Will You Be a Happy Lawyer?

Out of placeToday we’re talking with Jennifer Alvey, lawyer turned career coach (with a specialty in the “thwarted creative” lawyer type). She’s got great insight into the personality types likely to be miserable in the legal profession, and is hysterically funny, to boot.

Without further ado…here’s Jennifer!

Alison: I’m a pretty creative person, but I’m also really successful academically. My parents think law school might be a good option, but I’m not convinced. On the other hand, it’s not like I have any other solid plans for my future. What should I be thinking about and doing as I make this decision?

So if you weren’t dating anyone, or were dating someone you barely knew, and your parents started pressuring you about when you were getting married, would you assume you must start thinking about marriage? I didn’t think so.

Law is a career you marry.

Unless you’re closely related to a lawyer, you may not see the daily time drain of it. It takes up far more time and energy than the average marriage, yet I work with countless clients who gave law school far less thought than they gave getting engaged.

Law is the career that invades your nights and weekends, that postpones or cancels vacations, that causes you to miss family events and time. I’m not saying that to dissuade anyone from law school or becoming a lawyer — it’s just the reality of law practice for most attorneys in firms of all sizes and cities. Some places are more balanced, some less so. Even more balanced cities and firms demand a lot from your time.

You won’t be working 40-hour weeks; that’s part-time in law.

So if you choose law, understand that you are choosing a high-stress lifestyle.

If you aren’t pretty sure you’re going to love it, you might want to give your creative side a chance first, before committing to $200,000 in debt for one glorious piece of paper.

Some ways to give your creativity a chance before you buy the lawyer lifestyle:

  • Work for a couple years in a creative job; it will help you learn more about your possible industry and yourself. Your brain isn’t fully developed until 25, so it pays to give yourself those few years before jumping into law. You might make some unexpected and amazing connections with other creative souls, too.
  • If you’re thinking there’s something pretty attractive about law, work as a legal assistant for a couple years. The money is fairly decent, and you’ll get a birds-eye view of real lawyer behavior, not what all their glossy websites say about their work atmosphere. Your ultimate decision will be much better informed.
  • Find a job in a non-creative area that will allow you time outside work to explore your creativity. You’ll start to learn how much time you need for your creativity; in other words, whether it’s something you can do on the side, or whether you need to be focused on your creative work daily. Or somewhere in between, with a “slash career.”
You’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about how different personality types experience the legal profession. What are the biggest takeaways from your research? Are there types that are particularly well-suited, or particularly ill-suited, for a legal career?

First, I owe a big debt to Dr. Larry Richard, an attorney and consultant who wrote a wonderful article about the Meyers-Briggs Typology Indicator and attorneys for the American Bar Association Journal in 1993. His work gave me terrific insight into my own clients’ situations.

If you’re not familiar with the MBTI, you can check out a post I wrote about it in 2007, which goes into a lot of detail about the various personality types in the MBTI world.

One of Dr. Richard’s most interesting findings was the prevalence of NT (iNtuitive Thinking) types among lawyers.

Don’t be fooled; intuitive isn’t about getting in touch with your feelings so much as being a big-picture thinker. iNtuitives see the possibilities in situations, which of course is a key lawyer skill. Good attorneys have to be able to see what risks a client faces, and draft documents to guard against the bad possibilities.

Thinking vs. Feeling

The other preference, Thinking, denotes people who prefer to solve problems with logic and dispassion. So in a layoff situation, for example, Thinkers are the ones who reason that 50-year-old Joe should be laid off because he doesn’t have the skill set needed for where the business is heading, plus his compensation level is far above what someone who does have the skills set would command. For Thinkers, this is purely a business decision. Unfortunate for Joe, but it’s not about his age or whether he’s a nice person who always helps co-workers out of a jam.

If you’re on the opposite end of the preference spectrum, a Feeler, you’re probably about to blow a gasket at the unfairness of laying Joe off.

That is one of the most important insights I have about happiness as an attorney: If you’re a Feeler, you need to be very, very picky about the type of law and legal environment you choose.

Most law firms, and indeed most legal environments, are run by Ts. There is a constant tension for Fs in working in those environments. That’s because Fs decide based on the effects a course of action will have on people and their principles. It wears F down almost unbearably to work in a T-heavy environment like law or banking, because their core way of making decisions gets constantly trampled on, from their point of view.

