3 Unexpected Tips for Escaping Law

Recently, I was asked what kind of career advice I would give to new college graduates embarking on their lives and careers. Naturally, I have lots. First on the list would be: DON’T GO TO LAW SCHOOL, especially if you are doing it because you don’t have a better idea, or believe that silly aphorism, “You can do anything with a law degree.”

dandelion seeds floating awayAs many law graduates learn, it’s really more like, “You can do anything despite a law degree.” But I digress.

[Side rant: The only reason to go to law school is because you really want to be a lawyer. And no, not the kind on TV. The kind that has to trudge through tedious research, review gazillions of documents for litigation or deal diligence, routinely work 60-hour weeks, and who thrives in a contentious environment. If that is you, by all means, go to law school.]

I have more generalized advice. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it applies to those who want to transition from law practice to, oh, anything else. Even those who want to stay in law can use these tips.

3 major tips for everyone who works:

  1. Get enough sleep. Otherwise, you lose your emotional equilibrium and mental edge. Plus, no one likes working with whiny toddlers dressed in business casual.
  2. Leisure time is not optional, despite what your boss/company/family/peers say. The likelihood of having that project-saving idea is vastly improved if you’re not burned out and fantasizing about what you would do for your epic departure email when you win the lottery.
  3. Worship the mystery of uncertainty, and stop defaulting to safety and security.

That last one trips most of us up, whether we are starting out our post-college lives, or trying to change the life and career we have. It runs utterly counter to all the conventional wisdom.

Improve Your Life: Make Friends with Uncertainty

If you are already clear on what makes your soul light up, and are pursuing that weekly in some purposeful way, you have my permission to ignore nearly everything I’m about to say on worshipping uncertainty. Otherwise, you might want to take some notes.

My problem with certainty isn’t some objection to knowing if your lights are going to come on, or having a stocked fridge or some money in the bank for a rainy day. (Note, “some” is not the same as “enough money to live on for 5 years.”)

The problem with certainty is that it cuts off possibilities, and diminishes what crunchy granola coaches (like me) call “the magic of the Universe.” When you are focused on achieving a specific goal, say, finding a job with set hours and regular raises, with 40l(k) contributions, and you know that following steps A, B, C and D will get you there, you’re going to miss that detour onto Exit Q.

So you’ll never know that had you exited at Q, you would have run into that old friend you haven’t seen in 3 years, who was looking for someone to help her write her business plan, and needed a great writer and analytic thinker to help see the gaps and persuade the investors. As in, she needed YOU. Even though she didn’t realize it until she ran into you.

If you follow the path of predictability, you’ll just read about her amazing new business model in 3 years in the Wall St. Journal, or see an ad in The Ladders for her amazing new startup, and get all mad at yourself that you haven’t kept in touch. Especially since her company is on the verge of a record-setting IPO.

More fundamentally, lawyers (and many, many others) cling to certainty because then, they can delude themselves that they are safe. Or as Brené Brown says, certainty keeps us from feeling vulnerable.

Lawyers in particular loathe vulnerability. They’ll do damn near anything to avoid that chest-tightening feeling. They will work 20-hour days so they can cover every possible scenario in a trial. Never mind that their sleep deprivation is far more likely to trip them up by converting their brains into clouds of fuzzy wool, unable to process the inevitable curveballs that happen in real life.

Another sad side effect of pursing certainty is giving up the richness of a life well-lived. For example, many attorneys will not engage in hobbies that don’t have a predictable return on investment for their careers. They will take up golf, because they can hob-nob with potential clients. But they won’t take the time for a painting class, because it’s self-indulgent and who ever heard of meeting a potential client there?

Taming the Roar of Certainty with Your Tribe

So how do you tame this default setting?

First, find your tribe. I don’t mean people who on paper seem like a good fit. No No No. Your tribe consists of people who get you, without the need for laborious explanations on your part. Most likely, your tribe doesn’t include any family member who tells you to be grateful you even have a job, and to stop whining. Ditto colleagues. I’m not saying these aren’t otherwise lovely people. But they either can’t, or don’t know how to, support you. And it’s not your job to teach them.

One way to think of potential tribe members is that they are the friends of your heart. They usually see more potential in you than you do yourself. They obsess over the same themes you do. My closest tribe members, for example, are my friends who are creative, and who get that creativity can be scary and unpredictable. But they forge ahead anyway, and try new things, all with a spirit of adventure and fun.

I won’t lie; it takes effort to find your tribe. For writers, it may take trying several different writing groups. For athletes, it may take several different gyms, or rec league teams, before you find the right mix. The important thing is to make time for these forays into new groups, and allow new groups a few chances before you write them off.

