Understanding Your Preferred Skills

The biggest challenge most lawyers face when trying to leave a law firm is figuring out how to go about choosing their next career goal.  Should they focus on what would allow them to make the most money?  This often points to in-house positions or management conssingapore_traffic-signs_mandatory-direction-sign-01ulting. Should they focus on what will be the easiest transition, and provide an immediately easier lifestyle?  The first thing most lawyers think about in that respect is working for the government in some capacity.  Should they look for something geographically close to home?  Something that doesn’t require much thought?  Something that they know many other lawyers have gone into before them?  Should they focus on a particular area of interest, and try to get a job in that field?  Trying to figure out which factor should be dominant in their job search can, all by itself, cause the kind of analysis paralysis that would send anyone into a tailspin.

My approach to changing careers focuses on something entirely different: figuring out the confluence of (1) what you are good at and (2) what you enjoy being good at.  I believe that career satisfaction comes from doing what you love being good at, for and around people who value your unique skills.   It’s not that hard to know what you are good at, but your talents are not the crux of the issue.  What matters most is what you like being good at.  What gives you a sense of flow, of time stopping? What feels motivating and enjoyable at the same time?  For many lawyers, figuring out what they like being good at is far more difficult than it first appears because it requires understanding when they are genuinely happy.  Being a successful law student and/or a successful lawyer often involves putting your personal happiness on the back burner.  Many people, including me, grew up thinking that happiness was something you had, if you had it at all, only before and after work.  As I often heard growing up, “That’s why they call it work!” When you know what you like being good at, whether or not it is something you have been paid to do, you have the most important piece of information you will need for your career transition.

The process doesn’t end there, of course.  I encourage my clients to take a creative look at where they might use those skills outside of a law firm, and then I help them translate the experiences and skills they already have into a format that non-legal employers can not only understand but appreciate.  The world of career possibilities for lawyers should only be limited by their intrinsic skills and joys, not by any preconceived notion of what lawyers can and cannot do.  Lawyers generally have a wide range of talents that businesses value.  Each lawyer, however, has a subset of those skills that truly brings her joy.  It is that subset, unique to every person, that will kickstart a truly successful, realistic and long-term career change.

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How happy should you try to be?

brown_liz_400x600I knew that the article on leaving BigLaw had been published when I started getting emails from people I hadn’t heard from in years.  Last fall, Law360 was kind enough to take an interest in my work counseling unhappy lawyers and in my magical transformation from disgruntled patent litigator to chipper business law professor.  That transformation took a few years, but it taught me an enormous amount about how to handle a career change effectively.

What struck me most, reading the article a few months after I had given the interview, was how much happier I am now than I was when I was a litigator.  As a practicing lawyer, I was proud of my skills and, after several years of faking it, genuinely confident in my abilities in handling a case.  I had learned to be a skilled adversary and a trusted advisor and all of the other stuff I thought I was supposed to be as a big firm litigator in order to justify my outrageous salary.

Now, on my first day back on campus after the holiday break, I feel very differently about my work than I did as a lawyer.  I’m eager to get back to being a professor, at least to the teaching part of it (the writing of articles is still something I struggle with).  I look forward to meeting my students and helping them understand whatever we have to grapple with this semester.  Although their tuition helps to pay my salary, I don’t feel the same kind of client-hired gun relationship with them that I had with the GCs (who were generally fabulous people) in my law firm life.  When I can help my students understand something like negligence or contracts or how a patent works, we all feel good. We all feel accomplished.  We help each other.  In the process, I get to stride around and write on the board and show off my powerpoints (without reading from them, of course).  We ask each other questions, and at some point, we get almost all of the answers right.   In a nutshell, my work fits my joys.

When the post-article emails from former colleagues started coming in, I thought back to how my life was when I worked alongside those attorneys, great as they are.  That was a darker time, but possibly only for me.  If my other colleagues were unhappy, they didn’t show it.  Did I?

I think a lot of lawyers hesitate to leave the law because they feel weird about their unhappiness.  It’s kind of a lonely spot to be in, if you are surrounded by people who are getting on with their busy lives, paying mortgages and not worrying about airy-fairy things like happiness.  It can also feel ridiculous to contemplate giving up a good job, if by “good” you measure in terms of income and social status.  I understand that feeling very, very well.  And I am here to say that it is absolutely possible to love your work if you find work that aligns well with the skills you most enjoy using.  Happiness at work comes from (1) doing what you enjoy being good at (2) for and around people who value those skills.  I help people figure out how to do this all the time.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s not even appellate work.

