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Recently, I was sent an article from one of the listeners of the Former Lawyer Podcast. This article, entitled Why Former Lawyers Are Bitter Sometimes, seems to be premised on two flawed assumptions. 

The first, that former lawyers who are vocal about their negative experiences in a legal profession are doing so because they’re bitter. The other one is that being vocal about your negative experiences in legal practice is proof of bitterness. Neither of those assumptions are true.

This speaks to a larger conversation that we need to be having about the legal profession. It closely relates to issues that you are definitely running into if you are unhappy as a lawyer and are considering leaving. Keep reading to hear more about my take on the article, as I shed some light on the perspective that the author missed. 

Not All Former Lawyers Are Bitter

Before we start, I want to make one thing crystal-clear. I’m not trying to demonize the author of this piece. What I’m hoping to do is help you recognize the gaslighting that is so common in the legal profession, so that you can break free from it if you want to. 

I’m not saying that there are no former lawyers who are bitter, but my experience has been the opposite. And most of the former lawyers who I’ve interviewed are speaking about their negative experiences in the legal profession because they have a genuine desire to help people who are still working in the legal profession and feel trapped.

Frankly, I think the fact that there’s a perception that people who speak out about their negative experiences in the legal profession are just “bitter” is part of what allows so many toxic things about the legal profession to go unaddressed.

Just because former lawyers are being vocal, it does not mean that they’re bitter. You could draw many conclusions about why someone speaks out about a negative experience. It isn’t necessarily because they’re bitter.

Speaking Out Isn’t Bitterness

People who have left the legal profession and are talking about the negative things that have happened in the profession are not what makes the profession look bad. The fact that those things exist is the problem.

People being honest about their experiences is not the problem. The fact that those experiences happen is the problem. If the legal profession’s reputation is sullied because people are honest about their negative experiences, that is not the fault of those people. It’s the result of a toxic industry.

Underrating Former Lawyers’ Experiences In The Legal Profession

The next problem with the piece is the pull quote right under the title. It reads: “Many former lawyers speak as though they have escaped some kind of hellish ordeal.” The phrasing here very much suggests former lawyers have escaped a hellish ordeal, but the subtext is, “obviously, that’s not true.”

Because the phrasing is such that it questions whether it was a hellish ordeal. The entire premise of the piece is, “Other people’s experiences in the law have differed from mine. Instead of believing that what they’re saying about those experiences, I am going to question whether they’re actually accurate.” That is literally the definition of gaslighting.

Gaslighting In The Legal Profession

Gaslighting is causing someone to question their judgments and reality. Here, this is a perfect example of what you see in the legal profession so often. Someone has a terrible experience, and when they raise questions about it, the response is like, “It’s not that bad” or “You just need to do this.”

There’s this resistance to actually hearing people and believing what they have to say. Just because the author of this piece hasn’t found the legal profession to be a hellish ordeal, it doesn’t mean that others don’t.

The Truth About Negative Experiences In The Legal Industry

There is external evidence that legal practice is, in fact, a hellish ordeal for many people. We have all of these statistics that show that lawyers have significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse than people in other professions.

The problem that I see with the legal industry is not that there are a bunch of disgruntled former lawyers out there running around badmouthing the legal profession and giving lawyers a bad name. The problem is that there are all of these lawyers who are suffering.

And when the few of us who have left feel like we can be vocal about the reasons speak out, the response from the legal profession is like, “Why are you making us look bad? You’re exaggerating” or “Could it really have been that bad?”

One of the most popular episodes of the Former Lawyer podcast is titled Your Job Should Not Make You Cry. That episode is based on my experience working at the law firm and the realization that I had that having experienced a level of misery. I highly encourage you to listen because it speaks a lot about the experience of former lawyers and how to make the decision to leave the legal profession if it’s right for you. 

Comparing The Legal Profession To Other Corporate Jobs

Another really important thing to talk about in this piece is that it seems like the author is trying to say that he does believe that there are some bad things in the profession. There are some ways in which the profession or certain parts of the profession are problematic, but that it’s no worse than any other corporate job essentially.

This article clearly implies that former lawyers should stop complaining about the legal profession because it’s no worse than any other corporate job out there. I have enough experience now, having interviewed and spoken with so many people who have left the legal profession for other corporate jobs. And what I’ve found is that they’re significantly better than their experiences in the legal industry.

The idea that we shouldn’t complain because other jobs are just as bad is not accurate, it’s not a valid basis to be criticizing people who are speaking out about their negative experiences. Again, in the way the author frames this, former lawyers speaking out about their negative experiences don’t serve any purpose other than to besmirch the good name of lawyers.

