Sick of the Slump

  • January 10, 2022

Dear Advy,

I am going through a weird period in my career where I just do not have the same drive to be a lawyer as I once did. I have always been competitive, especially in relation to my practice, taking on challenging tasks and rising quickly within my firm.  I can certainly go beyond my current position, but right now, I’m not sure I even want to. Maybe it is the pandemic, or maybe it is something else, but the longer I am in this ‘slump’ for lack of a better word, the more down I become. I love being a lawyer – how do I get beyond this slump and try to recapture some of the drive I had earlier in my career?

Sick of the Slump 

Dear Sick of the Slump,

It may be that the key issue you’re facing is that you are trying to recapture the same drive you had earlier in your career. You are not the same person you were five, ten, or twenty years ago. That’s not to say you can’t recapture some drive, as you put it. It may be a mistake, though, to try to recreate something that may have been satisfying to an earlier iteration of yourself but is not satisfying to the “you” that wrote this letter. Trying to attain a goal that no longer fits with who you are now will lead you further into a slump, not out of it.

These doldrums you are experiencing are providing you with valuable information. Something is uninspiring about what you are doing. It may seem like a given that what lies “beyond” your current position is becoming a partner in a firm, joining senior management in an in-house or public institution or something else. Your job presented you with novel challenges earlier in your career, and your sense that you were developing as a lawyer was exciting. As you mature in your practice, you likely find yourself doing the same or similar work repeatedly, and that too is less inherently exciting.

Now, you may be expecting me to tell you to sit down with a journal to write out what you find uninspiring about your current career and career path and what would be more inspiring for you. Yes, that will be part of what I suggest you do, but I suspect that if you go straight to that step, you will find the result less than satisfying. There are a couple of things to do first.

Consider your ability to be excited by your work to be like a muscle. It can get stronger and more flexible with practice. It can also atrophy with a lack of exercise. When you were younger, you were not only bombarded by new experiences that now seem routine, but you had a lot more scope to do what you enjoyed as opposed to what you had to do. The adult “you” likely spends less time playing or having fun than the toddler or teen version of you. The young “you” probably spent less time doing your taxes, paying utility bills, and mowing the lawn than the current “you”.

While I am not suggesting you stop doing your taxes to play tag, I am recommending that you deliberately take up something new. It’s important that you allow yourself the time to simply do it. Engaging in your new activity – be it a new sport, taking up a musical instrument, playing bridge or whatever – is not time subtracted from your life and career. It is an important and deliberate practice of growing your capacity to learn.

Allow yourself the time to be bad at this new activity at first or even to always be bad at it. The older we get, the more fear we have of being a beginner at something.

A word of caution here: Mid-life professionals often take up what I call “trophy recreation.” Trophy recreation is an activity you engage in so you can tell people you are doing it. The point here is not to develop something you can use to impress people at lunchtime. If you go into this new activity with that aim, you will likely be afraid to be terrible at it. If you feel the pressure to impress your co-workers with your weekend warrior exploits on Monday, you will be much more conservative at what you will try. Pardon the language, but this needs to be something you can really suck at doing.

Leonardo da Vinci is supposed to have said:

Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.

As you develop your capacity to try things you may be terrible at, you can take a look at your career goals. Start with what you know. Identify the parts of your current career that you really do love. Your current career is what you know best, so there are nuggets there you can easily mine for insight.

You can also list what you would like to change about the work you do. Maybe there are some kinds of files or tasks you want to start saying no to. Maybe there are practice areas you would like to learn to take on. Perhaps you want to take what you know from one mode of practice (e.g. litigation) and apply it to another (e.g. mediation). Yes, you have a professional obligation of competence. You do not have a professional duty to be perfect. Find someone who knows the practice area you are taking on who is willing to help you gain both confidence and competence. Make use of professional development resources such as the CBA’s webinars to get better at it.

You can also help stimulate your enjoyment of your work by working people just entering the profession. Nothing strips away cynicism and ennui like spending time with young lawyers who still find what they are doing fascinating. Most jurisdictions have formal mentoring programs, either through the CBA or through the regulator. Volunteer in a free student legal clinic to help law students advise their clients. The key is to find a way to put yourself among people who are eager to do what you do.

If you find yourself scared by the prospect of taking a career path that is unique to you and your passions, that is good! Fear is also a useful provider of information as long as you don’t let it stop you from exploring new opportunities. That fear is reminding you of the pitfalls you need to avoid while you build your career. Remember, you don’t have to wait for a crisis to see a professional counsellor. Your local Lawyer Assistance Program can match you up with someone who can help you through the fear or any other emotion you may need to manage in this process.  

Be well,

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