Above the Law

Someone asked me a great question the other day. “I’m having a hard time staying engaged at the office,” she explained. “I want to leave, but I’m not sure what to do next. How do I keep up the appearance that I’m still interested in practicing law while I figure out my next move?”

This in-between stage is hard in so many ways. It can be hard to force yourself to work on cases when you no longer care about the outcome. It can be hard to make yourself meet your billable hour minimum when you find the work dull and unrewarding. It can be hard to act happy, or at least not to growl at people, when you desperately want to do something else. Here are seven strategies for the summer of your discontent.

1. Budget time for your own career search. Figure out what time you can afford to spend on figuring out your next steps, whether that is an hour a day or a few hours a month. Then be accountable to yourself for that time. Put it on your calendar, even if you have to disguise it as an “appointment” in case other people have calendar access. Not sure where to start with those next steps? Start here. Or here.

2. Start thinking of your law job achievements as potential talking points for your next career, and your clients as potential references. Will you be able to show the parallels, for example, between your next victory in court and your general success in achieving certain outcomes? Will your clients be so pleased with the level of customer service they receive that they can speak well of you to future employers?

3. Connect with online sources of support for leaving the law, including (of course) this one. Reading about other people’s career changes can be inspiring. If you’re thinking of starting your own business, you may enjoy reading some of the profiles at The Story Exchange. iRelaunch also has great “success stories” of people who have relaunched their careers after taking time off.

4. If you don’t yet know what you want to do next, start researching people whose careers you may want to learn more about. If your law school offers alumni counseling – or if you are still in law school – ask whether the school keeps a database of the growing number of alumni who are in non-traditional legal jobs. Sharing a law school connection can be a great springboard toward an informational interview.

5. If you already know what you want to do next, but haven’t left yet, develop a specific benchmark for leaving. Will it be when you have set aside x dollars for your new business? Three weeks (or three hours) after you cash your next bonus check? After you finish the next closing? Give some thought to the turning point that makes the most sense for you. Waiting until you just can’t take it any more is not an advisable strategy for many, many reasons.

6. Be mindful that you are still an Officer of the Court, with an ethical obligation to your clients, etc., until the day you give notice (and maybe after that as well – would ethicists care to opine?). Nobody wants their legal career to end with disbarment.

7. On the most frustrating days, start (or continue) drafting your “goodbye cruel firm” departure letter. On your home computer. Never send it.

Readers, what helps you cope with the in-between stages of leaving the law?

Liz Brown is the author of Life After Law: Finding Work You Love With the J.D. You Have (affiliate link), to be published in September 2013 by Bibliomotion. Liz a former litigation partner at an international law firm. She graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and has practiced law in San Francisco, London, and Boston, advising senior executives at Fortune 500 companies on legal strategies and managing multi-million dollar cases from inception to successful resolution. She is the former Executive Director in Boston of Golden Seeds, one of the largest angel investor networks in the United States. She now teaches business law at Bentley University and is a frequent speaker on alternative law careers. She lives in Boston with her family, and can be reached at lizafterlaw@gmail.com.