The main reason why I left the law is because I wasn’t really that good at it. I’m not looking for pity or using this as an excuse. I’m just being honest with myself. The skills that were required in my practice of the law as in-house counsel – attention to minute detail, detailed contract review, compliance, human resources and employment law, to name a few – were not skills I was very proficient at or possessed in great quantity.
Nor did I really enjoy my practice of the law. I didn’t enjoy always having to be the “adult in the room”, ensuring that any actions and projects and proposals and promotions put forward by Sales, Biz Dev and Customer Support were in line with our company policies, our partner agreements or regulations. I didn’t enjoy always having to react to an event and put out fires; I wanted to invent and brainstorm and be tasked with creating new things for the business … and not having to ensure our current initiatives were in compliance.
Of course these were my unique experiences, and everyone has their own take on their practice of the law and enjoys or is frustrated by their practice of it in their own way. But I bring this up because as I’ve met with a number of clients recently, it is becoming increasingly clear that many of us who want to leave the law feel this way because we (i) don’t feel confident in our practice of it and (ii) frankly don’t enjoy what we’re required to do as lawyers.
This can be difficult for us to admit, because as lawyers, we are often perceived as the smartest people in the room and there to advise the client with sound direction. So it can be difficult to admit to ourselves that … you know what, I’m not really that good at this job and you know what … I’m not really into it that much.
But that’s okay, because the flip side is that there is a lot of other stuff we are really good at, and that we do really enjoy. Litigators among us (who may to their soul really be introverts or collaborators or bridge builders or whatever else) likely have found themselves in a constant adversarial role, always arguing, always fighting, always anxious about the next court deadline, when really they’d rather spend their day brainstorming on a white board and fleshing out ideas and next steps for a team or company or non-profit.
Transactional attorneys among us (who may truly, truly be big-picture-types or creative advisors or natural born leaders or something else) likely have found themselves in a detail oriented role, always parsing through Word docs, and highlighting what-if’s, when really they’d rather spend their day presenting entrepreneurial ideas in front of crowds of hundreds and marketing new ideas and leading a team or company or non-profit to greater heights.
And there are many, many other similar scenarios we could come up with that we all struggle with. And what this really comes down to is a misalignment between the job requirements of being a lawyer and our true skills and strengths. If we really like working together with people and don’t really like to fight, we likely won’t ever really be a good litigator. If we really like brainstorming new ideas and putting them into action, we likely won’t ever be good at getting into the minutia of drafting and negotiating detailed licensing agreement.
So as we wrestle with whether we really want to leave the law or not, it is wise to first get to the bottom of whether we actually excel at and enjoy the practice of the law. Here’s an easy exercise to start with:
Let’s begin first by listing out our jobs duties as an attorney on a sheet of paper in one column. List these in plain English or how we really feel about these duties – let’s not hold back – phrase them in positive or not-so-positive ways, whatever is the most honest for us. So we could describe these as argue daily with opposing counsel, manage mundane trial schedule, rain-make constantly, answer annoying interrogatories, draft licensing agreement, monitor stressful compliance requirements, be trusted advisor to client, be sounding board for awesome company, be responsible for really important initiatives, work on behalf of the public good, and so on.
Then, in another column, list our particular skills and strengths. This is our Unique Genius, those skills and strengths we excel at and enjoy doing. And let’s not hold back here – list all the things we think we’re good at, those that are fairly tangible (write persuasively, write creatively, highly technical, attuned to details, project manager, deadline-meeter, and others] and those “softer” skills which may be less perceivable [empathetic, team building, motivator, great listener, brainstormer collaborator and others]
Then let’s look at both columns, and see if the responsibilities of our particular practice of the law match our skills and strengths, either in whole or in part. If there are major gaps between the two columns, meaning if many of the skills and strengths we have are not really what it takes to accomplish the duties of practicing the law, then we may want to consider leaving it. And if our skills are in line with the requirements of an attorney job description, then we would need to explore just what else about the practice of law is lacking for us.
If it becomes apparent that our skill set is not what is needed to excel as an attorney, then we owe to ourselves to find that role in the world which does appreciate what we can offer.
I’m wondering what you feel about your practice of the law. Tell me about your experience in the comments below.