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What to do when your legal job doesn’t align with your personal values

Every day, legal professionals face the issues philosophers have pondered for millennia. Things like justice, right vs. wrong, rich vs. poor, profit vs. health, the power of governments, fairness, punishment, and reward are common themes in courtrooms and law firms across the nation.

At some point in their careers, just about every legal professional will be forced to advocate for a position that runs contrary to their personal values.

I remember a colleague of mine who had to work on a case where she defended a tobacco company at the same time that her father lay dying in a hospital bed from lung cancer. While she was used to doing corporate defense work, it became a much harder road when the plaintiffs looked a lot like her own father.

Obviously, that’s an extreme example. In most cases, the opposition between your personal values and your career is more subtle.

Eventually, however, many people whose jobs are even slightly at odds with their core values will experience some sort of burnout. It’s hard to keep doing a job that makes you feel like you’re not being true to yourself, isn’t it?

In this blog, we’ll help you figure out what to do if you suspect (or outright confirm) that your job and your values are misaligned.

Step 1: Honestly assess your own values

Have you ever come out and asked someone: “what are your core values?”

A couple of years ago, I was ghostwriting a self-help book. One of the things I had to do as part of my research was ask this very question to at least 50 different people.

Interestingly, just about half of the respondents could immediately identify four or five critical values that carried them through life. For example, many people identified loyalty, justice, compassion, and order as some of the principles they held dear.

The other 50% of respondents, however, had no clue what their core values were.

They weren’t opposed to the question, they just hadn’t thought about the issue in those terms. It’s even possible that some of the people with ready answers hadn’t given it any deep thought, either, and were just answering from a surface-level instinct.

If you aren’t quite sure what values drive your decisions, that’s okay. You have time to figure it out, and they might change a little throughout life.

Before you make any assessment of whether your personal values align with your law job, however, you probably want to have a good handle on just what your core values are.

There are myriad different tests you can test online to assess your core values and get an idea of what matters most to you. The Core Values Index, for example, will not only help you identify your core values but will also explain how those values show up in your life.

Whichever measure you choose, just be completely open and honest during your assessment process.

Remember, too, that no online test can truly delve into your psyche and do the reflection for you.

This is a process, and it’s okay if you aren’t certain about everything yet. Aim to identify your driving values and use a tool like journaling or meditation to help you get in touch with your less obvious motivations and beliefs over time.

Step 2: Assess your firm’s values

Now that you have a good handle on what your core values are, you need to see if those values align with the values of your law firm (or a potential law firm if you’re in the midst of the hiring process).

How the heck do you do that?

We’re glad you asked.

There are lots of ways to evaluate an employer’s organizational values, but here are our top picks.

What are the firm’s top practice areas?

One good way to assess a firm’s overall values is to really understand the firm’s various practice areas.

What does each practice group actually do from day to day? Ask yourself what those legal tasks tell you about the values of the people who founded the firm.

For example, if the firm has practice groups for banking/finance, fund formation, and capital markets, you might presume that wealth generation, order, and asset protection are important firm values.

If those values align with yours, great. If not, you may have some thinking to do.

Who are the firm’s top clients?

Next, take a look at the firm’s client list.

A firm that represents tobacco companies, asbestos manufacturers, and chemical companies probably has a different set of values from a firm that represents non-profits, church organizations, and indigenous tribes.

It’s not our place to judge which client list signals the more “noble” cause — and our opinion doesn’t matter anyway.

What does matter is whether representing the firm’s clients makes you feel good during the years that you work there. If you find yourself feeling resistance to the type of work you do, that’s a recipe for long-term stress and burnout.

Test the firm’s mission statement

Finally, take a good, hard look at the firm’s mission statement.

Talk to some of your colleagues (preferably those who’ve been there for a long time) and ask them how the firm exemplifies its mission statement in its day-to-day practices.

Be sure to pay attention to how people respond.

If old-timers can’t give an immediate answer to your questions, chances are the firm isn’t all that connected to the values it purports to serve.

The old saying is true: actions speak louder than words. No matter how good the mission statement, if people at the firm don’t behave accordingly, then it’s not really the mission anyone is pursuing.

Step 3: Pivot if you need to

So, let’s say you go through a thorough examination of your values as well as your firm’s values and you decide that the two are incompatible.

Does that mean you have to walk away from your position?

That might be tempting, but it may not be realistic or even necessary.After all, it’s not easy to give up a job with a good salary and ample benefits.

Or, what if you make your discovery about misaligned values during a downturn in the economy when finding another job would be difficult?

In these situations, it’s probably best to think of smaller, more subtle ways that you can align your values with the firm’s.

For example, maybe your values are out of line only with one department’s values or with the values of a particular partner you’ve been working for. If that’s the case, you can always pursue a transfer to another practice focus.

In fact, some firms are so diverse in their practice areas that just about anyone can find their place. You may be able to work on different cases, focus on an entirely different practice area, or simply shift to work with other peers that are more closely aligned with your personal values.

Whatever you do, just be sure to maintain your professionalism as you explore these alternate placements with an existing employer. It’s okay to talk to your boss about your concerns, but it’s not okay to accuse your peers of being horrible people because your personal belief system doesn’t quite match up.

Step 4: Know when to walk away

Of course, there may be times when staying with your current firm just takes too great of a toll on your values.

There’s no shame in that.

The great thing about being in the legal profession is that there is literally a good job for every soul. You just have to find it.

Some would say that life is too short to compromise your values for your job. More importantly, there are probably some areas where you’re willing to tolerate a little bit of a mismatch and other areas where you can’t.

Ask yourself this: can you still feel good about yourself at the end of the day? If the answer is that you feel like you’ve compromised too much of who you are, you know you need to make some kind of change. That change might be a new job, or even a switch to a new industry.

It’s up to you to make that call for yourself, and we wish you luck in getting there.


  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson is the founder of Attorney To Author, where she helps legal professionals bring their book projects to life. She was a California attorney for nearly two decades before becoming a freelance writer, marketing/branding consultant, ghostwriter, and writing coach. Her upcoming book, Breaking Out of Writer's Block, Exercises and inspirations for getting the words out of your head and onto the page, is due out in September 2023.

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