I have been contacted by a number of people who feel that they have lawyers around them that are really struggling. My absolute belief is that even the smallest gesture can make a difference. If you see somebody who looks like they are struggling, and you have concerns for their mental wellbeing – please speak to them. The R U OK website has some great resources if you’re unsure of what to say. If working in a firm that has people and development, human resources, etc., ask them for guidance. You can keep confidentiality, you don’t need to say who you’re worried about, just ask how you can help.
The smallest gesture
And always remember – the smallest gesture can help – a smile, asking them if they’re ok, asking them if they want to go for a walk, giving them a juice or some flowers. Do you know what, often when you’re experiencing something stressful, sometimes you can’t even look at people and the easiest thing to do is withdraw. We can’t expect people to know that they should ask for help. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage every single person that I speak to not to be afraid to ask for help to get what they need to become well and happy again because, do you know what, life is too short.
Meet people where they are
I’ve also had some people say to me I’ve tried to help my friend but they’re not doing anything about it. In my experience you have to meet people where they are. You don’t need to get frustrated at what progress they’re making. It’s important always to have patience and to act with kindness. To people experiencing despair, anxiety and pressure – the struggle is enormous and very real for them. Depending on how long a person has been struggling like this, it can actually be incapacitating so I always say please don’t give up on someone.
You don’t need to have to do this alone
And you don’t have to do all of this yourself. Sometimes the best help you can give somebody is by saying I really think we need to talk to somebody else who can help. Then you can stick with this person and be by their side as they journey through this. In my own career I’ve been through some really difficult patches. I’ve written about them in my blog recently. What has kept me going is that I had some really supportive and strong mentors.
Career is just one part of your life
Our careers are very important, especially if we’re lucky enough to be in careers that we’re very passionate about. But careers are just one part of your life. Please don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it and if you see somebody that you know needs help please reach out. Sometimes it’s human nature for people if someone asks if you’re ok to say I’m totally fine. They may be scared to admit it or they may not realise they are showing sings of being under pressure. Keep going, keep trying and remember you don’t have to do all of this yourself. Tap into to the resources and the expertise around you to make sure that the people that you find that are struggling get the help that they need and be patient, be kind, be present.
In my experience, I have never, ever regretted noticing someone and I have never, ever regretted helping someone. It can literally save a life.
Over the holiday break I have been contacted by a number of lawyers who follow me on Instagram – but who I don’t know in real life. These lawyers are struggling with how they feel about their career and if it’s right for them.
I have had jobs in the past where I couldn’t bear going back on Monday – let alone after a long break. I have spent a lot of time in my career trying to learn ways to shift my perspective and gain a feeling of control about my career. For me as a young lawyer, the fear and loss of confidence I felt facing a workload I didn’t really know how to get through (and often didn’t enjoy) and dealing with fledgling (sometimes downright difficult) relationships at work made me dread going to work at times.
I have learnt over the years that there is indeed information in this trauma. I have learnt to think deeply about what makes me happy and unhappy about my career… and to use this information to make choices.
You know what though – no one teaches you to do this at Uni. I learnt this from some very wise mentors who taught me how to listen to my fears and vulnerabilities. These mentors taught me it isn’t a mandatory job requirement for lawyers to feel unhappy at work. I have also learnt (the hard way) that how we feel about our work colours our whole life. If you feel positive about work then this is a good thing. But if you feel anxious and unnerved all the time then this has a very serious knock on effect in your life.
You deserve much more than that. Please trust me on that.
So here are 3 things I do to kick start the year as I head back to work. I have also recommended these same things to countless lawyers over the years and they now swear by them too.
Depending on where you work you may have regular / semi regular performance reviews. My tip is not to wait for a review or feedback from someone else. You can review your own career and work out your own Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats
I know this may sound really counterintuitive and quite unappealing to some of you – but it helps you take control of your career and where you are headed. It also helps mitigate that feeling of being removed from where your future is headed and what you are doing day to day.
