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The Fourth Step in Leaving Law Behind – Facing Your Fears

Ed. note: This is another installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, in the fourth of five related articles, Casey Berman, founder of Leave Law Behind, a blog and community that focuses on helping unhappy attorneys leave the law, discusses the fourth step attorneys can take to leave the law. (The first article can be found at The First Step in Leaving Law Behind – It’s the Money, Stupid. The second article can be found at The Second Step in Leaving Law Behind – Cut Your Losses. The third article can be found at The Third Step in Leaving Law Behind – Do What You Are Good At.)

As we discussed in the first three articles of this series, through Leave Law Behind, I work with many intelligent attorneys who nonetheless are unhappy and want to leave the law behind and do something else. They want to change their life and their work and their focus with the goal to be more satisfied, more confident and happier.

I tell them the first step in leaving the law behind involves getting a handle on their money situation; to become as confident and exact as possible in understanding (i) their expenses, as well as any (ii) safety net and other sources of financial support they can call upon if needed.

The second step in leaving law behind is about not letting your past undermine your future. More specifically, this step involves resolving any lingering demons law school may hold over your head (squeezing out more of a ROI from my law school “investment”, ensuring my identity is tied to being an attorney, what else would I do if I’m not a lawyer, etc.) that prevents you from moving forward with positive change in your life.

The third step in leaving law behind involves focusing on exploring your Unique Genius. Your Unique Genius is made up of those skills and strengths that come so naturally to you, so effortlessly to you, that you don’t even think of them as a skill. It is upon these skills that you do so well that you will begin to base your post-lawyer life and career. It is with these strengths at which you excel that you will begin to create a life of confidence and self-worth.

The fourth step? Facing your fears. You can plan as much as you’d like, disconnect from law school and be as self-analytical as you want. But nothing will happen, you will never be able to create a new life for yourself unless you face down and begin to manage your fears of change and of leaving the law. This is a life-long process, of course, but as with anything, there are small, incremental steps you can take now to build up the courage, emotion and structure to face your fears and begin to leave law behind.

What are some of these fears that prevent us from creating change and leaving law behind? There are many:

1. I’m afraid that if I leave the law, I’ll be different than all of my attorney friends
2. I’m afraid I won’t be able to make as much money as I make now
3. I’m afraid that I cannot do anything different than the practice of law
4. I’m afraid I won’t be able to convince someone else to hire me
5. I’m afraid to tell my firm I want to leave
6. I’m afraid that I will fail
7. I’m afraid to take a risk
8. I’m afraid everyone will laugh at me
9. I’m afraid I’ll get my bar license stripped away
10. I’m afraid I won’t be able to say I’m really a lawyer anymore
11. I’m afraid I’ll have to find a new identity
12. I’m afraid it’ll takes a long time
13. I’m afraid I’ll have to face some difficult facts about myself
14. I’m afraid it won’t be easy
15. I’m afraid I will be ridiculed and doubted
16. I’m afraid I will make mistakes

And there are likely many more we could think of.

Now let’s be honest – I’m not sure you can ever get over many of your fears. A lot of the anxiety from these fears remains in our lives, or comes back to mess with us throughout a given week, or arises when stimulated by something, or is just something we will always have to deal with.

But some of these fears you can wrestle down and get over. And those fears that you can’t totally eliminate, you can at least manage them so they do not utterly prevent you from making change, and leaving law behind.

Here are nine steps and insights to get you started:

1. All of these fears are in, and come from, your own head. As Robert Brault said, “Ever wonder what crime you committed that you are confined to a small enclosure above your sinuses, under permanent skull arrest?” Unfortunately, you’re stuck with your head. But fortunately, you can now isolate the source of much of the insecurity.

2. And the cause of this anxiety is your “demon voice.” It’s this voice that feeds doubt, that takes shots at our self-confidence, that limits our growth. I’m not sure if this demon voice can ever be completely eradicated. And to make matters worse, it often sneaks up on us, and brings us down without any warning, confusing us and ruining our day or week. But it can be ignored and dealt with and minimized. Realize that what is actually bringing you down is just this little demon voice, and not anything endemic to you personally. It’s the voice, not you.

3. You have at your disposal the power of the baby step. While they take a while, and they are not sexy or glamorous and they may be boring to complete and they require patience and immediate results are hard to come by, the best way to chip at the fears blocking your path to leaving the law is to use the strength of the Baby Step.

By their nature, baby steps are easy to begin and fairly straightforward to complete. They can be fun. They build confidence. They let us dip our toe in, they let us warm-up, they let us proceed at a good pace. They can be fun, preparatory, and motivating, and will help position you to leave the law, all the while slowly mitigating the noxious effects of your fears. [For some easy baby steps to leave the law behind that you can begin right now, click here.]

