One lawyer’s personal perspective on why lawyers quit – or want to quit – and how to handle feelings of loss, inadequacy, and especially failure.
By James Gray Robinson, Esq.
When I quit practicing law in 2004 after 27 years of being an attorney, I felt like I had failed my parents, my family, and myself. I couldn’t take it anymore; the practice of a general trial lawyer had ceased being the adventure of a white knight and had become the nightmare of a palace dwarf.
As a third-generation trial attorney with a father who the New York Times once called a “legendary trial attorney,” the expectations for me were set incredibly high. I had started spectacularly with honors and accolades but had ended with lawsuits and ethical complaints. I was eventually vindicated of all of the charges, but it was too late in the game to change my mind.
What happened to that dream, the quest, the oath? After years of self-analysis, I discovered the following about why lawyers quit practicing law.
9 Reasons Why Lawyers Quit Practicing Law
1. We are Only Happy When We Win.
I strove to succeed and when life happened (as John Lennon famously sang: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”) I felt like a failure. Actually, I was building a reputation for uniqueness and character which echoes whenever I go home, but it didn’t feel that way when my life was in shambles. I very rarely lost a winnable case, but the ones I lost would haunt me for months and years. It didn’t matter if I did an extraordinary job. If I didn’t have a complete slam dunk win, I considered myself a failure.
2. Without Support, We Stop Believing in Ourselves.
I couldn’t carry my ego, my family, and my law firm indefinitely. Law firms should have cheerleading sessions to validate and support themselves and to recognize individual accomplishments – both professional and individual. We are either a part of a greater whole or we are isolated – like a candle burning brightly that that flames out and dies when the wind blows. We either support each other, or we watch individuals burn out and quit. I started believing that because life wasn’t cooperating, I needed to find another line of work.
3. We Focus on the One Thing We Do Wrong – not the 999 Things We Do Right.
I could not remember the multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements, I only thought about the lost summary judgment motions or other adverse rulings. Ironically, in my last trial, I won a million-dollar verdict on a contingency fee and quit shortly thereafter. I didn’t feel validated by the wins, I felt a failure for the losses.
4. We Believe We are the Weak Link in a Strong Chain.
I could only think of the way I could not live up to my expectations. I was the fifth producer in a firm of 30 lawyers, and I felt like a failure. There were four lawyers who produced more than me and two of them were my father and brother. I believed that the fact that I was not producing more was evidence that I was a failure.
5. We Fear Failure More than We Desire Success.
Most of my career was focused on failure control. I had multiple huge verdicts but the cases I lost made me feel like a failure even though I was producing millions in a litigation firm. I lost more sleep over the “long shots” than I could ever gain with the sure winners. Lawyers have to remember what they have accomplished for their clients and forget adverse results.
6. We Feel Inadequate when We Inevitably Lose an Unwinnable Case.
Anyone who lives in the judicial system for a while learns that success has more to do with picking your cases than your character and integrity. I had both character and integrity and the respect of my peers (AV rated in Martindale-Hubbell) but felt inadequate because I didn’t have a 100%-win rate. I acknowledge the fact that I took a number of cases because I felt I was good enough to win even though the cases weren’t winnable. The legal system is pretty unforgiving sometimes.
7. We View Failing to Win Every Case as the Signal to Quit.
I have had a wonderful time in life since I quit practicing law. However, I always wonder what I could have achieved if I had applied some of the Eastern philosophy I have learned when I was practicing law. I made the decision to quit because I didn’t win every case and therefore I believed I wasn’t a very good lawyer. In retrospect that was not accurate at all. I wish I had the mindset that I was performing a service and not just looking for victory. That is not how I was trained. The biggest lie lawyers tell themselves is that losing equals failure.
8. We Think We are not “Enough.”
I was a substance abuse counselor. I coached kids’ teams, I trained horses to be support-animals for special-ed kids. I volunteered for everything. I was on the board of multiple charitable organizations. I was a counselor for the State Bar helping addicted lawyers. I won awards for my pro bono work. I was a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church. Instead of acknowledging these successes, I focused on my losses in court and believed I was not enough.
9. We Take Losses and Disagreements Personally.
Many times, I took on cases which in hindsight were impossible to win. My ego told me that I could win these cases with sheer willpower, but unfortunately (or fortunately) that is not how the judicial system operates. When a judge disagreed with me, I took it personally and I felt I had done something wrong. It only took a few of these to convince me I needed to quit.
You Don’t Have to Quit Practicing Law
There are many reasons why lawyers quit practicing law. My purpose in sharing my story is to give lawyers who are wondering if they should quit some perspective. I have compassion for those who are going through the dark night of their soul like I did when I decided to stop working as an attorney. I also recognize that someone saying “Snap out of it!” to another person is heartless advice. Recognizing that the world does not have enough lawyers, last year, I took and passed the State Bar exam in the state where I now live. Perhaps I didn’t have to quit practicing family law after all… We shall see what life will bring.
James Gray Robinson, Esq. was a third-generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. At the age of 64, he passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. www.JamesGrayRobinson.com
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