If Money Were No Issue
To kick off my first attempt at leaving the law, I met with a career coach who opened our initial session by asking, "what would you do if money were no issue and failure was not an option?" I'd teach creative writing to prisoners, I told him, and I have yet to improve on that answer.
But because money is an issue and failure would have been quite likely (if the establishment wanted prisoners to write, it wouldn't give them the stubby pencils used to keep score in mini-golf), I couldn't do that. And after six weeks, I made no progress in analogizing my dream job into a role that would be gratifying, would pay for piano lessons and cat food, and, most critically, exists. So I retreated to my law firm office to stare at documents and daydream about being Folsom's John Keating. This was during the summer of 2018.
Frequently over the next 18 months, typically just after being staffed on a new case that promised a mountain of hours, I would look for another law job. None ever appealed to me, though I applied to some anyway. I had practiced in three states in three different environments – big law, federal public defense, and now litigation boutique – and I never felt at home in any of the roles.
Working at the Federal Public Defenders was an honor. I believed, and still believe, wholeheartedly in the organization's mission. I loved building relationships with my clients, and I got to serve alongside passionate, exceptionally talented people who were committed to defending the despised and voiceless. It would have been great. If it weren't for all the lawyering.
I trudged through these weeks as if they were bog water. I wanted to do something else, but I had no idea what. I lacked the energy and direction to sort through the limitless non-law possibilities, many with inscrutable titles. At work, I did enough to remain in good standing with my firm, its clients, and the courts, but not an ounce more. I didn't have the desire to excel, to be the fully engaged counsel our clients deserved.
The malaise followed me home. I was a distracted and boring parent and spouse. Work spilled into the weekend because I was disinterested and inefficient during the weekdays. When I had free time for family, I went through the motions. Teaching my son to throw a tight spiral -- something that should have brought me profound joy -- was a box to tick. It got done, just like briefs got drafted and meet-and-confer calls were endured.
Setting the Intention
I knew I needed a change. In January 2020, after a particularly enervating week of depositions, I found Casey's writings on Above the Law. Those led me to Leave Law Behind ("LLB"), and I was impressed by the structure of and thinking behind the program, which stood in contrast to my previous, freewheeling attempt to change careers. After a call with Casey, I was ready to commit the time and effort necessary to succeed. I looked at it as perhaps my last chance to get out – at least until society starts valuing prisoners, teaching, and creative expression way more than it does.
LLB improved my mindset long before it helped me find a non-law job. Just having an exit strategy made me happier and more present at home, and, surprisingly, it made me a more attentive and effective lawyer. The days got better because I knew they were temporary, and I found myself able to concentrate on the aspects of practice I liked: strategy and mentorship, and client relationships.
I was in the early days of the LLB program when Covid shut everything down. All of these fears about the prospect of career transition began to percolate. I was fortunate not to have a lot of the traditional worries associated with leaving the law. I've never been hung up on money, and I didn't doubt I could find another line of work that would pay me what my family and I needed. And the "esquire" title had long ago lost its luster; lately, when chatting with strangers, I had started creating different jobs for myself anyway (including, once, prison writing teacher).
But Covid attacked my confidence: Would there be any jobs in any industry at any time in the foreseeable future? If not, what was I working towards? And if there were jobs, would I be putting my family at risk by taking one during a period of such instability?
Deep into a long run one morning, I realized that I was sabotaging myself much in the same way I had eighteen months before. I was wrapped up in the outcome instead of the process and allowing myself to be intimidated by things I couldn't control. I decided to do at least one thing, however small, each day to get closer to a new, non-law job. Maybe I wouldn't find my next job in six months, a year, or until the economy recovered. But I could make incremental progress.
The Benefits of the Pandemic
Along the way, I discovered the benefits of leaving the law during Covid – most notably, a more flexible schedule and space from my bosses and co-workers. As hopefully happened everywhere, everyone at my firm gave each other the space to adapt to the new normal, its new constraints, and family obligations. Work stretched further into the evening, but it was understood that you might be out of pocket for odd slots during the day.
It was much more comfortable than before to carve out 30 minutes to work through the LLB modules, to get my mind right, or to research job opportunities. I could conduct informational interviews without making an excuse to dip out of the office or worrying about who'd knock on my door while I was on the phone. And, maybe because they also had more flexibility or were craving connection with others, people were overwhelmingly willing to talk and eager to help.
For a lot of people, I think quarantine gave context to what I was doing. It has been a time ripe for self-reflection and assessment of priorities. I entered the process thinking that I'd draw criticism from friends, family members, colleagues, even informational interviewees for trying to leave a stable, good-paying job in the midst of a pandemic and consequent economic downturn. Far from it. Nearly everyone I told was supportive. Seeking professional fulfillment seemed to resonate with the times.
It became part of the story I told during informational interviews and then actual job interviews: I decided to leave the law on the cusp of the pandemic, but practicing, parenting, and just living through these strange days confirmed for me that it was the right decision. And I'd been able to use the time-out from normalcy to focus intensely on defining my skills, strengths, and interests and to identify the opportunities that aligned with all three.
Good things happened surprisingly quickly.
Through March and April, I worked to refine my "unique genius" narrative and determine which career fields matched my skills and strengths and were suitable for in-depth exploration.
In May, I began mining my network for people in human resources, among other spaces. I conducted a series of informational interviews with friends and acquaintances and met a ton of additional helpful and insightful professionals from all over the country through them.
In July, I began applying to jobs. In mid-August, I enthusiastically accepted an offer to join the Higgins Group, an executive search firm that helps life-sciences companies fill senior-level R&D jobs, as a Senior Search Consultant.
Four months in, I have no regrets about my decision to leave the law. I am constantly learning; helping great biotechs find transformative leaders; working in a positive, team-first environment; and, finally, feeling energized and optimistic about my professional future. I would have been fortunate to find meaningful, enjoyable work at any time, let alone during a pandemic. But destination aside, I'm also lucky to have had the journey over these difficult months. It allowed me to meet many interesting people and to focus on self-improvement. And it kept me focused on better times to come.
Want to do what Doug did?
"But," you may ask, "Doug was able to leave, how can I know I'm leaving my law job right?"
Or "How do I create a new resume?" "How do I make enough money in a non-lawyer job?" "How do I get over this negative feeling I'm a quitter?"
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