Despite years of training and a secure job in a good firm, many still choose to leave the law. Lisa Gazis, managing director of Mahlab Recruitment in NSW, looks at the options, as well as the need to think twice, for those who want a career overhaul.
Recently I met a lawyer who told me that they had left the law after many years of practice. The lawyer said they simply had had enough. They woke up one day and decided they needed to take a break. They sought leave of 3 months from their employer. During their break they decided they could not return to practice. They wanted more control over their life than what their role could offer and they wanted to get away from legal work, the pressures of billing and client demands. They resigned. The next two months were spent Googling employment agency sites, job boards and networking to get an understanding of their options and to let others know they were available — but, for what? They could not see what they could offer beyond legal knowledge and experience.
For some lawyers there will come a time when they question what lies beyond the practice of law. Some will conclude that for the most part they enjoy being a lawyer and stay in the law. Some will transition to another career because they seek another challenge while others will make a change because they simply do not enjoy being a lawyer. Today there is no stigma in leaving the law and a career change is often applauded or even envied. Gone are the days where legal practice is a “cradle to grave” profession.
Some lawyers move beyond the practise of law early in their careers. Being young, and typically gen Y they seek different challenges, are less risk averse, are confident of their abilities and are open to all the possibilities. Many of these young lawyers are focused on achieving moves into the corporate world with growing successful organisations. They are not fussed about how many careers they will have in their working life as long as they are engaged, learning and developing and of course, earning a good income. They are not looking for a backward or easy move; they are simply using their career in the law to open up other options.
Senior lawyers moving outside the law tend to do so with more trepidation than their younger colleagues. In part, due to the financial and personal risk involved — the stakes are higher. For others their identity is more strongly linked to the role they perform or after many years in the profession it is very difficult to see an alternative path.
Throughout my career I have spoken to many senior lawyers wanting to move. Some of those have not been entirely satisfied with their careers, have thought about an alternative but have not done anything to make a change. After many years, a significant event can happen which impacts on their lives and forces a career change. This event can sometimes be job related, for example a restructure which may result in the loss of the role they are performing or a personal event such as a death of a close relative or friend. What is most interesting though, is once the event occurs and change happens they find they survive and learn a lot about themselves, their resilience and the value of their legal experience and knowledge in the market. Most of all, they appreciate there is life and career beyond the law. For those that do make the choice and the move, they feel ‘liberated’.
Senior level lawyers who have planned and taken an alternative career path have often advanced into more senior positions with greater influence. Many have moved into commercial roles as senior members of business and corporate teams, others set up their own businesses and consultancies often outside of the law.
In my years at Mahlab I have seen many lawyers move from legal practice in to other careers. Many have gone on and become extremely successful. Examples include John Colvin (ex Freehills partner and now CEO and Managing Director of the Australian Institute of Company Directors), John O’Sullivan (ex Freehills Partner and Ex General Counsel of the Commonwealth Bank, now Chairman of the Australian Investment Banking Department of Credit Suisse (Australia) Limited), David Krasnostein (Ex NAB General Counsel and Ex Telstra General Counsel, now CEO at MLC Private Equity).
But success stories aside, I recommend lawyers think carefully when considering a career change. This is particularly those who seem disillusioned with legal practice. Lawyers who are disillusioned by their current role need to differentiate between a bad job choice and a bad career choice. A common complaint by lawyers is that they are working unreasonable hours and want to obtain work / life balance. Often the job is not right for them. Some lawyers opt out of law because they believe work / life balance is not possible in law. It is possible. It may mean downsizing from a larger to a smaller legal practice, changing practice areas, for example changing from a transactional practice to an advisory focused one or working part-time or on a contract basis.
Lawyers sometimes complain that their roles do not give them enough people contact. They rarely see a client, work on part of a transaction and never see the effect of their work on the business. It may be that of a move to an in-house environment is more appropriate than a career change.
After many years in one profession, it was hard for the lawyer I mentioned earlier to appreciate the skills they had developed. Legal practice allows lawyers to develop strong transferable skills. These include analytical and reasoning skills, research skills, organisational skills, communication skills, business development and marketing skills and, problem solving skills.
During this journey this lawyer also reshaped their definition of success. It is interesting that when lawyers decide to make a transition out of law many will reconsider what success means to them. Money and a high powered career are lower priorities and success is defined as being happy, achieving goals and having a positive impact on others.
Analysing how one views themselves on a personal and professional level are part of the journey in deciding to transition out of law and in understanding what you want. A transition requires self analysis and understanding. You need to know the skills, abilities you have that may be transferable and what interests you. You can then begin to research and consider what other careers can offer you. This research and analysis has helped many lawyers make successful career transitions and not romanticise a career move.
You also need support. A career change is a big move. I remember many years ago wanting a career outside of law. When I was offered a role at Mahlab I was unsure as to whether I could be successful. Were it not for the support and encouragement of those close to me I may never have made the transition. Here I am 20 years later.
We live in times where career transition is possible. If work is not “doing it” for you, the best thing you can do is seek out the options and be willing to move when you find your new career. Do your self analysis, determine your priorities and values, what interests you and seek out opportunities. You will be very pleasantly surprised with what lies ahead.
“Come to the edge, he said. They said: We are afraid. Come to the edge, he said. They came. He pushed them and they flew” — Guillaume Apollinaire.
Lisa Gazis is the Managing Director of Mahlab Recruitment (NSW). She manages the NSW recruitment operations and is also actively involved in the strategic recruitment of legal professionals, partner and legal team recruitment. She works closely on senior corporate and partner level search and recruitment campaigns.