S – what are my strengths?
This is the fun part. We typically feel happy when we have some feeling of competence about what we are doing. So make a list of all your strengths. They will be technical and also non-technical (because all these things work together to help us do our jobs). For example, you may be really strong at drafting agreements and legal research – and you may also be really strong at building relationships and supporting people in your team.
Having a sense of what you are good at gives you a strong base from which to start assessing your own career direction. It also prepares you to respond to any feedback that might be more on the negative/constructive side. It is always empowering to have a sense of your strengths so you can balance this against suggestions from other people that you may need improvement in other areas.
Having a handle on your strengths is endlessly valuable when you are working out whether the type of law you are doing is right for you, or whether the firm or company you are working at is the one for you. It really helps my confidence to know what I am good at. It also gives me an insight into what I am passionate about because I often find my strengths align with my values and passions.
W – should really be an I
This can be challenging for some people.
W is for the areas where we need improvement – some may call these weaknesses. I have always found I like to be on the front foot in understanding where I need improvement – or where I may need up skilling. It’s not possible to improve if you don’t know what you are doing. I am always open about needing guidance or assistance in the areas I have a knowledge gap. Don’t just wait for other people to tell you where you need to grow or improve. If you can get on the front foot with this it will again help you feel some level of ownership in your career growth.
If you do a robust analysis of this it helps you to feel more prepared for any of those challenging conversations you may have at work about growth areas. The tips in O and T below will help with that too – because I often find that for me “weaknesses” exist where there are no opportunities to grow or there are threats that challenge my growth.
The other thing that has always been true for me is that the weaknesses I have observed in myself often align with areas in my career that I am not passionate about. Doing this analysis has helped me to make a number of career decisions, including the massive leap I took into the job I have now which I am very happy with.
So – make a list of any areas you may think you are not strong in or where you may need improvement, education or growth. Then really think about why you are not strong in these areas. What is this telling you?
O – opportunities
I always love thinking about opportunities because opportunities have a number of layers and meanings.
Each year I make a list of what opportunities there are in my practice for me to use my strengths. Then I list what opportunities there are for me to make improvements in the areas I may need to. I then make a list of things I would like the opportunity to do that I may not have done before – and I link back into my Strengths and Weaknesses to make a note of how prepared I am for that opportunity or what I may need to do to become prepared for that opportunity.
This is actually really exciting – and in my experience it is also very empowering to drive the types of opportunities that may be available to you. In times gone by in my career I have missed out on opportunities, and now, I think about how things may have been different if I had known that it is OK to ask for opportunities.
T – threats
This is also a really interesting exercise. Each year I make a list of what threats there are which may challenge my strengths. For example, do I need to update my skills to take account of new laws or methodologies? Or do I need to work with a particular partner in my firm? Or do I need to pivot my strengths because there has been a downturn in the market in the area I have focussed on?
I also think about are there any threats that may present obstacles to me working on areas I need improvements in? It might be that there are 6 other lawyers already doing that thing in my team – so then I need to think about other opportunities. So this becomes a spring board for discussion with my partners. I can say I wanted to do X but 6 other lawyers are doing it now …so can I do Y or can I help with X or is there something similar I can do? This threat then becomes an invitation to have a conversation with my partners about what my professional hopes and dreams are. I am able to have discussions about when and how the opportunity to do X may be able to become available to me, and what I can do in the meantime to build on my strengths or the areas I want to grow in.
Other threats may be that I don’t have a relationship with people in my firm doing the work I want to do. So then I need to think about opportunities to build those relationships. I often find when I take the lead in working out what obstacles I may encounter I can then turn them into opportunities and then I feel a lot less anger about them.
2. Find a mentor
This tip is short and very sweet.
If you don’t already have a mentor, then find one. You can join a formal mentoring program at your firm or through your local Law Society. Or you can approach a senior lawyer at your firm that you have a good feeling about and ask them to mentor you.
