Joining the Conversation

  • June 16, 2023

Dear Advy,

I often feel left out of conversations with anyone outside of my profession. All my hobbies and interests that I focused on pre-law school have had to take a back seat to my practice, which I love. I really feel like being a lawyer is a true calling, but I’m obviously limited in what I can share with friends and family about my day-to-day work – most of which would go right over their heads either way. It makes some conversations a bit laborious and while I don’t want to lose relationships with these people, I find myself feeling a bit hurt at constantly feeling like an outsider. I recognize it is on me that I feel this way - any suggestions for getting out of this type of headspace? 

Joining the Conversation

Dear Joining the Conversation,

In two key respects, the problem isn’t quite what you’re putting your finger on.

  1. The problem isn’t so much that you’re making friends more easily - or maintaining existing relationships - among other lawyers than among non-lawyers. The problem is that the more your social circle is confined to other lawyers, the more likely it is that your work and its milieu is monopolizing your worldview. More urgently than non-law friendships, you need to develop non-law hobbies, activities and things to focus on when you leave work. For reasons I will get into below, having only one area of life that you can relate to presents some risk in the long run. Relationships are usually built or sustained around common activities. Your friendships usually have their roots in doing something together. To put it another way, if you widen the scope of your activities, personal relationships with a wider spectrum of people with a variety of interests will likely follow.
  2. Another way in which the problem isn’t quite what you might think is the issue of “constantly feeling like an outsider”. Does practicing law put you in a position where there are things that you just can’t explain to non-lawyers? It does. The thing is, you could substitute just about any profession where the work is intense and has unique challenges into the space occupied by the word “law” and “lawyers” in that sentence. Do soldiers have experiences and approaches to life that are very hard to explain to non-soldiers? Do doctors or nurses have things that they can’t explain to someone who doesn’t work in a hospital? Is it easier for one teacher to relate to another teacher?
    Yes, yes, and yes.
    The trick here is to think of that difficulty in relating to someone outside your profession less as a barrier and more as an opportunity.  

This is something you need to work on deliberately, yes. Should you beat yourself up over the fact that many, if not most of your friendships right now are with other lawyers? No. Beating yourself up about this will make the problem worse, not better. I take it from your letter that you spend a lot of your time among lawyers, and it is normal to develop friendships with the people you spend the most time with and with whom you have something significant in common.

You’ve experienced the difficulty of relating to people who are in different walks of life than you are.

The thing is, relating to people with different experiences is pretty much what it means to live in a society. Dealing with others who are different from you is an essential part of your toolkit as a human.

Negotiating those differences regularly helps you develop the skill of negotiating them. The more you do it, the better you become at it. The early years of law school, articling and legal practice tend to isolate you from people who aren’t “doing law” in one form or another. Remember how intense law school felt? Remember how all-consuming articling seemed to be? Those were great experiences in developing your ability to think like a lawyer. The problem is they let your ability to think like a non-lawyer atrophy from lack of use. The ease with which you used to relate to non-lawyers isn’t gone. It’s just that you are out of practice, and connecting with non-lawyers therefore doesn’t feel as natural as it used to. You were able to develop a new way of thinking in that early career period. The next level of learning is working out how to integrate what you have learned back into those skills you used to have.

Joseph Campbell wrote about a consistent pattern in human storytelling in The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Heroes’ journeys, he wrote, begin with the story’s protagonist as an unremarkable individual who is then forced by circumstance to leave the comforts of home, and then go through a series of difficult trials culminating in a significant triumph. The story ends with the hero returning to the journey’s starting point, bringing the special gifts the hero has attained along the way, back home to help the community. This pattern recurs time and again in most traditional stories or even less traditional stories, like the Star Wars series. It is a pattern that exists across cultures and time because it is a pattern that happens repeatedly to all of us as we go through life.

I hear what you’re saying: All that advice sounds a little esoteric - or just plain “weird” if you’re feeling less charitable. Bear with me. It does relate to your own experience even if your name isn’t Hercules.

You are on your own hero’s journey. You were once not that different from the people around you. You went through the trials of the LSAT, law school admission, law school itself, articling interviews, articling, being called to the bar, and establishing a practice of your own.

Every day at your work, you still go through trials - perhaps even literal ones - that require you to use the things you have learned along the way. You will ultimately be much happier if you can complete that hero’s journey by “returning to the village” (your broader community) to put your education and skills to work for the benefit of your neighbours. Consider the difficulty you are having right now in relating to non-lawyers as part of your learning process.

How do you rebuild that muscle you lost while focusing on developing yourself as a lawyer?

You do it the same way you get good at anything: Practice, practice, practice!    

Find activities that will regularly put you among non-lawyers in a context where your being a lawyer isn’t the reason you’re there. Join a hiking club. Take up quilting or painting. Start swimming laps in the morning and take notice of the fact that the same group of people swim laps every day. Look through the listings of local Meetup groups or clubs with a view to finding something that you might enjoy. Join a band. Volunteer with your local community association or condominium corporation.

Now, you have specifically said you are concerned about maintaining your existing relationships with non-lawyers, yet here I am giving you advice about forming new ones. You don’t have to abandon your existing relationships. However, if those relationships that worry you are ones where you don’t have an ongoing common activity associated with them, then those ones are harder for you to maintain with those atrophied relationship muscles. Use the practice I am recommending here to develop your skills. As your connection skills develop,  you will likely find it easier to maintain those pre-law relationships too. Friendship isn’t something that comes in a limited supply. Making friends in one area of your life is likely to help you build and maintain relationships elsewhere.

There’s  any number of ways you can create opportunities to rebuild your capacity to interact with others. Find some that speak to you. Importantly, also be prepared to change if it is not fulfilling your needs. Finding a non-lawyer peer group is something to approach as an experiment, where mistakes and dead ends are useful in and of themselves.

Be well,

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