Time to Join the Circus?

In just the past few week I’ve read several comments and broadcast emails about how miserable life is as a lawyer and how people need to do this or that to make life better, happier, and more creative. Several of those emails have come from people who I know to be well-trained professional coaches who happened to practice law, but some just come from people who strain the limits of credibility.

Of course it would be hypocritical of me to disagree with the statements that lawyers aren’t happy in practice, because I wrote a book for law students and a book for lawyers on the subject and have a whole series of Lawyerist posts on the topic of being happy as a lawyer. But, sometimes I get bored and unhappy in law practice too. Boredom usually fills the space vacated by letting the creativity drain away.

Creativity is key

You’re full of it! You really are. There’s no way that I’m the first person to tell you. You can’t deny it. You’re full of it up to your eyebrows.

Full of creativity. You were born with it. You are made of wonderful, delicious, colorful, smelly, heaping globs of creativity.

As a child, your humanity burned with the divine spirit of creativity. You imagined games. You imagined friends. And, you even created vivid experiences that existed only in your mind but existed nonetheless.

Then, you went to school.

You learned to live by other peoples’ rules and their ideas of how and what you “should” be. Walls grew that blocked your view of those wonderful places in your imagination. Those walls grew until finally the creativity of your heart, spirit, and right brain were all but abandoned in favor of subjects that could be objectively tested with multiple-choice exams and computer-graded bubble sheets.

Then, you went to law school.

Your walls were adorned with thorns and you were not even allowed to have ideas of your own. Any creativity you were allowed to display was carefully disguised as nuanced synthesis of precedent (other people’s ideas—the older and less original the better).

It felt like you had suddenly become unworthy of being the source of an idea or thought. You felt like a slave to a footnote or maybe like a footnote yourself.

You’re not in law school anymore

Now, you’re the only “source” that really matters. Your senior partner may determine your job status and salary, but you get to decide how much credibility to give those things.

Consider this comment from Christopher Johnson in response to Matt Ritter’s recent Lawyerist post:

christopher johnson April 19, 2011 at 3:08 pm

A lawyer that doesn’t want to be a lawyer. Engineers that don’t want to be engineers. Teachers that no longer want to be teachers. Sanitation workers that don’t want to be garbage men. Don’t we hear it all the time? Why is it that people keep gravitating toward work that other people hate doing? (Like mowing lawns, reading boring statutes, cleaning up feces, lifting stuff until your joints hurt, like proofreading and rewriting copy.)

Part of the answer to Christopher’s question is that we have to earn some dough to pay the bills, but there is something far deeper and more insidious at work. We are taught from a very young age to move away from creativity as evidenced by cuts to arts programs in schools.

Creativity can’t be measured and tested

You can’t base the bonuses of teachers on something you can’t measure. Many parents don’t understand creative children, because in most cases their parents didn’t get support for the parents’ creative efforts when they were children.The “you can’t make a living as a dancer, painter, writer, gymnast” argument pushes people into areas they don’t like, but pay a livable wage.

Unfortunately the argument that you can’t make a living as a dancer, painter, writer, or gymnast is true in too many cases. It’s also true that, law can be one of those areas people who would rather be doing something else get pushed into. Law professors are not known for appreciating creativity and neither are managing partners or ethics examiners. Our culture has done an incredible job of screwing up our motivations into thinking that extrinsic motivation is more effective than the intrinsic motivations that stem from creative expression. Dan Pink does a great job explaining this mistake in his bestselling book Drive.

If you’re feeling trapped in a job that doesn’t allow you to express your creativity—you have the power to change that, and you are the ONLY one with that power. You don’t have to leave your job to feel more fulfilled. Rather, start chopping through the thorns and breaking down the walls that decades of education have placed around your creative spirit. Trust me, you can do this and still be an effective lawyer. It may even be the secret prerequisite to a happy and satisfied life in the law.

The journey is different for each of us. A simple start is to look for creative opportunities that already surround you. Paint, play music, sail, climb, write, spend time with family, do community service, sing—do something other than work. Pick up the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and follow the directions.

It’s time to start living a more creative life. Maybe it’s time to join the circus.



  1. Avatar Paul Rubell says:

    Sorry for the unhappiness that seems to abound. I’m happy and creative; problem solve every day. If you focus on client service and insightful ways to achieve client objectives, you might get closer to ‘yes’.

  2. Avatar Morgan Smith says:

    I loved reading your post about creativity since it was a major reason for me to radically refashion what I did as a lawyer after 17 years of litigation work. I made the decision to leave my practice, and open a litigation graphics and case consulting firm (www.cogentlegal.com) to recapture that creative side that got lost in the practice of law. Combining the creative side of trial preparation with helping other attorneys get ready for trial is really satisfying, creative and fun.

Leave a Reply