Do you sometimes struggle to find the meaning in your legal work? Feel like you have sold your soul to big law?
Gah, I was an unhappy lawyer for a long time. I lost years of my life. I had no soul and found no meaning in my work. I struggled with two personalities. Lawyer me: serious, analytical and soulless. And the real me: lead by intuition, empathy and joy. Something had to change. Convinced I could bring my whole self to the legal table, I left big law. I began looking for ways to find my soul and find meaning in my legal work.
Here are my takeaways about finding my soul and eventually bringing it to work as well. It was an interesting journey, and now I have found balance and meaning in my work.
PS: I snatched my soul back from big law. You can do it too.
Empathy: how much is enough?
I had big goals when I left big law. I was leaving the paperwork behind to be with people and help them. Big law taught me drowning in paperwork day after day did not matter. It was an expectation.
My goodness, when I started my own business, I took every case personally. I specialized in family and inheritance law even though I never focused in the area. But I thought it a fantastic way to get involved in peoples’ lives. Think about it? Birth, death or family and relationship issues are about as personal as it gets, right?
I remember one winter day early in my new business. An elderly couple knocked at my door during a snowstorm. They had walked through a blizzard from the other side of town to me to make their last will. I opened the door, confused. No one apart from the local bag lady used the door – I handled assignments by phone and email. When they told me why they came, covered in snow, full of hope, I asked them to wait a moment and went to the back room. There in the back room, I squatted down and cried a little. It felt so great that they needed help and had decided to trust me.
Family and inheritance law did not become my bread and butter in the end, but it taught me a lot.
Why? The encounters with those people were significant, for them and me. Each customer appeared to find my services very meaningful. I was able to give people something valuable and help them in their real, human-sized puzzles.
It caused me to pause and think about empathy. When people find themselves in a situation, how much empathy should we show? The optimal amount is impossible to say, but both extremes are detrimental.
I went a little astray at first. In the beginning, I had no boundaries. I spent hours listening to life stories and acting as a therapist. At times, there was no legal cause behind the story. Sure, the meetings may have helped the customer, but I got too involved in their situation and it affected my decision making. I’ve since learned to set boundaries. You can be present and listen, and remain objective and professional.
Genuine empathy for your customer is at the heart of lawyering. The ability to step in their shoes and see the world and situations through their eyes is important. Especially if you want to apply human-centred design to your work.
But as I learned, empathy brings risk. You cannot place your views and perspective to the side. Understand their situation through their eyes, but keep your view. Otherwise, it will affect your good judgement and the outcomes you create.
Empathy is essential with appropriate and healthy boundaries.
Feelings: can lawyers have them?
You’ve probably guessed, I’m big on feelings. As a lawyer, I hid my feelings for a long time. The result? I could not experience empathy and looked at situations through very limited lenses. When I talked about “serious issues,” my voice lowered. My usual expressive gestures and expressions disappeared. Yes, I fostered trust and credibility, but emotional contact had left the building. Where had I gone? Who is this robot?
As lawyers, our job is to help and advocate for other people. To be effective, factual knowledge, writing and advocacy skills are not enough. The key is interaction and communication.
Yet most think lawyers are serious, lost in grey areas, and keep their distance. Do you remember law school? Taught to stick to our professional role? Keep our values separate from our professional activities? The mantra: stay neutral with clients and think like a lawyer.
The mantra overrides our morals and emotional reactions too. Assigned a case you disagree with for moral or emotional reasons? Irrelevant. Do it.
Everyone can see that this is not sustainable. We are emotional human beings.
Besides, emotional skills add great significance and value for your work. You must know your customer well enough so you can take care of her affairs and pursue her best interests.
It’s impossible if you can’t face your customer as a whole person. The only way is understanding everything. Their fears and aspirations. The injustices of the society around them and even the pain of the world. We listen to what the customer is saying and what the customer needs. The solution they need may be different if you understand your customer as a whole. It’s about listening, experiencing empathy and emotional skills. Being able to recognize, process, and regulate your feelings.
You can’t detach your feelings from yourself and you shouldn’t detach them from your work. Feelings are essential for decision-making and assessing the consequences of those outcomes.
Better emotional skills help you make better decisions. We all make decisions (what to buy, not to buy, how to spend our day) using feelings. Some lawyers will disagree.
Lawyers can have feelings are work. They are mandatory
Find your soul. Find your meaning.
So, back to the soul.
What is a lawyer with soul? A lawyer who works as a whole person, with all her feelings. She’s able to experience healthy empathy and face her client as a complete person. A lawyer with a soul is a better lawyer. And I am sure that the future lawyer will need a soul too. So, please don’t sell your soul.
Can you be a lawyer and a human being? I know you can. Imagine freeing yourself from roles? Be a fantastic lawyer, without the cloak, but as yourself. Imagine the freedom you’ll feel when you meet your customers as a person? A whole person with a life, who understands the joys and sorrows of a moment.
Your everyday life does exist, and you don’t need to check it at the door. Bring all you to work.
And I can promise after you leave your “lawyer” facade at home things will change. Your encounters with other people will bring a new level of meaning to your work.
Dare to be real and whole in your encounters. It gives permission and space for another to be real and whole as well. It also opens the door into experiencing the meaning of work in a new way. The opportunity to serve humans are endless. Take the first step: be yourself, in all your glory. Once you change your perception and the way you present yourself as a lawyer, a new world will emerge for you.
I know it. I did it. So, go for it.