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Work Dissatisfaction: Common Causes, Uncommon Solutions

“I’m one of them,” quipped Jesse in a staccato voice.  “One of whom,” replied the professional counselor.  “Oh, you know, one of those lawyers branded a success.  It looks like it’s working; that is, on the outside.  But, on the inside it’s not happening!” Jesse continued, “I’m thinking: ‘Is this really what I want from my career in law?  Or do I need to make a change?  And if so, what kind of change and howwould it fit with the rest of my life?'”

Jesse’s work satisfaction quagmire is not unique to attorneys; in fact it is a national, if not global, workforce phenomenon.  Less than half (49%) of United States workers, right behind Spain (50%) and Switzerland (53%), reported being completely or very satisfied with their jobs, according to a recent edition of The Career Management Letter (Association of Outplacement Consulting Firms International, 2002).   In Lynn Grodzki’s The New Private Practice, psychologist and life coach to lawyers, Ellen Ostrow, observed, “ABA surveys indicate that approximately 30% of lawyers are dissatisfied with their jobs.”   And the NCBA 1991 quality of life study, revealing a North Carolina lawyer’s dissatisfaction rate of around 20%, is further corroboration of this trend.

In contrast to this “gloom-and-doom” data, there is a positive opportunity in the intensely personal and uncanningly elusive phenomenon of work satisfaction for attorneys.

Seven Markers of Work Satisfaction

The relatively high percentages of unhappy workers suggest people want more from employment than they are getting.  Unlike their predecessors for whom a steady pay check or prestige were sufficient, Millennial workers want work that nourishes personal fulfillment.  And while the criteria for what it takes to be satisfied at work vary across such variables as culture, race/ethnicity, and gender, there are some common indicators of work satisfaction.

Reminiscent of the proverbial vacationing family, complete with kids in the backseat asking, “Are we having fun yet,” you can tell you’re work satisfied when you…

  • Look forward to being at work
  • Find your job tasks energizing
  • See your contributions appreciated and respected
  • Describe your profession to others with pride
  • Respect and enjoy co-workers and clients
  • Hold your future as positive
  • Have opportunity to learn about self, others, important subjects.

Who me, Work Satisfied?

To gauge how you weigh-in, rate your present level, from 1 (Definitely Untrue) to 5 (Definitely True), on each of the above seven markers of work satisfaction.  Next, repeat the exercise but rate yourpreferred level.  If you are uncomfortable with the discrepancy between your present and preferred level on either a single item or group of items, as a start, at least commit now to enhance your satisfaction.  Honor the part of you thirsting for more; it’s your perfect right!

Work dissatisfaction often begins with a flawed thought-pattern:  “Okay, I finally admit to myself that I haven’t really been happy with work for some time now.  I wonder what all this means?”  — “Oh no, I must be in the wrong field!” — “My choices are to find another profession or put-up with gnawing disaffection.  But don’t I have too much invested in law to jettison now?”

The cycle of self-defeating thinking reflects the following fallacies.

Myth #1 A dissatisfying present is due to a wrong past choice.

Myth #2 Alleviation of the present dissatisfaction will require undoing the original choice.

Myth #3 To avoid forfeiture of my original career investment, either a radical change or no change must be taken.

Confusion then frustration-substitute anxiousness, sadness, or whatever constellation of internal states most accurately reflects your experience-subtly set-in when self-defeating thinking is unchecked.  While all this is usually outside of a person’s awareness, what gets their attention is the kind of paralysis of action that follows.  Then, full-blown, certifiable work dissatisfaction is manifest.

Breaking the Self-defeating Cycle

If this seems all too familiar, then know that with definite action, mythical thinking can be relinquished.  A path to career satisfaction is to…

  • Validate your choice for a legal career,
  • Identify options for increased job satisfaction, and
  • Activate options which are self-validating and congruent with other life realms.

For lawyers like Jesse, those with a sense of work dissatisfaction, a first important task is to determine the source of disaffection.  Is it career dissatisfaction or job dissatisfaction?  In the case of career dissatisfaction, the question is, “Is my work unhappiness due to career choice misalignment-being in law for the wrong reasons?

What’s the Deal?