Difficulty In Leaving The Legal Profession

Another part of this article is essentially saying that lawyers have no harder time leaving their legal profession than anyone else leaving any other type of profession. That may be true, but there is another added layer to leaving your legal profession that makes it harder.

These things can include the sunk-cost fallacy, having your identity wrapped up in being a lawyer. Every former lawyer knows, at a deep level, what it is like to decide. They know how incredibly difficult it can be.

That’s why speaking out about their negative experiences and about why moving to something else has been such a pleasant experience for them. For many former lawyers, it’s a way to give back to their past selves or to other people who they know are in similar situations.

It’s not those former lawyers who are resentful and just want to take out their resentment on the legal profession because it just sucks, and you just want to badmouth it as much as possible. People are speaking out because they genuinely want to help people to advocate for change, which is often very difficult from within the legal industry.

The Main Takeaway

I am not here to talk anyone out of being a lawyer. If you love being a lawyer, that’s great. I also don’t think other former lawyers have any interest in talking someone out of being a lawyer. What I am here to do is to tell you that if you don’t love being a lawyer and if you’re sick of being gaslit about whether your experience is truly bad, there is another way.

The gaslighting that this article epitomizes is a huge part of what keeps many lawyers stuck in the law because they don’t feel like they can trust the experience that they’re having.

I say do not listen to the gas lighters. There is another way. This Former Lawyer is here to talk about it for all the lawyers right now who can’t. And if you’re ready to leave your legal profession, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law to help you make the leap.

Mentioned In This Article

Above The Law Article: Why Former Lawyers Are Bitter Sometimes

Podcast Episode 42: Your Job Should Not Make You Cry

Free Guide: First Steps To Leaving The Law

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. On this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let's get right to the show.

Hello everyone. This week on the podcast, I want to talk to you about an article that I read recently. This article was actually sent to me by a listener of the podcast. The note that this person sent to me with the link to this article, in part, described this article the following way: This person said, “The original piece”—that is this piece we're going to be talking about today—“is so weirdly gaslighting and invalidating. Not to mention it ignores the realities of women and minorities.” Let's talk about this piece. This piece was published in Above The Law and the title is Why Former Lawyers Are Bitter sometimes? This listener suggested that I might have some thoughts about this article, which of course, I do. If you follow the YouTube channel, you know that I have already shared about it some over there. But I wanted to talk about it here as well because I think that it speaks to a larger conversation that we need to be having about the legal profession, in particular, it relates to issues that you are almost certainly running into if you are unhappy as a lawyer and are considering leaving but are having a hard time doing so.

Again, the article is titled Why Former Lawyers Are Bitter Sometimes? The link will be in the show notes. If you're listening to this podcast, just head there, you can read it for yourself, then come back and hear what I have to say. Let's dive in. Up front, I want to make one thing super clear: I'm not trying to demonize the author of this piece. I think the person who wrote this piece is genuinely confused about why many people who leave legal practice for another career are vocal about the negative experiences that led them to leave. But I think this piece serves as a really good illustration for the kind of thinking that contributes to many lawyers feeling trapped in the law because lawyers have been taught to invalidate their own experiences. What I'm hoping to do as we walk through this piece and talk about some of the problems is to help you recognize the gaslighting that we so often see in the legal profession so that you can break free from it if you want to.

The title, Why Former Lawyers Are Bitter Sometimes? I just want to say, side note, I realize the author may not have chosen the title of this piece. It very well and most likely was the editors, but given that they thought this title encapsulated the thesis of the piece, I think that it's still fair game. I'm not making the argument that there are no former lawyers who are bitter. Obviously, there are former lawyers out there who are bitter about the profession, but the title and the way the whole piece is framed seems to be premised on two flawed assumptions. The first one is that former lawyers who are vocal about their negative experiences in legal practice are doing so because they're bitter. The other one is the assumption that being vocal about your negative experiences in legal practice is necessarily proof of bitterness. Neither of those assumptions is true.

As I shared in the YouTube videos where I talked about this article, my experience is actually the opposite. Most former lawyers who I have interviewed for the podcast or who I've spoken to because of my work, in other ways, if they're speaking out about their negative experiences in the legal profession, it's because they have a genuine desire to help people who are still working in the legal profession and feel trapped. Just because they're being vocal does not mean that they're bitter. Just because they are talking about the fact that they had bad experiences or the negative things that are present in the profession is not proof that they're bitter. You could draw all sorts of conclusions about why someone speaks out about a negative experience. It isn't necessarily the case that it's just because they're bitter.

