Have you spent your entire legal career at a law firm? You may be burnt out and are contemplating your options, but you don’t think you can make it outside of the law firm arena. Maybe you are thinking about changing careers, working for a company or opening your own business, and are concerned about the inapplicability of your legal skills to other areas.
There are lots of normal fears, doubts and insecurities that come with the idea of venturing outside of law firms or even beyond the legal field. You may think that all you have to show for all those countless hours of hard work are your legal experience and excellent writing skills. However, here is a reminder of what law firms with a good reputation instill in their associates. All of these intangible skills are transferrable to any other work opportunity:
– Flexibility. If you came to a law firm with particular expectations of your daily job in mind, working for a demanding firm quickly disabused you of any positive expectations. You had to work long hours, deal with unreasonable deadlines (getting that dreaded call at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon with a task due “by Monday”), not receive any genuine appreciation for your work, get thrown into projects you have had no training or support for, or have your first draft marked up to the point where you wonder if it wouldn’t be more cost-effective for the partner to draft it herself. You have managed to deal with unmet expectations and disappointment by working around them. You have developed mental flexibility and are ready to face whatever unpredictability your next job or business will throw at you.
– Professionalism. Top firms expect perfectionism and professionalism from every employee. You learn to acknowledge emails in a timely manner, meet clients’ and partners’ deadlines, explain mistakes and even deal with irate co-workers or clients in a professional manner. You have honed your attention to detail and have developed a habit of carefully reviewing your work (and you are mortified if the partner still finds an extra space between words and takes the time to correct it).
– Dealing with different egos and personalities. You develop thicker skin when you have to deal with overblown egos or infuriating personalities of clients and partners. In addition, you have to be assertive and confident when you, a junior or mid-level associate, get to negotiate all alone against a much more senior and more powerful partner of the opposing law firm.
– Initiative. You have been assigned projects and gotten that empty feeling of dread because you didn’t have the faintest idea where to begin. You didn’t want to disappoint the partner who expected, reasonably or unreasonably, that you would be able to handle it, so you figured you would find a way to get the assignment done. Now you have the skills of dealing with the anxiety of feeling lost and are capable of taking initiative to figure out what needed to be done.
– Prioritize. Given that there are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week (and you bill most of those hours, leaving the few non-billable daily hours for sleep), you learn to prioritize your time and projects efficiently. You can multi-task and manage multiple deals or cases, respond to hundreds of emails a day and stay on top of the most pressing tasks. Keeping track of your time in 15-minute intervals is an additional organizational tool that law firms have generously equipped you with.
– Mentor and manage people. Considering the overwhelming amount of work, you have had to let go of your perfectionism and accept that having some of the work done by more junior associates, paralegals or assistants is more efficient than trying to do everything perfectly by yourself. You have learned to delegate, trust the people you have to rely on, and mentor and train them to do the drafting, editing or organizing your way. You have become a good manager.
– Working with different types of clients. You have worked with clients coming from a variety of organizations, from non-profits to powerful corporations. You have learned their ways of running the business and have a much wider perspective than being a law firm employee can provide you with. Maybe you have done pro bono work for individual clients from all walks of life. Add that to your skill set as well.
– Entertaining and networking. A lot of law firms require even their associates to network and go on sales pitches to potential clients. You may have (internally and silently) balked at closing dinners with clients or networking events, but these skills will be invaluable wherever you go.
I hope that the takeaway of this post is for you to recognize how many intangible skills can be transferred into other jobs, businesses and fields if you feel stuck in a law firm and are dreaming but are scared of changes. Perhaps acknowledging how many diverse skills you have outside of your legal experience will ease the stresses and anxieties of re-considering your options.
Guest blogger Dasha Tcherniakovskaia has changed careers after devoting 10+ years to corporate law. She has worked as a paralegal at a major financial institution and an associate at a large Boston law firm. She has since received a master’s degree in counseling and works with individuals struggling with the stresses of life.