Here’s more of Jesse’s story.  “It was the classic approach-avoidance thing from Psychology 101.  My self-talk went something like this:  Okay Jesse, look at why you are in law?  There was the whole family-expectations-encouragement-of -college-professors-want-to-help-people thing.  So, I got into a top-ten law school; no big deal.  I graduated and parlayed my clerkship with a small firm into a descent first job; kind of a big deal then.  Now, years later–Well, I just don’t know anymore.  I mean, I’m not a standout associate.  The partners seem at least okay with my performance, overall.  But I’m thinking, is ‘okay’ sufficient, given all the pressure that comes with lawyering? There has to be more, doesn’t it?  If not, I should do something else. But what; maybe become a teacher?  This is now a big, big deal!”

Validating Career Choice

To challenge mythical thinking, the specific source of Jesse’s work unhappiness–career versus job dissatisfaction–must be pinpointed.  And this can be accomplished by examining the initial career choice.

Here is how a local lawyer’s career choice was validated.  Kara (a pseudonym) approached friends with her work satisfaction dilemma.  “Two things: Surprise and then surprise-of-surprises.  When I turned to my faith community, they didn’t give me the follow-your-heart, be-whatever-you-want-to-be saga.  Instead, their first big message was, ‘Kara, stick with what you know until you’re clear on what needs to be altered.’

“But what is it that I know for sure?  I didn’t take any of the career tests that are out there.  But my friends asked me the right questions causing me to uncover my motivations, assumptions, and beliefs about law and about Kara as a person.  To my surprise, what was revealed was that my legal career was not an accident; I didn’t fall into law school, but I entered with a clear purpose.”

“It was funny, by affirming my original career choice, I felt like I could bloom where I was planted–remain in law with at least a modicum of satisfaction.  And surprise-of-surprises was that I experienced a readiness to explore a wide field of alternatives, both in and outside of law, for avenues to enhance my career-life satisfaction.”

Avoiding the common practice of overcorrection–applying the wrong remedy to a career dilemma, Kara is now enjoying the first marker of work satisfaction: looking forward to being at work.  Although career fulfillment has yet to be evident, this is a vital beginning.  Also, Kara’s experience shows how to use what experts call “natural helpers” to assist with clarification between career and job satisfaction.

So, there are three steps you can take today.  First assess your present level of work satisfaction.  Then make a commitment to not live without enhanced satisfaction.  And finally, marshal your unique resource of natural helpers.   Select widely from your sphere of influence–family, faith, and civic–people who are easily accessible, and themselves emotionally and vocationally healthy.  Solicit their candid observations about how law allows you to express various aspects of yourself.  This can minimize the frequently occurring experience of reading work dissatisfaction as a sign that an exodus from law is required or that unhappiness must be suffered in silence.

Job satisfaction is an attitudinal variable that is generally thought of as an indicator of emotional or psychological well-being.  An index of the degree to which people like or dislike their job overall, job satisfaction is simply informative.  However, it can be more useful to think of job satisfaction as a constellation of attitudes about various facets of one’s job.

While there are a plethora of possibilities, researcher Paul E. Spector (Department of Psychology, University of South Florida) suggests the indicators fall into the following categories:

1. Rewards (e.g., pay, promotions, benefits)

2. People (e.g., co-workers, supervision, management)

3. Nature of the work

4. Organizational context (e.g., operating procedures and communication)

When it comes to dissatisfaction among attorneys, Deborah Aaron, former Seattle bar association leader and civil litigator-turned-career consultant, finds that the following six factors are most frequently reported:

1.      Unrealistic expectations about law practice

2.      Uncomfortable phase of career development

3.      Inadequate limits with clients, colleagues, and management

4.      Work/nonwork-life imbalance

5.      Uncomfortable work setting

6.      Under use of skills and preferences

For a self-audit, rate your current job experience, on each of the above six indicators of job dissatisfaction.  Use a scale of 1 (Definitely Untrue) to 5 (Definitely True).  If you are displeased with the number of indicators receiving ratings at or above 3 (Somewhat True) or find disturbing a single item at the 5 (Definitely True) point, then as a start, commit now to lessen or eliminate that item.

