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On the fence about leaving private practice, what should you do?

Being a lawyer isn’t easy, and for some it doesn’t meet their expectations. Perhaps what drove you through law school were visions of courtrooms and complex cross-examinations, saving the lives of the wrongly accused or prosecuting hard offenders. Maybe you saw yourself creating positive change in the world through human rights law or making your mark on Wall Street by pulling off billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions. 

Realistically, the practical application of the law is vastly different to its theory, and being a lawyer isn’t for everyone. As LawVu’s Chief Legal Officer Shaun Plant says, “Law school doesn't teach you how to be a lawyer.” Although lawyers are trained in subject matter, ethics and theory, they are woefully unprepared for the reality of work. Law school doesn’t teach you how to practice law, it doesn’t teach you how a business operates, and it doesn’t teach you how to become a trusted advisor to those who need your help, whether individuals or corporations.

Transitioning from study to private practice can be overwhelming for many young lawyers. They face immense workloads, long hours, and the stress of billable hours. On top of this, when they look down the line at the work required to become a partner, which is expected to involve building a book of business on top of their already hectic schedules, it can seem an insurmountable task.

This leaves many lawyers dealing with the stark realization that being a practicing lawyer is more nightmare than dream and leads them to contemplate a life after law. However, there is a very real stigma about leaving the law: a sense of failure at not being able to handle the stress or job workload. The modern driver of wanting more meaningful work is not often applied to the persona of lawyers: who many think of as more robots than people. Lawyers are driven and competitive people. Failure is not a welcome word in the legal vernacular.

Having spent years slogging one's way through law school and often acquiring substantial student debt, the thought of jumping ship is almost inconceivable. And, ironic as it sounds, the first step in deciding to leave law can be the hardest: coming to terms with your decision. More than likely, you will contemplate the time and money you have spent on gaining your law degree and working in the legal field and wonder “was this all for nothing?”

If you have found yourself at this crossroads - realised that the law or private practice isn’t for you but unsure if it is worth giving up after all your hard work - be reassured: legal experience is a transferable skill. The most obvious move is to explore becoming an in-house lawyer working for a business. While in-house lawyers are still under considerable pressure, they work long hours and to tight deadlines, it is generally considered more forgiving than private practice, and from what our community has told us, it’s more fun too. You are not only able to put your legal knowledge to good use, but you also get to solve problems and work with the rest of your organisation to achieve better business outcomes. The nature of in-house teams is that you also get the opportunity to work on larger variety of legal and business issues, too.

If leaving the law completely has more appeal, your legal experience means that a world of opportunity awaits... Practicing as a lawyer has nurtured your analytical skills, logical and empathetic reasoning, problem solving, project management, and risk mitigation. These are skills which are not only transferable but also proactively desired in other industries. Perhaps you are adept at writing, client interaction and case management. If so, a job in communications could be a good fit for you. Maybe you are tech savvy and good with risk mitigation: you should investigate opportunities in the technology or start-up sector - for example, we hire lots of ex-lawyers at LawVu.

Whatever direction you decide upon, don’t let technical job descriptions deter you. Recruiters are interested in people with legal backgrounds because they demonstrate the skills mentioned above as well as sheer determination. You will provide value and could bring a unique perspective to a role that may elevate the job and align with the objectives of a prospective employer.

As a lawyer, you also have established connections and relationships in the legal world. Leverage these connections and who they may know in other industries. Colleagues will likely recognise your skills and want to help you find a pathway that works for you.

While leaving the law might seem daunting, it may be the right choice for you. This is a choice that allows you to find a career that is rewarding and provides you with greater well being and satisfaction. Harnessing the valuable skill set legal practice has provided you with can be the start of a great something else.

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