I’m afraid of what my life will be like if I stay but I’m too afraid to leave.

It’s surprising how often I hear this during my sessions with attorneys. Logically, they know that long-term big law life is not for them. They know that they don’t want to be a slave to billable hours forever and they do not see anyone above them who has a lifestyle they want to emulate. They have all sorts of concrete, realistic reasons why they don’t want to stay where they are. But it is rare that I encounter a client who is “ready” to leave.

Why do they stay? The answers usually some of the following:

I don’t know enough yet

There is so much more I need to learn

People will judge me

What if it’s worse somewhere else?

Within that head space are the fears that if they leave, no one will hire them because they don’t “know enough” or that they won’t be able to get a job because they left “too early” in their career as well as the fear that everyone at the firm will judge them as someone who couldn’t hack it or wasn’t a good fit anyway. Lastly, the most important fear of them all–what if it’s a mistake to leave and it’s just worse elsewhere?!

So they stay. They stay and they hate it.

They stay and they are bitter and conflicted about it. They stay and they hate the fact that they don’t know where they want to be in five years.

When you make the decision to head to law school the long pursuit lays itself out before you. So many steps become very clear. You take the LSAT, research law schools, prepare applications, go through the motions of law school, apply to write for journals, do on campus interviewing, get a good summer associate position, and on and on it goes. Then you land the job and 2 years into it, you come up for air and wonder what you are supposed to do next.

It is jarring! Understandably, so! You have just spent close to a decade learning and taking all the right steps and now those steps are exhausted and you haven’t given any thought to the next series of steps.

At this point, the majority of my clients have concluded that they don’t want to make partner but that is the extent of it. Should they go in-house, go to a smaller firm, start their own firm, leave law for good? The possibilities of what can be done with a law degree are endless.

The possibilities of what can be done with your life are also endless.

There is no right or wrong answer.

One of the biggest mistakes I see my clients making is that they wait for clarity to come to them. They continue to go through the motions hoping that some day the path will become clear. Maybe they will get a call from a headhunter with the perfect opportunity for them. Maybe they will get fired! Maybe they will wake up one day and LOVE their job. So they wait. They make good money, they don’t hate everything about their job, so they just stick it out. That type of passivity is why so many people stay in jobs they hate forever.

It’s easier to just wait for something to “feel right” than it is to take control and start making things happen.

The only way to truly get clarity about what you want in life is to start taking ownership for your path and experimenting with what you want. We can’t wait for the opportunities to come to us. We can’t wait for the firm or some partner to dictate our future. We have to take our power back.

First, we have to get clear about what we want for ourselves. What are your goals at your firm? What are the things that you still want to learn or think that you need to learn? There will always be more things to learn, that is simply the human experience. Stop allowing yourself to believe that there is some attainable point at which you will “know enough” and be ready to move on. It’s an empty, shifting target that is rooted in fear.

You will never know it all and no matter what you do next, there will be things you don’t know. 

So instead of allowing for this unattainable point of omniscience, set clear goals that are important to you. Recognize that we are overachievers and have a tendency to want to do all the things and cut your list of items down to three actionable goals. Don’t let yourself create a “learning” ball and chain that keeps you stuck forever. Pick three things that will force you to grow and provide you will valuable skills and focus your energies there.

If you can’t think of three concrete things you want to learn from your current work experience, you are in the wrong place. (Psst, it’s time for a change.)

Second, start taking action on these goals. What will you have to do to make them a reality? This step will likely require you to have some discussions with your partners or your supervisors about the type of work you like or the things you want to accomplish. This alone will force you to flex some new muscles.

Asking for what you want and being clear about your vision for yourself is a lifelong skill. Start practicing now.

No one knows who you will be or what you will want to do with your life once you attain those goals. That is the point. The point is to challenge yourself to grow and develop. Law firms are businesses and so are you. Use every experience as an opportunity to grow the value and worth of your business. The firm is certainly using you for its purposes, start using it for your own. Decide what you want to get out of the experience and make it happen.

The last part of this process is just recognizing that your primitive brain is going to try its best to keep you safe. We are biologically programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So when we shake up our lives, start asking for what we want, or consider leaving the comfort of our current job, our brains lose it. Our brain goes into protection mode and starts offering all sorts of reasons why we can’t do that–you don’t know enough, you’re not ready, people will judge you, etc. Sound familiar?

Just because your brain offers you those thoughts, it doesn’t mean they are true. It doesn’t mean they are a message from the universe to stay where you are. It is biological pre-dispositioning.

As you evaluate where you want to be in life, KNOW that your brain is going to try and talk you out of it. Know that you are going to have doubts and fears. That is normal! The question is, are you going to allow that mind chatter to keep you stuck or are you going to do the hard thing and evolve? The choice is yours.

Unclear about your next move? Get some free support by signing up for a free coaching session. Sometimes all we need an unbiased perspective to see things more clearly.

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

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