How to Be a Slightly Happier Lawyer

We often live our everyday lives in a blur. With smartphones, caffeine, news, and emails, we can move from our day-to-day existence without noticing what is around us. We often don’t take the time to look at people in the face or really to gaze into their eyes. I have seen this so often at the law firm where I work. One associate I observed glancing at his phone on the way to the bathroom, on the way down the elevator, out in the lobby, and into the street where we were headed to hunt for lunch. People avoid my eye contact as I walk through the hallways.

I used to be this way too, and still am in some ways afraid to look people in the eye. I don’t want to cause trouble or get a reaction out of someone, especially if they are unpredictable in some perceived way. One time I looked back before a flight takeoff because the flight attendant’s jumpsuit looked neat. He came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to the bathroom and we ended up having a nice short exchange about my thinking his jumpsuit looked cool. Later I learned that it was his first month on the job for the airline. If I hadn’t looked at him I would have never been able to make a connection with this person; wouldn’t have been able to see his positive reaction to doing what was probably not his first job. We don’t always get bad things happening to us when we look someone in the eye.

Nor do we get something bad when we take the time to observe ourselves in the world. I have this theory that people like to make videos of their own lives because it is their own way of seeing themselves and a reflection of how they exist in the world. The act of watching yourself on a screen can be quite eye-opening, literally and figuratively speaking. You start to notice your mannerisms in sharp focus. The way you slouch when you walk, or the way you might speak with a slight lisp. Each detail becomes in sharper and sharper focus.

Some people are uncomfortable with looking at themselves on the screen. More of us still are uncomfortable of looking at ourselves in the mirror. If you haven’t done that, I suggest you try that for about a week, for five minutes a day. First it will be uncomfortable and even frightening. You might even start to cry. Staring at the mirror may produce some judgments about yourself—everything from how pale your face looks to how few abs you have to the old scars on your body. Staring at a mirror brings things into sharper focus and you literally cannot run away from your reflection. Even though you look away the mental image is who you are. You cannot run away from yourself because you carry with you these traits whether or not they are reflected back to you.

We often ignore what is right in front of our face and the space in front of our eyes. We see only what we choose to see—plenty of studies have been done in various contexts that shows that humans can miss one thing if they are focused on looking at something else. One famous study which I’m sure you can look up involves medical professionals looking at scans for signs of cancer. In the middle of a scan the experimenters placed a gorilla right in the middle of the scan. Imagine that! A gorilla was missed by most of the people who had been looking for cancer. It’s truly amazing that in one moment, we can be hyper-focused on something and see it in exquisite detail yet miss the richness of the world around us.

I would argue that lawyers are not exactly well practiced in seeing the entire field. Sure we can argue that we are good at spotting issues and planning strategy, but the practice of law inherently is about maintaining predictability and control. As my friend Samantha Faulhaber puts it—we humans like to strive for consistency in a world that is destined towards chaos. Instead of trying to place things into neat little boxes so that they can look appealing to someone else, what happens if we take the time to look up from the narrow world in which we live and to take into account the entire space as it exists?

I’m not asking you to throw down your case precedents and your memos for the sake of being wild and free. The kind of observation that I describe is more measured than most would imagine. Perhaps those who think that chaos would ensue are simply compensating for the inner suppression of energy that comes with trying to maintain the semblance of control. At any rate the powers of observation and of remembering that there is a human being involved in the interactions that you is very much underappreciated. Even in the machine learning contexts there was an engineer or data scientist that was the driving force behind the creation in the first place. There is always a human being behind the black box that you know as the law.

I love to practice understanding and respecting the natural human emotions that many of us have with this job. When I opened up with regards to my own perceived inadequacies about doing a good job as a lawyer, so many more people also started opening up to me about their own struggles as well. I’ve had people talk to me about their addictions, their stress, their anxieties, their anger, and their sense of futility about the job. And I found myself relating to each of these human emotions and understanding that they were not unique to me. Yet it was hard for me to separate myself from the situation and to truly love what was happening around me when I was in those difficult situations myself.

It was only by separating out my own sense of self-worth from the job itself did I find some pressure being let off from who I was. I watched myself getting stressed over made-up scenarios in my mind where I imagined people mad at me because I had raised a certain issue. I reminded myself that pushing a button to set off a chain of events did not mean I had to stand in the path of the dynamite or moving train. I could come along for the ride or I could simply watch as the train rumbles by. Watching and seeing how my heart would quicken at the sight of a partner’s name in my inbox or how my palms would get sweaty before meetings helped me experience the situation from a totally new perspective. Instead of being caught up in the emotions I was able to watch them like a show. That put me in a place of discovery and exploring as opposed to defending and surviving every moment in the day.

I believe that we as lawyers don’t listen to our intuition enough. Even those who don’t count themselves as intuitive people have some intuition that they don’t exercise. It does matter that we try to use the gifts that are available to us even if we don’t realize we have them for a long time. When the voice of intuition speaks the lawyer inside of us wants to ask for a justification. An analysis. Why option A would be more preferable or more correct than option B. But no analysis comes to mind for when I decided that would still read all the way through a document that I was told to skim quickly but ended up being the key document in a deposition and the subject of a serious conversation with the top GC at the company. Or when I decided to call the paralegal who had missed a conference call on a whim and ended up discovering that we still had a long way to go for an important deadline.

