The Relevance of Storytelling To Leaving the Law

As I was listening to the TED Radio Hour on storytelling this weekend, I started thinking more about the value of telling stories to changing careers.  Everyone loves a good story.  As the show underscored, stories help us make meaning of our lives.  Stories help us understand not only who we are, but who we might become.  For that reason, stories about lawyers who have taken the road less traveled can have a powerful impact on people who are still at the fork.   

When I was thinking about leaving my law firm, I was hungry for examples of lawyers who had successfully changed careers.  I was casting around for what else I could do that might offer a similar sense of intellectual satisfaction as my law practice, but would be a better fit for who I had become.  Generic lists of alternative job titles did not help; hearing stories about happy ex-lawyers did.  In Life After Law, it was important to me to focus on real examples of people who had left law to do interesting, unexpected things because I lacked those role models myself.   Learning and retelling the stories of thirty ex-lawyers, who have gone into fields as varied as nursing, biotech recruiting, directing clinical trials, psychotherapy and writing a fashion blog was the most fun part of writing the book.

Role models have a powerful effect on our conscious and subconscious ideas of what we can do with our lives.  When I was in law school in the mid-1990s, the fact that every classroom and hallway was decorated almost exclusively with portraits of older white men was not lost on me.  I wasn’t optimistic about my future in the legal profession for the simple reason that I saw no models of success who looked like me.   As the wonderful Liz O’Donnell says, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” 

Associates often find the same lack of attractive role models in law firms.  Most partners, who are implicitly held up as examples of success, work around the clock under constant pressure to bill and generate business.   While some of them are happy with their lives overall, many more of them just look miserable.  Those partners aren’t viable role models because junior lawyers don’t want to be them someday.  The problem is exacerbated for women associates, who see very few women in leadership full stop (only 15% of equity partners being women), let alone women whose lives they want to emulate.  That tension between what success looks like to the firm and what success looks like to the associate can cause a lot of emotional turmoil and doubt as to whether law firm practice is the right route after all.

I think that what the legal profession needs is more stories.  Unhappy lawyers – and there are a lot of them out there – need a wider range of role models than they have now.  They need more stories about people who have put their skills and talents to use in non-traditional ways.   My goal is to collect and share as wide a range of these post-law stories as I can, so that more people can find the inspiration they need to make a change – and in doing so, to become role models for someone else.   

Readers, how do you think stories can help (or hurt) lawyers making a change?  Which stories helped you?

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2 responses to “The Relevance of Storytelling To Leaving the Law

  1. Unhappy lawyer here! Thank you, Liz, for this spot-on article. Stories matter tremendously because of their reality. Stories give us hope with a face. Someone out there did it. Perhaps I can as well. 🙂

    • You can absolutely do it, Elisabeth. There are several mini-stories of former lawyers in my previous blog posts, and I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks. My book is full of them too, of course. Best of luck and please keep in touch.