Time to Leave Law Behind? Then What?
There are generally two questions that worry dissatisfied attorneys as they consider leaving the law. First, “How do I know I’m ready (really, really ready) to leave the law?” And, “Once I decide I’m ready, what do I do about it?”
How Do You Know You’re Ready to Leave?
Many of us feel dissatisfied or unhappy in our jobs, or curious about what else is out there. Generally, though, these three indicators signal when you should seriously consider leaving the law.
1. You are bored with your work. When you have little to no drive or lack interest in what you do day to day, that means your work is probably boring. This can be hard to admit. You may try to rationalize it away: “Well, that is just how the law is,” or “Some of my work can be interesting.” But it becomes more and more difficult to ignore the truth. Your work just doesn’t grab you or excite you. You don’t see any future potential. You don’t see alignment between your skills and enjoyments and your work. Instead, you find your day-to-day work dull, tedious and repetitious. When you don’t find much purpose or meaning in your work, that is what drains you the most.
2. You lack confidence in your lawyering skills. Praise from co-workers, satisfied clients and promotions notwithstanding, few lawyers think they’re really that good at being a lawyer. You may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. You may even call yourself a fraud and anxiously await people “finding you out.” But when you get to the point where you don’t believe you are good at something, when your confidence is low and you don’t see how you can continue to add value, it might be time to consider a change.
3. You do not particularly like who you are becoming. Being a lawyer takes a lot — a lot of time, energy and mental bandwidth. And in life, something always has to give. This could mean that to be a lawyer, you no longer make it a priority to be yourself. You don’t use your creativity. You have forsaken some of your uniqueness. You have lost touch with what you enjoy most.
You’re Ready — Now What Do You Do?
When you want to leave the law, it’s natural to begin dreaming of and researching new (non-legal) jobs. The excited part of you wants to focus on the possible next steps. The risk-averse side wants to be in a new, stable job as soon as possible. And the perfectionist wants to avoid any experimentation.
But focusing on that hypothetical non-legal job is premature. It can be a distraction, preventing you from doing some very difficult but necessary work. That work involves getting to know yourself again, and becoming confident in your skills, strengths and enjoyments.
Many of us are unhappy as lawyers because there is a major disconnect between what we are good at and what the job description requires. We are not working at something that aligns with, optimizes and even enhances our skills, strengths and enjoyments. You need to make sure the next job welcomes your skills, builds on your strengths and celebrates what you enjoy.
You can’t identify what that job is until you first know who you are. So, get reacquainted with yourself by answering the following questions as honestly as possible.
1. “Why did I go to law school (really)?” This gets at what caused you to go into the law. There is no need to regret the choice. Use this as an opportunity to free yourself and move on.
2. “If I couldn’t call myself a lawyer (say, at a cocktail party or BBQ), how would I feel? Why?” This speaks to identity issues you have with leaving the law. Remaining a lawyer just to say you are a lawyer can be a major impediment to what you really want … happiness.
3. “How do I feel about money? Where does this outlook come from?” This speaks to your relationship with money, and how your goal of financial success and independence may be hamstrung by an internal “poverty mindset.”
4. “What do I do well? What do I enjoy doing? What would I do for free?” Ask people in your network for their impressions, too. These questions speak to the value you can provide to others, your strengths, skills and enjoyments — your unique genius.
Leaving the law can be a glorious adventure. First, be honest with yourself about being unhappy and bored, and then be honest about your real skills and enjoyments. This should drive the professional steps you take next.
Then get ready for the ride!
Casey Berman, head of strategy for a San Francisco-based technology company, investment banker and former in-house counsel, is also the founder of Leave Law Behind, a blog and community that focuses on helping unhappy attorneys leave the law.
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