It’s 1997. I’m a college sophomore. Ally McBeal is the lawyer character on TV stirring up the most controversy: is she too thin? Too neurotic? Are all of her problems because her job is too stressful? Or is it really because she can’t keep a good man in her life?
I watch the episode where Ally is prescribed antidepressants, then panics and flushes them down the toilet. And something in me feels seen and heard in a sad, but very real way.
As depicted in the show, becoming a lawyer did not look like it was a recipe for a happy life, but I found her character very relatable. I, too, was a girl who told myself repeatedly that I was too smart to find a good boyfriend, and wondered if it all meant something was seriously wrong with me.
I grew up in Eastern Washington where, back in the day, many people married their high school and college sweethearts and never left. Partly jealous and partly disdainful, my 19-year-old self concluded that law school was where the smart girls like me were supposed to go. I believed — but wouldn’t dare admit — that if I could maximize what seemed to always come easily (academics) I could patch up my great big emotional pothole of not-enoughness and have an admirable feminist life where I championed important causes and stood for something more intellectually significant than what colors to use at one’s wedding.
Fast forward to the first year of my law career. I had a new job and a new boyfriend. I finally had achieved all the indicia of successful young adulthood. Quarter-life crisis? That was not going to be me.
But within six months, the pressure to be perfect to keep the approval of both the job and the boyfriend caused me to burn out. I was under tremendous stress, both external and internal, and developed a slew of stress-related health problems: wicked PMS, acne, and fatigue that no conventional or alternative medicine seemed to be able to remedy. In a very clear sign from the Universe, both the boyfriend and the job told me to take a hike in the same week.
That was fifteen years ago. Today, I’m healthy and in a great relationship with a nice man. What I know today is that the work stress and the loneliness many women lawyers feel are not separate issues. And thankfully, the law turned out to be the ideal career for me, because I do get to champion important missions.
And one of those missions is this: to lift up the feminine-energy woman lawyers everywhere. I’m one, and if you’re reading this and nodding your head in understanding, you’re probably one too.
Understanding the Feminine Energy Lawyer
First, a quick word on masculine and feminine energy. Here, we are talking about a person’s vibe and the way they relate to themselves and the world. We are not talking strictly about sex or gender. Regardless of your sex or gender, you have a mixture of masculine and feminine energies within you. There is no right or wrong here.
At risk of oversimplification, masculine energy is the part that gives, acts, directs and competes. Feminine energy is the part that receives, responds, feels, and seeks cooperation. Masculine energy charges forward and seeks to prove itself as the best; feminine energy leans back and magnetizes what it wants and often desires approval. (Please don’t hate me for simplifying this so much. I’m not talking about 1950s stereotypes. I’m simply talking about energies. And, I will refer to the feminine energy lawyer here as “she,” but I don’t mean to exclude anyone.)
Many women who demonstrate academic talent have a little (or a lot) more feminine energy than they have masculine energy. Why? Because in addition to being hella smart, we are good at figuring out what other people want from us (as long as we’re told what that is). Our desire to be loved is all good and well, but in the hustle-y world of the law, that desire is too often expressed as people-pleasing.
Our tradition is over 600 years old. It is inherently patriarchal; it is all about winners and losers, right and wrong, adversaries instead of allies. That itself is neither right nor wrong. But let’s consider what else was going on around the same time. They were burning witches and bloodletting with leeches. It is possible that there are some attitudes of the patriarchy that might have migrated through the centuries and may not be useful now.
And a hundred years ago, few women were lawyers. Today, about half of the people graduating from law school are women, but less than 40% of practicing lawyers are. I believe that it is simply because our legal system has not changed its vibe and values much, even though it tries in earnest to have more seats at the table for women. It might look more diverse on paper, but it operates from predominantly masculine energy.
And, when you put a feminine-energy woman in that system, no matter how smart she is, or how good she is, or how good she could be at her job with the right support, there’s something about her that is a bit at odds with her environment.
The environment of the legal industry is simply not set up for the feminine energy lawyer to thrive. And so we try even harder. Many of us quickly learn to rush to please everyone around us, yet never feel like we ever did a good enough job. And many women lawyers keep up that exhausting pattern 10 and 20 years into their careers. The truth is, at most settings in the legal industry, no amount of overwork, extra research, extra hours, or sucking up can ever get us the approval, cooperation, or support that we desire.
Feeling at odds with our environment is the beginning of burnout.
