This week, I want to talk about an issue that I see come up so often for lawyers. What we’re going to talk about today is the mindset of “if you’re not suffering in the law, you’re not working hard enough.” It’s particularly prevalent in really toxic work environments or workplaces, where being consistently overworked is normalized.
Want to learn more? Let’s get started.
Suffering In The Law
Before we get started, I just want to clarify what I mean by suffering in the law. I know the term suffering might sound extreme to some. But, I’m using it in terms of how many lawyers are treated in toxic and abusive work environments.
You see, by not using the language that accurately describes what those environments are like, it doesn’t seem like that big of a problem. That’s why I released a Podcast episode and YouTube video about saying you work for an assh*le partner, but really meaning workplace abuse.
In the same way, when we talk about working in a toxic or abusive environment, that is in fact, a situation that creates mental, emotional, and sometimes even physical suffering. So that’s what I mean when I use the term suffering.
The Internalized Mindset of “Suffering Equals Working Hard”
It’s common for lawyers to internalize the message that if they’re not suffering, they’re not working hard enough. This belief is so insidious because it puts you in situations where you don’t believe you’re doing good work unless you’re suffering.
The messages sent in toxic work environments are, “This is how it is. This is how it has to be if you do ‘good work.’” So much so that people get to a point where they can’t believe that they can do good work without suffering. On the flip side, you discount your suffering because you’ve come to associate suffering with working hard.
None of this is true. It’s a product of working in an extremely toxic work environment. There are many people doing good and interesting work and are not suffering. Suffering is not a necessary part of the equation.
Feeling Guilty For Not Suffering In The Law
The additional piece of this is sometimes people feel guilty because they come to associate suffering with working hard enough. If they’re not feeling that level of suffering, then they’re not doing what they “should”.
As you can see, this is a very harmful and toxic way of thinking about your work and what your work should look like. But it’s also completely understandable that so many of us internalize this belief about work and suffering because of the environment that we are working in.
Your Willingness To Work Hard Enough
Another piece of this is the shockingly universal concept, “if you’re not willing to work the way you’re required to, you’re not willing to work hard enough.” This sentence comes out of the mouth of almost everyone who I work with and with who I’ve interviewed for the podcast.
There is this universal concern that is trained into us as lawyers that if we go looking for something more satisfying and involves less suffering, it means that we don’t want to work hard.
Again, this is because of the idea that hard work somehow involves suffering or being in a toxic work environment. And, to reiterate, it’s just not true. You can work hard without suffering. You can do good work that doesn’t involve being in a toxic work environment.
Sick of Suffering In The Law? Find Something BETTER!
I know that many of you listening feel like if you’re not suffering, then you are not working hard enough. That belief, though pervasive in the legal profession, is simply wrong.
It feels true when you’re in a toxic work environment, but it is not. You are working hard, and you do not have to be suffering to prove that you are working hard enough.
What I want for you readers is o be able to find a job or a career where you’re able to work hard in an environment that doesn’t expect you to suffer.
If that means leaving the law, download my free guide, First Steps To Leaving The Law. This guide will walk you through those scary first steps. You’ll also get on my email list, where you’ll stay updated on all new things here at Former Lawyer.
Until next time!
Connect With Sarah
Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
Hello, everyone. This week I want to talk about something that I had a conversation with a client about recently. This is an issue that I see come up so often for lawyers. It's particularly present and prevalent in situations where lawyers are in really toxic work environments or environments where they're being consistently overworked and overwork is normalized. Here is what tends to be true in those cases. Lawyers who work in those types of environments start to internalize the message that if they're not suffering, they're not working hard enough. Let me just say that again. It is very common for lawyers to internalize a message that if they're not suffering, they're not working hard enough.
This comes up over and over with people who I work with and with friends who I've had who have worked in these types of toxic environments, often in particular, Biglaw, just because that's my background. Here's why I think this belief is so insidious. You get into a situation where you basically don't believe that you're doing good work unless you're suffering, number one. On the flip side, you discount the suffering you're experiencing because you come to associate suffering with doing good work.
