One of the best lawyers (and mentors) I know has had plenty of opportunities to walk a traditional career path. With her skill set and reputation, she could have parked her practice at one workplace and stayed at the top. Instead, she’s worked at a wide range of firms and organizations, repeatedly finding great success. At one point, I asked her how she had come to lead such a nomadic career. In her telling, the answer was simple: she had taken each of her previous roles as far as possible. “I started to feel like I was in a pie-eating contest,” she said, “but the only prize was more pie.”
That colourful soundbite captures a dark truth about the legal profession. Once we settle into a role, we can get stuck in an endless loop of similar files on behalf of identical clients. What began as creative becomes routine. We lose our motivation. And we stop finding joy in our work.
If you’re living out some version of this narrative, you might be struggling with what mental health professionals call languishing. According to the psychologist Adam Grant, “languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness” that can make you feel like you’re “looking at your life through a foggy windshield.”
So how can you break out of the funk? The first step is straightforward: devote time to activities that have nothing to do with your career. Over the past year, as the pandemic made my own life pretty monotonous, I tried hard to put this advice into practice. I took on a more challenging fitness regimen and started watching The Wire for the first time. This helped me escape the daily grind.
Despite having an active life outside of the office, some of you will still feel suffocated by a stagnant career path. In that scenario, take a step back and examine the problem. Once you honestly probe the source of your professional malaise, you might conclude that you no longer feel too connected to your clients, caseload or organization. Be brave and confront those uncomfortable facts. Ignoring them will only make it worse.
Let’s say you decide to make a career change. Before you hand in a letter of resignation, find out if you can tweak your current role to make it more satisfying. Ask your boss or mentor if there’s an opportunity to move to a different practice group or to take on a new file outside your area of expertise.
Now, this might not solve the problem. In that case, the best course of action might be to leave your current position. You should still move slowly, taking the necessary time to chart a path forward. But you have every right to inject passion into your working life by trying something new.
Most importantly, remember that you have options. Whether you choose to shake up your existing role or find an entirely new job, take control of your career. After all, you don’t want to wake up every day to a slice of the same pie.
Daniel Waldman is an associate in the litigation group at Pallett Valo LLP. He writes about career satisfaction and business development for Precedent.