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Finding Meaning and Inspiration in Your Law Career

Finding Meaning and Inspiration in Your Law Career

Wow—every now and then, I read something that hits the lawyer well-being nail right on the head. This week, I enjoyed reading Jordan Furlong’s latest Substack entry about finding your place in the legal community. Jordan Furlong is a law practice thought leader and consultant. In fact, he consults with the Law Society of Alberta on issues affecting lawyer licensing and competency. You may want to follow him to hear first-hand about developments which may translate into initiatives for Alberta lawyers!
This week’s Substack article is tag-lined “Some personal reflections on life in the legal profession, and encouragement for young lawyers who haven’t yet found their place.” I would urge anyone who is questioning their job or practice area to read his article in full because he is much more eloquent than me generally, and his telling of his own story should be experienced in his words.
But I don’t think that his message and inspiration is limited to young lawyers. Lawyers of all vintages, as well as law and articling students, can benefit from his perspective, so please read the post itself even if you are not a young lawyer!
I am going to pull a few themes from his piece which are directly relevant to the Assist community.
First, Mr. Furlong reports feeling like an outsider in our profession after being let go at the end of his articles at a Big Law firm. He applied to other firms in Toronto and experienced a complete lack of response to his applications. Anyone who has experienced a job loss can relate—not being hired back, or being let go, is a terrible experience that shakes you to your core even when you, like Mr. Furlong, are not sure you fit in or like working there.
The feeling of being an outsider is especially difficult in a profession where practicing law in what one hopes is a collegial law firm is considered the gold standard for lawyers. The emphasis on law firm practice begins in law school. Unlike my law school tenure, in a different century when classrooms were only identified by numbers, modern law schools name classrooms after law firms, presumably on a sponsorship basis like sports arenas. These arrangements generate much needed revenue for cash-strapped universities, but they reinforce the myth that working at a law firm is the only truly valued way of being a lawyer.
Firms of a certain size host networking events when law school starts and then recruitment events to set the stage for the summer student hiring blitz in February of first year. Larger law firms are the only legal employers who hire a sufficient number of law school students to justify these expenses—the exception being the Crown, but taxpayers would not approve of spending public money on these activities!
Smaller firms, corporate law departments, government—all other types of legal employers-- are almost invisible to law students. All that students see is that articling at a large-ish firm as the most desirable career path.
Even if you aren’t sure that you want to be a Big Law lawyer, not being hired or being cut hurts! You are exposed to a model that not-so-subtly tells you that any lawyer worth their salt works in a large law firm.
I can’t comment on the efforts our Alberta law schools make to ensure that students are aware of other practice modalities as I am not a day-to-day participant in law school life. But Assist held a webinar on May 9th this year, during the confluence of Canadian Mental Health Week and the American Well-Being in Law Week with an open invitation to law students, articling students and lawyers. Three panelists discussed their career path from articling student to lawyer in a non-law firm role. Our career satisfaction impacts our well-being, and we hope to continue this type of presentation in future weeks as is it is hard for lawyers to know where they want to go if they don’t even know what destinations exist!
Mr. Furlong reports that he moved into law journalism as a result of unemployment-- his writing skills were a secret sauce he could bring to the profession-- and that writing about legal issues led him to editing and commentating before consulting. He discloses that he had false starts, trying teaching and coaching—becoming “a serial failure” before learning to swim with, instead of against, the prevailing current.
Admitting failure in legal circles is brave—kudos to Mr. Furlong for disclosing his history. In law, we are groomed to reject failure. When we fail at a task as young lawyers, we experience shame, an unhealthy and unproductive emotion that causes us to protect ourselves to ensure that this feeling does not occur again. We fear that stories about our egregious error will become law firm lore and that generations of newcomers will hear about the articling student or junior lawyer who did X. This fear reinforces the perfectionism that we perceive in our colleagues, even if we are not true perfectionists.
When shame conditions us to avoid failure at all costs, we become almost robotic, mimicking the behaviours of “successful” lawyers more than being ourselves.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to lead a groundbreaking project and I received the most empowering instruction from executive leadership, that it was going to be okay if we made mistakes along the way since we were trying something brand new. Of course, when you make a mistake, you need to address the misstep and potentially change course but acknowledging that we may not get everything right the first time led to greater creativity and, I believe, a better end result.
When I talk to law students and young lawyers about career options, I tell them that you don’t always have to move upwards when you make a change. This often shocks people—aren’t we all supposed to be maximizing our career progression at all times? Heretically, I don’t believe that we are. Over the course of my career, I made moves for well-being and work-life balance reasons that baffled lawyers who subscribe to the always-upward mobility theory. Sometimes, you have to reset or go in a different direction. And I have no regrets about my own career trajectory. While the job of Executive Director of an organization that helps lawyers did not exist when I entered our profession, I know that this is exactly what young me dreamed of doing.
Mr. Furlong also identifies the importance of feeling purposeful or finding meaning in our work, and I absolutely agree 100%. I struggled with this as a law firm securities lawyer where our purpose seemed to be to make investment dealers and banks, and lawyers by extension, richer. I loved my practice area and location move into human resources legal issues in a large corporation which ensured fair treatment of employees, even those whose employment was being terminated. It was only when I found a role with a purpose that resonated with me that I realized what I had been missing.
There is a link between finding meaning in our work and mental health. One of my favourite research studies identified factors linked to stress-hardiness, or resilience, in lawyers. Factors included finding a sense of control, knowing your purpose, employing cognitive flexibility and having good coping skills.
In this study, lawyers were asked to name the meaning that they found in their work. Lawyers who had a strong sense of purpose reported less stress. One survey participant wrote:
When people come to me, they have a problem. It’s bigger than they can fix. It’s probably bigger than anything they’ve dealt with. Sometimes they’re simple problems but the idea that I can take that problem and resolve it is what makes me feel good about what I do.
Study authors noted:
Our data revealed a very significant inverse correlation between stress and sense of purpose. Lawyers who experienced more stress had a lesser sense of purpose. The converse was also true. Every lawyer who reported experiencing no meaning in their practice of law reported high levels of stress and low stress hardiness. Chart 8 below demonstrates this strong association between less stress and higher sense of purpose.


