Career Files, Lawyers

The First Step in Leaving Law Behind – It’s the Money, Stupid

Through Leave Law Behind, I work with many intelligent, driven, personable, resourceful, knowledgeable but nonetheless unhappy, dissatisfied, unmotivated, upset, and burnt out attorneys. They tell me that they want to leave the law behind and explore a completely new line of work. They tell me that they want to change their current practice of the law in order to enjoy their work more.

I tell them that there are five main steps to leaving the law. Five time-intensive-but-manageable, build-on-each-other-to-grow-your-confidence, incremental, rewarding (baby) steps one can take to leave the law behind for a fulfilling professional (and personal) life.

And the first step involves money.

Before polishing your resume, or looking at potential jobs, or interviewing with a recruiter, or doing anything else, the first step in properly leaving the law requires becoming as confident and exact as possible in understanding (i) your expenses and (ii) your safety net and other sources of financial support you can call upon if needed.

Why the initial focus on money? Because one of the main obstacles lawyers face in leaving law behind is a fear around money: A fear of the unknown, a fear of a lack of financial literacy, a fear of facing their bad spending habits, a fear of having the “money talk” with their spouse, a fear that they can’t make money in any way other than being an attorney, a fear that if they leave their job as an attorney they’ll soon be financially ruined.

By facing this fear from the outset, with detailed analysis and responsible planning, you can mitigate the anxiety that you’ll run out of money as you make this life change. You can gain the confidence that you can manage your expenses in a new role. You can find ways to create a safety net that you can call upon through your transition. You can begin to explore alternative careers and lifestyles without the extreme worry that you can’t pay your bills. And alternatively, if you do realize that your expenses are too high and your financial resources too low, you now have the information you need to recalibrate your financial situation in order to leave the law behind down the road.

The following eight suggestions provide a framework for you to gain clarity around your financial situation as you begin to leave law behind:

1. BS Test: Before diving into any dollars and cents . . . pause and thoroughly vet out what is causing you to want to leave your current job and the law behind. Leaving the law is a serious (and exciting) decision. Make sure it’s sincere, justified and in alignment with your priorities . . . and not for the wrong reason (egos, misunderstandings, lack of communication with co-workers, etc.)

2. Sabbatical/part time work: A major tenet of leaving law behind is to let your current job pay your bills as you explore leaving it. But many attorneys just hate their job, and feel they need to leave now. If that’s the case, consider first exploring all possible alternatives at your firm that may be more tolerable, in order to preserve some monthly income at least for the time being. Consider a half-paid sabbatical. Approach the partners about an alternative work schedule. Ask to focus on work more to your choosing and skill set. Of course you may be thinking that your ideas will be shot down immediately or reflect poorly upon you, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.

3. Calculate your monthly cash burn rate: If you sincerely feel that leaving the law is the best solution for you, then the next step requires you to accurately determine just how much you (and your dependents) spend, by month and by year. While you may think you know this figure, an analysis is likely required. First, tally your month-by-month spending (including, of course, student loans) on a spreadsheet for the past two years. This will provide a good idea of the constants and any variations. Second, calculate the average monthly spend of these past two years to get a good idea of your typical monthly expenses. Third, take the average expenses of the four highest months (over this two year period) and multiply this average by one to two years. This is the baseline expense number for you to work with moving forward.

4. Safety net: Now that you have a solid idea of your expenses, the next step is to accurately determine how much you currently have as a safety net. This may include cash, securities, any lines of credit or other sources of readily available cash you could pull on if needed. Leaving the law is predicated on solid planning, and you need to be careful with your safety net monies. They are to be used only where needed to responsibly “invest in yourself” and support transitioning away from law, temporarily subsidizing monthly income, and to provide confidence that you can leave the law and pay your bills.

Alternatively, if you come to the conclusion that you have little or no safety net, then it may prove beneficial to stay at your job for another year or two and sock away money (all the while developing the rest of your blueprint to leave the law behind).

5. Family: The next three steps focus on trying to gain more money to supplement the above safety net. Before you completely dismiss borrowing money from mom, dad or your brother, explore whether your family can be counted on for some “back up” financial support. Maybe they can promise to provide a loan or some form of “start up capital” to allow you to transition from your job with the peace of mind that your finances are settled. This loan need not be for hundreds of thousands of dollars or indefinitely indenture you to your parents. Rather, look to your family as a resource to plug any gaps for a short period of time as you begin to find new opportunities.

6. Your spouse: Similarly, if you have not done so before, you likely should sit down and talk candidly with your spouse about your desire to leave the law and your collective thoughts about money. This is very important, can be very emotional and may take a few attempts and some time to complete. The goal here is to ensure that you and your spouse are very clear on your individual, as well as joint, money situation, and whether your personal transition can rely on any financial support from your joint and/or spouse’s income or reserves.

7. Passive income: Don’t forget, are there any passive income streams, from dividends, interest payments or other sources that you may not be considering?

8. A lower paying job: With a handle on your monthly expense figure and a very good idea of how much money you have in savings and/or can call upon or borrow, you can now more confidently assess whether you need to stay put in your current job in order to sock away money, or whether you are financially prepared to properly begin the transition away from the law.

Many who explore leaving the law behind do so while they currently have a job. However, if your current job position is too untenable for you to remain, then taking contract legal work (i.e. document review or project based legal work) can help bridge the gap from leaving your job to finding a new position or creating a new role for yourself (within law or in a completely different industry). While the paycheck may be less and the work somewhat monotonous, your safety net can help to temporarily cover a portion of your monthly expenses. This new role often can provide you a fresh environment and a flexible schedule to start anew and source out opportunities.

It can be easy to quit your job. But it is often more difficult to plan to leave your job. As a first step in leaving law behind, dig into the details of your money situation, sock away cash and consider a bridge or transition step. Once you feel good about your financial situation and what you can (and cannot) realistically do, we can then move to Step Two of leaving law behind: Getting over law school and breaking free from one’s need to identify as a lawyer . . . at all costs.

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