Steps to Building a Sustainable Career: Ready to Thrive?

By Judith Gordon, October 19, 2018

For the past several years, our profession has seen a rise in attrition and a decline in satisfaction. Too many talented attorneys have walked away from the profession, believing that it’s an all-or-nothing gig, and truthfully, there are few resources available to discourage that.

Yet many attorneys do succeed in building thriving, sustainable careers. What sets them apart? How do you join those ranks if you’re teetering on the edge of law career despair? Whether you’re a recently admitted attorney or an experienced professional, it behooves you to assess your career and your life at regular intervals. Circumstances, priorities, and desires all change.

To be the best lawyers that we can be, as well as to feel motivated and purposeful, means integrating our full complement of human intelligence into our thinking, then acting accordingly. Many attorneys move from soul-deadening jobs to fulfilling careers by integrating their full complement of human assets to find purpose and motivation, and to thrive.

How do we actually do this? Many avenues do exist; a few are listed below. Before you find yourself paralyzed by inertia, trapped by golden handcuffs, or dropping out altogether, consider the concepts below. Contemplate them. Notice which resonate with you. Then choose one or more upon which to act.

Regardless of the stage you’re in, a few fundamentals remain important:

Find Your Why: Research confirms that when our core values and our work are not aligned, our well-being plummets.

Manage Your Energy: Even when we love our work, if demands exceed our energy, we are left feeling exhausted, with little left over for ourselves or others.

Find Your People: Humans tribe. We’re designed to connect. Law practice is often an isolating experience, even in the largest firms.

Do You, Today: Much of the stress we experience is self-generated by anticipating the future or ruminating about the past.


Think back to your pre-law days. Something drew you to the practice of law and led to the place you sit now. What motivated you to take the LSAT, fill out and submit applications, and pay perhaps hundreds of dollars in fees to be considered for a coveted slot? Was there a spark of inspiration attached to that effort, or did it simply seem like a good idea at the time? Does that pre-law motivation still exist for you? Motivations change. What has moved to the top of your priority list? To thrive in any career over a period of decades, our work has to matter to us in some way. Where do you, or can you, find meaning in your work?

Practicing law is complex and demanding, so many of us expect to feel some measure of daily discomfort and accept it. This is a far cry from the capacity to thrive that we can achieve.

Attorneys who practice in areas that answer their WHY shift from a job to a career, and sometimes even a calling.

You can begin by reflecting on the underlying purpose for the day-to-day work that you do and the needs of the client for whom you do your work.

Consider completing a values identification. This is very useful for crafting a life that is fulfilling to you. A primary value for one of my law students was adventure. Knowing that means it’s important for her to work in a field that she finds stimulating.

Are you doing work that reflects something you care about?

Where do you find joy or meaning in your work?

Notice your resistance. We all have it. Examining the areas of resistance yields our greatest insights.

Many attorneys pivot at early, middle, and later junctures in their careers and land in practices they love. Filter out the naysayers who tell you it can’t be done. Whether you’re in your second, seventh, or seventeenth year of practice, it’s never “too late” to live your life.


Practicing law requires stamina. Even when we love our work, if demands exceed our energy, we are left feeling exhausted, with little left over for ourselves or others. Powering through a long day of billable hours or back-to-back clients can leave us feeling exhausted. Technology places an added drag on our attention and our energy. Our human brains were not designed for the 24/7 demands we’re placing on them. For too many attorneys, the substantive work is challenging and enjoyable, yet they are so drained, that their life enjoyment is reduced to a concept. This, too, is where understanding a little human physiology goes a long way in battling burnout. When we’re doing mental work, our brain is working hard to connect thoughts, process information, produce neurotransmitters, and manage the many other systems operating in our bodies. To improve stamina and sustain energy throughout your day:

