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Once were lawyers

Once were lawyers

It's no secret that many lawyers are unhappy in their jobs, yet most find it difficult to leave. Claire Chaffey speaks to three lawyers who followed their dreams and launched successful new…

It's no secret that many lawyers are unhappy in their jobs, yet most find it difficult to leave. Claire Chaffey speaks to three lawyers who followed their dreams and launched successful new careers in the process.

That many lawyers are dissatisfied with their career is no startling revelation. For years now, there has been ample discussion about lawyers and their state of happiness or, perhaps more aptly, their state of unhappiness. There are plenty of media reports to indicate that young lawyers are disillusioned, mid-career lawyers are burnt out, and far too high a percentage of lawyers - at all levels - suffer from depression.

But a law degree is not all doom and gloom.

Plenty of lawyers do enjoy their jobs, which is evidenced by the fact Australia has a legal talent pool envied by many outside of the profession.

For many lawyers, the law is a good fit: it suits their skills, their personality, and perhaps even the size of their financial aspirations.

Still, there will always be lawyers who are bored, disheartened or just downright miserable in their legal life.

And while the reasons for this are complex, there's little doubt that some people simply don't fit the mould of the modern lawyer.

But this is by no means fatal for those looking to use a legal background for achieving a fulfilling and successful alternate career. With a bit of inspiration, imagination and courage, any career is possible.

Deciding to leave

Given that lawyers hold some significant technical expertise and education, it's surprising to hear from some Lawyers Weekly readers that they are sticking with the profession of law, despite the fact they don't actually like it.

Author, columnist and critic of corporate life Lisa Pryor posed a valid question in her book, The Pinstripe Prison - How Overachievers Get Caught in Jobs They Hate.

"I am tempted to grab [the malcontent] by the collar and say ... 'why don't you just stop whingeing and leave?'" she wrote.

One person who did exactly that is ABC Four Corners investigative journalist Liz Jackson.

She says she became disheartened with what she perceived as an inability to make a real difference in her job as a juvenile justice lawyer at the Brixton Community Legal Centre in the UK.

"We were just processing our clients, rather than really assisting them," says Jackson.

"Over the years, they started coming back to us. It wasn't the view that I'd had of assisting the downtrodden, and lots of the problems facing the clients were policy failures ... It seemed to me that the solutions to these weren't legal."

Consequently, Jackson made the decision to leave her legal career.

General counsel-turned-gemologist Kingsley Wallman also left behind a successful legal career.

At the age of 39, having slogged it out for many years to get to the top of the multi-national telecommunications company Cable & Wireless, Wallman was presented with an opportunity: he was made redundant.

While this initially came as a shock, he quickly came to see his redundancy as the push he needed to take control of his life and seek happiness. "I got to the point where I thought to myself, enough is enough. I've done it," says Wallman.

"All I had wanted to be was general counsel. I did that for a couple of years and learned to hate it ... [When I was made redundant] my wife and I drove around the States for four months, and during that time I decided to give up law and the corporate life. I wanted to control my own destiny and do something different."

For corporate lawyer-turned-film producer Natasha Pincus, deciding to leave the law was easy.

Despite a love for the law's intellectual challenge, Pincus says she knew early on that she wasn't partial to pressed suits, long hours and fluoro lights - despite the fact her top ten finish at Monash University opened the doors to any firm she wanted. "It was so blatant to me that the legal world wasn't for me, so it was never really a decision - it was just a matter of time," she says.

"[Practising law] became really tortuous ... The people were wonderful, but I quickly realised I was counting down the days until my release."

Taking the plunge

Wallman admits that turning his back on a successful legal career was not easy.

"If the truth be told, it was very hard to jump off the gravy train and into the unknown, and take on some of the risks that come with that," he says.

"My friends and family thought I was mad. My mother said, 'Are you crazy? Why don't you just tear up your money now?'"

And while forfeiting his attractive salary package was hugely daunting, Wallman's niggling discontent - and the realisation he had hardly seen his infant son - was enough to persuade him to take the plunge.

"I had one of those moments where I stopped and thought, 'This is bullshit. It's just bullshit. What am I doing?'"

When Pincus resigned, she was shocked by the reaction of many of her colleagues.

She says that it wasn't so much that they weren't supportive of her plans to pursue her passion (it was, in fact, to the contrary) but that so many people admired her for "getting out".

"I was amazed by the amount of people - who seemed to be quite stable and enjoying their position - who took me aside and said, 'Oh my god, how are you getting out? I wish I could!'" she says.