Using the term bitter to describe former lawyers who speak out about their negative experiences in the law suggests that there's something unjustified. Either their feelings about the law and the problems they're in are not justified or don't have a significant enough basis, or that the way that they're talking about the problems is somehow improper or shouldn't be happening. Frankly, I think the fact that there's a perception that people who speak out about their negative experiences in the law are just “bitter”, that's part of what allows so many toxic things about the profession to go unaddressed. Because if people are pointing out flaws and you can convince yourself or you believe that they're doing it just because they're bitter, then you don't have to take what they're saying seriously because you think that it's overblown. You think that it's unjustified. You focus more on things like, “Well, why are they doing that?” as opposed to “What is it that they're talking about? Is there a problem there? What do we need to do?”

The next problem with the piece: There's this pull quote right below the title and the pull quote says the following. “Many former lawyers speak as though they have escaped some kind of hellish ordeal.” The phrasing here very much suggests like they’re former lawyers who are acting like they've escaped some hellish ordeal, then the subtext is like, “But obviously, that's not true. What could possibly be the reason for them doing this?” This I think is so interesting because this is the exact thing that we see over and over in the legal profession when people raise issues about the profession, about the way that things are often handled or run, the kinds of toxic practices that exist. It's this assumption that people who are saying, “Hey, this thing happened and it was bad. Here's what happened.” There's this questioning of like, “Well, did that really happen? Was it really that bad?” In this case, with the author essentially suggesting like, “Did you really survive a hellish ordeal?” Because the phrasing is such that it questions whether it was actually a hellish ordeal.

I'm assuming, although I don't know, that this author's conclusion is based on the fact that practicing law or being in legal practice has not been a hellish ordeal for him, but this is, at its heart, the premise of the piece is, “Other people's experiences in the law have been different from mine. Instead of believing that what they're saying about those experiences are true, I am going to question whether they're actually accurate. I'm going to wonder why they would say these things because it essentially comes to the conclusion that people's experiences or what they're saying their experiences were in the law are either exaggerated or must be invalid in some way.” Here's the deal. That is literally the definition of gaslighting.

Gaslighting is causing someone to question their own judgments and reality. In this case, I think this is a perfect example of what you see in the legal profession so often. Someone has a very bad experience, someone experiences just a constant toxic workplace, then often, when they raise any questions about it or say like, “Hey, this is happening and this is not okay,” the response is like, “Well, maybe you brought it on yourself.” “Well, maybe it's not that bad.” “Well, you just need to manage up. You just need to do this or that.” There is this resistance to actually hearing people and believing what they have to say.

The reality is that in this case, just because the author of this piece hasn't found legal practice to be a hellish ordeal, doesn't mean that others don't. It's really incredible because there is external evidence that legal practice is in fact a hellish ordeal for many people. We have all of these statistics that show that lawyers have significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse than people in other professions. Even if the person who was writing this piece didn't have a personal experience that matched up with what he's hearing other people say, there's also this external evidence that you would think and hope would make the person say, “Oh, maybe someone else has a different experience than I do. Maybe the solution here is not to question whether those experiences have truly been valid,” or basically say like, “Well, why are you being like this? Why are you so bitter?” Instead say, “We're clearly failing because people are having these incredibly negative experiences. What can we do about it?”

The problem that I see with the legal industry is not that there are a bunch of disgruntled former lawyers out there running around badmouthing legal practice and giving lawyers a bad name. The problem is that there are all of these lawyers who are suffering, and when the few of us who have left and feel like we can be vocal about the reasons speak out, the response overwhelmingly often from the legal profession is like, “Why are you making us look bad? You're exaggerating” or “Could it really have been that bad?” Those are two things about this piece that I wanted to address, the title, then just this overarching theme that's encapsulated in the pull quote that was chosen.

Just to expand on that a little bit more. I've mentioned this before but one of the episodes of the podcast that people mention the most often when lawyers reach out to me is the episode titled Your Job Should Not Make You Cry. That episode was based straight out of my own experience working at the law firm and the realization that I had that having experiencing a level of misery where your job is causing you to regularly cry is actually problematic. It's not normal. The fact that episode, of all of the over 100 episodes of the podcast that now exist, is easily by far one of the top two or three episodes that people mention when they talk about what on the podcast has spoken to them and been helpful, to me, just again indicates this is not a situation where people are making things up or being dramatic. It's not a situation where they are trying to make things seem worse than they actually were. People genuinely are having extremely bad, terrible experiences. I think it's so problematic that you see these responses that are essentially questioning whether those experiences have actually happened.

I think another really important thing to talk about in this piece is that it seems like the author is trying to say that he believes that there are some bad things in the profession. There are some ways in which the profession or certain parts of the profession are problematic, but that it's no worse than any other corporate job essentially. Again, paraphrasing, former lawyers should stop complaining about it being bad or acting like it was so bad because it's no worse than any other corporate job out there. The reality is one, I don't think that's actually true because I have enough experience now having interviewed and spoken with so many people who have left the law for other corporate jobs. They're significantly better than their experiences in the legal industry. Now, I'm not saying that there aren't other industries and other careers that also are extremely toxic or fraught with many challenges, and very problematic—of course, there are—but I think the idea that, “Well, why would you talk about how bad it is because basically, everything is just as bad as this?” It's not accurate, so it's really not a valid basis to be criticizing people who are speaking out about their negative experiences.

