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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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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The fourth step in leaving the law behind: Plan

To leave law behind, you need to plan.  Plan, structure, blueprint, prepare.  Following your passion, doing what you love, leaping and the net will appear – all nice, and true and ideal and possible . . . with lots of planning.

When planning to leave the law, focus on four main questions:

1.    Why am I doing this? Again, let’s make sure you are being true to yourself and not fooling yourself and really exploring leaving law for the right reasons.  And not because you may find yourself in a bad patch or because it seems all of your friends have gone in-house lately or because you feel it’s no longer cool to be a lawyer.  The critical thinking must continue.

2.    Who am I doing this with? Talk to others.  To those that this decision would affect.  It’s your life and your passion and your goals of course, but they may be shared by others, or others may be affected by them.

3.    What resources am I doing this with? Besides health issues, there is no anxiety more difficult, gut wrenching or harder to take than that related to money .

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The first step in determining whether we should leave law behind

The first step in leaving the law behind is to determine whether we really want to leave the law behind.  Sounds obvious, but the main gist here is that we often think we want to leave the law, feel unhappy practicing the law, feel we need to make a clean break.  And we think all of this without critically thinking about all of this.

Just like many of us who went to law school on a whim, or because it seemed natural, or because that is just what we did, or without thinking much of it, many of us consider leaving the law without critically thinking about whether that is the right idea.  We are unhappy or unsatisfied or beaten down or low on self-worth.  So our natural instinct is to want to move onto something new, whatever it is, just something new.

Initially when leaving the law, we need to determine if we should (i) leave the law altogether or (ii) just practice the law in a different way.  This is the first fork in the road we face.

So if we truly do want to leave law altogether, we need a plan. 

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The real truth behind job security

I spoke with a very unhappy attorney last week.  She is dying to leave her job and leave law altogether.  The firm life saps her of energy.  She dreams of a more flexible schedule and satisfying day-to-day life.

But she stays.  For job security.

The refrain I hear the most from attorneys who wish to leave the law, but cannot muster the courage to do so, is that they cannot contemplate a lack of job security.

What does security really mean?  When we talk about “security”, we really mean financial security.  We really mean having enough cash so that we can survive (and live reasonably well) for a certain period of time – 12 months, 24 months, 36 months – without a job or consistent income.

Having a job at a law firm or with the government does mean you receive a paycheck every two weeks.  But it doesn’t mean you are necessarily secure.  As we’ve seen in the past few years, things can change very quickly.

If you’re unhappy practicing the law, don’t let an illusory sense of security prevent you from living your dream.  The only security in your life comes from you .

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You will never be without a job

If you are good at what you do, you can always find a way to support yourself.  If you are good at what you do, you can always make a living.

Feels good to hear that, doesn’t it?  So here’s the courageous part.  If you’re unhappy with what you currently do (even if you’re good at it), take a shot and leave.  If you are just bored, leave.  If you want to explore other areas, then leave.  If you like the area of law you practice, but want to supplement it with some “real life” experience (operations, sales, entrepreneurism), leave for a while.

Your current job (or one just like it) will likely be waiting for you if you want to come back.

And remember, leave smart.  Go in-house with a current client (and leave the possibility open to return to your firm.)  Branch out with your own firm (and be sure to network and send business to colleagues and competitors alike.)  Leave law altogether with that new website or consulting practice or hair-brained idea (and be sure to have a nice cushion to cover start-up costs).

And if it doesn’t totally work out,

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Enough money

It’s a great feeling be able to comfortably afford (receive a paycheck) your and your family’s lifestyle.

It’s also a great feeling to take (save) the money and run.

Many do not pencil out how much money they actually need to provide a comfort level to leave the law:  12 months.  24 months.  36 months.

Until the unhappy lawyer sits down and thinks through this calculation, he or she will keep doing what they are doing, and keep getting what they are getting.

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