(Note to non-lawyers: Although this post is about transitioning out of the legal profession, I suspect you’ll see many themes and ideas in it that bring clarity to your own situation.)
As a former attorney, I know many lawyers. Some of them love what they do and have always wanted to do it. However, many others I know, although they practice in many different areas of law and their circumstances vary widely, have one thing in common: they’d rather not be attorneys.
As many attorneys will freely tell you, they’ve never harbored a burning passion for the law, and being an attorney was not their number-one career choice. Some have even advised their children against becoming lawyers. Drafting motions and agreements, reviewing documents and writing nasty letters to adversaries were never high on their list of childhood aspirations. Instead, they “fell into“ the legal profession. That is, rather than consciously choosing the law, they “ended up in it“ through inertia or indecision. (Vulnerable share: this is what I did.)
How did this happen? The reasons vary, but a few show up repeatedly. The one I hear most often from attorneys is that they didn’t know what to do at the end of their undergraduate education, and they decided to put off making a decision by going to law school. At the end of their legal education, many were saddled with debt, and the legal profession looked like the obvious way to pay it off. And so began their law careers.
Similarly, others came out of college or university knowing they wanted to do something high-paying and prestigious, but lacking a specific direction. All they knew was that they had some verbal facility and did well on the law boards, and that they weren’t comfortable with the risks that go with doing something more entrepreneurial. Law promised status and a high, steady income, and so they “ended up“ in it.
Talent Doesn’t Necessarily Equal Direction
Another common characteristic of many lawyers I know is that they’re bright and highly motivated people. How is it, then, that such people “fell into“ the legal profession, as opposed to choosing a career they were genuinely interested in and passionate about? Wouldn’t we expect such ambitious and talented individuals to take conscious control of their lives?
I’ve pondered this question for a long time, and discussed it with many current and former lawyers. What I’ve come to believe is that many attorneys “ended up“ in the legal profession, and remain there today, out of a sense of shame. Although they considered alternative careers that sounded more inspiring, they decided, for one reason or another, that they weren’t good enough, or that they didn’t deserve, to pursue their true calling. And the shame I’m talking about is also what’s keeping many attorneys from seriously considering a career transition.
My sense is that many lawyers’ decision (or non-decision) to “fall into“ the law, and their reluctance to try something new, are often rooted in beliefs they’ve harbored about themselves and the world since they were very young. In my experience coaching people — many of whom have been attorneys — through making transitions, becoming aware of the ideas that are driving our choices, in our careers and elsewhere, is the most important step toward creating change.
Based on the many conversations I’ve had with dissatisfied lawyers about the reasons they entered their career, and the reasons they may be having trouble making a transition, I’ve come up with a list of the most common limiting beliefs attorneys often hold about themselves. In this article, I’m going to describe, and take a critical look at, each of these.
If you’re an attorney interested in a career change, or you do something else but what I say here resonates with you, I invite you to examine these beliefs with me. See if taking a hard look at them helps remove some of the mental obstacles that may have been blocking you from pursuing your true calling.
1. I “owe“ it to others to be in a stable, high-paying profession. Despite what some nonlawyers say about the legal profession’s ethics, we attorneys tend to have highly developed, and frequently rigid, ideas of right and wrong. Our strong consciences help us zealously represent our clients, but they also tend to have us savagely criticize ourselves and hold ourselves to inflexible standards.
With this powerful conscience comes a sometimes overwhelming sense of obligation — to our parents, children, friends, and others. We believe we deeply “owe“ the people around us — so deeply that we actually have a duty to design our careers, relationships and other important aspects of our lives to serve their wants. Perhaps, for example, we owe it to our parents to take a career path they’ll be proud of, or at least one they won’t feel embarrassed by. Maybe we owe it to our families to enter a low-risk and high-paying career, to ensure that we’ll always provide them with enough. And so on.
If you’re a lawyer, and you recognize that you entered the law out of a sense of obligation to someone, I’m not going to try to insist or prove that you don’t owe anyone anything. I do think it would be useful, however, to try on another perspective for a moment. Consider the possibility that, if you dislike what you do for a living, others around you are feeling the impact of your dissatisfaction, whether you want them to or not.
This may be happening in obvious ways — perhaps you’re coming home to your family with a hair-trigger temper because of your dissatisfaction with your career, or you’re finding yourself too exhausted to spend any quality time with them. Or perhaps the impact is subtler — maybe there’s a distance between you and your family, or others in your life, that they feel but can’t quite explain.
Now, try on the idea that, when you do something you feel passionate about, the fulfillment you experience “rubs off“ on those around you as well. Your family and friends’ empathic sensibilities can pick up on your joy as well as your pain. In fact, you’ve probably noticed that the mood you’re in when you’ve had a great day at work can subtly uplift even strangers you pass on the street.
Perhaps your reaction to what I’ve said is that it would be impossible for you to support yourself, or your spouse or children, doing anything but law. If you hold this view, I invite you to simply take a hard look at it, and honestly ask yourself whether someone with your talent and motivation would really be unable to succeed doing anything else.
2. I don’t know what I want to do. A number of lawyers have come to me claiming they’re still doing law because they don’t know what they really want in their careers. Interestingly, however, I often find this isn’t actually true . What’s really going on is that they’ve learned to say they don’t know because they’re ashamed to admit their desires. They chose law because it was a “safe,“ conventional path no one would criticize them for taking.
