In the interest of transparency, I want to be upfront and say that I am not an attorney and have never practiced law. I have never “walked a mile in your shoes.” However, as a Career Coach who spends time working with attorneys, it seems many struggle with the same issues and fight the same demons. What is it, as a profession, that makes it difficult for attorneys to transition out of or think about alternatives to their career?
Below are some thoughts I collected after several conversations with attorneys about a career change.
The proverbial “golden handcuffs.” Lawyers get paid a lot of money to work a lot of hours and be constantly on-demand. The money is incredibly attractive, but the constant hours are wearing and, for many, eventually soul-destroying. Even if you love the energy and excitement at first, it is very difficult for a body to sustain that level of stress for long periods of time.
Lawyers are taught to think “critically” and analyze every situation in a certain way. They are always looking for the small details that could turn into a big problem as they try to find ways to use the law to their clients’ advantage. This requires quite a bit of creativity. But the minutiae and details that lawyers deal with every day often makes it difficult for them to see the bigger picture, in both business and life. Without a broader perspective, it can be difficult to see life as a whole and what they actually need from it.
Lawyers are also taught the importance of extensive research, always having a source to back up your claim or legal thought. Lawyers think carefully about a problem and use precedent to back it up. Therefore, when it gets to the point where they are ready to do something different with their lives, they are not used to working without a precedent or model to follow. In a world where people increasingly use boiler-plate language rather than drafting from scratch, they have gotten unused to spontaneity and new ideas. It can be quite difficult to dream up a new way to do something or visualize a path not yet forged – particularly when this is to benefit themselves instead of their clients.
Lawyers like formalities. They love their paper, whether it be a certificate of formation, contract, will or code of statues. They often surround themselves with written pieces of paper that tell them where they stand. In addition, they have a fancy degree (on handsome paper) that states they are lawyers. It can be very hard to look beyond that piece of paper to see that, although you may be an excellent lawyer with the skills and aptitude necessary for the job, those skills and aptitude can be useful elsewhere. You may even have talents that you never had a chance to develop because they were not part of what was necessary to succeed at practicing law. Realizing that you are more than just your degree – more than just a lawyer – can help you develop sides of yourself you forgot or never knew existed?
Lawyers often become lawyers for the wrong reasons. They end up in law for reasons other than a true interest in the law and desire to become a legal professional. Often, their families encourage them to be lawyers. For families and, indeed, for themselves at the time, it seemed like a good, stable career. Or, people may have told them all of their entire life that they act and think like a lawyer and should be one. Or even more frequently, they didn’t know what else to do. Perhaps they studied history, English or something similar and did not know how to get a job with that degree, so they decided to become a lawyer. (Latin American Studies anyone?) Such a history can become a formidable obstacle for a lawyer looking to make a career change. If it does not work out, or has not made them happy and fulfilled, the idea of being back in a new position is paralyzing. The further possibility of getting it wrong again can be even more paralyzing. (The evil you know can seem better than the evil you do not know.) Plus, the training they receive in law school can be so thorough that they forgot they once had interests outside the law which they’re good at.
If any of these scenarios seem familiar, perhaps you need a clarity coach to help you determine where you want to take your next steps. Often, the objectivity that a qualified Career Coach brings to your search can help you understand and break down the personal and professional barriers to that Perfect Career move.
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