I receive a steady stream of disaffected lawyers who want to change careers. They come to me for “the answer.”
The question is “how do I get out of law and do something different?”
What gets under my skin is the expectation this is going to be easy. It isn’t.
Remaining in law and looking for something better poses challenges. You realize by now you can’t call a headhunter and go to a “lifestyle firm” – they only exist in the imaginations of fee-hungry “staffing professionals.” Hyphenated jobs, like “environmental-law” or “entertainment-law” are misnomers. Choose anything fun and attach the word “law” to it – “food-law,” “sex-law” – and it’s still law. More realistic “remain-in-law” solutions, like an in-house position or a government job, are hard to find because everyone’s thought of them. You can get there with sufficient determination – but it’s tough and I can’t make it not-tough. No one can.
Getting out of law completely poses a new level of challenge – you have to figure out what you truly want to do with your life. I am indeed wise and all-knowing, but I cannot tell you what your purpose is on Earth. This is your journey – and you have to find your own destination. The process isn’t like opting for a legal career, where you hop on a train and go where they take you. I cannot talk to you for an hour and concoct some sensible, well-paying, fun, creative job, with status and money, that will make your heart sing and all your problems go away. Remember the last time someone promised that? Look where it got you.
I’m skeptical of “career coaches” and “out-placement counselors,” too. They can help you learn to interview and hone your networking skills – which is useful as you explore options. But you can Myers-Briggs yourself into a coma and still not know your true work. The task is tougher than getting “coached” or “aptitude tested.” There is no easy answer. It requires time, and a good deal of soul-searching.
You might need to flounder. That’s what people who aren’t “K through JD” do during their 20’s. As an adult child of the law, you may flounder a little later in the game than everyone else. But if you need to flounder and find yourself, don’t pretend it’s anything other than that. Saying you’ve “decided to write” doesn’t fool anyone. Taking classes in something creative might be a step on a path forward, but it’s only a step. Getting fed up with being a lawyer, and telling everyone you’re “writing” is like wandering around a cocktail party after you graduate from college telling people you’re working on a novel. Everyone will roll their eyes, and for good reason. They’ll assume you’re floundering – trying to find a new path. They may or may not respect your struggle, but they’ll know you have a ways to go before you can claim a hard-won title of respect, like “writer.”
Here’s my best advice for what to do if you’re a lawyer, hate it and want to do something else:
Probably, you hate it because it isn’t taking you anyplace you want to go. And probably, you’re terrified of giving up the money.
Pulling the plug on law money is scary. Especially with loans. It can get like crack – you keep promising yourself you’ll quit, and then another week goes past, and another. But you know if law is killing you – and if it is, you have no choice: You have to leave. Plenty of lawyers secretly hope to be laid off, just to get it over with.
Once you’re off the crack, your primary mission is to figure out who you are. Your authentic identity will pull you to your true work like a lodestone. Meaningful work doesn’t just earn money – it expresses your soul.
First – talk to everyone you know, and some people you don’t know, about what they do for a living. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find out how they occupy every day, if they like it, and how they got there. Ask to talk to their colleagues, too. (Yes, this is called networking. It’s also called getting to know the world around you – the world outside a law firm.)
Second – make a list of people whose job you wish you had.
Third – do what they did – or whatever it takes – to get a job like theirs.
You might not make it all the way to where they got, but you’ll have fun trying.
Be prepared to encounter two new phenomena along the way: poverty and humiliation. Don’t worry, they’re not that bad, and it’s worth it.
People ask me how I stopped being an unhappy associate at Sullivan & Cromwell and transformed miraculously into The People’s Therapist.
It took ten years of humiliation, (relative) poverty, hard work and groping in the dark. I stumbled on talents by taking new risks. It wasn’t easy. There was a fair amount of crab-walking – not taking a direct path, but stepping in a direction that seemed closer to what I wanted, then turning and doing it again, and again. It’s indirect, but it gets you where you’re going when you’re not entirely sure where that is.
Believe me, when I say I’ve been there, I don’t just mean the hell of biglaw – I mean the struggle to get out of biglaw, which was tougher.
Getting the job you truly want – and are good at – requires inspiration, ambition and wanting it more than anything. There’s going to be profound, soulful work involved in this process. You will have to listen to your heart, follow it where it takes you, and be who you actually are. This will be the hardest and most satisfying thing you ever did.
That’s “the answer.” Or the best answer I’ve got right now.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)