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You do not have to be a lawyer

02 February 2018 - By Katie Cowan

You do not have to be a lawyer. You may think you do. It may feel like you absolutely do, but you do not. Remembering this helps, especially when things are hard.

Most worthwhile undertakings are hard. Becoming a lawyer takes a long time and a lot of work. Becoming a skilled and experienced lawyer takes even more time and work. It helps, when you are doing a hard thing, to feel that you have chosen to do it and that you do not have to do it. As Dan Pink said in Drive, “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

It is easy to become or remain a lawyer believing, at some level, that you have to. And the more skill and experience you gain, the easier it is to believe you really have to. But that is not true. And believing we have to robs us of our joy and, at its extreme, our lives.

Most of us can grasp, intellectually, that we do not have to become or remain lawyers. (It goes without saying that lawyers are intellectual juggernauts in this way). If only intellectual logic were all that is at play.

Because of course, lawyers are also humans, and humans are incredibly social creatures. We do not require a statutory mandate for compliance with social norms, and we do not behave according to pure logic. If you talk to an unhappy lawyer and suggest to them that they do not have to be a lawyer, they will almost certainly say, “Yes I know not technically, but…”.

Let’s say your parents have explicitly told you that you must have a professional career, or even paid for your education.

Or maybe your family has not said so explicitly but is made of lawyers and the implication becomes that that is what a person in your family must be.

Or your family is made of people who never had the chance to be lawyers and you think that changing course would be betraying a precious opportunity.

Or you have asserted your desire to be a lawyer since you were nine, and it is so much a part of your identity that you do not know where Being A Lawyer ends and you begin.

Or you know very few people who are not lawyers and so the idea of not being a lawyer feels foreign and more than a little threatening.

Or you think that not being a lawyer would somehow be “giving up” and make you a “failure” (note: it wouldn’t).

Or maybe it is just that whenever you wonder out loud what it might be like not to be a lawyer you are met with choruses of “But the time you have invested!” and “But what about all the money!”.

These things are powerful, especially for the anxious-types. They can make it feel pretty irrefutable that at some level, now that we are lawyers, we probably do have to stay that way. But, and I know I am repeating myself here, we really do not.

My point is not that we should not be lawyers or that we should all quit en masse. My point is that we can not be lawyers. It is an option that is available. Knowing this means that continuing to be a lawyer is a choice, sometimes a pretty valiant one. And being valiant can be fun. It is certainly empowering.

The opposite, feeling like the option to stop being a lawyer is not available, saps the possible joy and drive from our work. At its extreme it makes us feel like we have no way out. In a population more prone to anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide than the general population, the belief that we have to be lawyers is especially dangerous.

If you can remind yourself in hard times that you do not have to be a lawyer, you automatically make your decision to persist an autonomous one. It is so much easier to be happy and healthy and successful when you feel self-determining in this way.

And, if, when you remind yourself that you do not have to be a lawyer, you find that it reveals that at quite a deep level you perhaps do not want to be a lawyer, and continuing to be one is depriving you of a happier or healthier or more authentic life as a dog groomer, or investment banker, or TV screenwriter, or stay at home parent, then that is also important information (noting of course that nothing requires immediate action). In my view, the whole of humanity is served the more people there are who feel a sense of autonomy, authenticity and purpose in their work, whatever that work may happen to be. A happy former lawyer beats an unhappy lawyer any day of the week.

Either way, win-win!

Katie Cowan is a former lawyer, now director of Symphony Law, a consulting practice for lawyers. She hosts The New Lawyer podcast, which can be found at (

Last updated on the 1st December 2018