You’re practicing law, but you have doubts. When should you start acting on them? While there’s no universal answer, there are a few good guidelines.
First, it’s never too soon to start keeping the kind of notes that will help you figure out when and how to leave. Don’t sit with a vague feeling of discontent indefinitely. Instead of simmering, fuming or venting your general frustration, start a list of notable specific experiences (not on your work computer, please). List incidents, projects, and interactions that you enjoyed and those that frustrated you.
Focusing on your subjective responses to what happened, so that eventually you can get a grip on the particular drivers of your unhappiness. Writing this down – and I don’t think there is a good substitute for writing – will help you form a detailed picture of what you do and don’t like about law. Are the work conditions getting you down? Does how much, when and/or where you work chafe at you? Is it the skills you’re asked to use, or praised for? The subject matter? All of the above?
The point of this process is to figure out what, if anything, you like about what you do – otherwise known as your “preferred skills.” That, in turn, will help you figure out what skills you want to draw on in your next career, and what value you have to sell to other employers. Knowing your preferred skills drives your elevator pitch; it also drives your networking process by helping you figure out whom to target. That process, in turn, will help you get clarity about where you want to use those preferred skills.
Should you leave before you have your next gig lined up? I did this myself, and while I don’t recommend it as a general practice, some people need the time and space away from work that only a career break can provide in order to think critically about their own future. Vacations, even the rare two-week kind, don’t usually cut it. It is especially challenging to answer the “so what do you do?” question at parties when you are between careers, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who have tremendous respect for – and often envy of – people with the courage to make that kind of change.
Now, sixth and seventh year associates are in a unique position. As partnership decisions loom, these associates tend to face more suspicion in leaving law than more junior or senior lawyers. Their advantage, on the other hand, is that they have more work experiences and perhaps more volunteer experiences to draw on in proving their preferred skills. The upside of shifts in the legal profession is that more and more people outside of law - more prospective non-legal employers, more friends, and more parents – who understand that partnership is no longer guaranteed even for wonderful happy lawyers. The stigma of leaving law is diminishing all the time.
Above all, don’t wait too long to leave. While I’ve never met any ex lawyers who regretted leaving the law, I’ve met far too many who wish they had done so earlier.
Readers, what told you it was time to leave? How did you take those first steps?