The five fears preventing you from leaving the law

 August 8, 2012

By  Casey Berman

[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 bridgeâ€.  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, and stops them from taking action to leave a job or the career that might be making them unhappy.

The I-have-nothing-else-to-offer fear.  The corollary fear to this one, or the subtext fear, is that you have nothing else to offer the world apart from being the lawyer you are right now.  Several years ago, a message a senior BigLaw associate left on the voicemail of one of his lawyer counterparties went viral.   In essence, it said that all BigLaw lawyers were monkey scribes and to stop acting any different.   That message was the personification of this fear.  All you have to offer, all you can do, is lawyering – and it ain’t even all that, so what can you offer any other type of employer?

The fear that you cannot make money anywhere else.  Similar to the two above, and maybe not a separate fear but a shade of both, is the fear that you can’t make money (and I know for some, the subtext on this is “real†money) doing anything else.  I had a major partner in a finance practice tell me this last summer at a wedding.  It’s kind of staggering to think that this gentleman could give advice to major hedge funds, the most powerful banks on Wall Street, and sundry other big swinging (ahem) clients and execute their multi-million or billion dollar transactions, and could not see that there was any possibility for himself to have any other role in life to make as much as he currently did.

The zero-sum-game fear.  A client’s experience reminded me why I had this next fear on the list: if you share knowledge or collaborate, you will lose any value you have.  I was always so confused when I was a baby lawyer as to why certain senior associates would give me dribs and drabs to just get me through one piece of a transaction, until I realized that they felt they had to hoard what they had learned to be retained and get more work.  In essence, this fear says that the experiences and knowledge gained are your only asset to where you work.  Besides being grossly inefficient and resulting in not-great client service, this fear when acted upon plays against many lawyers’ longer-term career interests as you need to build good teams and partnerships to advance, which knowledge hoarding often precludes.  It also stops many lawyers from contemplating anything else, as it reinforces the above-named fear that you have nothing else to offer besides this direct knowledge and experience and how can you possibly parlay that into any other type of work?

The fear of not being useful.  Finally, a last fear that many lawyers have that definitely also keeps them stuck if they are unhappy being lawyers – you do not really help anyone or have a useful place in the world.  Strangely, this keeps lawyers stuck being lawyers, as it destroys any confidence you have in yourself that you have other talents to offer the world (notice a trend?).  Thus you are stuck doing the same job but becoming increasingly miserable with less and less self-confidence.

How can we lessen the grip these fears have on taking any type of action, including seeking a new profession?  Try to see if you can put the fear in perspective by hearing others’ fears and understanding that they are fears, not truths.  When I started my own figuring out process, my coach had my group write down all of our fears around transition and job change.  We then had to share our top fear.  When I heard others’ deeply held fears that to me were not that bad or not serious, I realized that those were their “homeless under a bridge†type fears and that they were all just fears, not what would actually happen to us if we changed.  I could see then that my own fear was surmountable.

These fears are debilitating for many lawyers.  And underlying all of these is the core fear of so many people, not just lawyers – fear of failing, in big or small ways.  Unfortunately, the legal profession is one where failure is not ideal!  This reinforces to the susceptible that any failure is unacceptable.  Trying something new – even if it is trying something new at your current job – often carries the risk of failure.  But letting your fears prevent you from trying new things is its own sort of special, and tragic, failure.

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