Perceiving vs. Judging

The other big source of friction in work environment is clashes between Perceivers and Judgers.

If you have a strong Perceiver preference, you will struggle in law.

Ps like to play things by ear, and stay open to possibility. They shoot from the hip. They’re happiest looking for all the cool things that could happen.

Most attorneys are Js, or Judgers. The J doesn’t stand for actual judges; it’s about needing decision and finality in their lives. Js are consummate list-makers — and they finish their lists. Ps, not so much.

Js don’t mind billable hours and accounting for their time in 6-minute increments so much. For Ps, it’s torture. (It might be torture for Js for other reasons.) Js have a very solid grip on how time flows, while Ps tend to be pretty hazy about how long they’ve been doing research, writing, or talking on the phone.

The MBTI folks usually say that all types can do whatever job they choose. I don’t exactly disagree with that, but law jobs demand so much of you, I don’t think it’s smart to choose law if you’re an INFP, ENFP, ESFP, or ISFP, unless you have some exceptionally strong reason for wanting to be an attorney.

“You can do anything with a law degree” is not a strong reason, in case you were wondering.

If you work in an environment that doesn’t value, or actively disdains what makes your type tick, you’re going to be swimming upstream most of your life, and that’s exhausting and dispiriting.

You won’t have a sense of tribe in the thing you spend the most time doing, and it feels very lonely and isolating. Embrace who you actually are, then choose based on where you fit reasonably well.

Could you talk a bit about what you do in the average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

My work looks nothing like what I pictured when I started law school!

Part of that, of course, is that I graduated law school in 1991, i.e., in the Jurassic before the Internet and email. My law school computer was an IBM PS2/model 30; no one had heard of a laptop. Cell phones were expensive toys that the partners had. Heck, only partners got speakerphones; they were a big status symbol. There were no Blackberries! (cf., no email)

And women were still expected to wear hose, skirts and heels every day, even in the sweltering summers in D.C.

I’m fairly sure if someone had come into the office in flip-flops, they would have been fired. Or at the very least, called into the managing partner’s office and read the riot act. I have some very entertaining memos about the bold new Casual Friday when it was introduced at my then-law firm; it included some priceless language about khakis needing to be pressed with a crease in the front. Really, I’m not kidding.

That does bring up one of the most important differences between my work life as a young associate and my work as a career coach: I don’t report to someone else’s office, only to my own messy desk in my home office. For better or for worse, I don’t follow anyone’s dress code.

When I practiced law, I did a fair amount of writing, when the deadline was almost impossible to meet because I’d procrastinated so long. I still do a lot of writing — but it’s for my blog and the ebook I’m writing, so now I get to write about things I think are interesting.

I also do a lot of work one-to-one, with actual people, which I never really envisioned when I was working at a large law firm on big commercial litigation cases.

I still analyze problems, but it’s on a personal level, with me using my NF preferences.

I don’t put off work because I dread doing it. Mind you, because I have a fairly strong P preference, work does get put off, but it’s because there’s something more compelling to me at that moment.

— – —
Thanks, Jennifer! This was fascinating. I finally know why I wasn’t suited for a career as a firm lawyer — must be the P part of my personality!

Do you have questions for Jennifer? Leave them in the comments!

Jennifer Alvey is a career coach and former lawyer, who blogs at the highly amusing and useful Leaving the Law. You can find her on Twitter at: @JennAlvey. And if you’re thinking maybe this whole law thing isn’t for you, check out her coaching practice.

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  1. Jennifer, your perspective is spot-on. The consideration of who you *are* [T, F, P, J …] is one that gets such short shrift when twenty-somethings consider law school. Digging in to your ‘self’ and thinking about these issues is crucial to finding happiness in the law (or anywhere else, for that matter). And actually working in a law firm – or other legal setting – should be a prerequisite for anyone considering law school. Perhaps the glut in newly-minted lawyers – coupled with the crazy debt law students are faced with – will help to encourage would-be lawyers to follow your sage advice. For what it’s worth, my experience over the past 14 years as a lawyer tracks your description pretty much word-for-word.