The revelation that so many of her colleagues felt trapped in unsatisfying jobs was astounding, she says.

"I said to them, 'Just leave. You are institutionalised. You can just go.' But they would say, 'What can I do?'" Pincus understands how fear can hold people back, but believes self-realisation is the key.

"You can never imagine what opportunities will present themselves until you are in a position to accept them, and until you know who you are as an individual, without the cloak of the law on you. [Being a lawyer] is not the be all and end all."

Confronting the challenges

When Jackson left the law, she made a conscious decision to take a different approach to social justice and get into public policy.

Studying economics, Jackson soon found herself working as a policy advisor on women's issues - a job she found enjoyable but, ultimately, equally frustrating.

"I came back [to my job] after a year of maternity leave and found that [almost nothing had been done] in relation to a report I had prepared," she says.

Jackson thus found herself looking for yet another avenue into which she could branch out, and living with journalists provided Jackson with a glimpse at an area in which she could utilise all her skills.

It was only a matter of time before she landed a coveted role on ABC radio and was then asked to prove herself for a role on Four Corners.

"I was given six months to prove myself. [I was told] I'd either make the transition to television in that time, or I'd be out," says Jackson.

"[They were] happy with the six months - and so was I - so that was it really."

For Wallman, leaving the law is the best decision he ever made, but starting afresh required determination and humility.

"I had to study gemology and it took me three years to re-qualify. It was really quite humiliating to ... study in the evenings with a bunch of smart-arse undergraduates who were all smarter, and doing better, than me, when I thought I'd been the master of the universe," he laughs.

Luckily for Wallman, his struggles paid off, and his award-winning business - contemporary jewellery design store Venerari - captures a niche market in which he has been able to thrive, both personally and professionally.

Like Wallman, Pincus did not necessarily step comfortably into her newly chosen career.

"You can end up being a jack of all trades ... and get frustrated with constantly feeling the fool and learning and starting from the beginning," she says.

"You only have so many 're-births' in you before you start to fatigue." These days, however, Pincus is an award-winning film producer, making short films and music videos for Australia's music elite under the banner of Starkraving Productions.

"I get free tickets to Splendour in the Grass and I call Paul Kelly a good mate, so I can't complain," she laughs.

Benefits of the law

Jackson, Pincus and Wallman all agree they have been guided or assisted, to some extent, by their legal careers.

For Jackson, having practised law has given her a definite direction and expertise in her journalism career, and instilled in her the knowledge and confidence to tackle stories which other journalists find too daunting.

"[The law] has given me a comfort zone and an interest in terms of legal stories," she says.

"It has also given me a desire to focus on attention to detail. If someone makes an assertion about something, I really want to find out the basis of that assertion."

Pincus also reaps the benefits of a law degree - though for different reasons.

"In my business world and in my career, as a female ... I just don't get taken seriously. So it is a massive equaliser for the other party to learn that I have a legal background," says Pincus.

"I can see the focus shift straight away, and ... that is invaluable. There is still a stigma attached to [lawyers], and they do get taken seriously. The kudos is great."

But that is not to say that having been a lawyer is an automatic ticket to success in another field.

Hudson recruitment specialist Natalie Treloar says a legal background, though viewed favourably, does not necessarily translate into a job of your choice.

"A legal background is highly regarded for the structured and disciplined approach that comes with it," says Treloar.

"However, employers will always seek relevant skills, competencies and experience for the position they are recruiting for, so a legal background on its own isn't necessarily a strength."

Further, Wallman believes the trend of moving away from generalist practitioners to specialists presents another difficulty for those looking to get out of the law.

"The trend these days of pigeonholing lawyers makes it difficult to jump out of the profession and do something that seems a long way out of your comfort zone," he says.

No regrets

Leaving the law may not be an easy decision, and there are undoubtedly myriad challenges and justified fears.

But amongst those that take the plunge every year, many come out the other side with a rewarding and fulfilling new career.

Wallman, for one, hasn't looked back, and taking the plunge means he now only works two days a week.

"I absolutely made the right decision to get out. Hello! I have a five day weekend. There is no way I'd go back," he laughs.

Pincus, too, has never looked back, and has just one piece of advice for those considering a change of direction.

"Do it," she says.

And with reality television shows like MasterChef currently capturing our imaginations - not least because it showcases ordinary people (and numerous lawyers!) foregoing stability to chase a dream - perhaps there has never been a better time to accept that if the shoe doesn't fit, it might be time to try on another.

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