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The turning point: Five steps to transform your legal career

Marija Dukadinovska, senior commercial lawyer and career coach, knows what it’s like to face the unknown and come out the other side smiling. From overcoming burnout to rediscovering your sense of purpose, she shares her top tips for lawyers looking for a change - and why the tools you need to transform your career are probably already in your back pocket.

Dreams vs reality - Marija’s story

Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, things just don’t go according to plan. As a lawyer whose own journey has seen many twists and turns, Marija is no stranger to the predicament of finding yourself on a career path that doesn’t turn out quite as expected. And with record numbers leaving the legal profession across the globe over the past few years, it seems she’s in good company. 

Like many others, Marija began her career with high expectations, landing herself what she thought would be her dream job at a high-flying mid-tier firm in Melbourne. However, it wasn’t long before she realized that the traditional corporate ladder climb wasn’t for her - and after several years of struggling against the current, she eventually took the most daunting step of her professional life, walking away from her first legal role without a plan. 

For Marija, this was a turning point. Slowly dismantling everything which anchored her to her identity as a lawyer, she kept what was useful, discarded what wasn’t, and began to realign her goals with her core values and strengths - and that’s when things started to fall into place. Finding her niche as a career coach for others feeling “stuck” in their legal careers, she also rediscovered her own sweet spot within the profession - first pivoting in-house, and subsequently landing at a modern firm which embraces the value of her diverse skill set. Her hybrid position gives her unique insight into the biggest challenges facing lawyers seeking a career change - and how to go about solving them.

Step one: Winners sometimes quit - recognise when it’s time for a change

“Breaking out of autopilot is always tough. But we all have a pain threshold, and when you hit your limit, that’s when something’s got to give.” - Marija 

Carve out space

As a successful career coach, Marija’s advice is often sought by lawyers who are experiencing some degree of dissatisfaction in their jobs, but aren’t sure whether or not it’s time to do something about it. This is all-too familiar territory, she says - law is a notoriously high-pressure profession, and occasional moments of exhaustion, frustration and doubt are normal. However, when these feelings start coming up on repeat, it can be a sure sign that it’s time to start thinking about things a little more seriously.

For anyone stuck in this thought loop, Marija’s advice is simple - the first step is to press pause, take a breath, and ask yourself some tough questions. Why are you really unhappy in your current role? Is it the work, the environment, or the culture? Is it something else? Are you lacking purpose? Does your current environment challenge you and provide opportunities for growth, or are you stagnating? 

As you reflect, it’s critical to be honest with yourself. Have you exhausted all of your options in your current role, or are there things that you can work on before throwing in the towel? Starting over from scratch can be tougher than refining something you’ve already built. By challenging your own thought process at this stage, you’ll future-proof your decision making, ensuring that if and when you do decide to move on, your choice will be evidence based and not just driven by the impulse for a quick fix. 

Don’t wait for burnout

This is all very well, you might say, but when you’re fighting to stay afloat, finding the headspace for self-reflection is easier said than done. When you’re struggling to see the wood for the trees in your own work, it can feel as though there simply isn't time for anything else. The truth is that for many, this road ends in burnout - and for many of us, this is the only catalyst powerful enough to drive change. However, if we pay attention and notice the warning signs early on, we can save ourselves a lot of time and stress. 

When there’s a persistent problem in our lives, Marija says, there are usually telltale signs which start to push through. “Start to take notice of the conversations you’re having with friends and loved ones,” she suggests. Have they noticed that you complain a lot about work, with the negatives consistently outweighing the positives? Or perhaps you have a tendency to idealize other professions and lifestyles, dreaming out loud about starting a bakery, or jetting off around the world with a backpack? 

You don’t have to go overboard - setting hours aside to reflect every day isn’t realistic. But just by making a physical or mental note of these patterns as they come up, you’ll start giving voice to your subconscious thought patterns, slowly building up the evidence you need to make the right call.