That’s why I’m glad that this article focused on the possibility of change by highlighting examples of it, not only my own but also those of several other post-lawyers.  I focused on telling the stories of thirty former lawyers in my own book, Life After Law, because there is something so powerful about recognizing yourself in another person’s history.  The Law360 article also features the work of Casey Berman and Amy Impellizzeri, two writers and speakers whose work is tremendously helpful to lawyers considering a career change.   We are three of many, many former lawyers who are genuinely, sustainably happy.  Please join our ranks.

Here’s a copy of the Law360 article:


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Stop Asking The Wrong Questions

Advokat,_Engelsk_advokatdräkt,_Nordisk_familjebokThe most common mistake unhappy lawyers make is a fairly simple one to correct.  One of my clients reminded me of this last week when we were talking for the first time.  “I hate my law firm,” she told me, “so I’m thinking about what my options are.  I’ve applied to the Department of Justice, three in-house jobs, and a smaller firm.  I’m not sure I want to leave law, so I think that about covers it.”  When I asked her what she likes about being a litigator, she didn’t hesitate. “Thinking on my feet,” she said, “counseling clients, researching and writing really complex briefs, and persuading a judge into seeing my side of things.” She added, “But I hate the partners at my firm.”  Working in-house, I explained, would probably give her the chance to do only one of those things on a regular basis: counseling clients.  Even then, many of those clients – really, the business people at her company – might not always take her advice willingly.  The rest of what she loved about her current job would almost certainly be left behind.

The question she had been asking herself was this: “Where else could I work with my JD and law firm experience?”  That question had led her down a path that would probably lead to more dissatisfaction with her work, with the additional stress of having to prove herself with a whole new group of people.  That isn’t rare.  Unhappy lawyers often think in terms of traditional law placements, especially when they are not sure about making a transition out of law.

The better questions, and the more productive ones, focuses on what brings them joy.  What elements of your work make you feel satisfied, accomplished, skillful, and happy?  What skills are you using in those moments?  What other professions and workplaces value the skills you enjoy using – the ones you may well have years of experience putting into practice?  Career satisfaction comes from using the skills you love around and for people who value those skills.

As I explain in Life After Law, people who are drawn to law school often enjoy using one or more of a finite set of skills, including problem solving, project management, writing, counseling, helping others, and complex analysis.  Many ex-lawyers have also become successful entrepreneurs and artists.  Each chapter in the book summarizes the career transitions of at least a few different people who share each of those skills, underscoring the fact that there is so much more to choose from than the traditional options of in-house, government work, or another firm.

You should never limit yourself to traditional law options, especially at the beginning of your career transition process.  There’s more: there is no single best option for any one set of skills, or any one person.  It’s a happily wide and diverse range of choices.

My client and I, as it happens, enjoy many of the same things about litigation.  I chose to use my love of thinking on my feet, research and writing instead to fuel my next career in academia. She may choose to become a solo practitioner, since she may be comfortable with developing her own book of business and either managing the minutiae of a service business or hiring someone to do that for her (as I wasn’t).   Or she may do something completely different.  I can’t wait to see what happens with her – and with you.


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The pros and cons of being a law professor


What do you tell people who are hell-bent on going to law school?  I have to deal with this a lot. As many of you know, I left a big firm and eventually, circuitously, fortunately ended up in a tenure-track position teaching business law at a non-law school.  That is, I teach law to undergraduates and MBA students, but not JDs.

Just this morning, one of my students came to ask me about my career, and it was obvious from the first question (“So, just how much do first-year associates make these days?”) that she was more interested in the lawyering part of my career than the teaching part.  Fair enough; I often tell my students that I am happy to talk with any of them who are considering law school, and that I will do my best to talk them out of it.  When my student asked me why I left practice, I told her it was because of my daughter, which is true.  Blank stare.  I felt as though she had heard me say, “Because I like meatball subs and I couldn’t get good ones downtown.”  From her vantage point, it must be hard to see why someone would leave an extraordinarily high-paying career to do something like teaching.

