Fear, burnout and new horizons – a decade by decade snapshot of my career

I thought it might be a good idea to fill you in on some of the background as to how I got to be where I am now in my life and career.  It seems incredible to me that I’ve been a lawyer for over half my life. It’s also been so illuminating to reflect on the different parts of my career and how my experiences have made me the person I am today.

My 20’s

I started my legal career in 1996 (a mere 22 years old) as a lawyer in a sole practice. Now I should give myself some more credit here as this decade of terror started off with me honing the one skill I have used consistently throughout my entire career. An ability to move forward in a state of utter panic (which I now call resilience).  On the first day of my job at what was a small firm I found out the partner I would be working with had left said small firm and opened his own practice (conveniently next door so not far to go geographically). So I lost my first job and then got a new job all on the same day.

The short straw

From early on the partner and I had to divide and conquer in matters. I felt for the clients that got me – I felt they got the short straw.  I learnt such a lot on this job though; but the learning was underscored by imposter syndrome, anxiety and adrenalin. I felt instinctively that I could not tell my partner that I was terrified by the dire straits a lot of my clients were in. My confidence evaporated very quickly and I did not even know who I was half the time.

The cage

My partner, to his credit was thrilled that I was there, and tried to teach me as much as he could. What I remember most about this time is that I felt a staggering sense of isolation. I had 2 uni degrees and I was a real life lawyer but I felt like I had ended up in a cage.  A really weird cage where people on the outside of it trusted that I knew what I was doing and relied on me.  I had clients who were at their lowest ebb, be it in family law matters or local court matters, and I felt sick that their fate rested with me.  Somehow though I made it through and nothing bad happened to my clients – I even managed to get some good outcomes for some of these people.  This surprised me and thrilled me; but the most pervasive feeling I had was one of sheer dismay that I could be part of good outcomes when I felt so overwrought.

Enter the mentor

Not too long into this job I realised I needed to talk to lawyers in the world (who were not my boss) about how I was feeling. Enter my first mentor!!! What a ray of light. Imagine my delight when I found out that everyone new to this gig feels like I felt. I felt such joy to know I wasn’t a defective lawyer – but then I had a moment of agonising clarity and it dawned on me to ask this mentor – what on earth have I signed up for? Why had no-one told me this once over the whole time I was at uni? I felt betrayed. How could this be. Why would people choose this career?

Human connection and honesty

The time I spent with mentors talking about my challenges helped me to feel less afraid. I got to a point where I had strategies about how I could tell my partner what I was struggling with and that made things so much better. Human connection and honesty turned me around. I started to gain some confidence… and then I decided to go big!

My 30’s

If the anthem of my career in my 20’s was fear; the anthem of my 30’s was burnout. It was a slow burn but it ended up with a big bang.

The moon

So having gained some experience, confidence and awareness I worked out what legal work did not suit me. I decided to leave my sole practice and move on so I could specialise a bit. One of the things my 20’s taught me was that I am not comfortable being a jack of all trades but a master of none. I also learnt that I wanted to work with other young lawyers who were going through the same things as me. So I moved to a mid-tier firm which was like moving to the moon. It was so gigantic and utterly unfamiliar from where I had come from. The one thing I loved straight away was all of the people. I had the highest hopes ever of feeling like I was part of something bigger than me.

The vine

What I learnt pretty quickly though was that lots of lawyers leads to competition, comparisons and politics. My visions of holding hands with my colleagues as we sat around the fire talking about our pressures and challenges were shattered very early on. I never thought I would work harder with so many teammate’s around me than I had in the sole practice where we carried the load on our matters on our own. But I fairly quickly learnt it was work hard or go home. I also learnt about budgets and billable hours which had not been a part of our set up in the sole practice.   Well this brings its own form of pressure which drives you to work, work, work lest you die on the vine.

The carpet

So work I did. I was enjoying the rigour of only being in one field. I was in real estate and I was able to take a deep dive into some really interesting matters. But it too was a lonely experience because when you are competing for work you don’t chat honestly to your team mates about your vulnerabilities and struggles; all you say is “I’m so busy”. Which  is true but it’s also a front. This made me uncomfortable but I was too busy to think about it so I swept it under the carpet and rode higher on the wave of billable hours.  And you know what ?  11 years flew by.

Burn out

I did change to another mid-tier firm during that time. By then I was the queen of the billable hour – no budget was too high and the weekends were for work. I was very good at what I was doing,  my clients loved me and so did my partners. I didn’t love me though and I did not love what I was doing – but I had no time to think about it. So lots of things got swept under the carpet.

Choose kind

I did learn that I could be the change I wanted to see.  I drowned everyone in kindness; even when I wasn’t be very kind to myself. I created a tribe of wonderful humans around me that were kind to each other and honest.  I tried very hard to raise people up and help them find their way.  I at last had found a purpose and I knew that purpose was vital.  My purpose was to be great at my job but to be kind and have meaningful connections.  That worked and I met some beautiful souls who to this day  I will always see as part of the fabric of my life. Their honesty gave me purpose and let us have a little bubble of human connection, which I really was proud of, even as I was hurtling towards burn out.

The toll

Something else frightening happens when work dominates your life; it takes a toll on your personal life and on the people who are patiently clinging on outside of your career waiting to catch you when you fall. And fall I did. Here’s where the burn out came. The burn out collided with my husband and I trying to have a baby. That’s a whole other story; but a number of years and 9 months later enter our beautiful twins!!!!

My 40’s

Now this is where the new horizons take centre stage. Thankfully before our kids were born I realised I hadn’t really grown up to be the person I was capable of being during my 30’s. I had somehow been stunted by the cloak of work I wore which shut me off from the rest of my world.

Raising humans

I needed to find a way to do work that I loved in a way that let me love myself and raise other humans. I knew I needed to be happy and fulfilled at work to be an equal partner with my husband who had changed his entire life to be a stay at home dad. I knew I had to do a job that I wanted in the way that I wanted. So even though nearly everyone I spoke to thought I had finally lost my mind – I decided to go big.  I moved to a large firm the year my twins turned 1!!

Follow your dreams

I made a choice to work the way I wanted with someone I had wanted to work with for almost my whole career. It just so happened this person worked in a large firm. I also made the conscious choice that work would be a rich and meaningful part of my life, but that it would not be my whole life.  I also wanted to be kind. I gave myself the gift of a new beginning in an amazing large firm doing phenomenal work at a time in my career when I thought I would never be happy at work again.  The best part is I also have lawyers around me who share their vulnerabilities and who help each other out.  I don’t compare myself to anyone ever. I help anyone who needs it and people help me. I have met people there who have enriched my life enormously and to whom kindness counts.

Human connection

When I look back at the fear I started my career with I really do pinch myself.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all glitter and unicorns now, but it’s fairly awesome a lot of the time and, best of all,  my career is one small but very important part of my whole life.  Again, human connection and honesty has turned my life around, and given me a safety net for when times do get rough so I know I am not alone. I also know, without a doubt, that I will be treated kindly when the chips are down; and that make me a better lawyer. I absolutely know it does.

Say hello

If any of this sounds even vaguely familiar I’d love you to share your story.

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