Let me just briefly, as an aside, say when I'm talking about suffering, that might sound like an extreme term to some people who are listening, but I have started trying to use that term more when I talk about the way that many lawyers are treated and what they experience in the work environments that they're in because so many of these work environments are truly toxic and abusive. I think that by not using the language that accurately describes what those environments are like, we make it seem like it's not that big of a problem.
That's why, for example, I released an episode recently and also a YouTube video about the fact that when we say that you work for an assh*le partner, what we're really talking about typically is that person is abusive. Not always, but very often. In the same way, when we talk about the experience someone has working in a toxic environment, working in an abusive environment, that is in fact, a situation that creates mental, emotional, and sometimes even physical suffering. That's what I mean when I use the term suffering.
Back to the topic, I think, and have observed, that there are a lot of lawyers who have internalized this false belief about what it is to work hard and what it is to do good work, because good work and working hard, the messages that they get in their workplaces are so incessantly like, “This is how it is. This is how it has to be if you do ‘good work’ or ‘prestigious work,’” that people get to a point where they often find it hard to believe that it could be possible for them to do good and interesting work in a way that doesn't also require them to suffer. That's just not true. That is a function, a product of working in an extremely toxic environment.
There are many people doing good and interesting work in the world, lawyers, former lawyers, and non lawyers who are not also suffering. It is not a necessary part of the equation. The corollary or an additional piece of this is if you aren't suffering at a particular point, sometimes people feel guilty because they come to associate that feeling of suffering with doing the kind of work or working as hard as they “should”. If they're not feeling that level of suffering, then they're not doing what they “should”.
As you can see, this is a very harmful and very toxic way of thinking about your work and what your work should look like. But it's also completely understandable that so many of us internalize this belief about work and suffering because of the environment that we are working in.
Another piece of this that I think is really interesting, and is shockingly universal, is first of all, I can remember telling people when I was thinking about leaving the law and leaving my firm, I can remember having conversations with people where I said things like, “It's not that I don't want to work hard. I just don't want to work in this particular way.” I remember feeling very concerned that there would be this sense of like, “Well, if you're not willing to work the way you're required to work in Biglaw, that means you're lazy and you're not willing to work hard.”
It's so interesting because that sentence that I just said about “I'm willing to work hard. I just don't want to work like this,” that exact sentence comes out of the mouth of almost everyone who I end up working with and almost everyone who I've interviewed for the podcast. There is this universal concern that is trained into us as lawyers that if we go looking for something that is more satisfying, and then involves less suffering, that it will just automatically be an indicator to other people, especially other lawyers, that we don't want to work hard. Again, it's because we have this internalized idea that doing hard work somehow necessarily involves a particular degree of suffering that many lawyers experience when they are working in toxic work environments.
The reason I wanted to talk about this today is that I know that there are many of you listening who either have said this statement to people about “It's not that you mind hard work, it's that you don't want to be doing the work in the way that you're currently being required to do it,” and/or you may also have this situation where you really feel like if you're not suffering, then you are not working hard enough; that the proof that you're actually working hard enough is that you're also suffering.
That belief, that idea, even though it's so pervasive in the legal profession, is simply wrong. It feels very true in the environments that many lawyers are in because those environments are toxic, but it is not true. You are working hard and you do not have to be suffering in order to prove that you are working hard enough. In fact, what I would love for everyone who's listening is for them to be able to find a job or a career where they're able to work hard and they don't work in an environment that has this expectation of suffering and where you have been able to get to the point where you can recognize that working hard and you suffering are not the same thing; and you can work hard but you do not have to suffer. This is a really important message and I thank you so much for listening today. I will talk to you next week.
Hey, it's Sarah. I'm popping in here to remind you that I have created a free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law for anyone out there who is just like, “Ugh! This job is the worst. I need out. Where do I start?” Which is exactly where I was when I realized that I didn't want to be a lawyer. You can go to formerlawyer.com/guide, sign up, and get the guide in your inbox today. When you grab that guide, you get on my email list, which is the way I keep everyone the most up to date about everything that's happening with Former Lawyer. It's also the best way to get in contact with me because I read and respond to every email. If you are ready to figure out what's next for you, go to formerlawyer.com/guide, download the free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, and get started today.
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