When working as a lawyer, I had a life of extremes – some days, I felt bored, underused and suffocated. Then it would get busy and the grinding hours of unstimulating work would wear me down. I actually wanted a life. I thought about quitting but didn’t have a clue what my next job could be. I eventually got some ideas and motivation but the uncertainty of moving away from what I knew made me anxious. I felt really stuck and I know how hard it is to change.
Many years on and having worked with unhappy lawyers for a few years, we’ve put together the escape plan which will transform their careers. This plan can work for you too once you’ve realised that you can’t go on like this. You might already be hunting for a new job, changing careers, or taking the leap to self-employment but you’re not making progress quickly enough. It’s for you if you’re anxiously contemplating career change or have already taken the leap and know exactly what I’m talking about. Through this article, you can know the steps for career change and the key career change competencies that accompany each stage, learn how to overcome external obstacles, connect authentically with the right people, and get the right job by translating your unique strengths and skills into the language of your new work place and develop your resilience in the face of changing work environments and demands.
First, take stock
Start with where you’re at right now. Take a Job History Inventory. Write out all of the things you liked and didn’t like about each job so far. Once you’ve done this, take a look at your likes and dislikes as a whole and take note of the themes on both sides. Lawyers so often have become so distant from this – emotions are unnecessary baggage in crushing, high pressure environments.
Ask yourself the right questions to know whether a small rather than a big leap is what is required. What would change if I had more responsibility and direct client contact? Is this where I would get the best work life balance? What would change if the department was properly resourced with for example assistants? What would happen if I got credit for the work I do? What if I liked the people that I worked with?
Identify how you can change your workplace right now. Set, when possible, a timetable for finishing work and develop a strategy for meeting goals in the most efficient way. You need time and energy to devote to any changes that you want to make. Remind yourself what you really like about your job. Explore whether happiness seems possible in your job - if it is, commit to it.
Whilst most are still ready to leave even after this, it makes the current situation more bearable, brings into sharp relief why you want to leave and allows you to plan to leave on your own terms. Too many lawyers escape without a plan to find themselves back in another legal job they don’t like before they know it.
What turns you on at work
There are a whole host of career change books and exercises out there and you may have an answer to a lot of those questions already. The trick is to identify your uncertainties quickly, build on your self-awareness and not waste precious time getting side-tracked. It’s where professional support can really help. There’s a lot of waffle about passion and doing work you love. Try to identify moments when you’re immersed in something so pleasurable that time just disappears (the concept of flow). These stand as working decision criteria for you to assess any opportunity or idea that you come across.
You know you’re career change ready when identify and assess your:
- Career values, the things you really care about
- Explore your true career identity
- Knowledge and experience (eg Former roles)
- Aptitudes (eg. Strengths)
- Interests (eg. Ideas you have, subject matters)
- Physical factors (eg. Voice to fit a role)
- Personality (eg. Psychometrics)
- Circumstances (eg. Family, money)
- Preferred work environment (eg. Large team, fast-paced, long hours)
You also acknowledge the limitations in predicting what will make you happy and anticipate the future. There is strong scientific evidence to back up these insights, which are crucial to move forward successfully.
Know what’s holding you back
The mind set that most commonly sabotages lawyers in career change is the anxiety of walking away from their prestige, salary and all the training and dedication that has got them to where they are. Many lawyers just don’t know what they want or have a clear enough idea – the uncertainty causes too much anxiety. Attached to this is figuring out what we want or what other people have or want for us (e.g. “I should value X” or “A good person would value Y” “prestige really matters” or “My mother wants me to value Z”). Working these through with supportive friends or professionals one by one is crucial to be ready to live a life on your own terms.
Brainstorm, research, experiment and network
Now’s the time to get creative. There are many exercises and methods available to help you explore new ideas about the jobs you could do. Be expansive and non-judgmental - no pruning at this stage. A healthy number could be somewhere between 10 and 30 roles in particular industries that you can whittle down to a shortlist of one to three. Resources like Leaving Law are very helpful to see ideas to investigate further.