Among the six factors of dissatisfaction, note the progression from the internal to the external.  The first and second items are intra-personal, as they reflect your personally held assumptions and beliefs.  Particularly for those recent entrants to careers in law, ask yourself three questions: “What was I expecting the practice of law to be like?”  “What is the reality of law practice?”  “Has my career growth been consistent with present opportunities?”  Be brutally honest and be specific.  (Hint: You are likely to find it helpful to do more than just reflecting or contemplating an answer; writing this out helps make it concrete.)

When your career in law does not match your expectations, dissatisfaction is a predictable outcome.  Essentially, you have two major options to avoid dissonance: changing from law or changing your attitude about law. Embracing reality, accept what is, can be a first step toward achieving career congruence.

The third and fourth items-inadequate limit setting and work/nonwork life imbalance-reflect interpersonal well-being.  Taken together, these two items can be an index of the quality of your most significant human or person-to-person relationships.  Across gender, age, race/ethnicity, dis-ablity status, it is generally accepted that the number of pro-social relationships one has in a given setting (e.g., work, home, and community), the greater one’s mental, as well as physical health.  Life-career dissatisfaction is predictable when healthy boundaries are not established and maintained between oneself and others.  Attorney assistance programs from various states report hyper-responsibility and over-reaching control needs as a frequently occurring phenomenon.

At play here is the tendency to define responsibility as an obligation to others, without consideration of its effect on you.  An unwillingness to live with the disappointment of others is a result.  The underlying dynamic is fear.  The list of specific fears is almost limitless: fear of being disliked, unloved, unappreciated, disrespected, overlooked for promotion, reprisal, etc.

Your solution can be two-fold.  First, identify your specific fears by answering the question, “What prevents me from setting appropriate limits with clients (substitute co-workers, senior partners, and family members) is….   To be effective, answer this question more than once and go for specifics.  Uncompromising self-honesty is critical.  (Hint: Again, you are likely to find it most helpful to do more than just reflecting or

contemplating an answer; writing this out helps make it real.)  Next, challenge that fear by making detailed notes about the successful coping tactics of someone you admire.  Finally, select one relationship where your boundaries can be improved and develop a plan (e.g., limit client interruptions).  For your first one, pick an area where the negative repercussions for your attempts at self-change are less likely to be career-limiting.

The fifth and sixth job dissatisfiers-unpleasant work setting and underutilization of capabilities-can be extra-personal or related to the external world of your employing organization.  Particularly for those at the latter-end of their career, the question arises, “What’s wrong with this work picture?”  The concept of a “toxic work environment,” in this instance, is not about the physical as much as it is about the psycho-social and communication aspects of your work setting.

To determine when you need to make an effort to change your environment (or leave), Aaron suggests starting with these questions:  “I am more likely to…

  •  “Approach work tasks with enthusiasm or lethargy”
  • “Seek or avoid work initiatives”
  •  “Join or lead activities or complain and withdraw”
  •  “Find new assignments stimulating or boring”
  • “Find that achievements engender feelings of pride or relief”

Being knowledgeable about the differences between career- and job-dissatisfaction is necessary but insufficient for the achievement of optimal work satisfaction within law.  Just as there are no easy remedies in law, only right choices; there are no quick fixes when it comes to work dissatisfaction.  Commitment to the judicious application of proven strategies presented in this article is recommended.  When more intractable cases of work dissatisfaction are evidenced, the assistance of counseling or other healthcare professionals may be useful.

– by Michael E. Hall

Michael E. Hall (Ph.D., Counseling Psychology), is a member of the Mecklenburg County Bar Association’s Lawyers Support Committee, has a counseling practice with specialties in career-life satisfaction, dual-career couples, and executive- and team development and can be reach at 2915 Providence Road Suite 450, Charlotte, North Carolina 28211-2750, Phone: 704-366-3818, Fax: 704-295-1991.

Email:  An earlier version of this article first appeared in a two-part series in The Mecklenburg Bar News.

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers.  The Lawyer Assistance Program has two outreaches: PALS and FRIENDS.  PALS addresses alcoholism and other addictions:  FRIENDS depression and other mental health problems. 

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