It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
E.L Doctorow, American Novelist
One of the most frequently asked questions I get from Leave Law Behind readers is “What is my next step”?
Now, we’ve taken some steps to get to this point:
We have found the courage to admit to ourselves that we’re unhappy.
We have found the time to google search “unhappy attorney” or “JD alternatives” or any of the other terms that led you to this blog and others.
We have found the time to read and sometimes we’ll muster the honesty to email in and tell me your story or inquire about coaching or just to vent (I read every email).
And what we’re after is the next step. “Where do we go? What should we focus on? Where should we turn?”
A guiding light
Many of you have asked me to create an online course to help us all leave the law behind,
This past Saturday night my Golden State Warriors played a playoff basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And I was a nervous wreck watching it, yelling at the TV when the Warriors messed up, pumping my fist when they scored … all the while in a burger restaurant with other people, my wife and my two kids.
And I felt I had good reason for my anxiety. The Warriors played inconsistently – leading in the first quarter, missing many shots in the second quarter, losing by 5 at halftime, committing bad turnovers, playing out of synch. It was hard to watch.
I was at my most nervous when the Warriors were losing 94-87 with only 5 minutes and 48 seconds left in the game. With the Thunder’s Steven Adams at the line for his second free throw, I clenched my fists and let out a muffled scream.
My 9 year old daughter finished her bite of burger, looked at me, and asked me “Daddy, is this fun for you?”
First off, it’s always hard to take when your children are smarter and more mindful than you are.
We had a fanciful bowl that my wife loved, a red and orange and yellow glassblown design all swirled together, that featured prominently on a shelf in our kitchen. It had a small bowl-like cavity in the middle surrounded by a flat decorative ring-like exterior.
It was much, much more artful than useful. In fact we never used it at all. But it was very nice to look at.
So needless to say my wife was very disappointed when I broke it about a year ago.
I attempted to move this beautiful glass piece without completely drying off my hands, I lost the grip and the bowl clanged on our counter top and broke into three pieces. My wife shot me a very disapproving look before she banished me from the kitchen and began to clean up and mourn over her favorite dish.
It was the last I saw of it.
Until last week. We bought our son a small fish for his birthday this year. Last week I found him and my wife cleaning out the fish’s small tank on the kitchen table. And while the tank was being cleaned,
Each week I receive emails from Leave Law Behind readers. Some are interested in coaching, some have questions about that week’s post, and some just want to share their journey and be heard. I read and respond to every email – it’s one of my favorite parts of this job.
One reader recently wrote in to tell me that she is exploring leaving the law because she just doesn’t know who she is helping. She does not have a particular connection to the client. She does not have a particular connection to the firm’s partners. She can’t pinpoint who she is actually helping with her work. And if she is helping someone, she doesn’t know exactly how. She doesn’t see the good in what she does. She doesn’t feel appreciated.
It got me thinking about one of the major mindshifts, one of the major keys, to not only leaving the law, but to living a meaningful, wealthy lifestyle.
And that is to focus on helping others. To do something, create something, sell something, that can help people at scale (help many people) or in magnitude (help at least some people in a significant way).
I’m always on the lookout for stories from the Leave Law Behind community, of people first realizing they want to do something different to those people who take that first step and actually leave and do something else.
Here is the story of Sheila Agnew, a Leave Law Behind reader, former family law attorney and now published author. She has a compelling life story, of leaving the law … going back to it … and now finding her Unique Genius as a writer. I hope you enjoy.
In 2003 I was a new, lateral, commercial litigation associate at a fairly small firm in downtown Manhattan. On my first Tuesday morning, a senior partner stepped into my office:
“Welcome to the firm Susan. How are you getting on?”
“Fine,” I said.
I didn’t point out that my name wasn’t Susan. I didn’t care enough to bother.
“Wonderful,” he boomed, “we’re quiet in commercial litigation at the moment but there’s lots of work for you in matrimonial litigation. There’s a case going to trial in a few weeks.”
