing a plum position post-qualification wasn’t an issue as they impressed during their training, and racked up their PQE years doing things well and getting noticed for it.

None of it was down to luck.

It was down to intelligence, hard work, application, and dedication.

It was well-deserved.

And yet they aren’t happy being a lawyer.

Their legal career is unfulfilling and there’s a constant nagging doubt about whether this is really what they want to be doing for the rest of their working life.

At its worst, the stress and anxiety it provokes may well be damaging their mental and physical wellbeing.

Ironically, for many, it is their very success that seems to make them feel like they are “failing” for the first time in their career.

It feels like a millstone around the neck, preventing them from doing something about the fact that they are failing to be happy.

They either feel trapped by their success (“how could I give this all up?”), unsure what else they could do or overwhelmed by the many options open to someone with their talents.

You are not alone

If any of this sounds familiar, then I hope it’s comforting to hear that you are one of many.

In fact, the scenario I’ve outlined here mirrors my own journey into – and away from – the law.

I had done well at school and at university – I’d worked hard, sacrificed a lot, taken a lot of financial help from my parents to support my legal training.

I fought off the competition to land a training contract and then impressed my firm enough to be taken on once I qualified.

I worked hard and became a good enough lawyer to land what I thought at the time was my dream job working in-house as a sports and media lawyer at Sky Sports.

“What a great job!” people often remarked when they found out what I did.

As a big sports fan, I thought it should be, too.

It certainly wasn’t a bad job, but I just didn’t feel personally ‘successful’.

I realised that I just wasn’t happy doing the nitty-gritty lawyer work. I was left feeling unfulfilled and unrewarded by a career that I realised just didn’t suit who I was and what I wanted to be at that stage in my life.

But it took me a long time to overcome the blocker to change that my apparent success had become.

Key blocks to change

Over more than a decade coaching career-changing lawyers, I’ve collated some of the most common “success blockers” I hear from lawyers who – to the outside world – have been very successful.

How many of these currently apply to you?

Fear or dislike of uncertainty

Many lawyers I speak to have developed a “better the devil you know” attitude because they are worried that the grass isn’t going to be greener.

What if they make a change and they are still unhappy, but now with no long-standing profile to fall back on?

They would rather continue to struggle in their ‘successful’ careers than risk the unknown of a change.

Your identity feels inextricably linked to what you do

You get kudos and respect from others when they discover what you do.

You feel proud when you tell people.

Working for a well-known firm or corporation or being involved in “big law” deals brings with it professional acknowledgement from others in the industry.

Being a lawyer is what you’re known for.

Your self-confidence

A surprisingly large number of the successful lawyers I work with have lots of confidence in their abilities as a lawyer, but relatively little confidence in their ability to transfer those skills, their knowledge and experience to a different career.

Your money

Success is usually accompanied by money.

Status is often inferred by the external trappings of a good income – car, home, a good school for the kids, exotic holidays, all the gadgets.

We often feel we deserve to treat ourselves to these things because we work hard to earn our money.

There’s also often an assumption by lawyers that a career change must equal a big drop in income, and they can’t see how they and the family can manage it.

How to be happy despite your success?

It sounds like a flippant headline, but in my work as a career change coach for lawyers, I come across a lot of people whose ‘success’ has led them to be miserable.

They feel trapped by it and don’t want to spend the many years (or even decades) before retirement damaging their wellbeing further.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s circumstances and mindset are different, and so a bespoke career change plan is the best option.

There is, however, one key thing you can do now to help you to start seeing your future as full of different options and new possibilities.

Start asking yourself some important questions:

  • What’s your definition of success?
  • How much have you planned your career progression to date and how much of it has happened “automatically” because you have learned to do it well?
  • If money was no object, would you still choose to be a lawyer?
  • When you retire, what would you like to be able to say about your working life when you talk about it to others?

And then start asking questions of others.

What are their definitions of success?

What are other people’s career development or change stories?

Start being curious about the wider world of work, and how others experience their own careers and jobs.

These are the first steps towards removing the blocks to happiness that a successful career in law has built.

Career Coaching for Lawyers

  • Get unstuck and start taking action on your career change.
  • Gain clarity around what you want.
  • Generate ideas and explore career options.
  • Get support and guidance from an experienced career coach and former lawyer with 25+ years experience of the legal profession.

Matt Oliver

Matt is the founder of Law Career Plus and a former in-house lawyer (Sky Sports, London & Foxtel, Sydney). With over 12 years of experience as a career consultant & executive coach, he supports lawyers with their career development & career transitions. He does this through this website, a regular email newsletter and his one to one lawyer career coaching.

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