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What if the General Counsel job is not for me

For many lawyers, in-house or otherwise, it sometimes seems as if your career, or at least the expectations as to your career, have you welded to the train tracks. You feel helpless to do anything but sit and watch your life happen around you. You've got the degree, you've secured your first job, and then you find yourself on a pathway to the top, whether you want to go there or not.

The pathway to the top job is a long  and often competitive journey, and it is absolutely okay to ask yourself if you're happy with the choice you've made, or if there is something else you might prefer doing. Professional coach and General Counsel Claire Bibby says it is imperative that all lawyers, not just those gunning for the top job, take stock every now and then and genuinely assess where they're at and if they are on the right path - for them.

“I encourage people to think about if it's going to be enough for them and if it's what they really want. Do they want to continue climbing up the corporate ladder? Is it expected of them - be that by family, partners, society or peers - or is it something they really want? When a client starts a conversation with me about how many years they’ve been on the pathway and how they’ve invested too much to change their mind now, I find myself explaining the sunk-cost fallacy and how to break it.” The sunk-cost fallacy is of course where an individual is reluctant to remove themselves from a situation or course of action which they are heavily invested, even though shifting gears would be more beneficial to them.

She says many in-house counsel seek coaching on how to become a GC. “One of the first questions I ask a client is 'why?' I want to test if they have a clear idea of what it is they’re walking into and whether that matches their values and true purpose. It's a very personal journey for every single person.”

For those who don’t hanker after the top job, it is important to understand that it does not mean career suicide. What it can do is open them up to a plethora of opportunities, potentially ones they’ve probably never considered.

“A law degree can open up so many different opportunities. There are CEOs who’ve got law degrees, many politicians come from a legal or advocacy background, there are writers, coaches, academics, entrepreneurs, diplomats, all with law degrees... the list goes on," says Bibby. "A law degree doesn’t principally mean you can only practice law in a firm or a company. Someone with a well-tuned ability to critically analyze and the power to influence is very likely attractive in any number of industries.

“It can be an unfulfilling and disappointing journey if you’re continuing to climb the corporate ladder because you don’t know any better or because you don’t know what else is out there. You’ve been to university for four or five years and you might think that after all that effort there’s no way you’re not going to not be a lawyer. But if that’s not what you truly want to do, why would you continue to do the same thing? Career pivoting is often one of the smartest and most beneficial things you can ever do.”

Career optimization rhetoric often favors the bigger, the better, and the more lucrative as opposed to focusing on what best suits your unique skills or your current circumstances. For instance, if your current level of seniority enables you to give more time to other areas of your life that you value highly, it may not make sense to give that away for something less satisfying.

Not wanting that big job is not an indication of a lack of ambition or laziness. Instead, it should be something you view with pride because you’ve taken a chance and are willing to run your own race. In all the chaos and the clamor of the world, if  going with the tide doesn’t 'float your boat', grab a lifejacket and swim to another shore.

Besides, the big jobs aren’t going anywhere and if down the track you change your mind, you won’t be wondering 'what if?' Not wanting it now doesn’t mean you might not want it in the future. Life is about making things work on your terms, and if that means stepping sideways, or perhaps even backwards with the intent to find a better tomorrow, who are you to get in your own way?

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