The sweet spot
Having a mentor can make all the difference. You then have someone in your corner who you (ideally) will trust and you can let your guard down and speak freely to them. A mentoring relationship, when it hits its sweet spot, should be like a breath of fresh air; a safe space to learn and grow through sharing vulnerabilities and stories. Having the feeling that someone is in your corner can make the clouds clear. I was really lucky very early on in my career to learn about the value of having a mentor. I learnt that it was so important to have someone I could talk to about the overwhelming feelings of chaos and pressure I was experiencing on a daily basis.
I can honestly say that I would not be a lawyer now if I had not had the honour and privilege of being mentored by many generous, gracious and very experienced lawyers. And, one thing I want to tell you now is that, having been a mentor myself for decades, it is a gift to be able to work with young lawyers to help them navigate the highs and lows of life and career. If someone agrees to mentor you please trust that that they really want to do it … and put everything you can into getting the most out of this wonderful relationship.
3. Just be you
This last one sounds the easiest but can often be the hardest. It’s so important to be able to be yourself at work. People often speak of authenticity – and this is exactly what it means. If you have to pretend to be someone you are not then that makes everything else an uphill battle.
You in your whole life
Being you – means putting your whole self into your life and your career. Your life and your job are not two separate worlds. If you have to play a role at work then it makes it really hard to be at ease in the rest of your life.
You doing all the things you need to do or love to do
Being you – means making sure you are doing everything you need to do in your life to find happiness. Just because you are a lawyer does not mean you have to give up on everything else. Raise your children, play netball, read, go to the gym, see friends, spend time with family, go to the theatre, walk your dog … keep doing what makes you happy.
You is your super power
Being you – this is your super power. This is what makes you unique and what will allow you to shine. I have found it hard to shine when I’m playing a part. Doing that numbs your soul and erodes your mental health. I have done this in many different stages of my career and I know the consequences can be catastrophic and heartbreaking.
Please just be you. If you can’t be yourself at work there is information in that. Please listen to that.
Throughout my career what success means to me has changed quite a lot. The one constant is that up until we had our children, my pursuit of success in my career was only focused on me. The other thing is that for a long time in my career I didn’t look at success as relating to all areas of my life – only work. Now that I think about it that strikes me as very odd; because when I looked for mentors and role models I was always drawn to people who seemed to have rich and full lives in their personal and professional worlds. I have found in my career that when I turned my gaze outward I had objective success come my way and also great personal happiness. I will try and tell you how that may have happened but there’s also a little bit of magic involved – a golden thread that now flows through my life – that I can’t quite put into words.
1. Success means being happy in your personal and professional lives and being the same person everywhere
I don’t stop being a mother or a wife or a daughter or a friend or a sister or a mentor ever; and I don’t stop being a lawyer. I don’t panic anymore about arbitrary distinctions of time or this peculiar quest for balance – which doesn’t exist when you don’t have kids – so why we think it will when we have kids had always struck me as odd. I just use the time I have in the way that I need.
Being a human
I have things I have to do as a mother, wife, daughter, friend, sister or mentor and things I have to do as a lawyer. All together these are things I describe as what I need to do to be a human. For a large chunk of my early career I lived like I was only a lawyer. I lived like my life was only about clients and billable hours. I look back now and see that as being really sad; the only saving grace is I didn’t realise it while I was living it.
I am not one thing or another
I don’t feel success is a stellar enough word to describe how empowering and life changing it is to give myself the freedom to apply the same attention and priority to my personal life as I do my career. I am not one thing or another. I am many things, and more; and I can’t be happy in my whole life if I only focus on my career. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
2. Success means knowing there is room for us all
To all the lawyers reading this you will know that there is a very pervasive blanket of competitiveness that casts a shadow over our industry and the daily lives of all lawyers. There is a pressure that if you don’t work harder than the next lawyer, or the next firm, you will be left behind. Billable hours do not do anything to lessen this pressure. I now look at success as not being something that one person can have to the exclusion of all others. AND THIS IS LIBERATING!!!!
