1. Make Your Current Job Better. As a career coach for lawyers, I know that too many attorneys who dislike their jobs act as if they live in a world that is binary. There are only two choices; either they stay at their present job and accept all the shortcomings that contribute to their unhappiness, or they quit.
There is a third option. Take steps to change those aspects of your current job that bother you most. For example, a business litigator I worked with hated that he was handling a disproportionate share of the depositions, especially out-of-town depositions. His situation worsened when two other litigators who handled depositions left the firm. He was now on the road more than two weeks out of every month. And this was only one reason he hated his job.
He initially failed to appreciate that, as fewer people were available to handle depositions, his bargaining power increased. Moreover, he had worked at his firm for more than five years, and therefore had built up some goodwill. He had options beyond deciding whether to accept his current situation or leave the firm. He could also ask the powers that be to hire another person capable of handling depositions. This could include someone from a temp agency. He could also ask for an additional paralegal, so that he could spend less time preparing for depositions. This is obviously a partial list.
The important thing is to recognize that you often are in a position to ask your current employer to address certain aspects of your job that dissatisfy you. And some of the things you might ask for are much more likely to be granted by a boss who has worked with you for years than someone who just met you two weeks ago at your initial interview. There is no guarantee that your current employer (or business partner) will say yes or that you will be otherwise pleased by their response, but at least recognize that you aren’t stuck in a binary situation. You have options, including asking your employer to make changes that will make you happier.
2. Ask for Work-Related Changes at the Right Time. You could march down to your boss’ office and demand that certain changes be made. That doesn’t mean you should do it right this second. All things being equal, you want to leave on your terms and at a time that is most convenient for you. When it comes to asking for changes to your current situation, the basic principal is simple: the more significant the changes you will be asking for, the further along you should be in your job transition process. In the example described in the prior paragraph, asking the firm to hire another attorney from a temp agency was less significant than asking to be taken off the case. Thus, you can generally ask for a minor change even if you have absolutely nothing lined up in terms of another job. But, for example, if you work in an office with three partners, and you want to ask never to work with one of them ever again, you should probably be close to lining up another position. In fact this is the kind of request that might make sense to make after you have received another job offer, but before you have decided to accept it. So what kind of changes can you request now? And what changes are you better asking for when you are closer to finding a different position?
3. Distinguish Between the Short Term and the Systemic. Two people who work in adjoining offices at the same employer can have entirely different work experiences. That’s why it’s important to be able to distinguish between temporary circumstances that are bothering you, as opposed to something more systemic—factors that are extremely hard to avoid and largely stay the same from assignment to assignment, and project to project. If you want to make wise career choices, you need to get beyond the feeling that you hate your job. Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather you acknowledge that you hate, despise, or loathe your job than to be in denial about it. But knowing you aren’t happy isn’t enough. If you want to do something about it, you need to better understand what aspects of your job make you dissatisfied. How else will you be able to avoid finding yourself in this situation in some other job?
One of the best places to start is to figure out who or what external factors are contributing to your unhappy feelings. Ultimately you are responsible for how you feel, but what external factors are contributing to that feeling? Is it a combination of circumstances such a client, deadline, or boss? Is this a temporary situation or what passes for normal at your job? I once worked on a transportation-related lawsuit that bored me. My involvement in the lawsuit lasted nine months. At times, that assignment seemed endless, but ultimately it was a temporary situation. Once it ended I felt much happier doing other kinds of work at the same firm. How about you? Are your work-related problems temporary or systemic?
4. Save Money. Simply put, money in your bank account helps make the career-transition process work more smoothly. This is especially true when you feel that you have no idea of what you want to do next. It generally takes more time for lawyers to figure out what they want to do next than it is to find a new position once they know the direction in which they want to travel. One of the first things you can do is to get your financial house in order. It can be tempting to splurge and buy an item that you feel will make you happier. Some people call this retail therapy. They will justify the purchase by seeing it as a reward that makes up for their job. They commonly say, “I may hate my job but at least it allows me to by X.” Resist this temptation. Whether or not you end up wanting to start a new business, take a lower paying job, or be able to quit your job, money in the bank will help. More importantly, saving money will help you feel like you are more in control. That, in and of itself, can help you focus on what changes to make rather than on wallowing in misery.
5. Start Your Day by Working on Your Agenda: Lawyers (and others) who hate their jobs often complain that they feel that their job feels endless. They use different images to describe what they feel. Some compare themselves to a hamster on a wheel; others like they are trapped in a maze. Regardless of the image, it boils down to feeling powerless and overwhelmed.
The antidote is to exercise some kind of control. It can be difficult for a partner or associate at a big firm to carve out as much time as they would like to conduct a full-blown job search, so start small. Begin every day avoiding your voicemail and emails and take 15 minutes to complete a career-related task And yes, this really does work best when you do it first thing in the morning. That’s the best time to make that phone call, send that message, or research a particular entity.
6. Use Precedent in a Helpful Way. Making a career change is not governed by stare decisis. Too many lawyers look to precedent to determine what kind of career changes they can make. This is an understandable tendency. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, and it can be helpful to know what kinds of career changes other lawyers have made. For example, lawyers who are considering becoming journalists can take comfort from others, such as Charlie Rose and former CNN host Catherine Crier, who made that transition before them. For every relatively common career transition (employment attorney to HR executive, litigator to law school professor, transactional lawyer to business executive), there are countless more esoteric examples (lawyer to bakery store owner or lawyer to television producer). In fact, so many lawyers have at this point left the practice of law that you would be hard pressed to make a change that someone else hadn’t previously made. That’s the most helpful way to look at precedent and careers transitions by lawyers.
7. Surround Yourself with Supportive People. This may strike you as counterintuitive, but for many lawyers the biggest threat to a successful career transition is isolation. I know lawyers who have thought about leaving their jobs for years before they mention it to a single person. It can be difficult to find people who will understand and appreciate your desire to make a change. Family and friends—the very people you often rely on—can be especially reluctant to help lawyers leave the law. In an effort to be helpful, they emphasize the perceived risks associated with making a change. This is a much more common problem than many lawyers recognize.
So what do you do? Find people you can talk to about your desire to switch jobs or careers. You may need to enter unchartered waters and talk to people you currently don’t know, but the sooner you can get out of your own head and interact with people who are at the very least not threatened by your desire to explore a career change, the easier the process will be. And with a little luck, you will find people who enthusiastically support your desire to find more fulfilling work.
How about you? What career-transition strategies have you found to be the most helpful?