For many of us, there comes a point in family law when we just can’t stand it anymore. The clients drive us crazy, the clerks drive us crazy, the judges drive us crazy, and all the administrative trivia makes us want to jump off a building headfirst.
It’s not true for 100% of us. I’ve met family law practitioners who really love every minute of it, but they are few and far between. They are the exception and not the rule.
What do you do when you reach the breaking point?
For lots of family law lawyers, it comes early—like in the first six to 24 months. Those folks usually quit. They move on to other practice areas or government jobs, or they leave the law. It’s almost easier to make a move at that point in a career because there is less investment and less to lose. I think they’re making the right choice for them.
For others, the breaking point is around four to six years of practice. This is difficult timing. You’ve learned a great deal about family law, but you haven’t learned about much else. It’s tough to start over without stepping way back because the other lawyers from your graduating class have become experts in various areas of practice. You’d like to be able to keep up with them, but you can’t without major retraining. On top of that, you’ve had time to build a lifestyle that requires the major portion of your income.
You ask yourself many questions, including: Do I start over on something new, or do I stick with something I hate? Do I keep my current income and be unhappy, or do I cut my income and maybe I’ve got a shot at happiness?
I guess the threshold questions when you’re facing those issues are: How much am I earning? How big will the cut be? What will this decision cost? If the numbers aren’t very big, the decision gets easier.
Either way, for me anyway, I’d jump ship, even if the numbers make it a tough decision. You’re four years in; why commit to another 30 plus years? You’ve got time to catch up and be happy. Go for it.
My experience is that once you’ve made it for six years of family law, you’re likely to stick it out. That doesn’t mean you aren’t miserable sometimes, but you’re probably going to stay with this work.
How can you, the experienced family law practitioner, cope with periods of burnout? How can you deal with your occasional misery?
Some of the easy answers are vacations, hobbies, family time, and taking better control of your time away from the office. Those solutions only take you so far, unfortunately. You may need other ideas to really make sticking with family law acceptable.
I see two possibilities, and I hope some of you see others and will comment below.
First, I know we’ve all learned a thing or two about other occupations as we’ve learned about family law. This may be the time to jump ship and do something else that is a small step away from the law. I met with a lawyer some time ago who had learned a fair amount about building houses by building a few for her family. She might shift gears and become a building contractor. I’ve met another lawyer who has learned a great deal about financial planning and investments. He switched over to investment advising and loves it. What have you learned along that way that might form the basis of a new career?
Second—and this is the option I’ve chosen—is to build a big enough practice so that you can take some time away from the element that’s driving you crazy. I’m not doing much client contact now. I’ve insulated myself from that part of things.
Does that work for me? Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve hired people to deal with the issues that need addressing. That has usually gone well, but sometimes it has resulted in disaster. For me, it was the only way I could stick with the work. I needed to pull the plug on some element of my practice and step away or risk total breakdown.
We’ve grown to the point where we also have some flexibility that we can employ for the benefit of the lawyers in our firm. We can increase and decrease different components of each person’s job: shifting duties gives people a break and allows them to recuperate from the stress. We’ve moved litigators to positions where they do mostly initial consults. We’ve moved people from initial consults to collaborative cases. We’ve found room for attorneys to try their hand at management.
We’ve shifted people back and forth so they can have a different experience. Taking a break and focusing on something else, even within a family law practice, has allowed our attorneys to catch their breath and then go back to what was previously driving them nuts.
The glitch with my plan is that you have to grow. Growth is tough, especially right now. You’ve got to love the marketing piece of running a business, and you’ve got to be good at dealing with management issues. This approach won’t work unless you’ve got the skill set that allows you to excel at these components of the business.
If you’ve made it past the six-year point, you’re very likely to stick with this for a very long time. You’re going to have to be creative when you hit that breaking point, and you’re going to have to find some techniques that work for you.
What have you found so far? Share your ideas below. We all want to hear what you’ve learned.