Again, in the way the author frames this, former lawyers speaking out about their negative experiences, doesn't serve any purpose other than to besmirch the good name of lawyers everywhere, which is an essentially narcissistic view in which the actions of those former lawyers have meaning only in regards to how they impact the writer or how they impact particular people within the legal industry who have a similar perspective to the writer. I literally hear from people every week, who find the podcast and are listening to the podcast, and say things like, “I feel seen.” “For the first time, I feel like someone understands what my experience has been like.” It is not an uncommon experience for lawyers to be having these negative experiences and feel completely isolated, completely alone as though they're the only ones, then when they realize they're not, that is actually a very good and helpful realization.

But also, I think another piece that is really important to talk about here is that this author is essentially saying that people who are lawyers have no harder time leaving their profession than anyone else leaving any other type of profession. That may be true. I think that is frankly neither here nor there, because the reality is that regardless, in terms of people speaking out about their negative experiences and sharing what they were like, and the fact that people don't have to tolerate that kind of experience if they don't want to, former lawyers are doing that because of all of the themes that we talk about regularly around here, the sunk-cost fallacy. The fact that many people who choose to be lawyers are perfectionists. The fact that many people who have become lawyers feel family pressure or pressure from their significant other or some social pressure to continue in the profession even though it is crushing them. A belief that you need to achieve at a “prestigious level” in order to be valuable, having your identity wrapped up in being a lawyer, all of these things that make it so hard for lawyers to leave the law.

Because that's the case, I think everyone who has worked as a lawyer and has decided to leave, they know at a deep level, what it is like to decide, “I'm going to walk away from this.” They know how incredibly difficult it can be. Speaking out about one, their negative experiences and two, about why moving to something else has been such a good experience for them, is I think for many former lawyers, a way to give back to their past selves or to other people who they know are in similar situations. It's not that former lawyers are resentful and are wanting to just take out their resentment on the legal profession because it just sucks, and you just want to badmouth it as much as possible. In almost all cases, at least in my experience, people are speaking out because they genuinely want to help people to advocate for change, which again, is often very difficult from within the legal industry. That's a whole separate thing that perhaps we should consider why it is that it is mostly people who are no longer in the profession who even feel that they can speak to some of these, like the most negative dynamics, the most toxic traits of the profession. If people aren't even able to speak to those things when they're still in it, that also indicates a significant problem.

To wrap this up, I think the very important thing to remember here is that people who have left the profession, talking about the negative things that have happened in the profession, the toxic traits of the profession, the things that are really problematic, that is not what makes the profession look bad. The fact that those things exist is the problem. Making the reputation of the profession, like saying the reputation of the profession and it being sullied in some way is the responsibility of people who are speaking truth about the experience of being in the profession, making it their responsibility instead of the profession to actually change and improve these very negative and toxic traits and experiences, that's the problem. People being honest about their experiences, that is not the problem. The fact that those experiences happen, the fact that we have such negative, problematic workplaces and environments, that is the problem.

Obviously, I feel very strongly about this. But if the legal profession's reputation is sullied because people are honest about their negative experiences, that is not the fault of those people. It is the result of a toxic industry. Labeling honesty about people's bad experiences in the legal industry as animosity, bitterness, or whatever is just another way to dismiss the voices of people who are telling the truth. As always, I am not here to talk anyone out of being a lawyer. If you love being a lawyer, that's great. I don't think I or any other former lawyer has any interest in talking someone out of being a lawyer. What I am here to do is to tell you that if you don't love being a lawyer and if you're sick of being gaslit about whether your experience is truly bad, there is another way.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel like your perception of reality in terms of your experience in the legal profession is being questioned in the way that this article does, if you feel like you are being gaslit and told that it's really not that bad, and why are you complaining, etc., and you're still practicing law and you're thinking like, “Maybe this is true, maybe I'm just crazy, maybe I don't really understand what's going on, maybe there's just something wrong with me,” there's nothing wrong with you. The gaslighting that this article epitomizes is a huge part of what keeps many lawyers, who would be so much better off and so much happier in other careers, stuck in the law because they don't feel like they can trust the experience that they're having. I say do not listen to the gaslighters. There is another way. This former lawyer is here to talk about it for all of the lawyers right now who can't. Thank you so much for listening. I really appreciate you being here. I will talk to you all next week.

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.

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