When Is the Right Time to Lateral? Taking Inventory and Taking Action

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by Valery Federici, Esq., CPC, ELI-MP

Valery Federici is a former BigLaw corporate lawyer who now coaches driven, left-brained lawyers to create work and lives they love. View her offerings at https://www.valeryfederici.com/
Together with her partners, she has just launched a signature course, The Leveled Up Lawyer, which teaches foundational coaching concepts in a self-paced, bite-size video format. Registration for The Leveled Up Lawyer closes September 21. For those curious about the course, Level Up Legal is hosting a FREE masterclass for lawyers: Manage Your Energy, Reclaim Your Time on Tuesday, September 20 — click here to register.

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” – Steve Jobs            

One of the most important things you can do for your own happiness is to regularly pause and evaluate your practice and experience, even during your busiest times.  Understanding what excites you and what drains you is key in determining whether it’s time to make a move and what that move might look like.

The last few years have been heady times for lawyers. Career-making market conditions across many practices, but inconsistent feast-or-famine cycles in others. Even in the good times, those record high billable hours bring personal challenges, to say nothing of the constant struggles of COVID. As a career and life coach for lawyers, it’s rare that I talk to clients (and friends!) who aren’t at least considering options these days, if they feel there is something off or missing in their current role.

You are probably lucky to have some choice of career moves. But the process of beginning to discern what you really want can feel completely overwhelming. This often leads to analysis paralysis and then inaction. You may be unhappy where you are, but you’re also busy.

If you’re anything like my clients, you’re likely contemplating:
1.      Staying where you are (but with some changes),
2.      Moving to a different firm,
3.      Moving to a non-firm environment (e.g., going in house or to government), or

4.      Leaving practice (e.g., taking a hybrid business-and-legal-affairs role; going into knowledge management, recruiting, or business development; or starting a business).

Even just looking at that list above may cause anxiety. I get it!  This is one reason why many of my clients have sought out coaching: to help make this thought process less overwhelming.

Here are six strategies to cut through the noise, get in touch with what you really want, and make moves to get it:

Evaluate What’s Not Working:

1.      Take inventory. Ask yourself what you really love about your practice. What gives you energy and lights you up? And, by contrast, what do you dread? What drains your energy and leaves you with the Sunday scaries? Maybe you savor a string of days alone to turn a complex set of facts into an unbeatable argument. Or maybe you can’t think of anything more boring, but you’d love sitting around a conference table hashing out regulatory strategy with colleagues. Be as completely honest (and compassionate) with yourself as possible: this is not the place for judgment. Whatever it is that you love (or hate), let yourself get it all out on paper without having to justify it to anyone else.
2.      Apply a scale. Amplify your inventory of likes/dislikes by rating them on a scale of your own choosing. For example, from 1 – 10, how important is each item to you? Or what is a ‘must’ versus a ‘nice-to-have’? It can also be useful to apply a scale to your desire to leave: how urgently do you want to change your situation?

3.      Weigh the pros and cons of staying.  Your scaled inventory should give you a great snapshot of where you are right now. Now, take your ‘must-have’s’ (or the items at the top of your scale) and consider how much your current role is giving you of each. This exercise should give you great insight into whether making a move makes sense. With that clarity, you can begin to take action.

Plan Your Next Move:

4.      Evaluate what you can control. How much of what you don’t like in your inventory is changeable? What steps could you take to make changes? For example, if you identified that the primary driver of your unhappiness is the type of work you’re doing, could you speak to leadership in your group and switch up your mix of projects or clients?
5.      Swap negativity bias for positivity bias. All humans are wired for negativity. It’s in our nature that negative thoughts are more powerful than positive ones, and we are more motivated to avoid loss than to secure potential gains. But it’s even worse for lawyers—no surprise for a population known for being risk-averse. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, notes that lawyers are unique among professionals in that law is the only profession in which being more negative is correlated with greater professional success. Your natural skepticism serves you well in legal analysis – but it may hold you back when it comes to your life choices. If you’ve had any thoughts like, “It won’t be different anywhere else,” or, “There’s nothing I can do to change my situation,” negativity bias might be taking over. The great news is that once you’re aware your brain works this way, you can consciously change. Knowing that your brain will serve you up plenty of data against making changes, it’s your job to look for the positive until you’ve tallied at least twice as many positive thoughts (or possibilities) as negative ones. Apply this tactic again every time you catch yourself in a negative thought.

6.      Get into action. Let your intuition guide you to the next right step. Is it a chat with a trusted mentor, putting out feelers in your network, updating your resume or LinkedIn profile, or browsing job openings or firms on Lateral Hub?

A final note: If you were my client and I were guiding you through these steps, I would remind you to (i) pace yourself in your process, (ii) give yourself credit for your efforts along the way, and (iii) lean on your resources. Coaching, career counseling (at your firm or alma mater), and therapy (for the really tough times) are all immensely helpful, and probably more accessible than you might think.

I hope these strategies help to contain the chaos. I’d love to hear what resonated most with you!  Shoot an email to newsletter@lateralhub.com

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