No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.
These are the (seemingly) wise words of Linus van Pelt, best friend of Charlie Brown, discussing his approach to facing his fears and problems. An approach in name only, since Linus actually did not want to face his issues head on, but rather chose to avoid them.
We are in a pandemic: working from our kitchen tables and couches, worried about the unknown, our worlds having been thrown upside down. While it can be frightening, the silver lining during this time provides you with an opportunity to pause, reflect, and look inward on your career as an attorney to determine how you can create and live your ideal professional and personal life moving forward.
Unfortunately, I see too many unhappy lawyers adopting Linus’ credo when it comes to their career planning. This looking inward and career planning sounds great in theory, but the work required appears difficult to achieve in actuality. So it’s not surprising that these attorneys, who should consider leaving the law to find an “alternative” role in which they can thrive,instead choose to remain in a lawyer job they don’t like – it’s the easier path right now. It’s an escape from making any hard decisions.
And wanting an escape is totally understandable in the world we live in right now. You may just feel grateful to have a lawyer job so you can pay your bills, even if you hate the work. You may feel in surreal shock that the world could have been shut down as quickly as it did. You may be severely hurting, either from the virus, from being let go or furloughed, or from overall heightened stress.
I understand wanting easy right now. But when it comes to your career planning, while sticking with the status quo is easier in the short term, it’s more painful in the long term.
Zig when others zag
I’m going to push you in this article to see this as a time to not only survive, but also to thrive. I know that sounds crazy, maybe even counter intuitive, but now can be the time for you to learn, develop, grow – not just sit still or to remain numb. I want you to use this time to really unpack whether being a lawyer is right for you, and whether you should consider transitioning to an “alternative” job out of the law.
I want your career growth to be top of mind for you right now. And to help you do that, I’ve surfaced below three very important questions for you to answer. Three important questions that won’t take you much time to answer. Three important questions that can help you (a) take stock of what you’ve learned over the past four lockdown months and (b) begin to look ahead and plan how you’d like your career to grow in the most ideal way for you.
What do you have to lose? If you realize after reading this article that you hate being a lawyer, there are many resources to help you. And if you realize after reading this article that you love being a lawyer, then you’re refreshed and revitalized to show up to work tomorrow.
Let’s dive in.
Question #1: How well do you like your lawyer job?
I want you to begin with scoring how well you like your lawyer job. Instead of saying “I kinda like being a lawyer” or “I hate it” or “It’s okay,” I want you to actually quantify it. Give it a number. To do this, answer the following question for me:
On a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is “I hate being a lawyer, it’s not the career for me” and 10 is “I love being a lawyer, it’s the best career for me,” please score and write down how well you like being an attorney as your career choice.
You can define “like” however you want, but to give you some thought starters, liking your attorney job can mean
- Doing work you’re good at
- Doing work your skills and strengths align with
- Doing work in which you feel confident
- Doing work that brings you joy
- Doing work that comes naturally to you
- Doing work that causes you to find your “zone” and lose track of time
Now look at the number you wrote down. What does this number tell you?
Let me take a stab for you. If you gave a score of less than 7, you do not truly like what you do day-to-day as an attorney. Think about that for a moment. You spend 40 to 50 hours a week, if not more, doing work as an attorney and you do not like it. You do your work as an attorney for the salary, to pay your bills, to support your family, to make sure you don’t disappoint people in your life, to keep the stature of being an attorney, to make sure the sweat and tears you poured into law school and your career hasn’t been in vain, or just because being a lawyer is the “devil you know.”
But you do not go day-in and day-out to your work as an attorney because you like the work.
This doesn’t mean that you need to quit your lawyer job right now.
But it does beg the question that if you’re spending 8 to 10 to 12 hours a day doing something you are not aligned with and that you may feel you don’t do well, Why keep doing this? Why keep doing this lawyer job if it doesn’t energize and motivate and inspire you? Why keep doing this job if it depletes you, scares you, and demotivates you?
The first answer may be some variation of “Because I have to.” But that doesn’t sound like something you like to do. That doesn’t sound empowering. . And notwithstanding all of the Puritan ethics we’ve been taught (programmed) in life (“No pain no gain,” “Save for a rainy day,” “Rome wasn’t built in a day”), our life is really meant to be one in which we learn, grow, and feel joy (as the satirist HL Mencken wrote, “Puritanism. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”)
So, that’s it. The point of this question and scoring exercise is to just recognize, to be honest with yourself, to be made aware of whether you like your lawyer job, or whether you don’t. The result of this score might seem dark for you, or disappointing, or fearful. But that’s the point. I want you to face your fear now, so you can move past it. As Yoda said, “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
I don’t want you to suffer any longer. I want you to feel ease and joy.
