Wondering if Law’s Right for You? A Lawyer Turned Positive Psychology Expert Shares Her Insights

Paula Davis-LaackToday I’m very excited to have Paula Davis-Laack here, to talk about how to figure out if you’ll thrive in the legal profession.

Paula’s got a great background for this, given that she was a commercial real estate attorney for seven years (in a large law firm and as in-house counsel for a Fortune 500 company) AND she’s one of the first 200 people in the world to have completed the master’s program in applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also the founder of The Marie Elizabeth Company, which helps companies and individuals thrive and flourish.

Exciting stuff! Without further ado, here’s Paula.

Alison: I’m a 1L in my second semester of law school, and I’m really struggling. My grades were okay, but not great, and I’m not all that excited about what I’m learning. I feel really stressed out most of the time, and I’m already concerned about this semester’s exams. Frankly, I’m not even sure I want to be a lawyer any more. Do you have any tips for how I can snap out of this funk and figure out what I want to do with my life?

Paula: The part I gravitate toward is “I’m not even sure I want to be a lawyer any more.”

How strong was your desire to be a lawyer to begin with?

When people have a strong passion for something, it’s hard to throw them off course, even in tough times.

As a business owner, I’ve run into my fair share of roadblocks, but I so believe in what I’m doing that that passion pushes me through the tough times.

Law school is tough and stressful. It becomes even more so if this really isn’t what you want to be doing.

I think you need to really evaluate whether this is a path you are pursing with passion — are you “all in?” If not, then you might benefit from taking some time to look at other options.

To start, set aside several hours of uninterrupted free time to create THE LIST, as I call it.

It’s all of those things you’ve absolutely loved to do since you were a kid — write down all of those things.

I did this after I burned out from my law practice and realized that since I’ve been a kid, I’ve LOVED to sit and talk with people. It gets me excited like few other things. I knew that my new career HAD to involve that, so now I spend some of my time coaching lawyers, I interview lawyers for my Association for Women Lawyer’s chapter, and I teach in a lot of small groups so I can get to know people well.

Good luck to you. I suspect you have some tough decisions to make, but I’m confident they will be the right ones FOR YOU.

I’m finishing up my last year of undergrad, and I’m under a lot of pressure to go to law school. I’ve always gotten great grades, and worked really hard, but I just feel like I want to chill out for a little while and work at a coffee shop or something. Is this okay? The answer, according to my parents, is “Definitely not!” They think I’m throwing away all of my potential if I don’t apply to law school right now. How can I convince them there might be a better alternative for me? And how can I figure out what that better option is? Right now, I just feel really stuck.

I’m having flashbacks to 1997. That’s the year I graduated from my undergrad program and made the decision to take a year off before going to law school. I actually applied, got accepted, then deferred. I also worked at a legal services firm during my year off (though part time). I think that helped ease my parents’ angst only slightly because they too thought I was throwing my whole future away. They were convinced that I’d never go back if I took some time off.

What they forgot is that we’re high achievers! It’s in our blood to do something great — whatever that means for you.

And, I turned out OK.

After I graduated from law school, I worked in a large law firm, then as in-house counsel for a Fortune 500 company — that seems to be the “dream path” for many aspiring lawyers (and many parents of aspiring lawyers).

Here’s the thing about law school and being a lawyer — you’ve got to really want it.

Law school and the practice of law are a grind. You will be dealing with complex cases, complex people, and complex issues. You will be working on some of the hardest problems in society because if they were easily solved, lawyers wouldn’t need to step in.

If it’s been your dream to go to law school and become a lawyer, go for it with all you have, because despite what you hear, the world needs more GOOD lawyers. If it’s not your dream, you will manage because you’re smart and industrious, BUT, it will catch up with you at some point.

I don’t want you to look back ten years from now and say, “I wish I would have done “x.” Figure out what “x” is now and go for that. Your parents will eventually understand, and if they don’t, it’s your life. You only get one shot.

So yes, take the year off, work at a coffee shop, bum around, work at a law firm doing grunt work (the best job there is if you want to be a lawyer someday), but be intentional about crafting your next steps. Good luck to you.

Can you talk a bit about what you do in an 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?

I run my own business, and the practice of law prepared me well for that.

  • I often times need to think on my feet, logic out a contract with my service providers, and deal with clients/customers regularly. I wear a number of hats in my business.
  • I do a great deal of writing; I blog for Psychology Today, Huffington Post, and Ms. JD, among others, and I’m developing several e-books and a “regular” book. As a transactional attorney, I wrote extensively, and I loved that aspect of my practice.
  • I also develop and deliver workshops on resilience and work/life balance for lawyers and law students.
  • Finally, I’m part of a training team that delivers resilience and stress management training for soldiers in the Army.

When I started law school, there is no way I could have predicted what I’d be doing now. I knew very early on that I would be a business owner, but I had no idea what that business would look like. It took me burning out to really hone in on what I was good at and what I really loved to do.

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Thanks, Paula! If you want to find out more about her interesting and important work, follow Paula on Twitter at @pauladavislaack or check out The Marie Elizabeth Company.

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