Step 2: Face your fears

“Start to ask yourself… What am I resisting? What’s really stopping me from making this change?” - Marija

Accept uncertainty

Once you start to identify recurring patterns of discontent, it might slowly become clear that something needs to shift. But as Marija’s clients often report, making the leap from acknowledging these feelings to putting them into action can feel insurmountable. As we face the unknown, often for the first time in our careers, fear can creep in - and if we’re not careful, it can stop us in our tracks. 

This is a hurdle that Marija knows all too well, having herself battled with intense feelings of failure, loss of identity, and fears of disappointing loved ones when she left private practice. With the benefit of hindsight, her advice for lawyers grappling with fear of the unknown is straightforward. “It’s natural to be apprehensive when you can’t see what’s waiting on the other side of change,” she says. But the key is to acknowledge these feelings without letting them take the wheel. 

Challenge catastrophic thinking

As humans (but particularly as lawyers, hard-wired to prepare for every eventuality) we tend to be our own worst enemies when it comes to change. Whilst this can serve us well in our advisory roles, when it comes to personal decision-making, the “what-ifs'' can threaten to consume us. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I’m no good at anything else? What if I regret my decision further down the line? 

For those who feel paralyzed by the prospect of the worst case scenario, Marija draws on a fundamental principle of psychology - that to challenge catastrophic thinking, we must simply consider the evidence for and against it. She encourages her clients to reflect back to another time when they faced major change in their lives. What were they worried about, how did they move through the process, and what was the outcome? This exercise often reveals how often many of our initial fears are proven to be exaggerated (or even unfounded) after the fact, and reminds us that the same thing is likely to be true this time around.

Step 3: Find the exit 

“Who do you want to be in this next chapter? Sometimes a part of ourselves has to die to allow new parts to grow.” - Marija

Go back to basics

In Marija’s experience, mustering up the courage to truly commit to change is the hardest part of the battle - even if you still have no idea what things will look like on the other side. Of course, if you don’t immediately have a workable vision of an alternative to your current role, this can feel like another major roadblock. However, as she reassures her clients, “there’s no need to have everything figured out all at once.” All you need to do is take your first step - and that means going back to basics. 

By now, it’s likely that you have a pretty clear idea of what it is you don't want - but to develop an effective exit strategy, you now need to break things down and figure out what you do. For many of us, this can involve confronting a degree of identity loss. Whether you’re contemplating a pivot away from the traditional private partnership route, or a more drastic departure from the industry altogether, it’s likely that your current position has been hard-earned - and you may need to let go of some well-entrenched ideas of who you are. Although leaving the safety zone of a well-trodden path is scary, releasing your grip on some of these anchors is likely to play a key role in allowing yourself to step forward.

The questions you ask yourself at this stage might well be some that you haven’t considered since the early days of your career - if at all. What are your biggest strengths? Are you creative or analytical? Are you good at problem solving? Communication? Helping people? Seeing the bigger picture or spotting details that others miss? What makes you excited to get up in the morning? For Marija, the real value of this exercise is not just to hone in on what your next role might look like. It also restores ownership over your unique superpowers, the bedrock upon which you will build the next version of yourself.

Transfer your superpowers

Once you’ve identified your core skills and drivers, it’s time to map out how they are going to propel your transition. At this stage, Marija sees a lot of clients dismissing themselves as candidates for new opportunities right off the bat due to a perceived lack of relevant experience. This type of black and white thinking is a mistake, she says. “Legal skills are incredibly coveted across a multitude of professions,” and the likelihood is that you have far more to offer to a new role than you realize. In order to really illuminate the power of transferable skills for lawyers, Marija finds it helpful to use the following table: 

Just starting with the first column here can be a real eye opener. The more you dig into what you have been doing in your daily role, the more you are likely to realize how much has really been involved in your legal work. The “contribution” and “value add” columns are then an opportunity to pull out your unique skill set. For example, your team may have faced a novel challenge in a matter which you resolved by utilizing a network of external resources - thereby identifying a valuable ability to think outside the box, drawing on connections to solve problems. 