When we are feminine energy lawyers and don’t have a protocol in place for staying healthy and happy in a masculine-energy environment, we slowly break down. We may find our intellectual capacity for law often exceeds our intestinal fortitude to deal with the backstabbing and competition, depending on how much energy we have in the tank on any particular day.
We might have trouble adjusting from our work day to a date or time with our family because we’ve had to be “tough” all day. Years ago, before I understood the source of my burnout and loneliness, I often found myself myself arguing with a guy I literally just met, and five minutes later he’d be talking to some woman who may not have had as much going for her, but who had a different…vibe. I, however, couldn’t “leave it at the office.”
In addition to feeling like we are “too much” in our personal life, at work, we might be tired of hiding our feelings or biting our tongue to keep people from judging us as “crazy” or “too emotional” — and we know we’re not.
And then on a more surface level, we might have a bunch of cute but hardly-worn clothes in our closet because we worry that these items don’t look “professional” enough for work. We often feel like we have two separate selves. One to survive a difficult work day, and the other who feels more authentic who we fear showing in litigation.
And like we are often reminded at lawyer wellness CLEs, we might engage in addictive behaviors. We might overshop, overeat, over-Netflix or otherwise medicate to avoid the discomfort of feeling like our work isn’t good enough and we don’t fit in.
And so we burn out. We burn out emotionally, spiritually and physically. And all the while we are in burnout, we are trying even harder and second-guessing ourselves. We wonder if we are going to die alone and unloved with ten cats and a stack of unfinished discovery responses on our desk. Many of us quit for other careers. No judgment if this is you. But if you still want to practice law, and you want to stop feeling so at odds with your work and your life, you need to reframe it in a way that makes you the heroine, the goddess and the queen of your world.
The solution is to embrace — rather than discount and judge — your feminine energy.
My personal life and career finally became fun and rewarding when I understood the real causes of burnout and how masculine and feminine energy play a role in my life. Recognizing myself as a feminine-energy woman, I knew that I wasn’t going to singlehandedly change the culture of the legal industry, and I yet still wanted to thrive within it. I still wanted to be a lawyer. I knew quitting wasn’t the solution.
I started by putting myself first. I personally settled on solo practice as the way to determine my own schedule so I could have a consistent self-care routine, but as my understanding has evolved over time, I do not believe that self-employment is required. My self-care routine consists primarily of running and reflection (journaling and meditation). As I made that a consistent part of my life, I felt like myself again.
The other key thing I did was to decide that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me for all the ways that I am a feminine energy lawyer. I took each one of my supposed flaws or limits, and reframed it as a tremendous asset in the law. I don’t like conflict and yelling, and I decided that my tact and reserve were superpowers. I learned to soothe the part of myself that felt like a scared little girl, making it mean something terrible about me if others were upset.
When I finally stopped chiding myself for this or that “weakness,” a deeply unshakable confidence came through. It was a confidence that didn’t have to rely on sharp words or condescending tones of voice. I embraced the aspects of being a lawyer that are not just the archetype of the warrior, but also of the visionary, teacher and healer.
As I healed the self-limiting beliefs formed so many years before, it had a profound effect on my practice and on my life. I finally felt like I belonged in the law. The phone kept ringing with new, great clients and cases. I spent less time worrying about work, and didn’t worry about as many of the same things as I did before. I stopped having such an existential identity crisis over whether being a lawyer meant I was doomed to burnout and loneliness. I felt at home in my own skin and no longer felt so brittle. And yes, I also found love.
Your path out of the woods is waiting.
So, women lawyers, you are not too smart to find or keep love. You are not doomed to be less happy than your non-lawyer friends. You don’t have to die alone with ten cats and a stack of unanswered discovery. There is nothing wrong with you.
You don’t need to be “tougher.”
You don’t need to be better.
You don’t need to be anything you are not, really, deep down.
You can be exactly who you are and be a great lawyer.
You can be sensitive. You can have desires and dreams that aren’t just about building your resume. You don’t have to “lean in” if you don’t want to.
The things you fear might be why you’re not a good fit for your current job, or your career choice, just might be the greatest gifts to you and your clients and the world.
Give this a try. Write them all down. All your fears. Every criticism that’s flown out of the partner’s mouth, and every harsh thing you say to yourself. And then write down why it is complete bullshit.
You are not too much to be loved. You are not “not enough” to be loved.
You are a good lawyer and the world needs you.