When you meet someone and they ask you what you do, how do you answer? Most lawyers answer with “I’m a lawyer” or “I’m an attorney.” Some might even include their specialty – “I’m a trial attorney” or “I’m a corporate lawyer.” I answered that way for years, but not anymore. I noticed that once I say, “I’m a lawyer” or “I’m an attorney,” I am no longer seen as a person. I am now either something to be questioned (“maybe you can answer a legal question for me…”, despised (“oh, I see…”), joked about (“how many lawyers does it take…”, or (rarely) esteemed. I’m now categorized and limited – not only in their mind but in mine as well. Sound familiar? Of course, this isn’t restricted to the legal profession. The labels “doctor” or “artist” or “plumber” all carry obvious and hidden meanings to us all.
When we identify ourselves as an “attorney” or a “lawyer”, we unconsciously take on all the baggage that this label brings with it. Stop and pay attention to what the label “lawyer” carries for you. Take a few minutes and fill in the blank (all the positives and all the negatives) – “A lawyer is …..” Now, is that who you really are?
Labeling ourselves as “lawyers” can make it difficult to acknowledge to ourselves and others that we do indeed have a life apart from practicing law. While what we do shapes to some extent what we are, it need not define us. Yes, I practice law and I’m good with that. I also parent my children, partner with my spouse, play music, paint, laugh with my friends, lend an ear to a stressed out colleague, and sometimes even contemplate the nature of life. Now, there may be times when it is useful to tell someone you are a lawyer. When that’s true, however, be aware of what you are doing and why. Treat it as if it were a role in a play and avoid confusing who you are with what you do.
This seems to me to go to the heart of this website, Attorney With A Life. If you came here, you are likely interested in how to balance or reconcile “being a lawyer” with “being a person” or “having a life.” I believe the first step in achieving that reconciliation is to reframe how we view what and who we are, and how we present ourselves. Your “identity frame” is formed by how you think about, describe, and identify yourself both internally and externally. If you frame yourself as a “lawyer” and your concept of a “lawyer” is someone who is hard-driving, perfectionistic, unemotional, and willing to sacrifice everything in life to be a true “lawyer,” you will act accordingly and you will pay the price.
I have found over time that the simple act of reframing what I am and what I do has allowed me to more easily enjoy all aspects of my life, including the practice of law. I see myself as a person who happens to practice law rather than as a lawyer who happens to be a person. Now, when I’m asked “What do you do?” I answer, “I practice law.” If I’m feeling a bit mischievous, I’ll answer with “I do a lot of things. What would you like to hear about?”
You have a life – now act like it. Yes, it takes practice and awareness. No, you won’t do it perfectly. The first step, though, is to see yourself differently. Only then can you begin to treat yourself differently.
Great post, Don. Hit me between the eyes.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us.
PS: What a great bio. Maybe my dream of stand up comedy could still happen. 5 kids and lots of work seem to be at odds with that. Guess I’ll have to figure out how to be an attorney with a life. 🙂
Hi Austin, thanks for the feedback. Don’s posts on this site are all so good. It sounds like you are an attorney with lots of life happening! What’s one small step you could take to engage with this dream? Get out to your local comedy club for a night? Write a short sketch to try out on friends? Or something else? –Allison