How To Test Your Leaving Law Hypothesis

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Test out your career ideas with an open mind--it's not pass/fail.

So after playing around with Morning Pages, Artist Dates and Myers-Briggs, you have a few ideas about things you’d like to try as an alternative legal career, but you’re just not sure? I get it. Doing what you dislike for so long can make it difficult to discern what you really, really like from what just sounds better than what you’re doing now. So, do some testing.

By testing, I mean trying out the skill or activity without actually jumping ship, if you’re still working. Actually, this works if you have already quit your job or gotten laid off and still don’t know for sure where to focus. Testing whether you like something just requires a tiny bit of creativity—and I promise there’s no drawing required, unless you want to.

The Test Protocol

For example, you think you might like teaching. You can test that idea in several different ways.

  • Do some mentoring or training in your job;
  • Teach a CLE, or several of them;
  • Volunteer teach or tutor at an inner-city school;
  • Teach a law school class as an adjunct;
  • Mentor women or the homeless who are trying to get back into the workforce;
  • Teach at a community college as an adjunct; or
  • Teach law at a business school.

You see where I’m going here: Teaching comes in many, many flavors, and not all of them have the teacher label attached to them. Sometimes it’s called mentoring or corporate training. Testing out teaching this way is not especially risky; you don’t have to leave your job, and you’re committing to a semester at most. If your workload is awful and you’re not sure you can make all the classes, what about co-teaching? The bottom line is, ask yourself how you can do some testing, rather than telling yourself all the reasons it’s too hard right now.

Also, if the first test doesn’t light your fire, it is not necessarily a sign that teaching (or whatever you’re testing)  isn’t for you. I would sooner have a sharp flaming stick in the eye than teach 13 year-olds, on the whole. But I love working one-on-one with Gen Yers and Gen Xers. And if I had to teach law to law students, I’d probably have to develop an addiction simply to cope. Now teaching law students career skills—that’s a whole ‘nuther thing.

Volunteering and Career Testing

Another way to test your interests and add some skills is volunteer work. It should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: Pick something that you are genuinely interested in exploring. People can sense when you’re using them and have no actual interest in them and what they’re about.

I inadvertently used this strategy many years ago by serving on the board of a small nonprofit of a horseback riding group. I helped organize and run horse shows, worked with volunteers, dreamt up educational programming ideas (and then found the teachers), and assembled a survey of the membership to gauge their interest in various riding-related thingie-dos.

I learned a lot:

> I liked working with speakers/teachers and coming up with programming ideas, and was good at that. Looking back, I see how that maps to my love of coming up with unique article ideas for magazine stories.

> I liked shaking things up and trying to innovate to fulfill actual needs, and cutting through a lot of “but we’ve always done this” thinking that was holding the organization back. At the time, I didn’t see it as innovation, but that’s exactly what I liked about it.

> I also found out that I have precious little tolerance for organizations that cling to tradition because they’re scared to change, particularly when what they’re clinging to isn’t working for them any longer. That dislike maps directly to how I dislike most law firm cultures and a lot of corporate cultures, too.

Not a bad haul, learning-wise and skill development-wise.

This Is Only a Test, Not a Marriage Vow

As you pick out ways to test what you think you’re drawn to, keep an open mind. If the first test doesn’t work, it could be that marketing, writing, teaching or web design aren’t for you. Or it could be that you need to try a slightly different flavor in that area.  It’s easy to confuse fear of failure with dislike of an activity at first, and that’s why you need to give something several small tests before deciding it’s not for you right now.

And remember, this test is not to decide the whole rest of your life. It’s to decide the next phase of your career, not whether you want to marry that career. You don’t have to stay with what you pick for 20 years, or even 10 years. Unless you just want to. Often, your first job outside of law is the stepping stone to the really cool thing you’re going to do in 5 years. It’s a process, not a product, folks.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who is always testing where she wants to go next. She coaches unhappy attorneys on how to test their ideas for a happier, more fulfilled career and life. Jennifer offers discounted sample sessions if you want to test out coaching and see how it could help you. Contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule your session today.

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2 thoughts on “How To Test Your Leaving Law Hypothesis

  1. It’s pretty astounding to me that unhappy lawyers I talk to like to reason that “everyone hates their job sometimes.” It’s only when I hear from the escapees that I remember that crying as you approach the parking lot is a BAD SIGN. So okay, I’ll tune in tomorrow. Dang it.

  2. WOW – your horse club experience is very similar to one of my organization experiences. Passion for change and sharing the art – yes. Tolerance of “but we’ve always done it this way” – no, and at some point I also connected that feeling to irritation with the same in law firms. The journey out is so SLOW though!

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