How I am mentally preparing to leave the law

[EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following is a guest post by a current criminal defense attorney as he looks back on his time in law school and his practice . . . and as he looks ahead to leaving the law altogether.]

I went to law school with a goal, albeit unclearly defined.  I wanted to do something good.  I assumed I would discover that something somewhere along the path.  Shortly before graduating from UC Hastings, however, I found myself disappointed.  I was entertaining fewer opportunities than I envisioned when spending beautiful college afternoons cooped up in the local Kaplan study center, preparing for the LSAT.

The underwhelming opportunities weren’t due to a lack of effort or achievement, but rather a want of vision.  I worked hard and did well in law school, graduating cum laude.  I focused on my grades, all the while struggling to keep school’s competitive, compulsive hubbub at a distance.  I figured I would work hard, pay some attention to my career prospects, and the rest would fall into place.  I wouldn’t get caught up in on-campus interviews or landing the lucrative post-grad position.  I would work hard,

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Lazy and just plain scared

So I hurt my foot this past weekend.  While how I did it is not that important (and slightly embarrassing, sprained my foot while jumping into a pool . . . real smooth), what was reinforced is:  It is a complete shock to suddenly have something taken away that previously was taken for granted.

While I wallowed in self-pity this week, and found interesting ways to elevate my leg and also type on my laptop, I couldn’t help wishing I could just snap my fingers and have the pain go away.

And here is where it got interesting.  I made a deal with myself.  I made a list of all the things I promised myself I’d get done, if just please, please, (snap my fingers again) my foot could heal quickly and I could get back to normal.  I will begin writing that Leave Law Behind book (that I’ve been putting off for 2 years).  I will begin planning for that Leave Law Behind in-person networking event I’ve been talking about for 6 months (but not doing anything about).  In short, if my foot will just heal quickly, I’ll stop being lazy.   And I’ll stop being scared.

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The five fears preventing you from leaving the law

[EDITOR’S NOTE:  We are delighted to publish today’s guest post by Katie Slater, former BigLaw attorney, who now runs Career Infusion, a career management firm, for lawyers and other professionals.]

Casey asked me to write a bit about the top five fears that lawyers have in leaving the law.  When I first read his request, I actually thought he asked about the top fears lawyers have – period.  And when I thought about it, the two are really linked in terms of the chokehold these fears can have on lawyers enjoying their careers and lives.

The homeless-under-the-bridge fear.  For example, the top fear that a vast majority of lawyers have is the one I call “homeless under the bridge”.  This fear says to you, if you try anything else, you will lose everything, have no money and (in my nightmare) end up homeless under a bridge.  One friend says she had her park bench picked out.  You get the gist (and I’m sure you have your own unique twist on it).  This fear stops lawyers from engaging in different ways in their current job, stops them from trying new things in their job and career,

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It’s so great we have the desire to leave the law

But there needs to also be the will.  There needs to be the execution.  It needs to actually get done.

There can often be a lot getting in the way of our will.  There are hurdles that prevent us from taking that first step and actually getting stuff done and making progress.

And to make it more confusing, many of these hurdles are unseen.  We know we are stuck, but we often can’t clearly identify what is getting in the way.

These murky things can be reduced to a few obstacles.  I share them with you now.

–    We are actually not compelled enough to leave.  We love the security of our current job, the stature it brings and while we complain and may want to leave the law, we may really not mean it.
–    We are waiting for others to provide a guaranteed path.  It’s easy to wait and see what risks our entrepreneurial friends or big companies take . . . so we can then follow up and fill a job or role once the company has a reached some stability.
–    We suffer from the Imposter Syndrome

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Stay stuck in your job (for now)

Many of us want to leave our law job right now.  This is understandable.  We are frustrated, not happy, not enjoying our day-to-day.  We are not doing what we want.

But we are getting paid.  We can pay our bills, we can pay down our student loans (and any other debt), we can hopefully put some away for retirement, we can possibly build up our savings.

As this blog has stated over and over, there is no way around the fact that done right, leaving law behind is a long journey.  While the rewards are huge, it’s a process that takes a lot of trial and error and self-analysis.  It takes planning and courage and a lot of help.

Which is why a great place to start in leaving the law is to examine how your current job can help you take your first baby step.  Besides just paying your bills, your current job can help fund:

– A career counselor (contact me or Jennifer Alvey or Katie Slater)
– A legal job recruiter (ask for Lindsay)
– An independent contractor on elance or odesk who can help you build your first website

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What are you leading with?