From here, you can start to cross reference your core skills against those required for the type of work you are interested in moving into and start thinking about how they could be adapted into a new environment. This is a great exercise in lateral thinking - legal is far more than simply offering advice, particularly when it comes to in-house. From commercial strategy and business development to leadership and human management, creative application of broad skills are likely to impress in interviews, and may well offer a welcome change of perspective for prospective employers.

Step 4: Leverage your skill set 

“Never underestimate the power of voicing your intention. By committing to your dream out loud, you bring yourself one step closer to making it a reality.”  - Marija

Create an action plan

Once you’ve got a clearer picture of what you’re bringing to the table, as well as how it can be adapted, it’s time to create an action plan. Marija is emphatic about the importance of this step - it’s critical to externalize your intention and create accountability. Your specific plan of attack will be unique to your situation, but could involve the following steps:

  • Voice your intention. You don’t have to shout it from the rooftops, but Marija advises that by letting your trusted inner circle know you’re on the lookout for something new, you will expand your reach and “recruit others to your cause”. You never know what opportunities could arise through others, and simply communicating your situation to your peers can be incredibly powerful in helping you to commit to the process.
  • Enlist support. When you’re heading out into the unknown, it’s important to remember that you're not alone. Think about who you could reach out to in order to learn more about the industry or role you’re curious about. Your existing networks might be more fruitful than you think - but you can also think outside the box. Whether it's consulting a career coach, recruiter, or even thought leaders on LinkedIn, you may be surprised to find how many people out there are able and willing to help you on your journey.
  • Update your CV and cover letter. It sounds obvious, but brushing the dust off and getting these documents up to date should be a top priority. The transferable skills that you have identified will be incredibly useful here - now is the time to take stock of how far you’ve really come, and make sure that you are showcasing it.
  • Start upskilling. Whilst your reflections should (hopefully!) have instilled you with confidence in your existing toolbox, they should also act as a springboard for identifying your weak spots - and how you could resolve them. For example, if you’ve been in private practice but are looking to move in-house, what additional skills are you going to need, and how might you acquire them? From regulatory shifts to the growing influence of technology and AI, the world is moving fast. Whether it’s through community networks, learning resources, or technology, there are countless opportunities to upskill and set yourself apart from the crowd - when you know where to look. 

Step 5: Uncover hidden opportunities

“It all comes down to building relationships. We all know someone who knows someone who could be the key to that next opportunity.” - Marija

Make new connections

By now, you might have a clearer picture of what the future might look like - you’ve reflected on what you want (and what you don’t), you’ve overcome the mental hurdles, and you’re armed with a plan - and the skill set to carry it out. This is where Marija sometimes sees her clients stall. Often unable to immediately find anything in the job listings that they gravitate towards, or which ticks their boxes, they can quickly feel discouraged and think “there’s nothing out there for me”.

For Marija, the antidote to this is in human relationships, and putting yourself out there. Attending events is key, she says, whether within the legal community (like an InView legal conference) or outside of it if you’re looking to branch into something new. Industry events are a huge opportunity to get insights into a new field, and her advice once you get there is to be bold. “Be curious. Ask lots of questions. Get a clear understanding of what is involved in that industry, and what they are looking for!”

She also emphasizes the importance of building a lively online presence - this means not just lurking in the background on LinkedIn, but actively engaging with content you are interested in. “We all have something of value to add”, she says - and you never know where a chance conversation might lead. As long as you are coming from a place of genuine curiosity, you can’t go far wrong. “If something is calling out to you, be curious about it. Follow the breadcrumbs and the rest will unfold naturally.”

The journey continues

Marija’s final piece of advice is to remember that you’re always on a journey. With her own story far from concluded, she continues to expand her coaching business and help more lawyers move into their dream roles. 

Her message is a powerful one. Whether your own path involves a strategic pivot or a more dramatic departure, with time, confidence, and practice, we are all capable of building something which works for us. And when you next take stock and turn around, you might be surprised to see how far you’ve come.

If you would like to discuss taking your career to the next level, Marija would love to hear from you. You can connect with her at any time via LinkedIn, or through her website.

Level up ahead of 2024 with InView’s free online learning resources carefully curated for you, your team, and your tech. Whether you have five minutes or five hours, start learning here. 

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