One of my functions as a coach is to provide a nonjudgmental environment for people to discuss what they actually want in their lives. When I’m successful at assuring a client I won’t ridicule or shame them for telling me what they’re passionate about, they usually become willing to drop the “I don’t know“ facade and open up about what they truly desire. It just takes a little time before they can trust me enough to confide in me.
In providing this kind of environment, I’m helping them overcome the conditioning that had them “fall into“ their present careers. Many of us grew up being told that our dreams were selfish or silly, that we didn’t have the talent to do what we wanted, or that what we wanted didn’t matter. Not surprisingly, many of us adapted to this kind of situation by choosing never to talk about, or pursue, what we desired.
When we finally find someone — whether it’s a therapist or coach, or just a close friend — who will listen without judgment to what we really want, we often find our calling naturally revealing itself to us without effort. We discover, as I put it in my audio program, that “it’s okay to have wants.”
3. I have nothing special to contribute. Although some lawyers I’ve spoken to do know what they really want in their careers, they’re convinced that they can’t pursue their true calling because they have nothing unique or valuable to bring to the field that interests them. Several attorneys who’d prefer to be writers, for instance, have told me they abandoned the idea because “there are so many other writers out there.“ If they couldn’t make a unique contribution doing what they prefer, they concluded, they might as well do a job with decent pay.
One thing I often notice about people who tell me they have “nothing special to contribute” to some field is that they haven’t really tried. The attorneys who told me they’d rather be writers, for example, had never actually tried writing professionally (except, of course, for drafting agreements and legal papers). If this objection comes up for you, I’d recommend at least trying out what you want on a part-time basis, or recreationally, to get an idea of the quality of work you can actually produce. Better yet, commit to another person — whether it’s a coach, friend or family member — to explore your outside interests, and request that they hold you to that commitment.
But more importantly, really consider these questions: why does everything you do need to be unique and special? Why do you hold yourself to this standard? What do you fear would happen if you didn’t produce something groundbreaking in your work? Would people ridicule you, or get angry, or harm you in some way? Taking a serious look at these questions often loosens the grip this “need to be special” has on you.
I’ve worked with several people who felt reluctant to make a career transition because they doubted their ability to make a “unique contribution.” In almost every case, when they closely examine their belief that every piece of work they produce must be revolutionary and cutting-edge, they start taking it less seriously. If the need to “be special” is holding you back from pursuing your goals, I invite you to do the same kind of self-examination.
4. Marketing my goods or services would be sleazy. I’ve known a number of attorneys who were interested in doing something more entrepreneurial, ranging from starting their own businesses making quilts to selling financial products on commission. However, another common feature of lawyers’ mindset seems to be a disdain for selling things. To many attorneys, there is something crass, manipulative or pedestrian about promoting products or services. Here’s another vulnerable confession: I even felt a little anxiety as I was designing this site’s marketing, for the same reasons. “Oh, how low I’ve fallen,” I despaired for a moment. “I’m hawking my wares on the Internet.”
The number of legal restrictions on lawyer advertising that exist everywhere is a testament to this belief’s power. Similarly, I often hear lawyers belittling successful entrepreneurs, wondering how people with neither law degrees nor academic honors (or, like Bill Gates, not even college diplomas!) could make more money than most senior law firm partners. And don’t get attorneys started on celebrities who became millionaires simply by looking attractive, without ever drafting a single Motion for Summary Judgment or Preferred Stock Purchase Agreement.
Despite this prevailing attitude, I think most attorneys would acknowledge that it’s at least okay to truthfully market a service or product that’s actually of decent quality. If you think you can start your own business and create something worthwhile — and I suspect that someone with your talents and intelligence can do so — there’s nothing sleazy about telling people about it.
More importantly, if you find yourself limited by this attitude, consider this question: do you really believe self-promotion is shameful, or is that just something you tell yourself to excuse the choices you’ve made? If you abandoned your dream of entrepreneurship for law or some other more “stable” career path, it’s comforting to believe you did that to avoid manipulating others or demeaning yourself. But can you honestly accept that belief?
5. Everything will be okay when I’m wealthier. Some attorneys I know, although they’re unsatisfied with their careers right now, believe their quality of life will significantly improve once they start making more money. This is particularly true for associates at large law firms who believe they have a decent shot at “making partner” within a few years. The reasons lawyers hold this belief vary. Some, for instance, think more money will give them access to enough material rewards that they’ll become satisfied with their lives. Others plan to retire early, and spend the rest of their lives with their families financially free.
Unfortunately, in my experience, even when attorneys meet their financial goals, they find themselves saddled with the same sense of emptiness that plagued them when they started out. What’s more, money does little to heal the rifts in their personal relationships. In the end, no matter how much money they make, how many junior people they get to supervise, and how many important people they get to hobnob with, wealth and status simply don’t seem to “make everything okay.”
It took me a long time to finally acknowledge that no material reward can really fill the emptiness many of us — lawyers or otherwise — experience within ourselves. That this was hard for me to see is no surprise, since — as with many other attorneys — the reason I entered my legal career was ultimately to garner enough money and prestige to feel adequate. The only way we can come to terms with this emptiness, or sense of lack, is to be willing to silently sit with it and fully experience it, rather than running or trying to distract ourselves from it.
I offer several guided meditations for this purpose in my audio program, but just sitting alone in silence can help us get intimate with and ultimately transcend the feeling of inadequacy that may be nagging us in the background.