Thinking about leaving the law, but not sure where to begin?

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For something to happen, for us to be able to accomplish something, there are a lot of initial things we can do.

Set goals. Define requirements. Issue spot. Rally up resources. Identify who else can help. Sketch out a budget. Lay out a timeline.

These are all tangible manifestations many of us feel comfortable with.

And one other thing we often overlook doing is to visualize. Close our eyes and think of where and what we want to be. Or what we want the journey to be like. Or to just think of both the details and the grand ideas and the emotions and the desires we want to feel and associate with what we want to happen.

We want to leave the law. Let’s visualize and let’s feel what this could be like. It’s easy to do. We can do it anytime. And it gets everything started.

Sure, it sounds new-agey and even embarrassing, but it’s essential in order to align our desires with our actions.

Let’s first think of what it is we want to do when we leave the law. We’ll be doing something that we actually are good at. No more will we think people think we’re a fraud, no more will we fear being asked a question about the law we don’t know, no more will we think people think we’re faking it. See it, let’s see it, let’s really really visualize a situation where we walk into an office or a meeting or a presentation and we know what we’re talking about. And what we don’t know, it’s okay, because no one expects us to be perfect.

See it. See that happening. See the stress of having to be perfect wash away. See the beauty of finally doing something we’re good at.

Now let’s focus on the emotions we want to feel. Fun. Success. Confident. Self-worthy. Focused. Wealthy. Healthy. Refreshed. Energized. Engaged. Prosperous. Validated. We feel emotions and senses of self that we knew existed but haven’t felt in a long time. And we realize feeling this way is not mutually exclusive to working. We can feel good about ourselves and our work.

And we realize that concerns and caution and stresses exist in any job. There are always fires to put out. There are co-workers to deal with. There are issues to manage. But now we see ourselves capably managing them. We can handle the pressure. We realize we can do it. And we look forward to it. We actually don’t look at problems as problems, but rather as opportunities to shine. Problems and issues become things we can accomplish that no one else can. We become successful people because we begin to do those things that others don’t.

And now we visualize being around different types of people, who are creative and personable and insightful and most of all, determined and hard working. Visualize being around other types of people and learning from them.

And visualize not working for the security or the paycheck or to make others proud or to justify a law school degree or to pay off student debt or for a certain stature, but rather visualize working because we are good at it, and we enjoy it and it comes naturally to us and people celebrate us and we add value and we get paid for it. And visualize working and feeling the best. Visualize being powerful.

Leaving the law is unknown, but what is known is that there is an other side. It is there. Let’s close our eyes and see it.

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When Casey asked me to write a guest post, I thought it might be good to critically think about what is driving you to explore leaving the law. Before declaring to the world that you’re ready to leave law, it’s worth confirming whether you’re actually ready or if you’re just expressing frustration with your current situation.

While the latter is definitely the first step (and an important one), here are 5 things to consider to determine if you’re really ready.

1. Is your financial house in order yet?

Obviously, first things first, have some savings.

However, coming in as a very close second: consider your expenses.

Many of us make the mistake of increasing our standard of living each time our salaries rise. We justify this by saying, “I work hard. Why shouldn’t I treat myself?”

I’m definitely not suggesting becoming a monk, but if you’re serious about leaving, the best way to prepare is find ways to increase the space between your paycheck and your expenses.

The reality is that most jobs will pay less than half of what you’re earning as a lawyer (especially early on).

So, the less your expenses, the more likely you can consider opportunities that make you happy rather than just other law jobs.

2. Didn’t your mother teach you not to slam the door?

I co-founded FLEX by Fenwick which provides opportunities for lawyers to work in-house in interim roles. As part of my job, I meet a lot of lawyers who thought they were done, but now want back in.

Recently, I met a woman who was so serious about never returning, she had listed her profession as “Recovering Lawyer” on LinkedIn.

But she found that the other challenges she took on (volunteering, helping with a friend’s start-up) didn’t easily replace the intellectual stimulation she got from pondering legal issues. Plus, with opportunities like FLEX as an option, she’s finding that there are new ways to be “successful” at law than working at a law firm.

Moral: Just because you’re leaving, don’t slam the door on the way out and throw away the key.

Sure, close the door behind you. But do it nicely and leave it unlocked. And preserve your relationships and networks… you might want them back.

Finally, don’t give up that bar membership. You worked hard to pass the first time. If you ever change your mind, you won’t have to study for it again.

3. Pennies add up.

While we’d all love to win the lottery, most of us get to our goal penny by penny. The same thing is true with your career.

While “leaving the law” seems to necessitate a dramatic exit, many successful “former lawyers” started by taking baby steps.

Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to make the perfect first move. Trust me. Your first move is most likely not your last, so ease up!

4. Climbing the Totem Pole.

While you know this in your “heart of hearts”, it can be hard to face the reality that you’re not necessarily going to come in at or near the top.

What does that mean in practice?

You’ll probably have a lot less power over decisions, less discretion to make your own judgment calls, or not have the freedom to operate without supervision.

But don’t worry! If you’re open to learning and receiving feedback, and you’ve picked an opportunity that maximizes your strengths, you’ll naturally be back on top again soon.

5. The grass is greener… Or is it?

Someone once told me that the grass is greener over there because they spread more BS. A bit cynical, but make sure you know what you’re signing up for.

For instance, you may not get a better work schedule. Plus, if you’re learning something new and want to progress quickly, you may have to put in more hours than before. And remember, you also just took a huge pay cut.

I’m not saying it’s not worth it. Rather, pick something that maximizes your strengths that you would be happy working just as hard a as you do now and you’ll be more satisfied.

If you’re really ready…

Once you’re starting to scan job boards, remember to also check out places like FLEX or other companies in the legal industry. Periodically, FLEX and others hire former lawyers to join the internal management team. You may find that a non-legal role in a company serving the legal industry is an easy way to test the waters.

Of course, if you’ve read this article and have realized that you’re not quite ready, congratulations on being honest with yourself! Don’t lose hope. Maybe you just need to find another way to practice so you are happier so check out flexbyfenwick.com/attorneys.

One final piece of advice: before you start telling everyone to keep an eye out for a new job, consider what it will be like to not say, “I’m a lawyer.”

Sure, there won’t be any more lawyer jokes, but consider how much of your identity is wrapped up in saying, “I’m a lawyer.”

For me, it came up in an unexpected way. I was traveling internationally and the immigration form asked for my profession. AGH! What to write? It was so easy before.

Lawyer = Successful. Hard-working. Good problem solver.

If I’m not a lawyer, am I no longer successful, hard-working, or a good problem solver? Of course not.

Take the time to figure out what positive associations you have with being a lawyer. Then imagine saying something besides lawyer and figure out what negative associations you have with that so you can dispel those and get comfortable with how it feels to say something else.

Self-employed. Sales Manager. Artist. Entrepreneur. Parent.

They can all mean successful, hardworking, and great problem solvers who love their jobs. Good luck!

Alexandra (Alex) Smith is currently Sr. Director of Product and Service Development at Fenwick & West LLP and Co-Founder of FLEX by Fenwick. Alex was formerly a corporate associate at Fenwick and Latham & Watkins and “left the law” in 2005 to join Axiom Global as the first management hire in their San Francisco office. She rejoined Fenwick in 2010 and is responsible for structuring and implementing new approaches to providing high-quality legal services beyond the traditional staffing and billing models offered by a law firm. When she’s not writing blog pieces to help lawyers find their way out of law, she enjoys traveling, cooking, and taking weekend naps.

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