I think September is a great time of year. I enjoy the anticipation of back-to-school time. Who doesn’t love new notebooks and multicolored highlighters just brimming with possibility?  

Back-to-school shopping is great. You’re back from a long summer and ready for something new. The stuff you buy, from supplies to new clothes, is loaded with potential, optimism, and nervous excitement. 

Here’s the question: how do you feel about returning to the office?

If you have had a few days off and now head back to the office – whether in person or virtually, how does that make you feel? Are you filled with new-notebook-and-highlighter-who-knows-what’s-coming-next nervous excitement? 

Or are you filled with a knot of dread and a desire to do just about anything else?

According to surveys, over 50% of lawyers are unhappy in their jobs. Successful business-building lawyers return from a few days off just to return to the misery grindstone. 

It shouldn’t be that way, and in this post, I’ll go through what makes you unhappy and what to do about it. I start with identifying what makes lawyers unhappy, then give you some thoughts on how to fix fundamental issues.  

Why are lawyers so unhappy?

There are many reasons lawyers end up unhappy at work. But some big categories tend to show up repeatedly, such as: 

Long, unpredictable hours

There is no scheduling of legal issues, nor is there a way to ensure that knotty problems show up at 9 with an 8-hour schedule for completion. The law and legal issues can be very unpredictable. 

Stressful responsibilities

A lot rides on a lawyer’s analysis. Legal decisions, interpretations, and actions matter. Often you have fiduciary responsibilities, the threat of malpractice, tight immovable deadlines, and client expectations to manage.  

You don’t like the people or feel like you are part of a team

Many lawyers work with partners they don’t like or trust. The environment may be overly competitive or not competitive enough. Maybe you don’t like the clients you work with. There can be many reasons the environment isn’t right for you, and they will differ depending on who you are and what you want.  

You don’t get the respect or appreciation you deserve

Respect and appreciation can mean anything from verbal recognition and status to the amount you are paid. Whatever appreciation means for you, not receiving it can be very demoralizing – you put a lot of yourself into your work, and you should get a return on your investment. 

Some of these are inherent to the law; some aren’t. 

It is hard to get around the fact that legal matters are complicated, tricky puzzles with real-life implications. For most lawyers who enjoy law, this is a big reason they enjoy it.  

But if you are a successful partner with a book of business, you can change your situation to fit you. 

  • The law is unpredictable, but your work can be much more predictable with the proper support and the right team. 
  • You should work in an environment that fits your style and preferred way of working. 
  • You should work with a team you like. 
  • You should get the respect you deserve (and never have to change the toner on the printer!). 

Sometimes lawyers fall into patterns as associates that keep them stuck in a bad situation. There is a sense of “this is the way it is,” or that you just have to “work through it,” and even that “work is supposed to be miserable.”

But it isn’t.  

Fix the underlying problems, or you will never be happy at work

If you dread the return to the office after a few days off, then it is time to take a hard look at what causes that dread. Pretending it isn’t there or wishing for it to disappear won’t improve your work life. 

If you look for how to improve your happiness at work, you’ll probably stumble upon a list that looks something like this from Psycom.com:

  1. Practicing Gratitude. 
  2. Engaging in Conscious Acts of Kindness. 
  3. Meditation. 
  4. Go for a walk. 
  5. Declutter

Among others (read more on how to be happier at work here). 

Maybe these can help, but practicing gratitude will only get you so far if you are truly unhappy at work.  

At some point, you must get to the core of the problem and fix what is wrong. If you don’t address the underlying issues, you will always be back at the grindstone, dealing with a knot of dread in your stomach rather than the thrill of potential.  

Is law your thing? 

The first question is whether you enjoy practicing law. If you find legal work boring or don’t enjoy the natural challenges of it, including the responsibility and pressure of legal analysis and decisions, then maybe law is the wrong thing. 

The world is full of lawyers who have become something else, from nurses to businesspeople to yoga teachers. (Perhaps you’d like to be a recruiter!). Google searches for “alternatives to legal career,” “non-law jobs for lawyers,” and “how to leave law” are very popular.  

So, being a lawyer now doesn’t mean you can’t change careers, as many have before you.  

If the law isn’t for you, pretending it is will only make you miserable. So maybe it is time for a switch. This 21-step Guide by Casey Berman at Above the Law is a great place to start. 

If you enjoy the law but not your work, then it’s time to understand why. 

What is it about your current position that makes you unhappy?  

Is it the:

  • Type of law?
  • Clients? 
  • People, you work with? 
  • Support you (don’t) receive? 
  • Where you are geographically? 

Or is it something else? 

Often lawyers find that as they mature, the culture that once worked for them doesn’t anymore. They decide they want to work differently: what is that for you? What does your ideal work environment look like?  

What would make you optimistic about the future? 

Your Business Plan is a great place to start this line of inquiry. Completing your Lateral Partner Business Plan will help you define what you want and what opportunities exist to get you there.  

Making a switch can make all the difference

For many who aren’t happy at work, the reason why often comes back to where they work. The environment, the firm, the partners, and even your co-workers are holding you back. 

Moving to the right law firm can make you feel energized, excited, and fulfilled. It brings back that thrill of what’s possible and optimism about the future.  

Fixing the fundamental problem will make you feel much better than practicing gratitude alone. 

And then, if you want, throw some gratitude and meditation in as well. That will make things even better, like icing on a cake.  

As a partner with a book of business, you should be excited about the first day of work

Maybe you’ve moved beyond notebooks and highlighters (though I haven’t!). 

But that doesn’t mean you’ve left joy and excitement behind. Work should be challenging, fulfilling, and full of new-notebook-and-highlighter-who-knows-what’s-coming-next nervous excitement.   

If you are a partner with a book of business, you are in demand, and there is no reason why you should stay somewhere that doesn’t fulfill you as a human being. Partners with books of business are always in demand. 

The challenge is never finding a firm to switch to.  

The challenge is finding the right firm, which is what we do at Gillman Strategic Group. 

You have worked hard; you continue to work hard; you should be at your exact right perfect fit firm because lawyers deserve to be happy too.  

I am more than happy to discuss your options with you. My promise to you is openness and transparency. I want lawyers to be happy. So if we talk and I think your firm is the best option for you, I’ll tell you. If I think you should consider something other than the law, I’ll mention that too.  

And if I think I can help you find the right firm that will make you happy, then we can talk about that too. I’ll create a list; we can discuss the options, and a couple of months ago, you could be right back to September joy with no dread in your stomach.