  • Sip water. As little as 1% dehydration diminishes cognitive function and impairs mood. Staying hydrated provides the electrical energy our brains need to think and process information.
  • Focus on one task at a time. Single-tasking is more efficient, improves outcomes, and leaves you feeling more alert throughout the day. The effort involved in multitasking – switching between two or more cognitive tasks – increases the output of stress hormones and drains the brain of resources needed for cognitive function. As a result, we tire rapidly and diminish the quality (and enjoyment) of our work. Rather than answering emails and phone calls while working on a document, give your focused attention to each task individually; you’ll save time, improve outcomes, and feel more alert at the end of the day.
  • Take mental breaks. Two to five minutes of brain rest at regular intervals are imperative for mental processing and productive work. Powering through is not a productivity tool. Turn away from your computer (and phone!), and gaze out the window for a few minutes of nondirected thought. Breathe. Take a short walk, perhaps to the water cooler. We can’t skip these human physiological processes any more than we can skip fueling our cars when the tank is empty. A brief break every 45 to 90 minutes will save you time, boost your energy, and pay off in productivity.
  • Skip the soda. Though you may experience a quick, temporary “feel-good” fix, the sugar content actually interferes with mental focus.


Humans tribe. We’re designed to connect. On par with meaningful work is mutual respect in our workplace. Yet law practice is often an isolating experience, even in the largest firms. It’s important to work with attorneys who care about you as a person and take an interest in your career and your well-being, for more than the obvious reasons.

A substantial body of research suggests that the people with whom we work are strong indicators of who we become. Are your colleagues collaborative or competitive, encouraging or discouraging, kind or sarcastic, healthy or unhealthy, optimistic or pessimistic? In his insightful TED talk, Nicholas Christakis, MD, a Yale sociologist and physician, explains how the people with whom we work day in and day out influence our lives, our health, and our happiness.

I recently met with a young lawyer and former student of mine who loves her substantive practice but regularly finds herself at odds with her supervising attorney’s approach and style. She recognizes that while she is committed to continuing in her field, practicing meaningfully over the long term means working with more like-minded practitioners.

Many attorneys find connection and community in the firms and organizations in which they work. When we enjoy the people and the environment in which we spend most of our waking hours, we’re able to thrive.


Although humans are no longer in danger of being eaten by a predator for lunch, our brains are still primed to protect us from danger. Much of the stress that we experience is self-generated. Large caseloads, irate clients, and traffic, to name just a few potential stressors, are interpreted by our brains as threats that trigger a stress response, even though we’re in no actual danger. A truly wonderful human gift is our ability to observe ourselves. Once we identify the source of the stress response, we’re able to step back, put it into perspective, and respond to potentially stressful situations in a more detached, composed fashion. Recent research in health psychology also shows that when we view stress as a motivator or as neutral, it doesn’t have the negative health impacts that accompany concern about feeling stressed. Below are some useful strategies.

“Have I done all that I can in the present moment?” A “no” answer to that question guides me toward appropriate action, while a “yes” reassures me that in the present moment, the situation is the best that it can be and no further action is needed right now. Depending upon the circumstances, I’ll often make an appointment to revisit the issue at a later time.

For many, the question, “Does this serve me?” proves useful. We’ve all agreed to serve on additional committees or take on matters that pick up another’s slack. This question enables us to recognize situations that require a “no” response now, thus avoiding situations that result in resentment or unwanted outcomes later, and also building confidence.

  • Develop your confidence. Confidence turns thought into action, and action moves us forward. Notice your thinking and your self-talk. You may inadvertently be holding yourself back with doubt and unwarranted self-talk that are unsupported by evidence. While your brain may think it’s keeping you safe, recognizing the skills you possess that propel you will move you and your career forward.
  • Attend to your inner life. Whether it’s to paint, read, run, meditate, cook, or stargaze, incorporate one activity into your routine that brings you joy for no other reason than its existence.

Finally, “never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” Dolly Parton

Judith Gordon

Judith Gordon is a speaker and coach and a lecturer at UCLA School of Law, committed to empowering attorneys so that they thrive in law and in life. She can be reached at or 310-968-7270.

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