How you’ve already begun to leave the law (and just may not know it yet)

 November 9, 2013

By  Casey Berman

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There is a lot that goes into leaving the law. You need to get a handle on your financial situation. You need to lessen your fears of the unknown. You need to explore your skills and strengths in order to inform what job and role you are best suited for. You need to get over your personal identity being solely tied to “lawyerâ€. And you need to network and meet people and create opportunities that fit your particular skill set and enjoyments.

It’s admittedly a lot to do, and can seem overwhelming. But there is a tangible structure to it, and babysteps to take, that mitigate the over-whelmingness and enable you to build confidence and momentum as you begin to see results.

But there is an intangible factor to leaving the law that is equally, if not more, essential.

Attitude. Your attitude. How you think and feel.

I know, I know – you hear it everywhere. From self development gurus, from Tony Robbins, from the Secret, from that annoyingly happy barista at Starbucks, from the law school friend who made partner in what seems like no time, from the college roommate who is swimming in cash from his investment banking job with a gorgeous spouse and three gorgeous kids, from the 28 year old who just sold his company to Facebook to … well you get it. You’ve heard it before. A good attitude is key to a healthy and happy life.

But we lawyers who are unhappy with the law deal with something that many of these folks may not realize or have had to experience: Our life plan has been interrupted! It’s been set off course! We worked very hard and had it all planned out, didn’t we? Good grades in college, law school, OCI, good paying job, make parents happy, make grandparents happy, identifiable corporate or non-profit or governmental career path, nice lifestyle, prestige, security.

But not happiness. This plan was supposed to make us happy, or so we thought, or so we assumed. But many of us are not happy as lawyers. We’re confused. We’ve done so much right. The grades received, the tests passed, the jobs gotten, the hours worked, the office politics navigated, the stripes earned. How could this have happened?

And it’s difficult for us to tell others that we’re not happy. We can’t tell our fellow lawyer colleagues, as they may rat us out to the senior partner or think we’re not committed at work or just simply not understand and we’ll feel vulnerable.

And we can’t tell our non-lawyer friends and family because they see all we have and all we’ve accomplished and they just assume we’re satisfied and successful and content and of course happy and we’ll feel like we’re spoiled.

But this disconnect between our achievements and our happiness stems from the simple fact that all of what we did accomplish wasn’t what we truly, deep down, sincerely wanted to accomplish.

And to make it even worse, we feel we’re getting older and we feel that we’re too entrenched in our role as an attorney and we feel that we have no way out and we feel that we’ll never do what we really want to do.

But luckily there is a way. And it begins with your attitude.

It doesn’t necessarily begin with being positive. It doesn’t necessarily begin with visualizing what you want. It doesn’t necessarily begin with putting on a happy face or trying to leap and just do something else.

It begins with being grateful. With appreciating. With seeing what you have and what you are and liking it and being thankful for all of it. It begins with, in the face of everything that is getting you down, recognizing what it is you have that is great, that is beautiful, that is unique.

Of course there are the usual items to be thankful for: Your health, your family, your friends, that you can pay your bills, that you live in a great country.

But there are also more pertinent and on-point factors to be thankful for. First, you have made the conscious observation that you are unhappy. Many unhappy lawyers do not even go that far. They live in denial and do not have the courage to face that being a lawyer is not for them. You have admitted that you are unhappy being a lawyer. Be grateful for your introspection and honesty.

Second, realize that you have all of the energy and intellect and ambition to change your current situation. It is inside of you. You’ve passed the LSAT and Bar and finals and negotiated agreements and argued in court and helped clients and created a book of business. Be grateful for your drive and your inherent gifts.

Third, realize that there is a discernible structure and set of intuitive steps to help you leave the law. Babysteps, allowing your Unique Genius to inform your job choice, and networking to research jobs and also gain leads for opportunities. Be grateful that there is a blueprint.

And fourth, be thankful that you are not alone. You are not the only one thinking dark thoughts about the legal industry. You are part of a large and ever growing movement of lawyers who are looking to do something else. Be thankful for this community.

Maybe it’s time to scrap the plan we put in place. Maybe it’s time to scrap the plan we think others had in mind for us. Maybe it’s time to live up to the expectations we have for ourselves, and not up to the expectations we think others have had for us.

Maybe it’s time to be thankful that we have the courage and desire and fortitude to even think and feel this way.