Once you know that your capacity to be successful is not at all impacted by someone else being successful it gives you so much peace. Success to me means knowing that there is room for all of us. This perspective on success has fuelled my passion to support everyone around me to achieve. This makes me happier and makes my life richer and fuller.
Letting go of better, busier (or more exhausted)
I am never concerned that by supporting someone else I will diminish my own chances or prospects. I know that by supporting other people to achieve I am creating an engaged and empowered group of people around me who are all trying to do the best they can. Letting go of the pressure that I have to be better, busier (or more exhausted) than the next lawyer has changed my life. It has lead me to rich and meaningful relationships with other people who I support and who support me. This to me is success; and when we share success around I have found the world opens up in magical ways. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
3. Success means my family knows that their lives matter
My day to day life broken down to its simplest parts is that I am a wife, a mother and lawyer. Success to me means that my husband and my kids know that their stuff is important too. Success means it’s not all about me because I’m a lawyer and I’m busy and I’m stressed sometimes. Their lives matter. Their stuff matters. When they need me I am there; just like when I need them they are there for me. This is success; its everyone in my day to day life feeling like they matter and they are important and that their stuff counts.
Family is a glorious collective
The success that I feel I have in my life is magnified every day by being part of this glorious collective of humans eeking out success together, for each other and alone. From that we can weave our way into the world as sons, daughters, sisters, aunties, nieces, ethics teachers, soccer coaches, nephews; lawyers, students and friends.
Doing what I can when I can
It’s not always easy to do when priorities are competing; but success to me is the freedom that comes from knowing that these people are my world. My family drives me forward and pushes me higher. I also now know that fulfilment and success are achieved, not by balance, but by doing what I can when I can. I felt such a release of pressure and stress when I came to understand this; and that in itself is one of my greatest successes. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
4. Success is passion and purpose – it’s not a title
I have left this to last – but really this is the magic thread that flows through every other aspect of what I now believe success really means.
We take ourselves wherever we go
I now get that it’s not about titles – even though I work in a structure where titles and promotions propel us forward. For years I wanted to be a senior associate; and when I finally got there; all the issues and challenges I was having followed me to this promised land. What I had discovered was that it is true; we take ourselves wherever we go.
4 billion miles away
So if the title wasn’t what I was craving; what was it. Now I know. Now I really know. It was passion and purpose. And once I worked that out it gave me the wings I needed to really fly. But I had to fly through storms of discomfort and doubt along the way. The good news is that once I became comfortable with being 4 billion miles away from my comfort zone I landed right where I needed to be. It’s actually funny (or a bit sad) that for years I had been telling people I mentored that you need a passion; you need a purpose. But somehow I thought that didn’t apply to me. In reality I was riding so high on the wave of billable hours that I never thought about passion and purpose for myself.
Once the penny dropped; it was like I had walked right into the sun. And I have stayed there ever since. Having passion and purpose has totally changed my life. Identifying what that passion and purpose is has shined a light on where I need to go. I know now that my purpose is to take as many people with me as I can. I want to do the best work I can and be the happiest lawyer I can; and I want to make sure that every lawyer I come into contact with feels the same way. Once I understood that, I made fulfilling that my purpose; and I have never felt so passionate, inspired, energised and alive. Not a single autopilot in sight.
Passion + Purpose = Succes
And funnily enough when you open yourself up to all the joy that passion and purpose can bring to your life; other people can’t help but come on the journey when you share this incredible secret with them. Passion + Purpose = Success. Passion + Purpose = Success. Passion + Purpose = Success. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
I am a lawyer so this is about 4 signs that have banged on my door from time to time during my career. Yet I’m fairly sure that these signs apply to all people and all careers. They are warning bells that ring to wake us up. Sometimes it takes a long time to hear them; and sometimes it feels easier to ignore them. For me, these signs ultimately saved me and allowed me to reclaim my life – but let me assure you it was a long and winding road. I’m hoping that reading about these signs might help you cut down the travel time if you are on this long and winding road at the moment.
