Practice Pointers: Is This All There Is? What to Do If You've Lost Passion for Your Career

By Charles Goldstein and Emily Goldstein

QUERY: Does the time you spend on Sundays dreading the arrival of Mondays outweigh the satisfaction you derive from practicing in your current position? Is “relaxing weekend” just an aspiration in your world?

Though we all appreciate the academic stimulation, human interaction, and financial security that our profession promises to deliver, it seems undeniably reasonable to assume that the question of suitability crosses the minds of most professionals: Did I make the ‘right’ decision to go to law school? Should I reconsider continuing in my current job or even in this profession? Are my current responsibilities in accord with my personal beliefs? Circumstantial catalysts—whether personal, political, or economic—often trigger these doubts. COVID-19, for example, has presented challenges that have inevitably made career and job reconsideration more commonplace.

When the Practice of Law Is No Longer Fulfilling

Certainly, for many attorneys the practice of law is a fulltime passion; they don’t question or regret their career choices. Others, for myriad reasons, come to discover that their practice no longer fits their life circumstances. These realities necessitate reassessment of at least some elements of career planning and potential transition.

Counseling (whether therapist, family, friends, or colleagues) to address career frustration and personal impasses is certainly a good first step to address emotional or career challenges. There are additional avenues already geared up to help with this process, including human resources (if your firm is large enough to have such a department), alumni services at your law school (or even undergraduate college), and career coaching. These services encourage clients to make pro and con lists, discuss desires, and vent frustrations and fears.

Maybe the most important “practice pointer” is to carefully assess the direction in your professional development that would best suit your interests, abilities, and emotional well-being. It’s not just students who need to go through this process. In fact, it can be essential for the midcareer or veteran attorney to ponder, “Is this all there is?” Think about the activities and opportunities you may have missed due to the unique requirements of practicing the law: time with family and friends that can never be recovered, missed vacations, and not having time to pursue hobbies, to name a few. Unfortunately, these too often fall by the wayside due to employer, court, and client expectations, as well as one’s own desire for prestige and financial well-being that may leave you disenchanted and feeling like a stranger to yourself. Of course, family and economic situations are important, but exercising the freedom to contemplate options outside of your present “box” is healthy and vital for your overall satisfaction and ongoing engagement.

How Has “Workaholism” Affected Your Nonwork Life?

When considering either leaving one’s workplace or the practice of law altogether, it often takes a leap of faith to make the move. Speaking for myself, I felt I was one class short in law school: Juggling 10.0. I felt like I was trying to keep 25 balls up in the air at once: handling a family law caseload while operating a law firm, supervising and managing several law clerks, multiple paralegals, and attorneys; and dealing with clients (many of whom were going through the most stressful event of their lives). Then there was marketing the firm, article writing, and, most importantly, my family, and relatives with serious illnesses. I had to learn to juggle it all. Early in the evolution of my law practice when I did not have an office administrator, I would have dinner and get my children to bed, then go hit tennis balls against a machine at 9 p.m. in order to revitalize myself. Then I would return to the office for a while, so that I could stay “ahead of the game.”

Query – Why do attorneys like Fridays? Answer – Only two working days left until Monday! Though workaholism is a badge proudly worn by many, a person can only be repeatedly stretched like a rubber band for so many years before showing some wear. Unfortunately, “success” usually breeds more stress. It is important to recognize the potential negative impact on health, relationships, and happiness that result from the trappings of career advancement. One must not deceive himself or herself into thinking that career achievements would necessarily provide for greater freedom. Instead, getting off the “hamster wheel” may actually be the golden ticket to sanity.

Taking a Step Back

Many mental health practitioners are of the opinion that therapy, medications, and other interventions can play an important role in addressing disquietude, but that they are not panaceas. Instead, evaluating and potentially removing the sources of distress is often more beneficial. Just the exercise of allowing yourself to consider other options helps to refresh your perspective and ameliorate your doubts. Regardless of your current circumstances, the causes of your professional stress will likely never change without self-reflection. Hence, recalibrating your professional life may require short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain.

You may discover through this reevaluation that adjustments to your present work life, or even re-assessment of your career, are both realistic and possibly even necessary. Many such avenues do not demand the 60-plus-hour-week typical of law practice. These could include narrowing the focus of your practice: perhaps limiting yourself to firm administration, academia, or possibly serving as in-house counsel. Sometimes, even small tweaks to the existing formula are manageable, easily executed, and can bring about what feels like a seismic shift in your overall satisfaction. Possibly, a vocational assessment will give you some insights as to how to better address the needs of your unique personality. You might enjoy increased mental and physical energy, more time to engage in the things which bring you pleasure, and a renewed interest in your profession.

Of course, maintaining a reasonable semblance of your current lifestyle, or at least covering the basics, is an essential consideration. Remuneration for your work may not have to be substantially sacrificed in the long term if your choices are thoughtfully considered. The reality of maintaining your present level of income can be addressed in a number of ways, including gradual and measured progress toward an alternative goal. “Did I make the ‘right’ decision to go to law school?”

"Re-invention" is now a commonplace term and often requires little or no explanation to friends, relatives, or even potential employers (with some exceptions, of course).

When Is the Right Time to Move?

For those inclined to reconfiguring their career, any time could be the right time. But, inevitable concerns arise: What else can I do to maintain my professional identity? Would the workforce accept me as a re-invented professional? Do I really know what else I would find rewarding? Do I know myself well enough to feel secure that my alternative choice is a wise one? ”Re-invention” is now a commonplace term and often requires little or no explanation to friends, relatives, or even potential employers (with some exceptions, of course).

Vocational and Interest Testing Resources/Taking the Plunge

Evaluation of your vocational aptitude and interests can be challenging and rewarding. For those considering taking the leap—by necessity or desire—the road is not necessarily paved with gold. However, the exercise itself will pay dividends in better self-awareness.

What resources are available to address career-related conundrums and opportunities? The good news is that such resources abound. One example is O*NET Interest Profiler—a handy, vocational assessment tool that will help you clarify your work personality and tendencies. It helps to illuminate the elements that may have initially attracted you to the law and might lead you to another path. Your challenge is not in locating professionals and online guidance; that’s the easy part. The goal is to hone in on the best resources to help you diligently work through your concerns and achieve the most favorable results.

Of course, it’s critical to map out your alternatives. This can be a bit daunting, especially during challenging economic times. However, you can’t allow your fear of the future to dissuade you from making decisions that could help you reap your goals starting now. With the right career resources and guidance, your possibilities are vast.

Why Not Now and Is It True That “Age Is Only a Number”?

One’s age does not always have to be a consideration. There are manystudies finding that youth isn’t the be-all, end-all of vocational capabilities. In fact, some cognitive abilities peak into later life. While teenagers more typically have bounding vitality and energy, “older” people tend to exhibit more psychological stability, as well as have more experience, life’s best teacher. In addition, a career change may be just what the doctor ordered; when you are happier and more fulfilled in your career, it’s only natural that you will have more time and inclination to enjoy the emotional and physical capacity to immerse yourself in other activities—thus adding years to your life and life to your years.

Charles Goldstein, Senior Professional in Human Resources and Nationally Certified Career Services Provider. Mr. Goldstein practiced law for more than 25 years and now dedicates himself to career coaching. He helps attorneys and other professionals to pursue vocational shifts to achieve greater fulfillment, financial rewards, reduced stress, and other benefits. He is a partner with My Career Coach MN, together with his daughter, Emily Goldstein, Nationally Certified Career Services Provider and Associate Professional in Human Resources.
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