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  1. And, also be aware of opportunities in the “outside world” that you never would have noticed while in your law office. The cloistured lifestyle of an attorney, combined with our daily interaction with mostly other attorneys, blinds to the rest of the world. Sure, we meet with clients who are, obviously, not attorneys, but they see us and communicate with us strictly in our capacity as attorneys. Once I left the law after 26 years of practice, I realized started to interact with people who weren’t attorneys or opposing counsel. This new world is filled with opportunities and people assume (mostly correctly) that our legal background will useful in seizing those opportunities. Unfortunately, we can’t begin to see these opportunities from our isolated offices or during interactions with just other attorneys. Starting with gratitude is exactly correct because it leads you on the path to seeing opportunities everywhere!!

    1. Jim

      Thank you so much for the comment. It’s a great point – many of us attorneys think all that there is to life is found in our small offices. But there is a whole world out there just waiting for our skills and strengths.


  2. I wanted to say that not all of us are unhappy after we’ve been given plenty of opportunities. I graduated immediately before the recession, and I have high student loans. I’m one of the attorneys who was unemployed during the recession, couldn’t pay my student loans and now can only find work that is not what I want or not what I can afford (think doc review and offers for $30K for top tier attorneys). Sometimes we can’t find the job with the great weekend trips and endless cash and retirement savings. Sometimes we get the scraps, which then prevents our mobility to move up. A seven year attorney who was unemployed during the recession for long periods of time is not partner ability and won’t be considered for entry level work. I think there are tens of thousands of this type of attorney out there who need the help and guidance. We don’t have a safety net (from previous large salaries), or a retirement account, or the freedom from suffocating student loans, all we have is a deep desire to change what we’ve ended up with.

  3. I am in the same boat as Jenn. My firm job is so wretched, but I can’t find a new one because of my seniority (and lack of business for the reason Jenn mentions). The student loans are the bane of my existence. The previously large salary disappeared. The money used to make my oppressive firm job tolerable. Having to do a worse firm job now with around half the salary makes it insufferable. It’s hard to see opportunities when I seem little qualified for other jobs.

  4. There is an epidemic of attorneys who can’t find any work and have massive loans. I am one of them, despite having done everything “right.” I feel there needs to be material on this blog that addresses those of us who fall in this category.

    1. Hi Barb

      Thank you very much for the comment, and I’ll be sure to work on this topic.

      What exactly is top of mind for you? Is it how best to find work? Which type of work, in the law or outside? And I think you make a great point, that we all thought we were doing what is “right” and alas, it hasn’t turned out exactly as we had hoped. There are a lot of emotions tied up in that.

      Thanks again!

  5. I’m with Barb and Jenn, and I would be willing to bet that a lot of people who run across your blog these days are just like us. A lot of us younger attorneys had our law school/graduation coincide with the tanking of the legal economy. We didn’t know the jobs were about to dry up when we signed up. We have not had an opportunity to develop a “normal” lawyer career or marketable skill set. Many of us couldn’t even find unpaid clerkships while in law school. We do document review projects or even take paralegal work just to earn some cash and stay on our feet. And that’s IF we can find those jobs. I know your blog was not based on this type of situation, but there is definitely a massive need for career change information that would apply to our unique circumstances. I can tell you that just stumbling across your blog and seeing that there are many others like me who are taking steps to get out made me feel a lot less alone and like I wasn’t making a completely unprecedented decision. Thanks for your dedication.

    1. I completely hear you. I am someone who “leapt” in 2004 and hope the net would appear 🙂 ! I’ve been in the same spot as you all, and there really isn’t much more anxiety producing than having to pay the bills.

      Thanks so much for the comment. I think the best career advice I can give is to, for a time being, not to focus on your career. The best job seeking advice I can give is, for the time being, to not focus on the job. I say this not because a job and career aren’t important, but because many of us focus on the job, the role, the title, the career, and we don’t do the “upstream” work around really identifying what we are good at, what our Unique Genius. I know this type of work doesn’t pay the bills right now, and it means a lot more work and personal exploration.

      But what this type of work does let us really hone in on what we’re good at. And if we focus on what we’re good at and what we enjoy, and then begin to find jobs that align with our skills, magic can happen. Takes a long time, but if I’m an example, it’s well worth it.

      Hope that helps.

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