    • Isn’t it fascinating? According to some articles, my personality type is perfect for law, but they’ve gotten the P part wrong. What Jennifer’s saying makes so much more sense. I HATED keeping track of my time. Just couldn’t do it. Now it’s all so clear…

    • Thanks, Cat! I really think law schools should follow the MBA model, at least as far as not accepting students until they’ve worked for a couple years. You get to know yourself so much more once you’re out of the school womb.

      And Alison–oh, the billable hours tracking. How I loathed it! I feel with ya.

  2. On the day of my interview with my current law firm, I also happened to be appearing on the front page of a state-wide paper talking about my win of a big business plan competition. I found myself explaining over and over “yes, I do want to be a lawyer, not a business owner” and “my sister is the business partner running the day to day” – I am not sure how convincing I was to them (or to myself), but I landed the job. As an INFJ, I do find it challenging to find fulfillment in the career of law. I am finding reasonable balance now, by creating better boundaries at work (we’ll see how long that flies), and fulfilling my entrepreneurial spirit on nights and weekends by publishing my blog and coaching professionals. My biggest advice to law students is to really do some introspection before signing up for law school, or adding on an LLM after graduation to postpone job searching. Are you signing up to be the person you want to be, or are you fulfilling someone else’s dream for you?

    • I am sure there are lots of sites out there offering profiles of characteristics for the MB test results, but this INFJ profile is pretty spot on for me, and you can look at other combinations as well: http://typelogic.com/infj.html. Pretty interesting.

    • Ha! I’ll bet that was an awkward conversation. A bit like me in a screening interview when the interviewer asked “So, why D.C.?” and I looked at him blankly, not realizing I’d signed up for the wrong office. Obviously you were more convincing!

  3. As one of those unicorn ESFPs in law, BigLaw at that, i have to say I respectfully disagree with this article. While I think the ESFP personality type matches who I am with my friends and family, I have always found it disheartening to see that my personality profile is overrepresented in some of the lowest-paying jobs out there. Whenever I read career suggestions for ESFPs, setting aside the interior design and counselor roles, I see suggestions that I consider being a receptionist, an assistant, or even a lifeguard. No offense to anyone who currently works those roles, but since i have had the fortune of having access to higher education and choosing a career, those jobs would never be on my list. In my job prior to law school, one of my top dissatisfactions was that I lacked intellectual stimulation and I didn’t think that I had enough influence within the organization. To the extent that some of my work as a junior associate continues to want for intellectual engagement, I can at least see that I will eventually develop enough skills and experience to take on more of a leadership role. To the extent that I have empathy for my friends and feel emotionally involved in television dramas, I am perfectly capable of taking a dispassionate view of facts and using them to draw necessary conclusions. I make plans on the fly, but it is not a struggle for me to keep track of my billable time. Perhaps my experience stems somewhat from the fact that I am neither a strong F nor P, but on the whole I have serious misgivings about the MBTI assessment and how it has pigeonholed me as a fun-loving person who is a mere people-pleaser, unfit for higher executive ranks.

    My only complaint about this line of work is the lack of control I have over my personal life. However, I would treat the lack of work-life balance as an issue entirely separate from Meyer-Briggs personality type. Most of my law school friends, including those fitting the more common NTJ profiles, share this same lament. Thanks for hearing me out.

    *Name has been changed.

    • As an INFP, I definitely agree! Experience and intellectual capabilities far outweighs your MBTI type. People have the ability to act “out of character” but I’m also not a strong P or T but almost in the middle. Not every INFP is going to become a writer or painter, I do that for fun doesn’t mean i want it as a career.

      • Agreed! I am an INFP and while some points were spot on, there are so many different kinds of legal practice that it’s hard to make definitive statements about the practice of law. I do hate counting my billable hours (we did this in school) and I’m sure I would go crazy in a law firm, but I fit in very well as a public defender.

  4. Nice article and interesting points. I will disagree with the “40 hour work week is part time” statement however. This seems to be a sort of scare tactic thrown around a lot about this career.
    I’ve worked as a legal assistant in a fairly large law firm for the past few years (about to start law school myself!), and the only time the attorneys do not leave at 5pm is when a there is a big deadline approaching that something has got in the way of. Then it may be a 7pm or 9pm job for one or two nights. Everyone comes in at 830am at the earliest, unless they are in court which usually starts at 8 or 9am.
    So anyone reading this – don’t be put off by the “scary” sound of 40hours being a myth. It is entirely common in this profession! I worked much much longer hours when I was in hospitality.

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