Since the first class I taught as an adjunct, six years ago, to this day, there has never been a day when I regretted leaving law practice for teaching.  I love helping college students understand what makes the legal system so exciting and, often, so frustrating.  Having a relatively small, interactive audience for six hours a week is enormously fun.  The challenge of preparing for those six hours includes scouring the web for the most interesting, current, real-world examples of whatever it is we will be discussing, because no textbook will ever be as engaging as whatever relevant thing is going on now.   I love answering questions and sparking debates, and when students tell me that my class had made them more interested in law as a complement to the business world, it’s a huge thrill.  It’s more thrilling, in fact, than any paying client victory I had in my 13 years of practice.  Pro bono was also pretty exciting, but as most big firm lawyers know, that can only form a tiny part of any billable practice.

Most rewarding of all, I think, is when I can help a student individually, even when I am helping them with something totally unrelated to class.  The whole in loco parentis thing can be pretty wonderful.  It also helps my actual parenting to have a schedule that is flexible enough to let me leave campus almost every day in time to pick my daughter up from school and have time to talk with her afterward.

While it’s nice to have a break from teaching in the summers and over winter break, I am rarely not writing or researching something pretty much full time during those “vacations.”  This may change if I ever get tenure, but apparently you don’t really get to rest until you go on to make full professor, which is sort of like double tenure.  Even then, if you spend less time publishing, you spend more time teaching, which actually sounds great.

The least fun parts of my job include: writing exams and paper prompts, writing additional exams for the students who have to miss a exam due to one crisis or another, grading exams and papers, and listening to students explain why their grades are unfair or why it is so very important that I give them a chance to improve their final grade with an extra credit project even though they could not adequately do the regular credit.  Those extra credit requests only come at the end of the semester, for some reason, although the students’ grades evolve gradually over the course of four months.  It’s hard to deal with perpetually disruptive and/or underprepared students, although I’m learning how to talk with them outside of class in a way that doesn’t make the problems worse.  There is so much to learn, just as there was when I was a junior lawyer, but in academia I am surrounded by senior people who are genuinely helpful, so that’s a big difference.

Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?  Would I leave millions of dollars on the table to pursue this far less prestigious line of work?  In a heartbeat.  I highly recommend personal happiness.  It’s priceless.

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Thinkin’ of a Master Plan (To Leave Your Firm)

A1C William Pitsenbarger

A1C William Pitsenbarger preparing for a water jump. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Action plan time!  It’s a new year, your bonus is in the bank (if you were lucky enough to get one), the distractions of the holidays are behind you, and you feel as unsure as ever about staying at your firm.  What should you do?  Even if you haven’t yet decided what to do next, or even whether you are definitely going to leave the law, you can and should start laying the foundation for a successful transition – just in case.  Broaden your options, if you will.

Let me suggest a two-part approach to preparing your exit strategy.   In order to make a clean getaway, you need to prepare both your resume and your bank account.

Your resume:  If you’ve read Life After Law, you know I recommend figuring out the skills you like using, which may or may not be the same set of skills you use at work every day or get praised for.  Once you know what you love being good at, you can start lining up examples of how you have used those skills.  Those examples will help you rewrite your resume and talk your way through a winning interview with a nonlegal employer.

While you are still at your firm, your goal should be to accumulate as many example of using those preferred skills as you can.  You should use your employer as calculatingly and coldly as it uses you.  Yes, of course, you have to do what your firm requires.  You want to leave on your terms, not theirs.  But when there is leeway, and there often is for those who ask for it, you may be able to find more opportunities to show off your preferred skills.  Let’s say, for example, that you like counseling or advising, but you’re stuck in document review.  Could you sit in on, or even help with, witness preparation for a deposition?  If you can help counsel a deponent, you can add to your storehouse of experiences using a skill you enjoy.  On a transitional resume, you wouldn’t describe it as “deposition prep.”  You’d use words that a nonlawyer would understand, like “advising executives in preparation for interviews.”  Your colleagues don’t need to know the real reason for your eagerness in seeking out new (and carefully chosen) professional experiences.

Your bank account:  One of the most common reasons to fear leaving the law is the potential, if temporary, loss of income.  Set up a separate “escape fund” to accumulate funds for the swing period between jobs or careers.  Having an account dedicated to your eventual transition may help you feel more secure about making this change.  How and when you direct funds into that account is entirely up to you, but every little bit will make a difference.  If you distract yourself by shopping online, as I used to do when I was unhappy at work, you might consider diverting the money you were planning to spend into your “escape fund.”   Building that fund will do more for your long-term happiness than you might think.

Bonus advice: this week, I had the pleasure of advising an unhappy junior associate on Slate, together with some of my favorite post-law counselors.   I hope you find it useful too.