In order not to start too close to the bottom again, it’s important to have a realistic appraisal of the industries in which lawyers are most valued. Know how to land a job that makes the most of your legal background from a recruiter's' perspective. Target industries such as employment, IP and pharmaceuticals where there is more in-house demand. Try to move practice areas to where transactions are key and ideally where legal decision making is fundamental to its value like IP, sponsorship in media, entertainment etc.). This improves the chance of moving outside of law with the next move, perhaps taking on a secondary function alongside law.
Start by getting an overview by intelligent googling, using the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook (even though it’s US based) and other advice websites starting with Leaving Law. The professional association for the industry area can also be useful. Get more information on salaries for different jobs using the Occupational Employment Statistics site and try to whittle down the jobs to between 1-4 using your working decision criteria and work your ideas into specific job titles and industries you’re interested in. It’s now that we have to start doing new things, interacting with different people and reimagining what we could do amongst the various possibilities that are emerging. for detail.
Networking tends to throw up images of tedious small talk with strangers, grabbing as many business cards as possible and lots of hassle. So most assume it’s not for them. You don’t need to feel ‘fake’ - often those who seem like great networkers aren’t selling themselves but making genuine connections. There are just too many opportunities out there to miss out on through avoidance and anxiety. There are so many ways to do it, from events to social media, from cold calling to mining your existing network. Find what works for you and push yourself. Some are comfortable sending a ‘help me find a job’ email to their network whilst others are happy cold calling complete strangers.
One stage further than networking is actually doing to really find out whether you want to do something. Blog about the topic and ask to help those you’re networking with particular projects and, better still, identify opportunities where you could add value. Although it’s difficult, where possible complete work shadowing and volunteer as extracurricular activities so that you can participate to some extent. Think in terms of side projects and temporary assignments, not binding decisions. Show up fully and commit to everything you do in order to know whether it’s right for you, but delay commitment.
Putting it all together for decision time
There comes a natural point where you have read enough books, been to enough events and tried out different options. Building self awareness and experimenting together will inform your career vision - something that fits with who you are, that aligns with your values and you’re likely to be enthusiastic about over the long term.
You want to make a confident decision about your career; whether that is finding a job, moving into a portfolio career or starting your own business. You don’t want to look back and regret the things you’ve never tried because you were too scared or indecisive. The most common mistake people unhappy in their work make is not to do something different. On the other hand, we don’t want to take impetuous decisions that we regret further down the line. In the end, you’re looking to make the best possible decision you can with the information you have, to deal with the uncertainty.
You know you’re career change ready when you:
- Find a fresh way of looking at complex career decisions
- Analyse your current situation, ensure you’ve identified the right problem and clarify your ultimate objective
- Weigh factors appropriately, and make trade-offs without confusion or emotional distress
- Learn how to make good decisions with insufficient information
- Commit confidently to make positive changes in your life
Your strategy to get there
You’ve decided that you need a change, you’ve dusted off the CV and you’re now thinking about your next move. Yet there are many pitfalls for the poorly prepared job seeker. He or she who gets the job is not necessarily the one who can do that job best but the one who knows the most about how to get it. On the plus side, lawyers tend to interview well and it’s a matter of getting clear on what you want.
Some of the key things you can aim for are to:
- Tap into the community of supporters, mentors and colleagues who will take you to a new level
- Gain insight into your perceived limitations and negative automatic thoughts
- Devise a practical action plan to overcome them
- Understand the importance of branding yourself
- Learn how to present your best self without feeling inauthentic
- Build a personal brand online and know how to establish a personal website
- Practise telling a genuine story of where you’ve been, where you are now and where you’re going, always aligning it to your audience
Finally make sure you have the support you need in order to make this a success. It can start now and with a single action.
Martin is the Course Producer Life Productions where professionals in the legal industry can experience how to advance and change their career and learn from experts and industry professionals. He is running a live webinar and Q & A on this subject on June 16. Sign up for free here.
Martin studied law at Oxford University then practised as a criminal law barrister, until he decided to find a more satisfying career. He has since been Head of Delivering Happiness at one of the fastest growing companies in the UK and designed and delivered careers events for over 2000 people.
This article was originally published in Leaving Law, a website and company that helps lawyers to explore alternative career options and point them in the right direction.