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Self-Assessment: Exploring an Alternative Career

By Janice Mucalov, LL.B., January 2010

Do you find yourself daydreaming about teaching yoga, delivering mail, doing anything but practising law? Maybe you’re in the wrong field. Or maybe you just need a change of scenery. Here’s how to perform a thorough self-assessment to determine if law is the right career for you.

 
LeavingEvery lawyer knows that job dissatisfaction is common in the legal profession. (Canadian figures aren’t available, but according to one poll, 70% of California lawyers would swap careers if given the chance.) The problem for many lawyers, however, is that they don’t know what else they want to do.
 
The good news is that countless lawyers have successfully switched jobs. Actor, master woodworker, lobbyist, independent filmmaker, executive, teacher, insurance salesman, financial advisor, politician, jewellery designer – all are jobs which former lawyers now enjoy.
 
That’s not to say that making a change is easy or painless. But if you’re dissatisfied practising law, it’s worth spending time examining what will make you happy at work, so you too can find an alternative career that’s right for you.
 
 
 
“Lawyers who enjoy what they do find their work to be supportive of their interests, values and talents,” says Deborah Schneider, a legal career counsellor and co-author of Should You Really Be a Lawyer? (www.shouldyoureally.com). “Unhappy lawyers typically dislike the work environment, their co-workers, their lack of work/life balance, the work itself, or all of the above.”
 
Signs of job dissatisfaction include irritability, not giving it your best effort, and an inability to concentrate.
 
But how dissatisfied do you have to be to justify exploring a different career?
 
Ask yourself if any of the “Seven Reasons to Leave Law” (see sidebar) apply to you, suggests Monica Parker, a career coach for lawyers seeking other vocations and author of The Unhappy Lawyer (www.leavingthelaw.com). For example, are you “bored out of your skull?” If so, maybe it’s time to consider leaving.
 
If you’ve been questioning your job satisfaction for more than six months, this is another indicator that perhaps it’s time for a change.
 
Recognize, however, that studies show even people who love their work typically only give it a “complete satisfaction” rating 75% of the time. Be realistic – you can’t expect to love what you do all the time. Some lawyers, too, may never be content in any job; your free time may be where you find your enjoyment.
 
 
If you have no idea what other career to pursue, self-assessment is the first step to finding out what work you might like.
 
Many lawyers have never actually taken this step. They fell into law school by default, not knowing what else to do, trusting that a law degree is a good option. Now after one, five or even 10 years of practising, they find themselves unfulfilled at work.
 
At this point, you may be thinking, “Forget the self-assessment, I just want to know about the jobs other lawyers have gone into,” notes Anne Whitaker, a former real estate lawyer who focuses on career coaching for the Atlanta office of Counsel on Call (www.counseloncall.com). But just looking at a list of careers won’t help you come up with the possibilities that best fit you. “There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” says Whitaker.
 
And it’s not enough to think, “I’m a real estate lawyer, so maybe I should become a real estate developer,” adds Hindi Greenberg, lawyer and author of The Lawyer’s Career Change Handbook. You need to dip deeper.
 
A thorough self-assessment includes an analysis of:
 
  • Your interests, abilities, skills, personality style, values and goals
  • The environment in which you want to work
  • The people you’d like to work with
 
 
Start by asking yourself the basic question, “What do I like to do?” The goal is to identify your interests and passions, likes (and dislikes), and pastimes that you enjoy.
 
To help you focus, Whitaker offers this exercise:
 
·         Who are the people that interest you the most?
·         What places, ideas, and books interest you?
·         What school subjects were the most interesting?
·         What activities satisfy you the most?
·         What do you do in your spare time for fun and relaxation? What do you wish you did?
·         What are the 20 most enjoyable experiences of your life? (draw from all stages of life and include career and outside of work)
 
Create an “interests” file and write down the answers to these questions.
 
Over the next month or six weeks, also jot down anything that intrigues you or catches your eye. “If you see a picture of something in a magazine, overhear someone talking, see a book in a bookstore, or learn about a new hobby that interests you, make a note of it and put it in your file,” says Whitaker. Also add information about why it’s interesting to you. For example, if you find yourself daydreaming about being a yoga teacher, Whitaker says you might include “calm, centered, helping others, peace, set own hours, physical health” in addition to “yoga instructor.”
 
