What stops many people from pursuing an alternative legal career is the uncertainty of it all. We can’t see where it’s going to lead, except in the most hazy of fashions. That’s simply not acceptable in our outcome-obsessed world, now is it?
Even if we can accept that uncertainty, our peers often cannot. I remember a colleague asking me what I could do after being a legal reporter and editor—my leap out of law practice and into a new and strange world of career satisfaction. In other words, where could I go from there? He didn’t see anything possible for me except to continue in that one narrow vein, with its admittedly low pay and lack of prestige.
My answer then was: I don’t know. I’ll figure something out. I was so desperately unhappy practicing law I frankly didn’t care. Writing for a living just had to be better than doing something I loathed every single second I was doing it.
But you don’t have to be quite so desperate to make a move toward a better, more fulfilling career near or outside the law. You will, though, need to learn how to embrace some uncertainty about where the path may lead.
We are trained as lawyers to find the definitive, correct answer. That is what clients and partners expect. Never mind that it’s silly many times. Lawyers and clients love to clothe themselves in cloaks of certainty, while in truth, little in life is certain. Some things are more likely than others, but certain? Not so much. On September 10, 2001, we were all certain about any number of things, weren’t we? On September 12, much less so.
This training to find certainty bleeds into our thinking about our personal lives, too. We want not only the immediate answer, but also to see exactly where following a course of action will take us. I mean, that’s the bill of goods we were sold in law school, the sure path of law firm life. Get hired as an associate, do good work, make partner, make more money, become sought after and respected. Maybe there was room in that plan to switch firms a couple times, but you would be on that same path. Or maybe there was the vision of working for a while in a law firm, then moving to the legal department of a hot company that was about to have its IPO. But for many in my generation of lawyers and the ones who came after, those seemingly certain paths vanished in 2008, if not before.
And by insisting on the sure and certain course, we shut out so many possibilities. Often our fear has blinkered us so much we cannot see the possibilities until much later. Yet they were there all along.
To avoid the certainty trap, you need to do an end-run around data points. That’s why it is so vital to tap into vision and feelings as you search for your alternative to practicing law, or making any other kind of career change. Those are kinds of knowledge that don’t depend on data points, and that instead tap into your deep inner wisdom.
Somewhere inside, you really do know what your best course is. You may need to weather some–or even a lot of–uncertainty to find that knowledge. That discovery will feel unsure, even awkward. Well, let’s be blunt: highly, unbelievably uncomfortable at times. But that’s OK. (Don’t tell anyone, but it’s even a sign of progress.)
Make peace with the uncertainty. Simply be in the moment. Observe yourself feeling uncertain, acknowledge it, notice what’s interesting about it. Sit with that for a while. Let the uncertainty speak to you.
And when you have, let me know how it was for you. I’d like to hear about it.
Jennifer Alvey is a professionally trained coach and recovering lawyer who works with lawyers who want more than traditional law firm life offers. How have you made peace with some uncertainty in your life? Or how would you like to? Drop a comment, or contact her at jalvey AT jenniferalvey.com.