The Blinders You Rode in With

When I accepted that first job that wasn’t practicing law, I got a lot of questions. A big one was: Well, what can you do if it doesn’t work out? Isn’t that kind of a dead-end job?

(For those of you who have not committed my CV to memory, my first post-law job was as a reporter and editor for a legal publishing company in Washington.)

The truth is, I didn’t have pat answers for such questions. Hell, I didn’t even have non-pat answers. But I did know that practicing law was making me miserable pretty close to 24/7, and I thought that this new direction might at the very least improve that to a mere 8 hours a day of misery, if it turned out I didn’t like it. I was plenty scared, but the alternative, continuing to work in a law firm, seemed an even scarier choice.

So I jumped.

And it turns out I was often miserable in that job, but not for reasons I would have predicted. Having a highly dysfunctional boss will make you miserable in any job you have. (Of course, many lawyers are pretty dysfunctional, so sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the solution to your particular miserable situation is switch bosses/firms or switch careers altogether; more on that in another post.)

On the other hand, I very frequently enjoyed the hell out of my new non-lawyer job. And because I enjoyed it, I soaked up a lot of knowledge about the legal publishing business, and publishing in general, which helped me down the road. Because of course there was another path I could follow that would lead me out of there into something better.

What’s behind the question, “what will you do if it doesn’t work out?” is a wheelbarrow-load of fear. Lawyers in firms, particularly, cart these huge, honking blinders around with them about career paths, and how you must not deviate from the safe, known path if you want to achieve career success. So if you jump out of the law firm world and it’s not to government or in-house, your legal career is shot, absolutely forever.

Just to be clear, that idea is complete horseshit.

There are always options. If I had really wanted to, I know I could have found some small law firm to work at after spending two years at a large legal publisher. Or I could have cozied up to some of my more favorite sources at non-profits and found a gig as a staff attorney. I’m not saying I would have snapped my fingers and had it happen, but those certainly were some options I had when I wanted to leave.

But I loved writing, so I decided that I was in publishing. And for several years thereafter, got a lot of questions about whether I thought I would go back to practicing law. People believe what they want to believe about your background and experience, but I have managed to convince enough editors, etc. that I did not expect to be paid as an attorney that they gave me a chance and hired me.

There’s a quote that I love for this situation and many other trials and tribulations during the alternative legal career search:

Leap, and the net will appear.

—John Burroughs

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