Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Click here for an audio recording of Kristy Foreman reading this post: https://soundcloud.com/user-381880794/forereach-consulting-its-not-you-its-me-how-to-know-when-its-time-to-change-your-legal-career
“It’s not you, it’s me”. Most of us have said it, thought it or heard it in a relationship context. A career in law is like a relationship in many aspects. Like when you experience the excitement and pride in the early days of being accepted into law school, graduating, landing your first legal job and getting called to the bar. Like when you settle into your role as a lawyer and luxuriate in the knowledge that you have found “the one”, a safe place to call home for the long-term. You feel grateful and happy that your future is set.
And then, over time, you start to question whether your career is everything that you assumed it would be. You realize that there may have been red flags that you subconsciously chose to ignore along the way. But you have so much invested: your loans, your labour, your reputation, your self-identity. And yet you catch yourself fantasizing about other people’s jobs, like the barista in the window when you walk by Starbucks. You try to bury these unwanted feelings by recommitting to your current situation. You are lucky to have this job, especially in a pandemic. So many people have it worse than you. But the thought of being free from your current situation continues to persist and preoccupy your mind.
On the outside, you are pretty sure that nobody can see the fallout from the internal struggle in your head. Nobody has told you that they have noticed your work has suffered or that you are lacking engagement. Okay, maybe you haven’t been as willing to put up your hand to volunteer for firm committees. Maybe you’ve been a little distracted in team meetings. Maybe you haven’t been as talkative during virtual happy hour on Fridays.
As time goes on, the exhaustion kicks in. You are tired of the inauthenticity and the smile that you paste on your face in video meetings. You are tired of trying to convince yourself that you are happy “enough”, and that there is nothing better out there for you. You are tired of the dread that starts to creep in when you wake up on Sunday morning. But could you actually leave? Maybe...eventually. Maybe after the next trial ends. Maybe after the next deal closes. Maybe after you renegotiate your mortgage. Maybe after the kids move out and go to college.
Given the parallels to an unsatisfactory relationship, lawyers considering a career change may want to look for some of the signs discussed in the Time Magazine article “How to Know When It’s Time to Let Go of Someone You Love” (by Carly Breit, August 27, 2018):
1) Are your needs being met?
Everyone’s needs are different, so the first step is to identify what your needs are at this point in your life. What you needed to be happy early in your career may be vastly different than what you need now. Once you have a clear sense of what you need, the next step is to determine whether it’s possible to have your needs met in your current work situation. If you ask for what you need, you just might get it. For example, if you need to work less because your kids are overwhelmed with online school, your employer may be willing to let you work part-time for as long as you need. You never know unless you ask.
2) Are you scared to ask for more?
If you don’t trust your employer enough to ask for what you need, think about why that is. If they were to say no, what is the worst thing that could happen? If you honestly feel that there could be some sort of backlash or repercussion, the question to ask yourself is...why would you stay?
3) Do your friends and family support your relationship?
Just like in a relationship context, your friends and family often see things more clearly than you do. Reach out and ask how they have observed your work situation impact you on a personal level. If you don’t feel close enough to your friends or family to engage in a conversation about your career crisis, that may be your answer.
4) Do you feel obligated to stay?
The article refers to the “sunk cost effect”, which means that a prior investment often leads to a continuous investment, even if it’s clear that it's not going to be profitable. If you feel obligated to stay in a career that makes you miserable, ask yourself why that is. If it’s out of loyalty to a lawyer who views you as their succession plan, ask yourself whether they would want you to stay just for them. They would probably prefer to work with someone else who values the opportunity and plans to work with them long-term, even if it impacts them negatively in the short-term.
5) Have you been working on this relationship for more than a year?
According to the article, if you have been actively trying to make it work for at least a year, leaving is likely the best decision. Too much time spent toiling in indecision will erode the foundation of the relationship to the point of no return. Ask yourself how long you have had the consistent feeling that you want to leave. This goes beyond having the odd bad day or working on a particularly stressful file. If you have had this feeling every day for at least a year, ask yourself whether it’s likely that any of the career issues you are dealing with will change in the next year. If the answer is no but you decide to stay anyway, there is a strong likelihood that you will be asking yourself the same question a year from now.
Change is always uncomfortable and scary, in any aspect of life. But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life is too short and too unpredictable to stay in a situation that makes us unhappy. How many people spent years thinking about leaving a dysfunctional relationship only to be stuck together in quarantine with no end in sight? How many people regret missing out on tropical vacations because they were worried about their billable hours?
When you are at a crossroads in your relationship, it always helps to talk about your feelings with someone. The same goes for your career. If you feel stuck and aren’t sure of what to do next, find someone to talk to and start exploring your options. Sometimes just saying the words out loud is the first step to making a change.
If you are interested in a complimentary initial consultation to discuss ForeReach Consulting's career services, please contact Kristy Foreman at email@example.com.