Above the Law

Ed. note: This is another installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, in the third 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 third 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.)

As we discussed in the first and second 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 our past undermine our future. More specifically, this step involves resolving any lingering demons law school may hold over your head (squeezing out more of an 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? Now this is where the rubber hits the road, and the leave law behind process can become increasingly more difficult, but also highly rewarding. The third step focuses 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.

In other words, you want to be conscious of incorporating those skills that you are good at, that you are strong at, and that are in alignment with what you enjoy into any new job and venture you pursue. This pairing can make life and work easier, more enjoyable, and you happier, more confident and satisfied.

Sounds great right? Do what you like and enjoy and then get paid for it. Simple. Clear.

So why do so many of us still struggle at finding what we’re good at, what we enjoy, what our strengths are? Why are many of us still confused or unclear as to our life purpose or our life mission? Why are we often unable to connect our skills to a job or venture we actually like that actually pays or earns us the amount of money we want to make?

There are a lot of reasons, but it’s mainly because we don’t know where to look for help (ergo the birth of Leave Law Behind!). We don’t know who else to involve (any other unhappy attorneys out there who want to talk honestly!? Hello, I know you are out there.) We can get overwhelmed by all of the (ostensibly) helpful (but still vague) “self-development” questions or comments we find online (What is your passion? What did you want to be when you were 8 years old? If you could make a difference in someone’s life, what would you want to accomplish? What is important to you? What were you born to do?) And we don’t know which questions to ask.

As a confidence-building, motivation-accruing, initial baby-step to gain a better handle on our Unique Genius, here we will focus on three questions. Three questions, the answers to which can provide you with tangible, understandable, actionable next steps on how best to understand what you’re good at…and then do something positive about it.

1. What are you already doing (or would you do) for free to help people? This points to what you enjoy.

How about you – what do you do for free? Do you follow politics? Do you love to help in any way? Are you posting pictures of your food on Instagram? Do you manage the apartment building you live in? Do you write reviews on Yelp? Do you volunteer at a community center? Do you buy and sell sports tickets online? Or coach a team? Are you the manager of a group? Do you sail? Did you live abroad in Korea and continue to love its culture and language? Where or how are you the “glue” of some volunteering activity?

For example, I put on a free Leave Law Behind event last October in San Francisco. I paid for the room and food out of pocket, took time from my family, and got a bit stressed out planning. Why? Because I love to be around people, I love to public speak, I love to help like-minded attorneys and I love to connect attorneys together to help and support themselves. We had a great showing and I truly enjoyed it because…frankly I was good at it. And I didn’t get paid a dime.

These activities can shed light on what you sincerely enjoy and relish and love. What makes you feel great and alive and important. You are doing them for free…so you likely enjoy them and are fairly proficient (if not great) at them.

2. For what type of advice do people come to you? This speaks to what comes naturally to you. Think about right now, about back in high school, college, law school, professionally – for what information or help do people seek you out?

Of course, your clients come to you now for legal advice. But what else do your clients come to you for – Comfort in a time of need? A shoulder to lean on? Business guidance?

And what do other (non-client) people in your life come to you for? And as you drill down and begin exploring what type of advice you regularly provide to people in your life, do not worry that the advice you give may seem personal, too “out there”, too intangible or “soft”, only for a select group of people, or may seem non-applicable to the larger world. Finding what advice people come to you for can provide insight into the value people think you bring to them when they have a problem to solve. It also shows that there is a need for insight into this type of topic…and that people view you as an authority. Be a good listener, and catalogue what people ask you. This helps inform how your skills are important to and for other people.

People come to me about a number of things, but one area I’m really good at, be it in business, career searches or otherwise, is issue spotting. I’m able to assess the story I’m being told and strip away the emotions and other issues and help the person get right to the issue that needs to be solved. I give them the baby-step to focus on next, and the courage to do it.

Think about what people come to you for. This can provide insight into the value people think you bring to them when they have a problem to solve. And where there is a problem to be solved, there is a need that you especially can fill.

3. What do people compliment you on? This points to your strengths.

What do people say positively about you? Do you dress well? Are you full of good energy? Do you have a great smile? Are you the life of the party? Are you dependable? Are you a self starter? Disciplined? Good listener? Ambitious? Creative? Studious? Are you good at strategy? Can you work a room? Are you insightful? Can you speak well? Can you solve puzzles? Do you like people? Do you like to schmooze? Are you a good listener? Can you herd cats? Do you instill confidence in people? Do you lead…or advise? Can you write a paper well? Solve a problem? Organize a party? Fix a car?

One attorney I spoke with said he has always been known for (and personally enjoyed) his good speaking skills, his comfort in front of an audience and his easy rapport with people. It was these reasons that led him to choose litigation as a career.

But he soured on litigation, and became very unhappy. While as a litigator he did a lot of speaking in front of people, he did not like the adversarial nature of the courtroom or the zero-sum game of the business. He realized that he was also good at creating things and collaborating with others. As a result, he is now moving beyond litigation to find roles as a business advisor (a “consigliore” he likes to say) or a strategic consultant. This lets him utilize his speaking and people skills in a collaborative and creative way he likes best.

If you are having difficulty brainstorming compliments, meet and speak with some close friends or family and tell them that you are not just fishing for positive comments, but rather that you’re very interested in having them list and explain some of your positive traits…so that you can actually internalize what it is you are good at and act upon this. Whatever it is, this can be a good reality check for your skills and a way to carve out a niche that you can definitely succeed at, because you’re doing something well in a way that others perceive the value of it.

This third step in leaving law behind helps us unhappy, disgruntled, potential-unrealized, not- totally-satisfied-with-themselves attorneys to understand ourselves better, to change our course (altogether or just slightly) in order to ensure we do and get paid for what we are good at and what we enjoy. It is a main pillar in the planning required to properly leave law behind.

Once we get a handle on exploring our Unique Genius, we can then move to Step Four of leaving law behind: Facing and slowly overcoming the remaining fears of leaving law behind which can be so hard to shake. The fear of losing our identity, the fear of failure, and the fear of ridicule.

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.