Many attorneys I speak with are exploring new jobs and lifestyles.  Some want to continue to practice the law, but just need to leave their current, negative situation.  Others want to explore non-legal roles that may be more in line with their skill sets.  And still others desire a leave of absence or some time off in order to take stock and plan next steps.

Many jump in right away and shift their mind set towards these new jobs, visiting career sites, enlisting recruiters and polishing resumes.

It’s essential to realize that the most important part of leaving law and getting a job you like and enjoy and are good at is not the actual job.  Rather, it’s the criteria you use to select and prioritize this job.

There are many elements to consider when looking at a job:  salary, bonuses, lifestyle, stature, skills required, daily enjoyment.  And of course for many of us, money (specifically, that initial, advertised salary) always forces it way to the top of the list.  And that is fine.  We all need money, there is not much more stressful than having no money.

But there are more elements to a job than money.

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We’ll have to learn all over again (and that’s okay)

I was on a Twitter chat on Tuesday run by Alison Monahan with a number of thought leaders in the field (Jennifer Alvey, Heather Jarvis, Katie Slater, Ms. JD and others) discussing the topic of whether in today’s economy law school is still worth the investment of time and money.

Through the wide ranging conversation, we began to discuss what skills it takes to make it in the workplace, either in law or outside of law, and Katie Slater (former BigLaw finance lawyer and now coach who helps lawyers discover the next level in their careers) reiterated a great point:  Law school is not necessarily a place of skill acquisition.  Rather this is done by actually practicing law in the workplace.

It can be easy for us to expound on the skills we learned in law school:  Analytical skills, issue spotting, writing skills, persuasion, interview abilities, and on and on.  But we all know that we were not able to apply these with any regularity or professional focus until we actually began working as lawyers.  And once we began working,

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You may have lost some time, but you have not lost your potential

Last week I took a vacation.  Family friends, their kids, my wife, our kids and I enjoyed some sun away from the San Francisco summer fog.  Most of our time during the day was spent running in and out of the pools with the kids.  And most of our time at night over dinner was spent talking about the kids.  The cute things they did when they were babies.  The messes they make.  The lack of sleep.

And we also discussed the opportunities our children have ahead of them.  We talked of their potential to learn and grow and develop.

Which caused me to think about what potential exists for those of us who just don’t seem to fit with the practice of law.  As our career options as lawyers begin to harden into shape, as others around us succeed, as our children or nieces and nephews or friends’ children began to grow, it can be easy to wonder if this is all we’re gonna get.   We tend to look backwards like the aged (at our unfilled aspirations) instead of forward like children (towards what we have yet to create).

While a generational shift is inevitable and aging has never been easy to deal with,

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Why we never end up doing what we envisioned we would do

In many of the emails I receive from lawyers looking to change course and leave the law, there is one phrase that is repeated often:  “I had always envisioned getting into _______.”  It could be advocacy, policy, public interest law, hi-tech.

But without fail this fill-in-the-blank is not what the lawyer is actually doing now.  They are doing something other than what they envisioned they would do.

It’s not the job or position or role that is important to focus on here.  Many of us are doing jobs or have titles we never knew existed or could picture ourselves doing years ago.

Rather, what is important to unpack here is that for many of us, we are performing tasks and taking on responsibilities for our job that we never envisioned because many of these job duties are not in alignment with what we are good at and what we enjoy doing and what comes naturally to us.

We envisioned doing something else than what we do now because simply what we do now is not really what we are best at.

Sincerely exploring what this is (not outright finding it necessarily,

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You have not fallen behind

It won’t take long for you to scan those around you and feel you are in what seems like last place.  Some lawyers you know are partners already, some are in-house at awesome tech companies, some have phat houses, some have so much in their retirement fund, some have established their own firm already, some have more and more and more . . .

We think of our age and marvel at how old we are.  We sigh and get down and we ask “Is this it?”

The answer is “Yes”.

But let’s change the tenor and shift that question into a bold declarative statement: “This is it!”  You are looking at it, your life, no one else’s.  And while we may wish we made changes or did things differently 5, 10, 15 years ago, it won’t help to think that way.  Let’s act now.

But that’s easier said than done.  There is not much more stressful than that lingering feeling that we are not living up to our full potential.  That we are making some money doing something we just don’t like or don’t feel good at.  And we often need to act when we most want to resist it. 

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