Listen to Your “Crazy”

Second, get busy listening to your innermost desires. Don’t keep them bound, gagged, chained and starved in the basement. Let those crazy thoughts out to play. You don’t have to act on them right away; just listen, and maybe write them down without committing or judging.

If you want a more structured way to tap into those deep longings, give Morning Pages a try. These are daily, stream-of-consciousness writings for 20 minutes, first thing in the morning. Yes, they do need to be in the morning, before your inner critic is up, had its 2nd cup of coffee, and is wandering about freely.

If you find yourself struggling to do this, think about it as a way to get rid of a lot of pesky worries before you start your day. Your mind will be clearer, and you will be calmer. Expect that 90% of what you write down will be whiny, self-indulgent drivel. The gold flakes will come, if you keep at it.

Get Out

Third, spend some time outside, daily. At least 20 minutes. I usually get my outside time in by puttering in my garden, pulling weeds, pruning, and on especially ambitious days, planting or moving stuff around. Even if you live and work in an urban jungle, you can find something outside if you just take a short walk. But it doesn’t count if you are plugged in, sorry to say. You need to focus on what you see, hear, smell and feel. And if there’s a blackberry bush or a yummy food truck somewhere along the way, you can taste as well.

It’s important to get out of your mental ruts, and going outside is a great way to do that. As Martha Beck notes in The Joy Diet:

By putting yourself in unfamiliar situations, you’ll see things with fresh eyes, and solutions you may never have noticed will crop up, one after another, until you realize that you’ve just had a very, very bright idea, one that might just help you realize your heart’s desires.

Being outside connects you with your instincts and hunches. Even a really logical, smart guy like Albert Einstein recognized the inspiration and healing of nature: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Is it work to change your default from certainty to curiosity? You bet. But the payoff is a prize beyond measure: A fulfilling life. So get going.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who regards time in her garden as some of the best therapy out there, and a great way to tap into her wildest dreams. If you need help changing your defaults from certainty to curiosity, contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for a discounted sample coaching session.

5 thoughts on “3 Unexpected Tips for Escaping Law

  1. Hi Jennifer,
    I love your writing and this is a great post! I embraced uncertainty and now I’m working in digital sales/marketing at a telco. I have other friends who have changed career paths too. One friend works in sales at Dropbox and another one is now a management consultant and gets to travel all over the world. We are all much happier. We see our biglaw friends at parties who are really unhappy but haven’t tried to make a change. I guess you need to decide to change on your own and embrace the risk as an adventure 😉

    • How did you convince your non-law employer to hire you? No matter how much I emphasize my transferable skills, I always come across the same problem: employers can’t understand how I can leave the (perceived) lucrative, glamorous life of a lawyer to do X. Additionally, these employers all seem to think I must not be a very good lawyer if I want to leave the profession, and that the minute another (perceived) lucrative, prestigious law job comes calling I’m going to bail on them.

      I stopped trying to convince people that law isn’t the glamorous, lucrative profession years ago because I was tired of banging my head against a wall, and that I want to do X because it allows me to use my (public speaking/research/analytical) skills in a non-confrontational way, but that doesn’t seem to be convincing anyone.

      Any tips?

  2. You’re so right, laurenrebekah. Most of this career change stuff is a head game, first and foremost. Most lawyers have lost, at least temporarily, their capacity for hope, and for faith that there is something out there for them that doesn’t require living under a bridge.

  3. Jennifer, this blog has been so helpful. After practicing law for around 12 years, starting in 2012 I made the decision to leave law and move towards marketing research.A couple of months ago I had a slip and went to work with a well known plaintiff’s lawyer here on a contract basis, because I do miss the analytical part of law. Sure enough, two weeks in, she fired half her staff and had us using a law student’s Westlaw account (unbeknownst to the student). All of the reasons that I left law came rushing back, and I resigned, vowing to not repeat the mistake. Now, I have found a fantastic opportunity in marketing research and while I will not get rich, I think it will be engaging and let me apply my interest in the Chinese language. I am so glad that you stress the reality of law practice and the personalities involved in the work. While there are some very decent people who practice law, it is quite hard to team up for work with them, and sadly the other 90% tend to be hideous teammates. I graduated at the top of my class from a very good regional law school, but find the ethics of the profession repulsive (esp. in private as opposed to public practice), and have never been able to get beyond that to where I can bill, bill, bill and ignore the moral realities (even if that billing is technically permissible). The transition out of law is difficult, but if you keep trying and just let go of the need for certainty and the illusion that money solves all problems, it is doable. I guess it is good to know that if all goes to hell I can always earn a paycheck doing document review, but there would have been much easier and less time intensive ways to create an occupational safety net.

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