There’s a soft inner voice that says, I am really unhappy. You walk around your house, mopey, with a knot in your stomach on Sunday evenings, dreading the workweek ahead of you. You fantasize about escaping this life but almost immediately, the practical side of your brain reminds you of the 6-figure student loan debt.
You criticize yourself for even thinking about leaving, doing something different. You’ve worked so hard to get here! You should be grateful. You tell yourself.
You give yourself a pep-talk and march into work on Monday morning. The week crawls by, excruciatingly slow, punctuated by moments of anxiety and even more dread.
Sadly, this is a common story I hear from the lawyers I work with. I was once there too. Knowing that perhaps I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in this spot that I wasn’t supposed to be.
Often, lawyers simply ignore this inner yearning. I believe this denial can contribute to chronic stress and depression.
As lawyers, we identify so much of who we are with what we do. Therefore, it’s difficult to think about a career change because it can feel as though we’re losing a part of our identity.
There is no easy way to find your way out of law into another career that gives you a sense of purpose, meaning, and perhaps most important joy. However, there are certain tried and true practices that have worked for me and the lawyers I work with.
1. Admit that there is a problem.
Albert Einstein famously said:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
This may sound completely obvious, but many people feel ashamed about admitting that there is a problem. Saying, “I am constantly miserable. I dread going to work every morning. I really hate my job,” can trigger a lot of fears. What will other people think? What does it mean if I say I hate this thing that I have spent so many years working so hard to get? What am I going to do with my life? I’m a failure.
Give yourself permission to say what is true for you. And make room for all the doubt, fear, judgment, or whatever you may feel.
2. Find your joy.
When’s the last time you felt joy? I’m not talking about temporary, fleeting happiness like when you received your annual bonus check but eudaimonia, which is a result of the right action that leads to a state of well-being.
If your brain screeches to a stop at the word joy because you can’t fathom feeling such a thing, stop reading this article — immediately and go do something that brings you joy!
For me, it meant going for walks, listening to my favorite cheesy 80s songs, taking classes (art, improv, writing, meditation), cooking, brewing beer, baking bread, and skydiving.
It’s entirely possible that you’re completely consumed by how much you hate your job and thinking about the possibility of joy just makes you feel even more depressed. I get that. So, onto the next step.
3. Give yourself permission to explore.
One of the main challenges of leaving Biglaw is that you probably have no idea what you’d like to do. You spend your days alternating between billing as many 0.1 hours as possible and passing time reading Above the Law (then figuring out which client you can bill that time to.)
I remember looking longingly out of my office window at the people who were walking on the street, wishing I could escape this glass cage. And hating myself for thinking that because this job was all I ever wanted. Make no mistake — it takes courage to admit that this job, this thing you have worked so hard for and sacrificed so much for, just isn’t right for you.
For me, my journey to finding work that I can feel good about, work where all of my skills are put to use, work that I love so much that I would do it even if no one paid me, started by giving myself permission. I told myself, “You no longer have to be a lawyer if you don’t want to.” This gave me the space I needed to try on and explore different options. It was liberating.
4. Put up barriers, set boundaries.
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. ― Brené Brown
In order to figure out what you’d like to do after your Biglaw job, you need space and time. Space to daydream, wonder, wonder, and explore. You need time to meet other people that pique your interest.
To the extent possible, start putting barriers around your personal time. Set boundaries. Decide what you’re not willing to do, what you’re not willing to put up with. What this looks like will largely depend on your job and its demands, but start figuring out ways you can carve out more personal time and less work time. Consider it an emotional divorce from your work.
5. Get help.
One of the best decision I made when I started exploring Option B was to work with a life coach. A coach’s job is to hold space, ask questions and lead to your own truth. It was useful to work with someone who didn’t have any agenda (she didn’t care if I stayed in law or left), someone who I can be completely honest with, someone who would listen with compassion and without judgment.
A coach doesn’t give you “answers.” Only you can know the truth of your own innate talents, gifts, and interests. Her job is to hold a mirror, reflect back to you — yourself, and be a trusted ally.
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Finally, I’ll close with this. You have one life — this one. And you owe it to yourself and the world to do something that makes you feel a deep sense of contentment, fulfillment, and meaning.
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