Only when I was really honest with myself did I realize why I had to leave the law

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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.

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14 thoughts on “Only when I was really honest with myself did I realize why I had to leave the law

  1. Couldn’t agree more Casey. I’m still practicing, but when I realized I’m not that great a lawyer, I knew I had to leave. I would never want to pay somebody for doing something she’s not good at. So why would I want to spend my life asking somebody to pay me to do something I’m not good at?

    1. Thanks Ben, happy the post resonated with you. I went through the same thought process. At first I was confused (“What do I mean I’m not good at this?”), then hurt (“Ugh, I’m a failure!”) and then liberated (“Wait, you mean instead I’m good at This-and-That other stuff, which I actually enjoy and like to do?!”)

      Thanks
      Casey

  2. Thanks for this great idea–the two columns–to assess what’s really going on. I’ve done various exercises like this and am always amazed at how different practicing law is than I anticipated it would be. I think that when we do these exercises, we need to be brutally honest in our answers. We lawyers are often too good at figuring out what the answers SHOULD be (and then convincing ourselves of them), rather than what the answers really are.

    1. Thank you for the comment. You are right on. And that’s why when I explore one’s Unique Genius with my coaching clients, we make sure we ask many people within one’s life (friends, family, work colleagues) to opine on one’s strength and skills, so it’s not just a lawyer doing it convincing themselves of what feels right, but may not actually be right.

      Thanks!
      Casey

  3. Great article. I completely agree. Im an attorney right now and I’ve considered leaving the law. What gets me the most is that I’ve been an attorney less than a year, and I already want to leave. I feel like I’m going to let people down if I leave. The flip side is that I have no idea what else I want to do, so its hard to find a new career with that!

    1. Hi Tina

      Thank you very much for the comment. I know exactly where you are coming from. My two cents: I wouldn’t worry too much about what you want to do. Rather, as a first step, focus on what you are good at, strong at and enjoy. Nail these skills and strengths, feel comfortable and confident in them, and then let them inform your job search. Match the job to you, and not the other way around. I wrote a piece at Above the Law about this at http://abovethelaw.com/career-files/the-third-step-in-leaving-law-behind-do-what-you-are-good-at/. Hope this helps.

      Casey

  4. I left the law in 2009 after only 7 years practicing. It was hard to walk away but I couldn’t take the fighting anymore. And it wasn’t just fighting with opposing counsel or prosecuting attorneys I couldn’t handle. I couldn’t handle fighting my clients at every turn even when I got them the result they wanted. I also couldn’t handle the farce that was the criminal justice system in Texas with judges who were hellbent on making themselves out to be the second coming of Judge Roy Bean. So I quit. Walked away. It destroyed me but in the ashes I found myself. I have become a successful sales representative and found out that life is more than cars and “stuff.” It’s about getting outdoors with my kids and enjoying nature. It’s about spending time with my family. The constant worry about making my monthly nut is gone. I’m not sure why I ever went to law school. I agree wholeheartedly with you Casey. I just don’t think I was cut out to be a lawyer. I can’t stand fighting every second of every day and practicing law simply not to get sued. I don’t regret walking away. I’d do it 100 times out of a 100. Although, in hindsight, I’d sure like to not have 120k in law school loans hanging over me. But even that doesn’t deter from my sincere belief that I am much better off now. Thanks for the forum and the article. Great read!

    1. Hi Mike

      Love it, love it! Thanks for the personal insight. You are very courageous. Let me know if you’d ever be open to writing a guest post providing insight into what you’ve done, the steps you took, the doubts you faced, the hard work you did, the finances you juggled, etc. I’m sure the audience would really appreciate it. Let me know.

      Thanks!
      Casey

  5. Hi,

    I am a law student in Brazil (in which law is an undergraduate degree). I hope to graduate by July in the next year, but as my studies are coming to an end, I’m getting more and more worried about what to do. When I’ve first read your article, I totally understood how you felt about law school, because that’s the way I feel. Right now, I’m applying for jobs in consulting, but it’s really hard to get them, either because the top consulting firms are very strict in their admission processes, or because the positions and/or firms I’d applied didn’t value my law degree at all (they only want engineers and business administrators).

    I know I would like to work in a corporate environment, but definetely not in the legal department. Thank you for your insights and hints! It’s somehow comforting to know I’m not an “alien”, and that there are more people who face these issues elsewhere in the world.

    1. Welcome to LLB! So nice to hear from you.

      As hard is this may sound, I wouldn’t worry too much about what you want to do. Rather, as a first step, focus on what you are good at, strong at and enjoy. Focus on your Unique Genius. See more at http://abovethelaw.com/career-files/the-third-step-in-leaving-law-behind-do-what-you-are-good-at/. Once you know and feel real good about your skills and strengths, then find the jobs that fit these. I’d ask why do you want to work in a corporate environment? Why not in a legal department? Don’t fit yourself to the job, fit the job to you. Your skills are too valuable for anything else!

      Hope that helps
      Casey

  6. This is a very helpful article for me, and I thank you for posting it. I went to law school in my early 30s as a “2nd career” after being laid off for the umpteenth time from technical writing/desktop publishing work … It didn’t take much time to realize that I didn’t like the work, but, now, as a solo practice attorney (could not get a job offer after school, like so many) about to turn 45, I’m making an OK (not spectacular) living–but am realizing, as you did, it sounds like, that I will never be a Great Lawyer. A) I don’t love it, but, really, B) my skill-set and personality cause me to shy away from the work. I’m a timid litigator; I hate arguing. I loved it in my 20s; I can’t stand it in my 40s. I actually find myself having to will myself through a wall of panic to get it done. But I’m in student loan hell & not sure what else to do with myself at this point … I’ll keep reading your blog for starters, but you’ve definitely resonated here. Thanks again!

    1. John,

      You and I must be blood brothers. I feel the exact same as you. I, too, am in my mid-40’s and took this on as a second career after hitting the glass ceilings without a degree. I enjoyed arguing when I was younger, but hate it now. I find myself battling timidity and anxiety about negotiating or arguing with or on behalf of my clients. I think law school actually made me more timid than ever before. I started a solo practice right out of law school, and do okay, but do not like it. I hate arguing with clients, attorneys, and judges. I find myself shying away from work. There are very few areas of law that I feel I might actually be able to flourish in, but those are such highly competitive areas that I am not sure I could make a living limiting my practice to those areas. I really want out! I have dreams of finding other careers, but am just not very sure what my actual skill set is. I will try a few of these suggestions and keep reading.

    2. ME TOO! I also went to law school as a second career thinking that I could FINALLY be a Lawyer and everything would be awesome. I started school in 2007, so the economy was crap when I got out and I ended up opening a solo practice. While I am good at parts of lawyering, I really suck at other parts. I turn away business because my self-confidence is in the toilet, I really hate being in court, I get heart palpitations when I see a nasty OC’s email pop up. At this point I just want a job so I can get my savings and life back to pre-law status and wait out the remaining 20 years until my $200,000 in student loans are forgiven. Finding something I’m passionate about or love doing seems like a luxury that I’m not sure I can afford. I can’t even get hired at a job I was qualified for before law school, let alone anything that is a reach into a new area.

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