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Thanks for the Reminder

lizWelcome back to the Life After Law blog.  Although I’m writing my sole 2015 post on December 31, (see rationalization/explanation below), I’m not one for year-end reviews, in general.  As a Jew, I did most of my retrospection and introspection a few months ago at Yom Kippur, and I don’t like to micromanage that sort of thing.  A few things have happened recently, however, that compelled me to come back to this blog.

First, you reminded me how rewarding it is to write about post-law careers.  Some of you have been kind enough to tell me how my book or my articles or my personal noodging have helped you leave behind a career that didn’t fit any more.  This means the world to me, and makes me feel like I might be doing something useful on the planet.  That desire to make a difference, you may remember, motivates a lot of people to go to law school in the first place.  Not making a discernible difference after we get those JDs can be a serious downer.  Feeling like I can actually help others is humbling and thrilling and life-affirming.  So, thank you.

One of the most rewarding parts of my life is hearing from you, and how often do you hear from me?  Not enough, I think.  Even when I take monstrous hiatuses from blogging, I’m thinking about unhappy lawyers and how I can help them.  When I hear about former lawyers who have gone off and become puzzle masters or started hot sauce companies, it warms my heart.  I want to hear about more of these people.  I want you to be one of these people, if you’re not already.  The world needs more hot sauce and crossword puzzles.  Motions for summary judgment, not so much.

Another spur to blogging again is that my father passed away earlier this year.  When I took my break from this blog in October 2014, he had just had the severe stroke that would result in a series of transfers from hospitals to varying levels of rehab to assisted living and back.  It was a privilege to help take care of him during that time, followed by his time in hospice.  That said, I had little time for anything other than teaching, parenting, daughtering, and listening to books on CD as I drove from thing to thing.  Life hasn’t gone back to normal, exactly, but I have a bit more control over my own schedule now.

My father’s death underscored the importance of doing what matters in the limited time we have, as losing loved ones tends to do.  What I hate to think about now is how little I got done of any value while I was an associate.  So much time wasted in offices, on planes, in conference rooms, trying to please unpleasable partners, holding myself to implausibly high standards.  I did enjoy a lot of it, but I enjoy playing Candy Crush too, and I wouldn’t want to spend my life doing that either.

The fact that my college reunion is coming up may also be reminding me of what’s important in my life, including helping unhappy lawyers find work they love.  So is the fact that someone recently pointed out to me that the dictionary definition of “middle aged” is from 45-60, and I am in there.

Are you with me in taking a long, hard look (or even a quick peek) at what matters in your life?  When you look back at your life ten years from now, what do you suspect you will think?  There is no perfect time to start making changes.  Now’s good.  Really good.  I’m with you.


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Calling All Ex-Firm Lawyers

Montage Legal

If you used to work at a law firm, can I ask for five minutes of your time to take an anonymous survey?

You’re probably reading Life After Law (the book and/or the blog) because you have left the law or are contemplating leaving.  Reading about the former attorneys I’ve profiled, you can see that some attorneys leave the law altogether, while others seek different law firms, legal careers, or alternative ways to practice law.

Laurie Rowen and Erin Giglia, the wonderful co-owners and founders of Montage Legal Group whom I profiled in Life After Law and who are pictured here, have talked to hundreds of attorneys looking for a way out of traditional law firm practice. In doing so, they became curious about not only why attorneys leave law firms, but about specifically what law firms can do to retain talented attorneys.  Laurie and Erin, with their former colleague Kate Mangan, created a survey to find the answers to these questions by asking the attorneys who know best – those of you who have already left.

The purpose of the survey is to collect information about what law firms can do to retain talented attorneys like you.  Rather than talking to industry leaders or to attorneys remaining in law firms, they want to know what YOU think.   If you have ever worked at a law firm and left due to dissatisfaction, or if you believe that your law firm missed an opportunity to retain you, please take a few minutes to take this survey.

It takes about 5 minutes.  Your response will be anonymous and confidential – you don’t have to use require your name or contact information.  All responses will be compiled together and analyzed as a group.

Your opinion matters, and we’d be very grateful for your help.  There’s really no other way for Laurie and Erin to collect this kind of information from the ex-firm experts (that’s you).  Think of taking the survey as a good deed, or a mitzvah, if you’re so inclined.  If you have any questions, please contact Laurie and Erin at info@montagelegal.com.

Thank you!


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