Your Voice

The Lawyer's Identity: How to recognize that we are more than the job

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Mohit Gourisaria

Mohit Gourisaria.

I remember being on cloud nine as I drove home from work not too long ago—two hours late but excited to sneak up on my 1-year-old as she played in the bath. I was working as a federal prosecutor, and some agents and I had finally cracked (through equal part persistence and luck) a cross-border money laundering case that had seemed to be hopeless until that morning.

Driving to my suburban home in an SUV, wearing a pinstripe suit and a blood-red tie, a leather attaché case full of damning evidence on the passenger seat next to me, I felt invincible.

But when I stepped inside my home, no one even noticed, let alone let out a giggle when I said “peek-a-boo.” I felt like I had been wronged somehow, like my sense of self—my identity—had been bruised. I was so deeply embedded in my lawyer identity (and the high that it carried on that particular day) that I struggled to naturally inhabit other parts of my life.

We lawyers are not the only ones prone to tie our identities—and our egos—closely with our profession. And I don’t mean finding a healthy pride and belonging in one’s work, which is a satisfaction every person deserves, whether employed as a lawyer, a janitor, an engineer or a teacher.

But our profession, especially in its upper echelons, where work (the hours and cultural expectations) can rule a life, makes it surprisingly easy for the lawyer’s identity to become a source of confinement.

Over the years, I have found some helpful ways to recalibrate, to help my professional identity remain one aspect of a complex self that contains multitudes.

The life-is-now test

The first lawyer I ever met had wanted to be a history professor. But he married young and to support his wife’s lifestyle, he attended a top law school and went to work at a white-shoe law firm.

Because the work and the firm demanded it, he gave everything to the job and substituted his identity with that of the firm. He soared in rank and prominence, raked in millions each year, and provided a life of privilege and plenty to his family. But when his wife died in middle age and he found himself battling a neurodegenerative disease, I saw a person defeated, a life perhaps forever postponed.

When work has engulfed me—usually with long hours and relentless expectations over a long stretch of time—I ask myself: How can I continue to effectively do my job without losing a sense of connection with myself and with those who matter most to me? No matter how seemingly important the job, it helps to avoid the creep of self-importance. I have worked with many brilliant lawyers but have yet to meet one who was irreplaceable.

Understanding that humble reality—along with skepticism for technocapitalism (for example, the workplace is family) engineered to breed conformity and submission—can go a long way in doing terrific work and finding satisfaction from it without losing oneself (and precious years of life) within a single, confined identity.

The arrogance test

I was only a few weeks into my job as a first-year associate at my firm, ranked the nation’s most prestigious, when I found myself at a Mumford & Sons concert in Brooklyn, New York City. After my girlfriend and I settled in, we noticed that the woman to my right was staring at my firm-branded tote bag. She proceeded to praise the firm, share how much she knew about it, and how glad she was to meet someone who actually worked there.

As awkward as it all was, my ego was stoked, the firm’s coveted status seeping into my own identity. The fact that my job came with privileges that I had never dreamed of—a secretary, catered lunches, black-car service, dizzying year-end bonuses—made it easier for me to identify myself with the firm to an unhealthy degree. The less I retained of my holistic (and nonlawyer) self, the less patient, less tolerable and less kind I became to those around me, especially those who knew me long before I landed the fancy job.

I was lucky to receive some sage advice that year. When I asked a mentor one of those tired questions about finding work-life balance, he told me that that was impossible, and it was the wrong problem to focus on.

“What’s important,” he said, “is that when you’re struggling to maintain personal relationships because work has taken over your entire life, make sure you engage with others as a human, like the person you were before you became a lawyer—don’t be an ass- - - -.” I immediately understood what he meant. Many foundational tenets of our adversarial legal system—winning (often at all costs), rhetoric (with an endgame in mind) and power (the dynamics that it begets)—are poor guides for a well-lived life.

The power-over-me test

This is the test I failed in my opening story, where my soaring professional self struggled to reconcile with his parental and domestic reality. Whether it is the sustained high of a jury verdict after a hard-fought trial or the sense of existential crisis that follows a missed deadline, the work of a lawyer—inside a courtroom, across a conference table, on a solitary desktop computer—can carry high stakes and serious consequences. Sometimes that leaves one feeling ecstatic, sometimes crestfallen.

Such vicissitudes are common to many demanding professions and manageable when encountered by a self that is aware and balanced. But when we endow those passing emotions with certitude, we give them the power to shake us, to define us.

We are not in law but in life. It just so happens that work is a meaningful component of a lawyer’s life. Over a decade into this profession, my livelihood remains a core aspect of my identity, but it cannot round out a life and is, hopefully, seldom the only identity I inhabit.

Mohit Gourisaria is product counsel at Cash App and a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Previously, he spent a decade as a trial lawyer, including as a federal criminal prosecutor in San Francisco, and clerked on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New York. He studied theater arts in college and performed professionally in Boston before attending law school at Columbia University. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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