1. You are literally on auto pilot
I wrote a post about my career recently. I wrote about how I was burnt out for a large chunk of my late 20’s/ early 30s and before I knew it 11 years had flown by. The alarming part about that for me was that I almost did not notice it happening. I mean, don’t get me wrong I saw the odd wrinkle, even the odd grey hair so I knew I was getting older and I knew people around me were getting older – but what I had no handle on was how I had grown in my career.
It was like being on a bus that had no brakes, but not even realising that you are hurtling out of control. Every so often I would wonder “HOW DID I GET HERE” but it’s funny when you work in a job with a set hierarchy and you are moving through that hierarchy it seems like you must be going somewhere. Right? So I bought into that hype. I found myself thinking this must be ok because I’m going in the direction I’m supposed to – does it matter that I’m getting there on a bus with no brakes?
In some very anxious moments, usually at 3am on a sleepless night, I would question if it was possible to be in a job that demands constant brain power and not apply any of that too my own life. I have found that this is possible. It is very sad but very true. Sometimes we just cruise. Sometimes we are afraid, or the burden of being busy traps us into a corner. Or worse still, being busy robs us of our ability to even see what is going on. I found I was flat out being a lawyer, but not doing much else. It did not occur to me that my life was more than just law.
Farewell auto pilot
I know that now. I am grateful I know that now. I shout it from the mountain tops now. I am more than a lawyer. I have a full life and being a lawyer is just one part of it. Giving myself permission to give the same priority to my entire life as I had given for over 11 years to being a lawyer helped to shut down my auto pilot. When I was no longer on auto pilot a whole world of opportunities opened up for me.
So if you find you are on auto pilot that is warning no 1.
When the auto pilot takes over that is a sign that we need to look deep inside and see what else we need.
2. You are worried more about the people you work with than yourself
This is the curse of the empath! And when you are an empath on auto pilot watch out. You will literally be the last person standing. I can’t tell you how often I thought I should go but how would X, Y and Z cope? I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly leave because I owed it to my tribe. I was making a mark on other people’s lives and I allowed that to be a convenient reason to suffocate any thoughts I had about where my future might lie.
Fit your own mask
It’s surprisingly easy to put other people ahead of yourself. It’s surprisingly easy to think that your career must be right for you because you have people around you that rely on you. It’s so easy that 11 years can fly by and you don’t even notice it. I now know that it’s a warning sign from the universe that if something if so difficult for you that you cannot conceive of leaving others to experience it without you – then you need to think about why you are there. I know now that I was just adding this to the pile of excuses I was nestling down into – but it’s a very difficult one to pull away from. Making other people’s lives better is a really wonderful feeling; but I now know I can do that but still put my own life first.
Who are you really leaving behind?
I know now that you should never stay in a job because you feel sorry for the people you will leave behind. If you do that you are really just leaving yourself behind. I have learnt there is a huge difference between supporting people and using it as an excuse not to face your own demons.
I also now know it’s a huge burden on the people you love to know that you are struggling because they are keeping you there. It spirals outs of control too when you become miserable, but don’t even realise it, and you are then dragging down the very people you thought you were saving. Fit your own mask first.
3. You lose your confidence
Yep. It happens. For all intents and purposes you look like you have made it. But deep down inside a little part of your soul dies each day. Your soul is literally being suffocated by the auto pilot. Now this may not surprise you, but it certainly surprised me. The next thing that happens is you lose your confidence. You start to feel like you couldn’t possibly do anything else. Then that lack of confidence feeds the overwhelming sense of resignation. Yep – then this is it for me. I may as well settle in for the long haul. There is no point looking for other opportunities because I can’t do anything else anyway.
