I’m going in.
I spoke with an attorney recently, and we had a great conversation about the issues she faces with the BigLaw firm at which she works. The lack of female attorneys for mentoring. The long hours. The dwindling chances of becoming a partner. Her mild depression as a lawyer. Her unhappiness as a lawyer. The allure of working in tech or marketing (or anywhere else “hip”). The realization that there is a bigger (and more lucrative) world out there than just being a litigator.
It was a great conversation and I’m happy to say that she is encouraged by all of the potential that exist for her beyond the firm and the law.
But she isn’t leaving the law. Nope. No time soon. She’ll be at her firm for a long while. She admitted as much to me.
Why? She feels that leaving the law is too risky. She feels that the potential for some sort of (huge, unmanageable) loss to arise from her leaving the law is too great for her to attempt it. Running out of money. Inability to pay her bills. Scorn and doubt from family and friends. Ending up in another, un-enjoyable job. Loss of identity. Becoming dumb.
Face it, she told me, a lawyer’s job is to avoid risk.
She’s wrong. But unfortunately, she’s not alone.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. And of course, there is “risk” of some kind inherent in anything we do. But these “risks” (whatever we may conjure up) can be managed, mitigated, planned for and, sometimes, actually avoided. I’m in the midst of writing a series for Above the Law about the Steps to Leave Law Behind, and I wanted to share all five steps with you today. Five time-intensive-but-manageable, build-on-each-other-to-grow-your-confidence, incremental, rewarding (baby) steps one can take to properly leave the law behind for a fulfilling professional (and personal) life.
• The First Step in Leaving Law Behind – The first step in properly leaving the law requires becoming as confident and exact as possible in understanding (i) your expenses and (ii) your safety net and other sources of financial support you can call upon if needed. One of the main obstacles lawyers face in leaving law behind is the risk of running out of money. By facing this fear from the outset, with detailed analysis and responsible planning, you can mitigate the anxiety that you’ll run out of money as you make this life change. (Read the full Above the Law Article here.)
• The Second Step – Before getting one’s resume ready or applying for jobs or networking, the second step often involves getting over law school. Or in other words . . . cutting your losses. Or to be more blunt: Move on. Stop living in the past. Stop thinking you need to eke out more of a return on your law school investment. Focus on the road ahead.
One of the main factors that keeps us attorneys (unhappily) practicing the law is the simple fact that we went to law school. Because we went to and graduated from law school and studied for and passed the bar and applied to and became licensed by the state bar, we often feel that we need to keep practicing to justify all of this past effort and expense. (Check out Above the Law in the next few days for a detailed article on this Second Step)
• The Third Step – This step focuses on identifying and monetizing your Unique Genius. Your Unique Genus is that skill or skills you are so good at, that come so naturally to you, that you are so passionate about and that are also in demand. It’s these skills upon which you can create a new, fun, dynamic and rewarding professional lifestyle for yourself.
This of course can be hard. Trying to find the answers to questions like “What did you want to be when you were eight years old?” or “What do you think your purpose in life is?” or “What is something you’d regret not doing when you are 80?” can often be difficult, and can have the adverse affect of only stressing you out, bumming you out or weighing you down.
Three questions that I like to focus on, that produce really tangible, straightforward, actionable answers are: “What are you already doing (or would you do) for free to help people?” – This points to what you enjoy. “For what type of advice do people come to you?” – This speaks to what comes naturally to you. “What do people compliment you on?” This points to your strengths.
• The Fourth Step – This step focuses on facing (and containing) the remaining fears of leaving law behind which are so hard to shake. Some of these we can get over . . . others may linger for a long time, even after we’ve “left” the law. Some fears to explore and get a handle on are:
If I leave the law, I’ll be different than all of my other lawyer friends
How will I make the money that I make now?
How can I possibly do something different than the law?
I will fail
Everyone will laugh at me
I’ll somehow get my bar licenses stripped away
I’ll not be able to say we’re lawyers anymore
I’ll have to find a new identity
• The Fifth Step – This step is all about building on the previous steps and learning how to “get out there” and network, meet with people, research what (legal and non-legal) jobs you might like (and not like), apply to jobs, find new opportunities, take that (acting/singing/writing/exercise, teaching) class you’ve been putting off, volunteer. When you take your time and “show up” in life, you’ll be amazed at what opportunities will present themselves.
Readers, what do you consider a risk that is preventing you from leaving the law? What help do you need to overcome this (supposed) risk?
Photo: Jumpy House, San Francisco
One important issue I don’t see mentioned is the tremendous burden of debt many recent law school graduates have accumulated by taking on loans to finance law school. In the current job market the potential to earn enough money to pay off those debts may be greatly diminished. What does one do when doubly cursed by debt, and the discovery that they are unsuited for the field? Your solutions appear to be predicated on the assumption that a law grad is in a position to have made enough money to create a financial cushion for leaving the field.
Thank you for the comment. It’s a great point you make, and it’s because of situations like you describe that the First Step to leaving law behind is becoming as confident and exact as possible in understanding your expenses and other sources of financial support. (When you have a sec, read more at http://abovethelaw.com/career-files/the-first-step-in-leaving-law-behind-its-the-money-stupid/). Getting a handle on one’s money situation, including loans to be paid, will really inform what someone can realistically do (and not do) to leave law behind.
These steps do not in any way assume that a lawyer who wants to leave the law is in a positive financial position to do so. Rather, to leave the law properly, it takes a lot of planning, time and patience. It also takes a realistic picture of one’s financial situation.
But, when one does want to leave the law behind, and takes baby step after baby step, builds momentum, gains confidence, explores and networks, gains a clear understanding of their financial situation, begins to explore their personal strengths and skills and passions, the opportunities will appear and be created. And lo and behold, some of these opportunities will provide the financial environment to afford these loan debts.
There is no magic pill to leaving law behind. There is a just a lot of hard, but exciting, work to be done.
Thanks so much for your comment. Let me know any other thoughts you may have.
I’m not planning on leaving my law practice but I ran across your blog and it’s definitely packed full of reasonable, smart advice. Like your parents always said “have another job before you quit the first one.” Or, as you pointed out so eloquently, have your financial life in order. Thanks for the good read.