Meaningful purposes cited by lawyers in the study included:
Making a difference in someone’s life
Exposing and eradicating specious claims
Unravelling problems
Educating employees
Protecting my company, saving the company money
Supporting my family
Gratitude of clients
Helping the legal system render justice
Completing a project to the best of my ability
Relationships with clients and co-workers
Helping the legal system work better.
If you are struggling with where you are in your career or where you think you want to go, please consider what you find meaningful in your current role and what type of purpose you would like to find in future opportunities. We don’t all find meaning in the same way—and you don’t have to find meaning in a particular practice just because it inspires other people.
Resources are available to help you explore how to find meaning. You can access Assist’s professional counselling services (4 free sessions per issue per year) or participate in our peer support program to meet with another lawyer who has developed a career rooted in meaning. Or you may feel comfortable exploring this on your own or working with a lawyer coach. I am grateful to lawyers like Mr. Furlong who share their stories of not getting their careers “right” the first time.
You can also read an inspirational piece in this week’s Supreme Advocacy newsletter by a lawyer who moved from conventional law practice to working with an organization that protects vulnerable people from violence, including slavery, human trafficking and forced scamming which can be a combination of slavery and human trafficking.
If you hear about a lawyer who is doing the kind of work that you wish you could do, please consider reaching out to them. Lawyers are often happy to chat about how they built their careers in a direction that fulfills their sense of purpose. And watch for presentations by CBA-Alberta and by Assist about alternative career paths—I wish we didn’t have to refer to categories of interesting law jobs by calling them “alternative” but that is the hand we are dealt, and when we identify as “alternative,” perhaps we can dig into our inner (deeply inner) sense of coolness!