Steps to Building a Sustainable Career

For the past several years, our profession has seen a rise in attrition and a decline in satisfaction. Too many talented attorneys have walked away from the profession, believing that it’s an all-or-none gig, and truthfully, few resources are available to discourage that.


Yet many attorneys do succeed in building thriving, sustainable careers. What sets them apart? How do you join those ranks if you’re teetering on the edge of law career despair? Whether you’re a recently admitted attorney or an experienced professional, it’s worthwhile to assess our careers and our lives at regular intervals. Circumstances, priorities, and desires all change.

The skills that make us great lawyers don’t necessarily contribute to a fulfilling life. “Thinking like a lawyer” is a cognitive skill, not a life skill—excellent for doing legal work, but not helpful when we’re looking for meaning in our work, life, and relationships. To make meaningful life decisions, we need to synthesize information from our social, emotional, motivational, and somatic intelligence as well. To clarify, it helps to understand, in part, how our human operating system works.

  • Emotional intelligence is our ability to be self-aware and accurately self-assess our emotional state, and how that’s driving our decision making. This is critical because we now know that all human thinking is emotionally driven, then justified with data and facts.
  • Social intelligence is our ability to recognize and relate to the emotional state of the people with whom we’re interacting and manage those interactions well. The human capacity for connection makes this a very powerful, yet underutilized, tool in our professional interactions and relationships.
  • Somatic intelligence is the physiological information our internal sensory systems send to our brain and other areas of the body. This is a highly sophisticated communication system that few of us pay attention to. Tuning into micro-changes in our physiological signals can help us build mental stamina and see our productivity soar.
  • Motivational intelligence is the drive that got us into the seats we are sitting in today. It’s the intangible yet very real combination of thinking, feeling, and intuition that drives our choices. Being clear about all of these bits of intelligence influence how and whether we are making good choices. Many of us stop short of seeing all of our options because of apparent obstacles or our beliefs about how things are. Learning to challenge our own thinking, so that we delve into our motivations is a vital emotional intelligence skill.
  • Cognitive intelligence, a lawyer’s primary intelligence, tends to override these others, yet they are operating continually in the background.

Integrating our human intelligence leads to choices that serve us, as well as those we serve—clients, colleagues, family, and friends.

In a trial prep meeting with your associates, you notice that one associate in particular appears weary and distracted. You recall that when he was a summer clerk, he’d confided that he drinks every evening. Once the meeting concludes, you a) Tell yourself that he’s an adult. As long as his work remains good, there’s no need to interfere; b) Decide that you’ll keep an eye on him for a few days and see how he’s doing, then; c) Knock on his office door later in the day and check in with him.

No single answer to this scenario is correct. Which one elicited the strongest response from you? We may want to be the partner who checks in, but to be honest, many feel uncomfortable about following through. Our profession has created unspoken barriers to openness. This also speaks to the kind of relationships we have with our colleagues. Are we simply co-workers or do we have each other’s backs? Many lawyers want to support their colleagues, but after years of dealing with conflict and dispassionate case analysis of others, feel unsure or under-equipped to manage these types of interactions, in other words, low social and emotional intelligence.

To be the best lawyers that we can be, as well as to feel motivated and purposeful, means integrating (which comes from the Latin root to make whole) our full complement of human intelligence into our thinking, then acting accordingly. Many attorneys move from soul-deadening jobs to fulfilling careers by integrating their human assets to find purpose, motivation, and thrive.

How do we do this? Many avenues exist; a few are listed below. Before you find yourself paralyzed by inertia, trapped by golden handcuffs, or drop out altogether, consider the concepts below. Contemplate them. Notice which resonates with you. Then choose one or more upon which to act.

Regardless of the stage you’re in, a few fundamentals remain important:

  • Find Your Why: Research confirms that when our core values and our work are not aligned, our well-being plummets.
  • Manage Your Energy: Even when we love our work, if demands exceed our energy, we are left feeling exhausted, with little left over for ourselves or others.
  • Find Your People: Humans join tribes. We’re designed to connect. Law practice is often an isolating experience, even in the largest firms.
  • Do You, Today: Much of the stress we experience is self-generated by anticipating the future or ruminating about the past.

Find Your Why

Think back to your pre-law days. Something drew you to the practice of law and led to the place you sit now. What motivated you to take the LSAT, fill out and submit applications, and pay perhaps hundreds of dollars in fees to be considered for a coveted slot? Was there a spark of inspiration attached to that effort, or did it simply seem like a good idea at the time? Does that pre-law motivation still exist for you? Motivations change. What has moved to the top of your priority list? To thrive in any career over a period of decades, our work has to matter to us in some way. Where do you, or can you, find meaning in your work?

Practicing law is complex and demanding, so many of us accept and expect to feel some measure of daily discomfort. This is a far cry from the capacity to thrive that we can achieve.

Attorneys who practice in areas that answer their “why” shift from a job to a career, and sometimes even to a calling.

  • You can begin by reflecting on the underlying purpose of the day-to-day work that you do and the needs of the client for whom you do your work.
  • Consider completing a values identification. This is very useful for crafting a life that is fulfilling to you. A primary value for one of my law students was adventure. Knowing that means it’s important for her to work in a field that she finds stimulating.
  • Are you doing work that reflects something you care about?
  • Where do you find joy or meaning in your work?
  • Notice your resistance. We all have it. Examining the areas of resistance yield our greatest insights.

