“Turning Point” was the name of a 1977 film that fit within what was then called the genre of “women’s films.” Anne Bandroft and Shirley MacLaine had shared their young womanhood training to become prima ballerinas. But Shirley MacLaine’s character became pregnant, forcing her to forfeit her dance career. The film depicts their reunion, 17 years later, as Anne Bancroft prepares to leave the stage, ballet being a profession of the young. The climax is a fight between the two women, each envious of what the other had achieved. Professional success or family – in the 70s, women in ballet were faced with this zero sum choice.
Today, almost 30 years later, women lawyers are struggling to make their profession aware that this is not really a choice at all.
Still, both men and women will always be confronted with turning points. A psychological turning point is defined as “a period or point in time when a person has undergone a major transformation in views about the self. Life events and difficulties, life transitions, and internal subjective changes such as self-realization or reinterpretations of past experiences may be associated with the feeling that life has reached a ‘turning point.’ “
Turning points are perceived, long-lasting redirections in the path of an individual’s life. Often they are brought about by some objective shift in the environment. Events like making partner, losing your job, the birth of your child and the death of a loved one can instigate a major transformation in your view of your self, your identity, or the meaning of your life.
Such transformations can also be brought about by a more gradual process. For example, chronic job stress may elicit a period of personal reflection resulting in the decision to make a change.
Sometimes a turning point is created by the absence of an expected event. For example, a lawyer who has worked hard to become a partner in her firm, only to find herself working harder than ever, or one who discovers that wealth and possessions have not fulfilled the emptiness in her life might find herself at a turning point.
Interestingly, women report more turning points than do men. At least among attorneys, this is often triggered by the same circumstances facing the characters in the film – the decision to have a family, or the arrival of a child can transform your view of yourself. And although this typically involves positive realizations, all too often you’re confronted with a negative response from your workplace.
Psychological turning points involve major changes in how people feel or think about important parts of their lives – such as work and family – as well as beliefs about themselves. They may involve realizations about oneself that are new and affirming, or new and upsetting. Most fundamentally, they make the need for change unmistakably apparent.
A woman attorney in her late 30s hears the ticking of her biological clock. A successful associate in a large firm and well-positioned for partnership, she begins to consider the kind of life she wants to lead. She faces the reality that career alone will not satisfy her. She wants children. And, she wants to work in an environment that will support her continued career success and commitment to her family. She wonders if there is a legal workplace that will provide this.
A male attorney in a challenging transactional practice is invited to become a partner in his prestigious firm. He knows he can be successful; he can envision how much money he’ll make. But he thinks about how he’ll explain his work to his young son. He decides that making his own fortune and helping corporations amass theirs is not what he believes he was put on this earth to do. But he wonders what his calling really is.
A midlife attorney reflects on all of his successes and his accumulated wealth. He’s proud of the work he’s done and of the life he’s been able to provide his family. But he’s beginning to feel marginalized in the firm. Last year the firm reduced his shares: increasingly, the younger power brokers in the firm are ignoring his efforts to offer the benefit of his years of experience and wisdom. He considers retiring but feels he still has much to contribute. He wonders where he might find a place to develop his undeveloped strengths – and where they will be appreciated.
A woman in the legal department of a corporation was stunned to find herself criticized for being a poor corporate citizen after cautioning the company about the risks associated with a new product they were about to release. She’d thought she was doing her job and yet they treated her like a traitor. She wonders if there is a place for her in the legal profession where her skills and her integrity will be valued.
If you are at a turning point, here are some approaches that may ease the process:
TRANSITIONS VS. CHANGES
Understand that while changes are events, transitions involve a process. The starting point of a transition is not the outcome. Transitions require us to relinquish our old identity – therefore transitions begin with losses tht must be grieved.
THE “NEUTRAL ZONE”
William Bridges  calls the period after letting go of our old identity the “neutral zone.” It’s a limbo period between the identity you’re leaving behind and the new one you’ve yet to form. A period of confusion and self doubt, it’s often easy to second guess yourself, to think there’s something wrong with you, and to believe you must be making a mistake. During this period sustaining motivation for change is a challenge. You have to tolerate what lawyers tend to like least: ambiguity. Unfortunately, avoiding discomfort is not an option.
BE OPEN TO EXPERIENCE
meaningful and to decide where to commit your time and energy you’ll need to remain open. Pay attention to your intuition. Don’t fight with yourself about your values. Consider options you might not have considered before. In spite of all of your legal training, try to trust your feelings.
BELIEVE STRESS CAN BE A TEACHER
Uncertainty about your identity can be very stressful. This is particularly the case when your turning point was triggered by a negative event over which you had no control such as job loss, marital distress, infertility, and death. But if you find yourself facing something negative and stressful, allow yourself to learn from the experience. Even these painful occurrences can allow you to become clear about what is truly meaningful in your life. It’s also an opportunity to discover your strengths.
Turning points are times of reappraisal of your life. During such times we often see things about ourselves that are difficult to face; we also discover new potential within ourselves. When we’re flexible in terms of our perspective, attitudes, beliefs and plans, the process is easier to undergo and we gain more insight.
BUILD ON CONTINUITIES
Even in times of radical transition, some things in your life will remain the same. During turning points we often reaffirm our connections to loved ones, our spiritual beliefs, or our abiding interests. Hold onto these to stay the course and build upon them.
RECALL PAST SUCCESSES
You’ve been through law school. You’ve faced difficult challenges as a lawyer. You’ve demonstrated to yourself that you have the resources to face this turning point. If it’s helpful, write down all the difficulties you’ve already overcome in your life.
Connect with others who’ve faced their own turning points. Invite the people who care about you to understand the “crisis” you’ve facing. Hire a professional coach to become your guide on this journey.
Transitions take time. Like a larvae in a cocoon, you need time to transform into a butterfly. As a lawyer, you may tend to be impatient. Try to accept that there will be a period of uncertainty and that premature closure will hurt, not help, you.
1. Wetherington, E. (2003) Turning points as opportunities for psychological growth. In Keyes, C. L. & Haidt, J. (Eds.), Flourishing - Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association, p. 39.