Like Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, there are predictable stages that many lawyers go through, from the initial quiet longing to do something different to when she finally takes the leap to the next career path. These stages may not be linear, and you may spend a different length of time in each.
Here’s what I know: life is short. Yes, I realize that’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but you have this one life and one opportunity to fulfill your potential. Career transitions are rarely easy and the one piece of key advice I’d like to offer is to be kind to yourself as you move through the stages.
Stage 1: The Calling
You may have some serious questions about whether you made the right decision by becoming a lawyer.
For some, it may be a matter of moving to another lawyer job — perhaps moving to a different practice group within the same firm, moving to a different firm, going in-house, or getting a government job.
For others, there’s a voice or perhaps a knowing that being a lawyer is no longer right for you. This may be because you do not enjoy some fundamental part of being a lawyer — you do not enjoy being stuck in an office all day, you hate the billable hour, you loathe the adversarial nature of litigation, or you just don’t have a passion for the law.
It can also be that you became a lawyer because you didn’t know what else you should do, you were always good at school so you just went to law school. Perhaps you became a lawyer to fulfill someone else’s dream.
Whatever the reasons, it’s important to recognize these thoughts and feelings.
Stage 2: Denial
Initially, when these feelings arise, it’s natural to ignore it or deny its existence. After all, you are a lawyer! If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be? Would your mom be disappointed if you quit? Would you disappoint yourself? Besides, if you quit, how will you ever pay off the student loan?
Rather than listening to the inner voice, you suppress it, tell it to go away, and hush it.
Stage 3: Depression
When you are stuck in a job that’s not right for you, you may feel as though you’re suffocating. Each Sunday evening, you start to get the blues and you live for Fridays.
You start to lose touch with that sense of fulfillment and slide slowly into depression.
Stage 4: Self-Knowledge and Exploration
If you manage to leave Stage 3 and actually choose to do something about this yearning, that itself can feel quite daunting. I often hear this from my coaching clients. They have no idea what jobs are possible, what they’d enjoy doing, what skill sets they have. All they know is how to do law.
This stage of transition and self-exploration can be challenging for lawyers who value logic and having a roadmap.
Not knowing where the path will lead — being comfortable with discomfort, this takes practice.
Stage 5: The Journey
This is where you start taking steps (both big and small) towards figuring out what’s next. Where you move beyond looking inwards and interact with the world. Read books that you ordinarily wouldn’t read, meet people you wouldn’t otherwise interact with, go to events that you didn’t even know existed.
It’s important not to allow every bump or block to stop you from moving forward. Think of it as a science experiment. You’re gathering data about your future career. Leave the binary thinking: good vs bad, or success vs failure in the back seat.
Stage 6: The Leap
Eventually, once you’ve done both the internal and external work, you’ll find your way to the next step. There’s an entire world of alternative careers, other ways of earning a living.
Often, lawyers will tell me, I have no idea what else I could do with my life. And I’ll invite the lawyer to add one simple, yet powerful word: yet. It may be true that you don’t know what you should do next but this isn’t a permanent state. You just don’t know it yet.
You Don’t Need To Go On This Journey Alone!
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.