Did Law School Make You a Coward?
Lawyers are trained in law school to look at every angle, to find all of the potential problems, to identify the risks. They will spend hours, even days, conducting exhaustive research. They want to know everything there is to know about an issue. Then the lawyers pass on their findings and explain all the options to their clients, whether senior corporate executives or criminal defendants. They may even make recommendations. But the clients decide … the lawyers just recommend.
Lawyers know if they make a decision and it turns out to be a mistake, they can be censured, suspended, even disbarred. They certainly can be fired. So risk avoidance is ingrained in them from their first day in law school. They are taught that lawyers do research, spot issues, present options, and advocate their clients’ positions. But that’s it. When you make a decision, you might be right or you might be wrong. Being wrong means potentially losing your client or ending your career.
It saddens me that too many lawyers who dread going to work each day, who hate their quality of life, billable hours and constant battling, will nonetheless choose to remain miserable because they lack the courage to make — and implement — a decision to find something better.
Lawyers are trained to play it safe, and not to take risks. That includes not taking risks about their careers.
Business executives who play it safe are thrown out of their jobs. Companies that play it safe are doomed to die. Taking risks is the lifeblood of a business. Investing in new products, services, technologies, and markets is essential if a business is to survive, let alone to prosper.
A good executive must make critical decisions based on the best information available at the time – even when the i’s are not dotted, the t’s are not all crossed and not all of the evidence is in. Delay or equivocation can mean missing an opportunity or being too late to market. It can mean losing to a competitor. It can mean failure.
For lawyers, making decisions can lead to failure. For executives, NOT making decisions can lead to failure.
In my 26 years of counseling lawyers on alternative careers, I have interviewed more than 25,000 attorneys. I almost always ask, “Would you rather be a ‘decider’ or a ‘recommender’ – the King or an adviser to the King?” The answer is almost always to be an adviser. “They shoot at the king,” one respondent told me … but the underlying message is that there’s less risk to being the adviser.
Risk aversion is one of the key reasons so many lawyers are unhappy, but don’t do anything about it. They see all the problems, all of the risks, all of the things that can go wrong if they try to change careers to find happiness and fulfillment.
They think they might have to start back at the bottom of the ladder in an entry-level job. They think they can’t make as much money as they are making now. They think their skills as litigators or compliance specialists or defense attorneys aren’t transferrable to another discipline. They think they might not be as good at something else as they are at practicing law. All of these thoughts are wrong. All of them. We have 26 years of proof.
Lawyers don’t generally complain about how miserable they are … but their actions prove it. According to a Johns Hopkins study, lawyers are Number 1 on the list of professions whose practitioners have major depressive disorders. According to an American Bar Association study, 28% of lawyers suffer from depression, 19% from anxiety and 23% from stress. Yet another study shows that 52% of lawyers have some form of alcohol problem.
And yet these well-educated professionals refuse to do anything about it. They are cowards. They see so many risks in trying to make a change that they can’t motivate themselves or generate enough self-confidence to try to improve their situations. Out of fear, they can’t decide to move forward, so they abrogate the responsibility for their own lives. They don’t realize that not making a decision is, in fact, a decision.
I applaud the several thousand attorneys who have faced their fears, worked with us, didn’t chicken out during the middle of their programs, and ended up re-igniting their careers and loving their jobs. I have only recently started to appreciate the guts these men and women have had.
For more than two decades, I have preached my belief that a law school education is never wasted. Law school, I have often said, gives you analytical skills and a perspective that you don’t get in business school. However, I missed an important point. Business school teaches you that you have to have faith in your judgment, and have the courage to make decisions. Law school teaches you to recognize problems and leave the decision-making to someone else. No wonder so many lawyers are unhappy in their careers; they simply lack to courage to decide to change.