Question #2: How much meaning do you gain from your lawyer job?
The second question for you to answer is:
“Thinking back on the work you did this past week as an attorney, in what percentage of the work would you say you honestly found meaning?”
“Meaning” can also lend itself to multiple definitions. Below are some thought starters to help:
- Work that aligns with a cause you believe in
- Work that considerably helps an individual or group of people
- Work that leads you to sincerely feel you make a positive difference in the world
What percent did you put down?
If you find meaning in less than half of your work, that score tells me that if you care about your time here on earth, then you are in the wrong job as an attorney.
And meaning is not just the domain of monks in long robes on mountain tops. Sales people find meaning in making their customers better. Account managers find meaning in assisting their clients. Content marketers find meaning in nurturing authentic and positive relationships with their audience. Chief Operating Officers find meaning in ensuring their organization runs seamlessly. Strategy consultants find meaning in helping their clients drive clear planning and decision making. Non-profit executives find meaning in increasing the grants they receive year over year in order to help more people.
I could go on and on. Again, you don’t have to quit your lawyer job tomorrow, but I do encourage you to consider how and where you can find meaning. Meaning is out there for you.
This builds on Question #1 above. When you can couple liking your job and finding meaning in your job, you find the equation for career satisfaction.
When you have meaning in your life, there is nothing to be afraid of. Because, conversely, when you don’t have meaning in life, that’s when things feel hopeless. All struggles, revolutions, temper tantrums, and social movements, big or small, are all about one thing: The desire to move from hopelessness to hopefulness. When you’re hopeful, you see the possibility in life.
I know, I know, if you don’t gain meaning from your job as a lawyer, sure, you can theoretically find meaning elsewhere, like in your hobbies. But that could feel like you’re just squeezing in some “meaning” on Saturdays. Wouldn’t it be great to find meaning in your work throughout the week too?
I don’t want you to be hopeless. I want fulfillment for you.
Question #3 What have you learned from the past 4 months?
The past few months have been unlike any we’ve experienced in our lives. And it’s this time that informs your next question:
”Since you may be returning to the office in the coming months or by the end of the year, what has been the most telling thing you’ve learned from your recent shelter in place/work from home experience?”
To help you further unpack this specifically for your lawyer job, here are some other thought starters that can help:
- What myths about working from home were reinforced for you, or alternatively, proved untrue?
- What have you learned about other “alternative” careers or jobs out of the law?
- What have you learned from the legal industry shedding ~64,000 jobs?
- How did your firm or office treat you during this time?
There are three main reasons why I want you to answer this question.
First off, many lawyers who want to leave the law but nonetheless remain stuck as an attorney do so because they choose to continue believing in limiting ideas that hold them back.
For example, working from home might have been something that you thought you couldn’t do, or your firm looked down upon. But now “working from anywhere” is becoming the new norm. Companies across industries, from Twitter to Credit Suisse, are moving huge swaths of their workforce to “work from anywhere.” Each of these companies understand that not only did remote work not bring their business to its knees, but it actually increased productivity and improved morale.
Second, many unhappy lawyers who don’t leave the law can feel an often unwarranted obligation to continue working for the firm.
So I want to ask you, how have your firm or bosses treated you during this time? Were they empathic? Did they let you work flexible hours and spend time with your family? Or did they overly push you and pay no attention to these unique times?
As MLK said, the ultimate measure of a person is not where he or she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he or she stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Where does your firm stand? Do they view you as a person and help you in this time of need? Or did they just view you as a cog in a wheel to continue producing and producing? Which type of organization do you want to continue with?
And third, the legal industry lost over 60,000 jobs in April. While some job hiring has clawed back, there is still so much uncertainty in this space. If you tolerate or really hate being an attorney, and the industry just lost 5% of its workforce, now can be a great time to consider leaving the law.
This pandemic has only accelerated many changes that were bound to happen: The demise of brick and mortar retail, the collapse of movie theaters, the increase in automation in manufacturing, the growth of food on demand. What weaknesses about the legal industry will now come to fruition quicker?
So, how did you score? I hope you see these numbers not as a test, but rather as a window into your soul. I know that is touchy-feely, woo-woo talk for left-brained, logical attorneys. But please know that these numbers are not just scores.
They are the messages by which your true, inner self tugs on your sleeve, asking you to give it a moment and hear it out.
These are signs your true, inner self sends your way to comfort you that there is another way to build a career beyond just being a miserable lawyer.
This is the evidence your true, inner self presents to you so that you can make a choice and find a new career out of the law.
As Charlie Brown points out “In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back.” They’re inside of you. Listen.
This article was originally published on Above the Law on August 14, 2020.
And I’ve written an in-depth article to help you land your dream “alternative” career out of the law, click here to read more.