THE BLOG
10/18/2016 04:33 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2017

Mindfulness in Metaphors: Is the Way You Describe Your Legal Career Making You Unhappy?

Using analogies, metaphors, similes, and idioms to make complex concepts more digestible is a well-documented, centuries-old practice in the legal profession. For example, corporate counsel often describe the most sensitive trade secrets as a company's "crown jewels," and patent attorneys often use concepts of real property and borders to show that a patent must be precisely and narrowly defined.

However, analogies aren't just used by lawyers -- they're also often used to describe lawyers themselves. "The stories, analogies, metaphors, similes, or idioms that we use to describe legal profession, our practice, and ourselves are very telling," says Olga V. Mack, the founder of the Women Serve on Boards movement and General Counsel at ClearSlide, Inc., a leading sales and marketing engagement platform in San Francisco. According to Mack, these comparisons "tell a story of dysfunction, imbalance, violence, disrespect, and unhealthy pressure toward ourselves, our colleagues, and our clients. This is not a sustainable or healthy way to practice law."

Mack, a perpetual meditation beginner, says "I collect and curate professional, legal stories, including analogies, metaphors, similes, and idioms, for the reasons some people collect stamps, shoes, or baseball cards. This hoarder tendency helps me makes sense of and relate to the legal world." She explains that observing how she and other lawyers use these stories, analogies, metaphors, similes, and idioms in everyday practice has helped her to be more aware and more intentional about coping with the demands of a lean startup reality. By being mindful of the comparisons used to describe the legal profession, Mack is better able to control how she perceives and relates to her legal career.

Here is a list of analogies that have painted the legal industry in a negative light:

"[Being a lawyer seems] a lot like a life sentence to yet more homework assignments." This is Olga's favorite quote about practicing law, from Brian Grazer's book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. "This quote perfectly captures the never-ending hopelessness of law and the lack of perspective in the daily grind," says Mack. Many lawyers, especially those early in their careers, see their daily practice as just a continuation of the daily homework and assignments from law school. They've graduated law school and passed the bar, but still lack the feeling of independence that should come from a fulfilling career. To counter this feeling of hopelessness, lawyers should seek a sense of ownership and pride in their work. Ideally, you would be working on projects you feel a personal connection to -- for example, as a startup enthusiast, Mack is deeply connected to helping Clearslide thrive and grow. But even if you don't feel a personal connection to your work as a lawyer, take time to consider how it is meaningful to you and your goals. For example, your current position may be giving you valuable experience that will help you attain your dream job. If you still feel truly dissatisfied, it may be time to consider transitioning to another area of practice. After working so hard to get your law degree and pass the bar, you owe it to yourself to pursue a legal practice that's right for you.

"Being a lawyer is like being a firefighter who moonlights as janitor" is another one of Mack's favorites. "I love how this analogy highlights that much of law practice is not sustainable in the long term," she says. "It captures the overwhelming demand of the career, and how most people lack a sustainable plan to practice law in the long run." Because most lawyers take the conventional route, going into clerkships or BigLaw right out of law school, it's easy to get wrapped up in the demands of what's "expected" for lawyers. This causes many lawyers to simply "go through the motions" with no personal plan for a long-term career. For example, a new associate may get "tunnel vision" at the expectation of making partner at their firm. Without concrete, sustainable career plans outside of this expectation, the associate is likely to become overwhelmed with the day-to-day demands of the conventional route. If you're sure the legal industry is for you, take time to plot out your sustainable career plan. Ask yourself what you're working toward and what steps and timeline you need to follow to get there. If you realize your current track isn't sustainable, consider taking a scenic route to a legal career that matches your goals and interests.

"Making partner is like winning a pie-eating contest, in which the prize is more pie" is a classic analogy that many lawyers find relatable. It alludes to how attorneys and associates have to work long and difficult hours to make partner or be promoted to a higher position. If they make it, however, they are rewarded with a job in which they are expected to continue working long and difficult hours. "As long as I have practiced law, I've found the hopelessness of this analogy overwhelming," says Mack. "It is a no-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel analogy. It is not surprising that attorneys witness some of the highest rates of depression and substance abuse." If you're working long and difficult hours to make partner or reach a similar goal in your legal career, take time to consider whether this is what you truly want. Will you be satisfied and fulfilled as partner, or would you be better suited moving to in-house practice or a public sector work? Be mindful of what your personal career goals are, and be intentional in how you pursue them. Refuse to be pressured into working long and difficult hours for a position you don't even want, just because lawyers are expected to follow very conventional career paths. If you truly do want the "prize" of making partner or another coveted position, reflect on what it would mean to you. Instead of thinking, "this new promotion just comes with even more work," see it in a more positive light. For example, your "prize" may be a greater opportunity to help your firm or company grow. Or you may find that being in a higher position makes it easier to promote a cause you believe in. As a prominent woman leader in tech law, Mack uses her visibility to fight for gender equity on corporate boards.

Ultimately, the language we use to describe ourselves reflects that we as a profession are in crisis. Although these analogies and metaphors are just words, they have the power to influence and reinforce the idea that the legal profession is a hopeless rat race. Lawyers who buy into this pervasive attitude end up lacking purpose, fulfillment, and sustainable plans in their careers. How can lawyers break free from these words and the hopelessness they promote? Try taking Mack's approach of observing and analyzing these legal metaphors, rather than simply buying into them. Consider whether the comparison is actually applies to your legal career. If it does, take time to reflect on how to change this. Being mindful of what you want to do with your legal career, and actively working to meet your own goals, instead of society's expectations, can keep you on a path to true fulfillment as a lawyer.