Another reason why we don’t use our intuition enough is that we are too impatient and ask our logical mind to interpret the resulting impact of using such a tool. This is especially the case when our intuition might turn out to be “wrong.” Say you reach out to a colleague who you sense has been struggling with a few things. You ask if he’s okay and you are rebuffed by a comment completely denying that they are struggling.  Or you decide to call a meeting on what you think is an important issue but end up having your supervisor tell you that the topic is premature. You might feel hurt in these two situations. You might question yourself and tell yourself that your intuition is something not to be trusted. You might say to yourself “never again” and swear to only act if there are clearer signs.

But this would be a mistake. Your logical mind will never be able to correctly interpret what your intuition knows. Your logical mind is constantly scanning the world looking for problems. That is it’s job and it does it quite well. Your intuition operates in a deeper space where there is no right or wrong. It simply knows when it is supposed to wake up and speak to you. There is no other way in which it can act. And so perhaps that colleague, after rebuffing you, starts to think about why you approached him in the first place. Perhaps it sets off a chain reaction of events inside himself that you do not observe. Perhaps it increases his state of awareness that he does end up seeking the help that you suggested. And that meeting initially dismissed as “premature” then becomes an opportunity to help a senior associate fill that space with more topics that have been occupying the front of her mind. Suddenly the meeting becomes an extremely productive session and she’s left with the impression that it was fortunate to have carved out this time to think about issues that she’s been avoiding for some time.

If you are quick to discount your intuition then you will miss out on these amazing moments in which the universe will reward you for acting naturally as opposed to commanding and controlling the circumstances around you. You will feel unhappy and suppressed in many ways, like having taken a wrong turn at a stoplight and not being able to go back. I’ve had a lot of people describe it as “that feeling” that they can’t quite shake. It can be a source of great unhappiness and stress, particularly for those of us who sense it quite strongly within ourselves.

So how would you turn back, so to speak, to rekindle or cultivate the sense of intuition inside you?

Begin by doing what you want. No seriously, it really is that basic—though not easy to do. You already have a natural sense of what is supposed to be the path that you were meant to take in life. We spend time in an endless loop trying to control and being disappointed or never fully satisfied at the end result. Instead imagine if you began to listen to your heart and head and giving it a chance to speak instead. What kind of conversation would you have with it? Would it say, for example, that it doesn’t appreciate all that caffeine in your body? Or maybe it isn’t about diet, but rather your inability to set boundaries that is keeping you from reaching your fullest potential and your highest calling.

If you don’t want to do what you want to do, keep in mind that’s still a conscious choice that you are making. We often feel like we are stuck in the same old job and trapped by debt or family obligations but that is an old storyline and an illusion that we want to cling onto. The truth is that we can be free and accept circumstances as they presently are while being open to the infinite possibilities that can result when you let go of what you believe to be the case and take a leap into the unknown.

It might sound abstract at first but that’s why you start small and take baby steps into what you want. For me that means waking up in the morning and taking some time for myself to meditate and practice deep breathing before I pick up my phone to check my email. If I pick up my phone the first thing it’s almost a surefire temptation to spiral into a lack of awareness about my day. I try to eat lunch at the same time every day because that is what works for me. Others may feel better doing some sort of activity in the evening instead and prefer to clear out their emails the second they wake up. Still others may be completely different from me and try doing intermittent fasting. I don’t care or have a stake in what you do as long as it is what you want to do. This is not an agenda that I am pushing on you. If you decide that you want to live a familiar life and continue to feel the emotions you want to feel, that is well within your prerogative. Isn’t it beautiful to have that choice? My point is only that you can make choices that change the timeline in which your life is on and the trajectory that it may take. Sometimes you may even make the choice to surrender completely to the present moment; in those times that I have done so I have experienced some of the most sublime and crazed coincidences in my life.

Some people are afraid to try new things. I understand this well because I was one of those people. I had in my mind when I started in the law that I would succeed, work hard, and make partner. And that loans wouldn’t bother me and that I was fine with living in debt. But somewhere along the way something shifted within me and I realized that no matter what I did, things did not seem to work out. And the more I tried to control the situation the unhappier I became; the more work seemed to bear down heavier and heavier. Finally on one rainy evening I reached my limit and soon was crying as passengers gingerly weaved their way around me on their way home.

This is why listening to yourself and what you want is so important. It might seem to defy logic—and indeed that is the point. We spend so many of our hours—more so than the non-lawyer—using our analytical and critical thinking skills. In fact I think that if left unchecked our thinking brains would pratter on endlessly with the hyper-sensitivity that comes with such legal training. But that sort of overuse of the analytical brain feels like an imbalance in my brain. It feels as if every movement of myself has to be carefully scrutinized and calculated. I watch myself and berate myself at any sign of failure. But instead if I let my intuition take hold—maybe a little at first and then a lot at the end, then that will be the start of bringing more balance back into my body.

Give it a shot. Let me know how it goes.

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