Once you have a list of 50 to 100 items or interests, sort them by category according to common themes or patterns.
 
For work to engage and excite you, these interest categories or themes should be strongly correlated to the career you pick and the job tasks you ultimately end up doing.
 
“This correlation doesn’t mean that because you enjoy throwing pottery in your spare time, you must become a professional potter,” says Greenberg. “But perhaps you should consider an artistic or creative endeavour, or one where you get to use your hands as well as your head.”
 
Greenberg, who coaches lawyers and law students through her career consulting firm, Lawyers in Transition (www.lawyersintransition.com), relates a few examples of clients who found work related to their interests. One client liked reading books; he ended up in the publishing field. Another client who loved the outdoors found work as an in-house counsel with a company that makes snowshoes (using that job as a stepping-stone to finding an alternative career).
 
It’s important to recognize an interest even if what gives you pleasure seems superficial or silly, adds Greenberg. “One of my clients loved clothes. She had a gorgeous wardrobe and great taste. Now she’s selling high-end real estate, where how she looks and dresses is appreciated. But she still gets to work with finance and numbers, assess her clients’ needs, and enjoy close working relationships with her clients.”
 
 
Another good exercise is to fantasize about your dream job. Forget about the practicalities like what the position pays and whether you are qualified. What would you do if you could be whatever you wanted? Why? What’s interesting to you about that dream job?
 
Also picture your perfect life, suggests Randi Bean, president of LifeAfterLaw.com, a Toronto-based recruitment and counselling firm that places lawyers in careers outside the traditional practice of law (www.lifeafterlaw.comyou could live a perfect life, where money was unimportant and you didn’t have to return to school? This question often yields good insights about your interests, too.). Ask yourself, what would you do with your time if
 
 
An evaluation of both your natural talents and transferable skills is also important.
 
Natural talents refer to how you are “hardwired,” notes Whitaker. What things come easily to you? What doesn’t feel like work? What are the least painful tasks for you? These are your natural abilities. “If you work against your abilities, work feels like labour and tasks can feel like torture,” says Whitaker. “If you work with them, everything is easier and more fun.”
 
Skills, on the other hand, are what you’ve learned and practised – your acquired knowledge and expertise. One way to ascertain your skills is to write down several of your accomplishments in life. Use action verbs to describe the accomplishment, like “instructed,” “designed” and “evaluated.”
 
If you group your skills into clusters or categories, you can then pick the skill clusters you most wish to use in a job, says Greenberg. You can also identify jobs that utilize these skill clusters. She points out the following sample skill categories:
 

Management skills
delegating, supervising, troubleshooting, hiring
Communication skills
writing, interpreting, persuading, speaking
Financial skills
record keeping, budgeting, computing, appraising
Manual skills
assembling, drilling, operating, shipping
Helping skills
mentoring, listening, caring, understanding
Research skills
gathering, reviewing, critiquing, extrapolating
Creative skills
creating, visualizing, designing, writing
Teaching skills
influencing, encouraging, explaining, facilitating
Detail skills
inspecting, tabulating, comparing, organizing

 
 
It’s easier to choose an alternative career if you know your personality type and which work environments match your interpersonal style. Several personality and career assessment tests are available.
 
Parker is fond of the Highlands Ability Battery (www.highlandsco.com). The three-hour test, which can be taken online, determines your natural abilities, such as paying attention to detail and conceptualization of ideas. A trained specialist will provide a report interpreting the clusters of abilities.
 
Greenberg finds the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) useful (www.myersbriggs.org). This test assesses four different traits and organizes them into 16 personality types:
 

Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or your own inner world?
Extravert/Introvert dimension
When you gather information, do you focus on basic and practical information or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning?
Sensing/Intuition dimension
Do you make decisions based on logic and consistency or are you more concerned with the people, values and circumstances involved?
Thinking/Feeling dimension
In organizing your daily activities, do you like life to be planned or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options?
Judging/Perceiving dimension

 
Qualified career coaches, counsellors and psychologists administer the full MBTI, or you can obtain a basic interpretation by completing an abbreviated one-hour test online (US$59.95) at www.mbticomplete.com.
 
