Attorneys-How to deal with a mid-life or career-stage crisis

As a legal recruiter, I often get involved with partners and associates because they are unhappy and dissatisfied. Usually, they are at a crossroad in either their professional or personal lives (or both). Some feel that they have accomplished or earned less than expected, worked too hard with little results, do not see much forward motion, or they are plain unhappy. I’ve answered enough of these calls, and have become pretty good at identifying trends.

Through the years, I have watched many friends, and colleagues at the bar struggle to make it through life, and oftentimes we are raising our children in this same environment. At times there may be a sense of hopelessness that we are stuck, and with the economy in the toilet these last couple of years, we take the natural risk aversion that afflicts most of us attorneys, and kick it up a notch by adding the stress of job insecurity as a further justification for inertia.

This weekend I learnt that I needed bifocals or progressive lenses. No big deal, but that coupled with a receding hairline and a belly that grew out of nowhere and loves me so much that despite exercise and lifestyle changes it still feels the need to mock me on a daily basis when I put on pants, I was not happy. We went to dinner with friends, were told that the husband had just purchased himself a new convertible, red, no less, and that the wife was engaging in another suck-the-marrow out of life wilderness expedition to Borneo. My wife and I left the restaurant, got into our car (a 2005 prius, thank you very much) and had a very unusually intimate and personal discussion. We went home, went to bed, and I lay awake thinking, something which is not an unusual occurrence, and at about 3am or so I wondered “When do we start asking ourselves if there is more?” This took some lengthy consideration, and I did an if-this-then-that analysis, and queried “When we determine that there is, are we likely to change to seek it?” and finally, “If we can not change why not?”

A mid-life crisis usually results when you realize your life is at some kind of mid-way point, and you have not done what you wanted to do.  As attorneys, I think we have several of these crises at different states of our careers and lives.

In my observation, the first crisis seems to appear in our late 20s or early 30s. College, Law School, and the first couple of years at our firm (a true finishing school for attorneys as it is where we actually learn to practice law)  are over with. We have begun to settle into a practice area. We may have found a spouse or partner who may or may not grow with us and may or may not end up being with us for the long haul. We may or may not have had kids, or we may be sensing that the window for starting a family is nearing. We have a better understanding of the firm where we are working, the legal market as a whole, and at some point we realize that this perhaps is not exactly where we want to be. There is dissatisfaction that we may have made a wrong decision somewhere, or that the effects of the Kool-Aid we all drank as summer associates is beginning to wear off. A little voice is whispering in your ear, that it is time to look, and that voice will grow increasingly louder on a daily basis, but oftentimes we are stuck. This gnawing dissatisfaction will stick with you and probably affect all aspects of your life until a change occurs, or you somewhat defeatedly accept that this is your life. You have seen this amongst your friends and colleagues. Some make the jump to other firms where they can further hone their skills and specialize in a particular practice area. Others, may keep sticking around until they become 4th years, 5th years, 6th years, 7th years, all the while failing to recognize the odds of being made partner hover well-below 2%. You wonder if this is all there is, and you very well might just say “yes” until you then hit the second crisis.

This one hits around 7-10 years of practice. It is the major transition time when many attorneys go in-house, have to decide whether to switch to another second or third firm after weighing their partnership odds, decide whether that firm will be a boutique or BigLaw,  or go off and start their own firm with colleagues or by themselves. By now you may or may not have been married or divorced, if kids are in the picture, you might be desperately trying to achieve some level of work/life balance so you can actually spend time with them while also doing what it takes to become a partner. Many marriages suffer severe strains as the balancing of priorities becomes challenging at best. If you are lucky, you do not have to address many of the concerns of aging parents, but don’t worry, that will come. Again, the lyrics of the Talking Heads “Once in a lifetime” are coming into my head. Fitting.

Now comes the third crisis. You are in your forties. Judd Apatow filmed it. We are mid-life. We are cliches. We are still thinking we are in our 20’s, but some of our favorite songs are actually played on Oldies Stations. Our kids are spending more time at sleepovers, and we have stopped being cool. Gravity is setting in. In some cases with a vengeance. We are partners, or in-house counsel. We need bi-focals or progressive lenses. We are saving for college, or spending all of our money on college, or child-support, or a divorce, or a bigger house. or more stuff. Career wise we have made it to a certain level. Maybe we are happy, many of us are still working extraordinarily hard to again achieve some kind of balance.

Next,  I see a fourth crises when you are in your 50’s to 60’s. This is when the kids are away, you have had a career of which hopefully you have been proud. You are dealing with or have dealt with the aging and possible passing of your parents, and at this stage even some friends. Mortality is knocking on your door, and you are now either trying to bill as many hours as possible to put away as much as you can for retirement, are enjoying the fruits of your labor by being involved in leadership roles in the firm or your community or professional organization, and in some ways still facing some of the questions you faced 10 years ago, of what am I going to do with the next 3rd of your life?

And, I am very proud to say that my practice has allowed me to see a fifth crisis. I have been given a tremendous opportunity to work with senior members of the bar. They have accepted and in many cases even embraced that they are more than likely not going to keep practicing every day. They want to make sure they leave some form of legacy, be it the firm they started or helped to build, or some other achievement.

Each of these crises (and there may very well be others) causes us to look in the mirror and make a decision. Yes, even indecision is a decision. We each decide if we stay on the same path or make adjustments to our course to hopefully find something that is missing. For everyone that something is different. It could be money, more flexible work schedule, longer vacations, more responsibility, it is dependent upon the individual.

Change is good. It is necessary. To the extent possible, wouldn’t you like to be the one who makes that change instead of having it forced upon you? As attorneys,we truly can be masters of our own destinies. Plus, take a look around at the world in which we live. The days of 50 years of service and a gold watch are gone. Hell, even equity partners are in the crosshairs. We are living longer, more active much later in life than seemingly ever before, and have bigger dreams.

So, is there more?

Yes, there is.

More of what is up to you, and whether you are 30, 40, 50 or even 60 or 80,  I can help you get it.

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