4. What makes us afraid … makes other (non-attorneys) envious. So many attorneys feel that their skills can only be used to practice the law. The skills that we see as pigeonholing us from doing anything else, much of the rest of the world sees as great strengths.

We lawyers actually have many transferrable skills to other industries. When you think about what many good lawyers do (issue spot, solve problems, calm clients, meet deadlines, write persuasive material, upsell services, build morale, retain close customer contact, lead teams, distill complicated terms into simple language, help people …) which company/tech-firm/government department wouldn’t want someone who could do all of that, while being smart, disciplined and loyal?

A great way to get over our fear of the risk, embarrassment and lack-of-comfort-level that stands in our way from leaving law behind is to realize in no uncertain terms that you (yes, you, disgruntled, unhappy, dissatisfied, unmoored attorney) are kind of a bad-ass. And you have skills that are in demand.

5. Your identity may be dying for a change. A major obstacle to leaving the law is the (perceived) need to retain our identity as a lawyer. We often feel that we’ve worked so hard to be recognized as an attorney, we’ve worked so hard for our book of business, we’ve worked so hard to build our resume, that to leave the law would be akin to throwing our sense of self (and all the hard work that went into building it) down the drain.

And while it may not make sense to turn 180 degrees on a dime, repositioning who you are, and possibly calling yourself something else (a consultant, an advisor, an entrepreneur, a teacher, a volunteer, a Linchpin) in addition to an attorney may open up so many other opportunities.

And it also opens up the possibility to meeting so many other types of people who are (gasp) not attorneys. We lawyers can be very insular, and only hang out with our own kind. Repositioning your identity also helps reposition your network. And when you meet new people, you encounter new opportunities. And when you encounter new opportunities, you can possibly find a professional channel that aligns very well with your Unique Genius. And when you begin exploring a professional channel that aligns very well with your strengths and what you are good at and what you enjoy, you are on a solid path to fulfilling work. [Yes, that’s how it works]

6. You will fail and make mistakes. At first glance, that is horrible. We lawyers are trained and designed to root out and anticipate any miscalculations or errors. It would seem counterintuitive that failure would help us overcome our fears of leaving the law behind.

But it does. Because after you fail, you begin to succeed.

Or in other words, if you avoid the prospect of failure, you keep doing what you are doing.

If you act in small yet courageous ways that could lead to failure (beginning a blog, networking to explore new opportunities, doing research on new industries, starting a small gig on the side, volunteering), you have begun to set yourself up for success. While it may be scary to venture into areas that push your comfort level, if you work with, rely on and emphasize your strengths and skills, you are creating the energy and opportunities that will build your confidence, create connections, and one day lead to new prospects.

7. Realize that you are not alone. As you explore leaving the law, you will suffer the doubts of many others. People you normally trust and rely on may rain on your parade, or emphasize the negative or tell you things you don’t want to hear. They may feel they are being “realistic”. Or the just may not be supportive at all. Or they may just be speaking from their own insecurity and just out of worry for you.

But that’s okay, because there is a like-minded community out there of attorneys just like you (many over at Leave Law Behind!) and we are all willing to help, collaborate and share ideas. The doubters help us overcome our fears because they force us to find others who share our goals and ideals and aspirations.

8. You will think you have no idea what you are doing. Which can be so unsettling . . . but on the flip side of that anxiety comes a long lasting burst of exhilaration. When was the last time you felt so free and excitable and nervous and vulnerable and ripe-for-change and reinvent-able and inspired?

9. Say thank you. If leaving the law, and creating a new life full of potential and success and balance and satisfaction and ideals is what you may have in front of you, while it can still be overwhelming and tiring and unstructured, it often helps to realize that, in the grand scheme of things in the world in 2013, this is a great “problem” to have.

Fear of failure and embarrassment and risk and ridicule can stop us dead in our tracks before we can even get started leaving the law. The Fourth Step in leaving law behind is all about how courageous and creative and forceful we can be in showing these fears to the door. And as we do so, we can move to Step Five of leaving law behind: Getting out there. Getting out there to connect with many other people (in law and out) in order to build sincere connections of trust and help in order to explore, identify and capitalize on opportunities that will align with our skills and strengths.

Casey Berman (University of California, Hastings ’99), a strategic consultant, investment banker and former in-house counsel based in San Francisco, is also the founder of Leave Law Behind, a blog and community that focuses on helping unhappy attorneys leave the law.

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