It was not my dream as a little girl to grow up to be a divorce lawyer.
Two people I recently worked with have just now left the law for alternative, non-law jobs that are in real good alignment with their skills and strengths and enjoyments.
Needless to say, when they told me they had received and accepted the job offer, I was ecstatic. They were ecstatic. It’s why we do this.
One comment jumped out. Constructing her Unique Genius narrative, one student told me, was how she was able to gain real momentum and confidence in leaving.
Once she felt good about her narrative, based on her Unique Genius skills and strengths, she could finally talk about herself (to friends, family, at informational interview coffees, in hiring interview meetings) with confidence, pride and clarity.
To put it another way, she said she could finally talk about herself without worrying she sounded pitiful or, alternatively, like a conceited *$&(%^$#.
Unique Genius, a refresher
One of the main tenets of Leave Law Behind is to not worry first about finding a non-law job, or what title our non-law job should have or what salary the non-law job should provide or what stature this non-law job carries with it.
One of the biggest hurdles we face in leaving the law is money.
Some of us make a lot of money as attorneys. Some of us do okay, and are able to pay our bills and our student loans and get by. And others of us are out of a job, or jumping from contract gig to contract gig, and money is a major source of our anxiety.
And whatever the case may be, we are unhappy or dissatisfied or out of sorts and want to leave the law but we feel that we can never make enough money if we were to leave and take a non-law job.
What we really make
According to the New York Times, first year BigLaw associates make around $160,000 a year.
According to CNN.com, most of the rest of us make $62,000 a year.
And in conversations with many of you, the salary figures are all across the board.
And so are our expenses – we have student loans of $100,000 to $200,000, mortgage, rent, kids’ college tuition, car loans,
I began law school in the Fall of 1996 here in San Francisco.
Around that same time here in the San Francisco Bay Area, Netscape went public (1995), Yahoo was founded and began hiring (1995), and Google was founded and began hiring (1998).
I can’t tell you how many times I have thought to myself why in the heck did I go to law school when I could have gotten a job, any job, any entry level job (and stock options) in one of these companies and made my riches by the time I was 27.
Like many of us lawyers who strive for perfection I was very hard on myself for not excelling in this thing called life. I would rip my insides up, compare myself to others who did “make it” and wish I had taken another path in life that didn’t involve going to law school.
But I don’t think this way any longer.
I forgave myself
I don’t think this way any longer because I forgave myself.
More specifically, I let go of feelings of resentment I had towards myself for things I had done,
Lately, I’ve been working through how to deal with fear.
In our lives as people in general, and as attorneys in particular, we face a lot of fears.
Some we share with most everyone else (fear of physical pain, of losing a loved one, of trying new things, of falling into depression, of loneliness, of embarrassment).
Others are more specific to us as attorneys (fear of making a typo on a brief, of making a mistake in front of a judge, of being incorrect on the legal precedent, of getting turned down as partner, of being sued for malpractice, of not being able to make our law school loan payments).
And we have many, many fears when it comes to leaving the law (we’re afraid we won’t be able to convince someone else to hire us, we’re afraid to tell our firm we actually want to leave, we’re afraid we won’t be able to say we’re really a lawyer anymore, we’re afraid it won’t be easy, we’re afraid we will be ridiculed and doubted).
Last week I had a great conversation with an attorney who I had worked with to leave the law. He is about to begin working at a small tech start up.
While he was dissatisfied at his firm job and wanted a completely new space in which to work and was excited about this new non-law job, what was most interesting and ironic about his transition was that as he came closer and closer to leaving the law, and more and more excited about the possibility to do something new, he also found it harder and harder to let go of his identity as a lawyer.
It was difficult for him to accept that he wouldn’t be working (or viewed by others) as a lawyer … in the traditional sense.
We feel that there is still an allure to being a lawyer. We feel being a lawyer shows people that we are smart, that we make money, that we have control, that we can be trusted and relied upon.
We feel it commands respect. We feel it shows we have our act together.
So when we actually leave the law and begin to call ourselves another title,