I love hearing 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 Chris Keefer, a Leave Law Behind reader, and former Indiana based attorney lawyer who recently left the law and went back to school to pursue his dream of sports management. I think you’ll find some very actionable and motivating pieces of advice from Chris’ experience.
It all started the evening of October 31, 2014. After a week-long highly contentious jury trial with nearly every trick thrown at us, we anxiously awaited while deliberations took place. After the verdict was read in our favor, the excitement subsided much faster than it ever had before. I would have the weekend to recuperate, but would soon have to return to battling with partners for resources on other pending matters, to say nothing of the battles with opposing counsel in those matters. After nearly 16 years, the practice had become less and less about helping clients start and grow their businesses, and instead about helping them put opposition into submission. I was over it.
Prior to entering law school, I had been a tennis coach and teaching professional at local tennis clubs, and then during college served the men’s tennis team as its head racquet stringer and public address announcer. Sports were definitely something in my blood, whether through work or play. In fact, during law school I had even founded a sports and entertainment law student group (still going strong 17 years later), hoping to springboard into a career in sports agency.
Then it happened. I had received a nice offer from a larger local firm to practice transactional law, which paid nicely and made my family happy since I would be staying close. Rather than pursue dreams and goals of a position with a national sports agency outfit, I chickened out and took the less risky path. On my first day, I was told I was being moved to the litigation department (specifically to worker’s compensation practice) since another attorney had accepted a judicial position.
Within a year I realized I did not like what I was doing at all, and began actively pursuing other legal opportunities, as well as non-law sports opportunities. I was ultimately offered the head coaching position for a Division III collegiate women’s tennis team. I was also offered an in-house litigation position (with a nice salary) by a former insurance client around the same time. Wash, rinse, repeat . . . I chickened out, took the less risky path once again, and was back practicing law.
It seemed every couple years after that, I would begin losing interest in what I was doing, despite increasing positions and salaries, and despite more complex caseloads and responsibilities which should have satisfied any intellectual stimulation. But that wasn’t it. I was tired of being a lawyer, I just didn’t know it yet.
The one thing keeping me a lawyer
A couple weeks after that contentious trial I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was involved in another highly contentious litigation matter. It seemed the majority of my days were spent either talking clients off the ledge or in constant aggressive battles with opposing counsel. It had gotten to a point where it was difficult turning myself off after leaving the office, and my wife was noticing.
“Are you happy?” she asked. It was the first time in 16 years I had been asked that.
“No,” I responded.
“So why are you still doing this?”
“The money is good.”
I didn’t have a response. “That should tell you something,” my wife concluded.
The next morning I sat in the office, took a breath, and began searching online to see how others were coping with similar situations . . . since this couldn’t possibly have been the first time someone was considering leaving law. I then found Casey Berman’s site (leavelawbehind.com), and began reading stories and experiences. It was inspiring. I had believed that I was locked in for the long-haul as a litigator and would only have peace and retirement in 25 years. Not true! My analytical and business skill-sets actually opened up more doors than I could have imagined. I mentioned Casey’s site to my wife, and she smiled and suggested it was about time we search out a career coach.
Over the next few months I had several meetings with this career coach, who helped me realize how much sports meant and that it needed to be much more than just a hobby if we were going to be happy. We went over the past opportunities to pursue sports careers, and why I kept choosing not to pursue my true interests. She helped me step outside the comfort zone, and learn a little more about myself, and also helped me learn how to leverage my skill-sets toward this goal. We focused on the analytical and strategic aspects of my practice, coupled with the love of sports. We delved into the long-term satisfaction of helping businesses grow, as opposed to the fleeting satisfaction of “beating” the other side. More personally, we came to the realization that I was just too happy a person to be a lawyer any longer.
By the end of our meetings, we knew two things: (1) we had to leave law; and (2) we wanted to pursue a career in sports. There was a ton of anxiety, however, as we did not want to start over professionally. This was where time and effort spent in selecting the appropriate program was key. We did not want to give up the business, product, and law backgrounds, but rather wanted to leverage them into a career in the sports arena. As providence would have it, the University of Oregon opened the world’s first sports product management masters program within a couple weeks of my last meeting with the career coach, and was taking applications for its inaugural program beginning August 2015.
Doing the hard work
We applied, were accepted, and then prayed for strength to endure the grind of being separated from each other for a year while my wife stayed in Indiana with our boys all in school . . . and me in Oregon also in school! That separation has been the most emotionally difficult test of our decision, and we have made it with flying colors. Fortunately, we had saved substantially over the prior couple years, and with the support of family put ourselves in a position to be able to fund program tuition and living in Portland (where the UO program is located), as well as school and other expenses back in Indiana. Our respective families had many questions at first, but after we explained the months of planning and evaluation, they recognized our decision was not made in haste and was ultimately the right decision for us.
We still do not have 100% support from some of our family members, who largely claim we are risking too much by leaving the financial security of practicing law. We had already put the financial aspect aside early on in the process, instead focusing more on long-term job satisfaction and happiness of our family. We know we made the right decision and simply cannot worry about those who do not agree. After all, as John Lydgate said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” With 25 years of work still in front of us, it was time to “do you.” It is telling that after a year back in school, we laugh about how happy we are to have left the practice.
Chris Keefer is a Candidate, Masters of Science in Sports Product Management at the University of Oregon, Charles H. Lundquist College of Business.