One study of over 3,000 lawyers who took the MBTI shows that lawyers differ significantly from the general population in three of the four different personality attributes:
 
  • 57% of lawyers are “introverts” (who like quiet time to process information and reflect on ideas) compared to 25% of the general public
  • 57% of lawyers are “intuitors” (who look at new ideas and possibilities and the big picture rather than straightforward, practical and specific information) compared to 30% of the general public
  • 78% of lawyers are “thinkers” (who make decisions based on analytical problem solving rather than values and emotional clues) compared to 47% of the general public
 
If you differ from the lawyer norm, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be a happy and successful lawyer, says Greenberg. But if you decide to stay in law, you “may have to stretch a bit to adjust your preferred style to fit with that of your colleagues.”
 
Ideally, you want a career that aligns with your interpersonal style, so you’re working with your natural tendencies and not constantly battling them.
 
 
People whose work is compatible with their values are more likely to feel satisfied in their careers. If you don’t take into account the things that are important to you – like achievement, status, free time for family – there’s a good chance you won’t feel good about yourself, and you won’t succeed. If you chafe at working under another’s direction, you’re not going to be happy in a job where someone else makes all the decisions. In fact, studies show that there’s a higher correlation between job satisfaction and values than there is with interests.
 
Consider the following values.
 

Money
Is a high salary important?
Adventure
Do you like doing new and different things and activities that involve risks?
Friendships
Is it important that you develop close working relationships with your colleagues?
Recognition
Would you like to be publicly recognized for your work?
Challenge
Do you want work that is challenging and pushes you?
Honesty
Do you need to be able to be frank with others?
Collaboration
Is it important that you work with others, for example, on team projects?
Change and variety
Do you enjoy work responsibilities that change frequently?
Creativity
Do you want the freedom to use your own ideas and the opportunity to create new programs or materials?
Status
Is having a prestigious job important?
Excitement
Would you like an exciting job or work that involves a high degree of excitement?
Leisure
Is it important to have adequate time away from work for friends, family and your own hobbies?
Autonomy
Do you like being independent and working with little or no supervision? Is it important to be able to call your own shots?
Stability
Do you like a work routine and predictable job duties?
Influence
Is it important to be in a position where you can influence others and help change attitudes?
Job tranquility
Would you like a stress-free work environment?
Security
Do you want the assurance of job security and earning a satisfactory income?

 
After reflecting upon your values, aim for jobs that are congruent with your personal and professional priorities.
 
 

Seven Reasons to Leave the Practice of Law

Adapted from The Unhappy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law by Monica R. Parker (Sourcebooks, 2008)
 
Do any of these seven reasons to leave the practice of law apply to you?
 
Reason #1: Everyone else’s job looks fascinating
You are really good at romanticizing everyone else’s job. You see a postal worker drive up to your mailbox and think, “That must be such a peaceful job. You’re working on your own, just dropping mail in the boxes, nobody to bother you.”
 
If you are longing to take anyone else’s job in place of your own, it’s time to take your dissatisfaction seriously. When you’re doing work that you love, you rarely fantasize about having someone else’s job.
 
Reason #2: You’re doing the Sunday night countdown
If you don’t like practising law, Sunday is a hard day. The day goes by much too quickly. All of a sudden, it’s 6:00 p.m., and you realize you only have six more hours left in your weekend. You eat dinner at 7:00 p.m. and note that you only have five more hours. You’re watching your favorite television show at 9:00 ... And you’re not just watching the clock; you get more depressed as the day wears on.
 
Reason #3: You’re bored or overwhelmed
Unhappy lawyers move back and forth between being bored senseless or overwhelmed by their work. When you don’t have enough work, you realize just how uninterested you are in the intricacies of the law. And it’s not any better to have too much to do. Then you’re just stressed about how you’re going to get all of this complicated stuff done.
 
Work should be engaging with just enough challenge.
 
Reason #4: You feel like an imposter
You made it through law school. You passed the bar exam. You’re practising law. Anyone looking in on this scene would think that you are a confident, capable individual. You, on the other hand, are pretty sure that today is the day that a colleague will walk into your office and expose you as a phony. It doesn’t matter how many years you practise. The doubts and insecurities don’t go away. You wonder what’s wrong with you.
 
Nothing’s wrong with you. You have the wrong job. When you find work that’s right for you, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. The doubts don’t go away completely. But rather than overwhelming you, they’re a buzz in the background where they belong.
 
Reason #5: You couldn’t care less about your performance
Is the following description of your last annual review accurate?
 
