Why did you leave the law?

Is it because you were a bad lawyer?

Yes, that's actually what someone in the procurement team asked me. I can understand why - people have created this aura around law, like it is something incredibly glamourous, slightly removed from the rank and file of life, and incredibly, almost obscenely lucrative.  The TV show Suits doesn't help either. All partners in that show spend a great deal of time looking pristine, staring out the window while swirling smoky scotch in crystal glasses, stocking off, stomping in, delivering deadly one lines with lop sided smirks, driving off in expensive sports cars, driving in in limos, etc. So there can only be one reason why any successfull lawyer would give up all that.

The real practice of law is rather different. For the vast majority of people it is singularly demanding, exhausting, thankless and, frankly, dull. And for the level of stress, labour and responsibility, and the amount of time you spend at work, the rewards that may come in a decade or so are hardly worth it.

It was often like that for me, but I was quite lucky to have worked with exceptional human beings along the way (some were even great lawyers), done interesting things, and somehow managed to find time to avoid socialising with lawyers. I really enjoyed many things about being a lawyer. But it pained me to that many of my friends within the law managed to sink into despair, monotony and bitterness, battling a lassitude that did not seem to lift when even their paycheque cleared.

No surprises then that a lot of people want to leave the law.  There is a depressing mismatch between the promise of a legal career and what it actually delivers and for many that conclusion becomes inescapable only after about 5 years of practice. By that time many lawyers are too embarrassed to leave, too scared to leave, too well paid to leave, or too traumatised by the horror of their inbox to leave. Lawyers aren’t very good at making it up as they go along. Logic, system, chronology and consistency is bred into us. Rigidity, discipline and risk aversion are so baked into our psyches that out of the box thinking is often anathema, or worse, a betrayal of the very principles that make us lawyers. And as with all neuroses, the conflict between our conditioning and our true natures makes us frustrated, unhappy, confused, and often resigned and bitter about it.
I left the law for different reasons, though my conclusions and emotions at the end of 11 years of practice weren’t that different. I left because I was rather sick of being the business’ bitch. As an in-house counsel, and a career transactional lawyer, I had done deal after deal, strategised through many negotiations, guided clients who earn 4 times what I do but couldn’t tell the difference between legal counsel and legal council, and stayed up far too many nights turning around mark-ups, while the executives who were my clients discussed their luxury cars and how at 7.30pm their day was long and tiring. And while they went to their well-deserved dinner at a pricey steakhouse, they wished me luck for the long night ahead. I was quite sure they pitied me, and admired my brains, but admired theirs more for having the good sense to find a better paying job that let them head out to steak and cigars at a respectable time.  I felt limited by many things; the definition of my role, the fact that I couldn’t practice overseas without re-qualifying (again),  the kind of industry I was in (though, honestly, a contract is a contract is a contract....), the kind of issues I had to confront, the feeling that my role and function was always viewed as a necessary inconvenience to actually doing business, and the fact that my profession's prestige was built on the back of 80s movies and other carefully preserved myths.

The thing is - I loved the law and its challenges, and the fact that every day you would strain your brain to get things right, and that quality and thoroughness and the high-cognitive loads made me an intellectual marathon runner. But I wanted that intellectual stimulation along with a sense of opportunity and possibility, not risk and liability.

And so I decided that just because I’d worked incredibly hard and spent a great deal of my mother’s hard earned money, invested 16 years of my life, and competed with a great many assholes, does not mean I should consign or resign myself to a life of being defined by my degree. I would let my mind outgrow its little box, and spread its tentacles to other things. I would take the first interesting sounding opportunity that came up in the business. And I would make it up as I went along.

I admit its much easier since I love the company I work for, am passionate about what we do, and I want to be in the corporate world, especially in technology. Not having to eliminate choices or reflect on what it is I really am passionate about helps. I didn’t have to stress too much about what I wanted to do – I just had to decide to shrug off the title of “lawyer” and pick any other title that seemed to promise something interesting. And I know well that a promise and reality can be very different. But now I also know that I can de-couple myself from anything I previously coupled with.

And with that comes freedom. Freedom to truly do. It occurred to me that the biggest obstacle we face to finding the pluck to leave the law is our obsession to pre-define what we are leaving the law for.  It's that ol’ risk aversion again – we have a pathological need to control outcomes to minimize risk, and so we make the mistake of wanting to define our future career even before we’ve left our old one.  I genuinely believe this way of thinking – the think-plan-execute model, is utterly wrong when it comes to career changes. I think the best thing we can do is take anything that sounds and feels interesting, and truly open ourselves to opportunity and the power of randomness. By being completely receptive to serendipity and surrendering control we effectively trust in our potential and let that be the rudder as we leap into what appears to be raging river of chaos. It’s a much better alternative than building artificial mental dams over that river, that give us the illusion of control and are far more likely to disappoint us. And mental models are almost always disappointing because they are projections of our desires and fantasies.

If you are skeptical, then think of any (or indeed every) big decision you took in your life. Reflect on that sexy car you bought, that job you took because it was a prestigious one, the really expensive guitar you bought, the house you bought, that amazing milkshake you’d heard so much about. Why is it that almost always we are left with a vague sense of disappointment when we get what we really, really want. Its because reality is always a little bit duller, a little bit more complex, than what we wanted. Reality didn’t quite match our precious mental models. That is the very essence of cognitive dissonance.

So why agonise over the details of your fantasy? Have a plan, by all means, but that’s different from planning the details of your future job. If you’re leaving your legal career behind, leave it for anything that will have you, provided it will interest and engage you, and  give you a chance to truly leave the law behind. And then start again.

Trust me, there is freedom, in diving into the river of time, with nothing more than faith in yourself.


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