Many attorneys pivot at early, middle and later junctures in their careers, and land in practices they love. Filter out the naysayers who say it can’t be done. Whether you’re in your second, seventh or seventeenth year of practice, it’s never “too late” to live your life.

Manage Your Energy

Practicing law requires stamina. Even when we love our work, if demands exceed our energy, we are left feeling exhausted. Powering through a long day of billable hours, or back-to-back clients can leave us feeling exhausted. Technology places an added drag on our attention and our energy. The human brain was not designed for the 24/7 demands we’re placing on them. For too many attorneys, the substantive work is challenging and enjoyable, yet they are so drained, life enjoyment is reduced to a concept. This, too, is where understanding a little human physiology goes a long way in battling burnout. When we’re doing mental work, the brain is working hard to connect thoughts, process information, produce neurotransmitters, and manage the many other systems operating in our bodies, while we are draining it of resources as we work. To improve stamina and sustain energy throughout your day:

  • Sip water. As little as 1% dehydration diminishes cognitive function and impairs mood. Staying hydrated provides the electrical energy our brains need to think and process information.
  • Focus on one task at a time. Single-tasking is more efficient, improves outcomes, and leaves you feeling more alert throughout the day. The effort involved in multitasking—switching between two or more cognitive tasks—increases the output of stress hormones, and drains the brain of resources needed for cognitive function. As a result, we tire rapidly and diminish the quality (and enjoyment) of our work. Rather than answering emails while working on a document and taking calls, give your focused attention to each task individually; you’ll save time, improve outcomes, and feel more alert at the end of the day.
  • Take mental breaks. Two-to-five minutes of brain rest at regular intervals is imperative for mental processing and productive work. Powering through is not a productivity tool. Turn away from your computer (and phone!) and gaze out the window for a few minutes of nondirected thought. Breathe. Take a short walk, perhaps to the water cooler. We can’t skip these human physiological processes any more than we can skip fueling our cars when the tank is empty. A brief break every 45-90 minutes will save you time, boost your energy, and pay off in productivity.
  • Skip the soda. Though you may experience a quick, temporary “feel-good” fix, the sugar content actually interferes with mental focus.

Find Your People

Humans are joiners. We’re designed to connect. On par with meaningful work is mutual respect in our workplace. Yet law practice is often an isolating experience, even in the largest firms. It’s important to work with attorneys who care about you as a person and take an interest in your career and your well-being, for more than the obvious reasons.

A substantial body of research suggests that the people with whom we work, are strong indicators of who we become. Are your colleagues collaborative or competitive, encouraging or discouraging, kind or sarcastic, healthy or unhealthy, optimistic or pessimistic? In his insightful TED talk, Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist and physician, explains how the people with whom we work day in and day out, influence our lives, our health, and our happiness.

I met recently with a young lawyer and former student of mine who loves her substantive practice but regularly finds herself at odds with her supervising attorney’s approach and style. She recognizes that while she is committed to continuing in her field, to practice meaningfully over the long term means working with more like-minded practitioners.

Many attorneys find connection and community in the firms and organizations in which they work. When we enjoy the people and the environment in which we spend most of our waking hours, we’re able to thrive.

Do You, Today

Humans are no longer in danger of being eaten by a predator for lunch, but our brains are still primed to protect us from danger. Much of the stress that we experience is self-generated. Large caseloads, irate clients, and traffic—to name just a few potential stressors—are interpreted by our brains as threats that trigger a stress response, even though we’re in no actual danger. A truly wonderful human gift is our ability to observe ourselves. Once we identify the source of the stress response, we’re able to step back, put it into perspective, and respond to potentially stressful situations in a more detached, composed fashion. Recent research in health psychology also shows that we when we view stress as a motivator or neutral, it doesn’t have the negative health impacts that accompany concern about feeling stressed. Below are strategies that I, and others I’ve worked with, find useful:

  • “Have I done all that I can in the present moment?” A no answer to that question guides me toward appropriate action, while a yes reassures me that in the present moment, the situation is the best that it can be, and no further action is needed right now. Depending upon the circumstances, I’ll often make an appointment to revisit the issue at a later time.
  • For me, and many of the women attorneys, the question, “Does this serve me?” proves useful. We’ve all agreed to serve on additional committees or take on matters that pick up another’s slack. This question helps us recognize situations that require a no now, avoid situations that result in resentment or unwanted outcomes later, and builds confidence.
  • Develop your confidence. Confidence turns thought into action, and the action moves us forward. Notice your thinking and your self-talk. You may inadvertently be holding yourself back with doubt and unwarranted self-talk that are unsupported by evidence. While your brain may think it’s keeping you safe, recognizing the skills you possess that propel you will move you and your career forward.
  • Attend to your inner life. Whether it’s to paint, read, run, meditate, cook, or star-gaze, incorporate one activity into your routine that brings you joy for no other reason than its existence.

Finally, as Dolly Parton said, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”

 About the Author

Judith Gordon is a speaker, coach, and lecturer at UCLA School of Law, committed to empowering attorneys so that they thrive in law and in life. She can be reached at or (310) 968-7270.

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