The partner (or your supervisor) spent the obligatory thirty seconds talking about    what    you’ve done well, but mainly he talked about what you need to do to improve. What were        you thinking while he was droning on? “I have no interest in what you’re saying.”
 
When you enjoy what you do, it matters to you whether you are doing your work well. If you’re not interested in improving your performance, you are not doing the right work.
 
Reason #6: You’re sabotaging yourself
You test the boundaries. You barely make your billable hours, or you don’t make them at all. You do the work, but you take a lot longer than necessary to complete the work. Maybe you do just enough to get by. Perhaps you surf the Web (and don’t care if your firm is monitoring your use), or you visit with co-workers, or you look for any excuse to leave the office – getting your eyebrows waxed, taking your car in to be serviced, a root canal.
 
When your work engages you, you don’t need to test the boundaries.
 
Reason #7: You don’t like practising law
Amazingly simple, isn’t it? When you were a kid, if you didn’t like what you were doing, you stopped and did something else. You didn’t analyze or doubt what you felt.
 
Why is it that, as adults, we lose the ability to trust our instincts? Instead, we say, “I wish I could quit but I have no idea what I want to do. What if I can’t find anything? What if what I want to do doesn’t pay enough?” But what if you find work that is engaging and financially rewarding?
 
Did you see your reasons for wanting to leave the practice of law on the list? If so, it’s time to explore what would be fulfilling work for you. 
 
Do you have different reasons for wanting to leave? Those are good reasons too. If you can’t shake your dissatisfaction with the practice of law, that’s enough of a reason to explore alternative careers.
Preferences about working conditions can also affect how you feel about your job.
 
A useful exercise is to visualize your ideal day at work, suggests Parker. What might that look like?
 
  • Are you working in an office or at home?
  • Are you wearing a suit or jeans?
  • What does your office space look like?
  • Are you working outside or indoors?
  • Do you work flexible hours or a regular 9 to 5 work week?
  • Are you doing something physical, mental or both?
  • Do you take a lunch break?
  • Are you in a large company or a small firm?
  • Do you work alone behind a closed door or around a boardroom table with other colleagues?
  • What kind of people do you work with?
  • How are you treated by the people you work with?
  • Do you have clients whom you see in an office? Or do you work on projects?
  • Do you travel on the job?
Identify any absolute work environment “must haves” and “must avoids” that would make or break your career satisfaction, and use this when looking at new career options.
 
 
 
Several career coaches or counsellors who are lawyers themselves specialize in working with lawyers who want to make a career transition. Most are trained to offer their services by phone; Skype video-conferencing helps to add a personal face-to-face dimension to the communication.
 
Typically the coach or counsellor will go through several reality-based exercises covering your interests, talents, skills and other points discussed in this article – perhaps involving questionnaires that you complete on your own beforehand. The coach will also discuss your options, how you might go about pursuing different fields, the advantages and disadvantages to each, how you would promote yourself as an attractive hire to a new employer when you’ve only practised law, and so on.
 
Expect to pay between $150 to $300 per hour for coaching services if you’re interested in a multi-month plan with regular calls. But limited cost packages are available too.
 
 
Once you’ve fully explored the question, “Who am I?” you’ll be better able to determine what kinds of jobs you would most enjoy.
 
If you decide to make a career switch, recognize that all change is accompanied by some type of stress.
 
Also realize that your next job may not be the one you retire from – two to three different careers in a lifetime is the average today. In fact, if you think of your next job as a stepping-stone, that takes the pressure off of finding the ideal or perfect position. You can always move on from the next job. To evaluate if your next position would be a good stepping-stone in your chosen career path, ask yourself these three questions, suggests Greenberg:
 
  • What new information will you learn?
  • What new contacts will you make?
  • How will the job (your job title or the company you work for) look on your resume? 
 
Good luck, and happy job hunting!
 
 
 
Series of articles in The Complete Lawyer by Anne Whitaker:
 
 
 
 
·         “Personal vision: How to make your vocation your vacation”
http://www.thecompletelawyer.com/law-career-development/personal-vision-how-to-make-your-vocation-your-vacation-3377.html
 
 
·         “How core values and family of origin impact your career”
http://www.thecompletelawyer.com/law-career-development/how-core-values-and-family-of-origin-impact-your-career-3419.html
 
“Creating a satisfying second act in your legal career” by Roy Ginsburg
 
“Career alternatives for lawyers” by Janice Mucalov
 


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