It takes a village
Even as I write this now I can feel my throat tightening and my heart racing. If you ever feel like you can’t do anything else then that is the exact time you need to open your eyes, and your heart, and look for opportunities. It is also the time you need to tap into your tribe and find someone to raise you up. It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to raise a lawyer.
I was so bereft of confidence at times I thought my heart had broken. I was so scared that this would be my life forever but I had no confidence that I was capable of anything else. Thank goodness for the souls I was saving (see paragraph 2 above) because they literally saved me. They assured me I could do anything. They assured me I would survive when the fabric of what I had thought was my whole life was torn apart. They assured me I deserved better and was capable of so much more.
The clarion call
I have learnt many things about the crafty auto pilot… but the thing that stands out the most is that the loss of confidence that the auto pilot brings is its clarion call. It’s a life line but it feels like a noose.
If you ever find your confidence has well and truly gone south, please know something is not right. Please know it’s like your soul is crying for help. If you are feeling like you can’t do your job and that you are not capable please reach out for help. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is not mandatory for lawyers to feel like that.
4. You don’t like who you have become
This feeling is vile. If you find you do not like who you have become this is the tipping point. This happened to me and it is an indescribably appalling experience. I was bitter, morose and afraid. I had lost all my confidence and that also robbed me of the innate optimism that had carried me through so much. I was full of rage all the time. I was angry at work and heartbroken and sad everywhere else. I was negative to the point that I felt heavy and laden down. I felt I could not lift my feet. I was afraid all the time too, because if I didn’t like myself how could I expect anyone else to.
Misery does not like company
This feeling of not liking myself lead to despair. I found out that misery does not like company. Misery makes you spend a lot of time alone, and misery makes it hard for you to see how your misery is impacting on the people you love.
I was petrified my husband would just throw his hands in the air and tell me he’d had enough. Also, by the time my self-loathing had reached a peak I had become a mother. I felt resentful all the time that my job was robbing me of my life. I hated what I had become and I had to blame something.
What I could not see was that instead of blaming something I had to change something. How could I raise humans if I was on auto pilot? How could I raise humans if I had no confidence? How could I raise humans if I did not like myself?
The tipping point
That was the tipping point. It was the end of the line. It was my now or never moment. And in that now or never moment I saw a glimpse of what my life would be like if my heart was not broken. In that moment I became a pioneer and a hero in my own life.
Please know this if you do not like who you are because of how you are feeling in your job something needs to give. Please let it give. Talk to someone. It feels like it takes great courage to show vulnerability and sometimes lawyers are afraid to do that. But for me letting people in has taught me that our hearts bend, but they do not break forever.
Send the auto pilot packing and let the sunshine in
A partner I worked with used to say that change is uncomfortable. That is true. But I also know from having lived through these 4 things, that change opens doors and lets the sunshine in. I am not so afraid of change anymore; and I put that down to many things – but I know bidding farewell to my auto pilot had a lot to do with it.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!!
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.
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.
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.
If any of this sounds even vaguely familiar I’d love you to share your story.
Hello. My name is Jennifer Harris. I am a lawyer by day (and often night!!) and a wife, a mother, sister, daughter, mentor, friend and everything else all of the time!! I have two children, 9 year old twins. I love coffee. I am a full time lawyer and my husband is a stay at home dad. My life is full, fraught, complex and joyous. I absolutely love reading. I love getting to know people through sharing stories.
I have wanted to write a blog for such a long time, but if I had written it years ago I would not know, as I do now, that hearts bend but they do not break. Work, love, life, career and family can be achingly tough. In one minute you can be high fiving something and the next minute life can bring you to your knees. I know now that I can be raised up by the power of human connection. I can rise up by being kind to myself and kind to other people. Some days it is easier said than done; but I use kindness as a compass even when it seems like the only direction my life is heading is the wrong way!!
I want this blog to be a place for sharing kindness and stories. I want it to be a place where we can metaphorically walk each other home.