Unhappy lawyer no more: Monica Parker visits Life at the Bar

Although many lawyers who read this blog enjoy practicing law, comments and emails I’ve received prove that not all readers fall into that category.  Studies show that anywhere between 20 and 70 percent of lawyers would like to leave the practice.  If you fall into that group, where do you turn?

Meet Monica Parker.  Monica is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former unhappy lawyer who now serves as coach and guide for lawyers who want to leave practice.  Thanks to her recently-published book, Monica’s assistance is now available to an even broader audience of lawyers.

The Unhappy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law is an amazing offering for any lawyer who’s ever wondered about a career change.  Down-to-earth, funny, with gentle but firm “hard truths,” Monica shares her own story along with case studies (for the notoriously hard-to-convince legal crowd) and exercises designed to help an unhappy lawyer make the leap out of practice into a satisfying career.  I’m delighted that Monica is “stopping by” today as a part of her blog tour, to answer a few questions I posed.

Julie asksI’ve received emails and blog comments from unhappy lawyers who can’t see a way to leave the law and maintain their income, and they feel huge resistance from a spouse or partner about making a career change. And yet, they’re unhappy in practice. What can you say to someone who’s an unhappy lawyer making a great income on which s/he and his/her family have come to depend?

Monica answers: You’ve got 2 major challenges here: one, you’re afraid you won’t be able to support your family if you leave the law and two, your family disapproves of you making a change.

Here are my thoughts about both challenges:

First you should know that you’re not alone in experiencing these challenges. These are the major hurdles for a lot of lawyers. And, yet, they do find ways to overcome them and pursue the careers of their dreams.

I’ve got lots of good tips about these challenges in my book but let me give you some quick and dirty answers:

Can you change careers and make the same income? It’s possible. It’s not the starting point for career exploration though. Why? Because as you’re experiencing, focusing on this issue is like a door slamming in your face. I have my clients start with a “check-up.” Where’s your money going? Is it going where you want it to go? For example, if you do this exercise for a few months and discover that a lot of your discretionary income is going out the door for “retail therapy,” well, it’s worth considering, are you buying all this stuff because you want it or because you’re miserable? Would you want it/need it if you were doing work you love? Probably not.

It’s about trade-offs really. What are you willing to trade for career satisfaction? Maybe it’s a portion of your salary (at least to start) but it may also be frustration, anger, stress, migraine headaches, ulcers, the list goes on and on. That might be a worthwhile tradeoff.

As for your family of “doubting Thomases,” of course these folks are worried. They want you to be happy but not at the family’s expense. It may take a series of difficult conversations but over time you can work to build understanding between you and your family that the move will be a good one for all of you. Your kids may be willing to forego ski vacations and fancy toys if it means Dad/Mom will be able to make their soccer games and dance recitals or heck, actually go on vacation with them for a change.

What you have to avoid is the temptation of trying to convince your family to agree with you that you should leave the law. You can’t make people agree with you, as wonderful as that would be. What’s really underlying that urge is your need to get permission to make the change. No one can give you that permission…but you.

Julie asks:  Some of the lawyers who say they want to leave the law don’t have any idea of where to begin to figure out what they want to be when they “grow up.” How do you recommend an unhappy lawyer might explore career options?

Monica answers:  Start with the basics. What interests you? One, make a list of career possibilities that appealed to you as a child, young adult, and what appeals to you now as an adult. Don’t censor yourself. Two, if you have absolutely no idea what you might like to do, go on a field trip for a couple of months. Keep a little notebook handy and jot down anything you see or hear that catches your attention. See a bakery and wish you could spend your mornings making exotic cookies? Jot it down in your notebook. After a couple of months, you should have lots of ideas. See if you can categorize them into 5 – 7 categories. Now you’ve got a sense of some of the areas that might appeal to you.

Once you know what interests you, it’s time to get out and start exploring! There are lots of ways you can do this without giving up your day job. Interested in owning a dirt bike racing shop? Take some dirt bike racing classes; see if a store owner will let you shadow him for a day. Fascinated by event planning? Offer to plan your grandmother’s surprise 85th birthday or a friend’s wedding. Your goal here is to “try on” the career and see how it fits. Let your gut tell you what it thinks. This isn’t the time for intellectualizing.

Julie asks:  Everyone has frustrating days at work, and sometimes when a job is a bad fit, the entire career can feel wrong. How do you know when to say enough is enough?E

Monica answers:  The answer is as simple as, when the bad days outweigh the good. I actually list 7 reasons you know it’s time to leave your career in my book. I’ll share the “Top 3″ here. First, if you’re fantasizing about everyone else’s job. I mean from the postal worker to the landscaping crew. In other words, you’re romanticizing their jobs. Second, if you’re doing the Sunday night countdown. That means every hour on the hour you’re watching the clock on Sunday and dreading the week starting. Third, you’re either consistently bored or overwhelmed at work. You’re not engaged or you can’t see over the piles at your desk. If this is happening to you all of the time, this is not what work is meant to be.

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