Above the Law

As we discussed in the first article 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? Before getting one’s resume ready or applying for jobs or networking, the second step often involves getting over law school. Or in other words . . . cutting your losses. Or to be more blunt: Move on. Stop living in the past. Stop thinking you need to eke out more of a return on your law school investment. Focus on the road ahead.

One of the main factors that keeps us attorneys (unhappily) practicing the law is the simple fact that we went to law school. Because we went to and graduated from law school and studied for and passed the bar and applied to and became licensed by the state bar, we often feel that we need to keep practicing to justify all of this past effort and expense. Our thinking goes something like this:

1. I made that financial investment, and may still be paying off these loans, and I don’t want that investment to go for naught, so I’m going to continue practicing to justify those dollars spent (even if I’m not really that happy being a lawyer . . . )

2. I put a lot of time and effort and sweat and tears into getting through law school, and if I “quit” being a lawyer, I’ll have nothing to show for it (even if I’m not really that happy being a lawyer . . . )

3. Ever since I applied to law school (if not before) I have wanted to be an attorney, or so I thought. My identity is connected to being an attorney. My personal self-worth is intertwined with being an attorney. I cannot imagine calling myself anything else (even if I’m not really that happy being a lawyer . . . )

4. I actually kind of enjoyed law school. It was intellectually stimulating and I have some good memories of the place (even if I’m not really that happy being a lawyer . . . )

Many of us are not that happy being a lawyer. We do not get that sense of fulfillment from practicing law that we thought we would. We are realizing that our skills and strengths may not be in alignment with what it calls for to be an attorney. We may not be making the amount of money we want to make. We may want to work for ourselves. We may not jibe with the people we work with. The world has changed so much since we graduated law school and we may want to enter new and other fields.

So if you are one of the many who dreams of leaving law behind, it can be wise to invest the time and effort to reconcile any unresolved feelings about your time in law school that could pose as obstacles to exploring new opportunities.

But this might be easier said than done. There will likely be doubters amongst family and friends as well as that “demon” voice in your own head which will hold one back. So while this second step in leaving law behind can be an ongoing process and one that an attorney struggles with over time, even after one has officially “left” the law, the following are some instructive steps to help mitigate the guilt that comes with leaving the law and disassociating oneself with law school:

1. Face the fact that you may have gone to law school for the wrong reasons. If you’re like me, you may not have critically thought about why you went to law school. Or after college you may have just wanted to stay in school (any school, really) and were too lazy to get a job. Or you went for ethnic/cultural/familial reasons (I was a young Jewish kid who didn’t like blood. Doctor? No. Lawyer . . . sure.)

As you become more honest with yourself about the real reasons you went to law school, it can become clear that law school may not have been the right decision for you. This is not a cause for regret; rather this can be a positive development and actually make it easier for you to leave law behind: Face it – the industry just really isn’t for you.

2. You likely already received a great return on your investment. If even after careful self-analysis you determine that you did go to law school for the “right reasons”, you still may be unhappy practicing now. And there is a good chance that all of the money and hard work you put into succeeding at law school has already paid off. In other words, you likely have realized the ROI already.

Don’t shortchange what you have accomplished. You’ve made money as an attorney. You have a well-honed set of skills that many employers (legal or otherwise) find attractive. You have the smarts and intelligence and discipline and originality to grow and build and create new businesses or help existing ones. You have optimized your law school degree. Congrats. But you still aren’t happy. It’s now time to move on. Just because you paid for something doesn’t mean it needs to rule your life forever.

3. You’ll use what you learned and gained in law school forever. Remember, just because you have begun to leave the law behind, that doesn’t mean that your law school education and experience was wasted:

a. Every non-lawyer will give you the benefit of the doubt and think you’re smart. Really. Just say you went to law school, and practiced in the past, and no matter what job you’re doing at the time, you’ll be looked at with some level of respect. The cachet of being a lawyer still holds true amongst the general public (and if you wear glasses, they’ll think you’re even smarter).

b. What we learned in law school (issue spotting, strong writing skills, persuasive techniques, public speaking) are all needed across the board in jobs. As such, you never really leave law behind. The art is in repositioning your legal skills for a new role or industry.

4. Realize, you’re a lot better than you think you are. Admittedly, law school might have sapped you of much of your creativity. As one client said to me about law school: “So many brilliant and creative minds go to law school and magically get zapped into sameness. I hated law school – wish I would have had the guts to drop out.”

But do not fear. The creative, dynamic, ambitious, helpful person that you know you are is still inside you. It hasn’t been eliminated. And the process of leaving the law behind can be just the motivation and permission it needs to re-emerge.

After you get a handle on your money situation, the second step of leaving law behind is to get over any lingering demons law school may hold over your head. You cannot let a commitment of the past preclude you from being happy in the future.

Once you feel good about breaking away from the guilt and obligations of your past, then things gets very exciting. We then move to Step Three of leaving law behind, Exploring your Unique Genius: 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.

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.