Do you ever wonder whether you should move into a different profession? Do you resist the question because you don’t know how to start answering it? Before I changed careers from litigation to academia, I spent years quashing my own doubts about whether practicing law was right for me. When lawyers struggle with this issue, they often face a flurry of internal objections. Some fear that they’ll never be able to make as much money or enjoy as much status in another field; some wonder whether they’ll be able to succeed doing something different. Most could use help thinking about transitions in a realistic and productive way.
In my experience, the most successful career reinventions happen when women strategically tap into the skills they enjoy using, not just the ones they are most praised or best paid for. In talking with over a hundred former lawyers while writing Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have, I developed a three-step process for lawyers and anyone else considering a career transition. The three basic steps are: (1) identifying favorite skills, (2) reframing those skills in terms that employers in other fields value, and (3) advocating for yourself by highlighting how your past successes have prepared you to succeed in the field you want to enter.
Step 1: Figure out what you enjoy being good at now. Let’s call these your “preferred skills.” Don’t make the mistake of focusing on skills that other people value, but that you don’t especially like to use. For example, some lawyers are wonderfully persuasive writers. One former partner I interviewed had a reputation as the “Summary Judgment Queen” because of her formidable brief writing skills, but she hated turning out those briefs. If you don’t enjoy writing, you are not likely to enjoy another career that capitalizes on your writing skills, no matter how strong they are. If your goal is to thrive in another career, you first need to identify the skills that energize you when you use them.
Step 2: Think creatively about where your preferred skills might have value outside of your current profession. What other kinds of employers might appreciate them and you? What other kinds of work might you enjoy doing? Networking, or informational interviewing, helps enormously at this stage. Use this opportunity to ask other people to spend 15-20 minutes telling you about what they do, in as much detail as they are willing to give. It’s a universal truth that people like to talk about themselves, especially when you buy them a latte. Listening closely to the details of other working lives can be invaluable for your transition. As you listen, consider whether this sounds like a job you’d enjoy yourself. A “no” is as valuable as a “yes” as you plan your transition.
As you research, you might also think about where and with whom you work best. For example, when I practiced law, I did some of my best thinking in coffee shops, which felt illicit, rather than in my office. In my next career, I wanted more flexibility in where and when I worked. My current job teaching business law gets me out of my office regularly, and allows me to do my academic writing wherever I like. It also allows me to use the counseling and public speaking skills I enjoyed in litigation, without the billable hour requirements.
Step 3: Become an advocate for your next career. Draw on the experiences you’ve already had using your preferred skills as a source of proof that you can succeed in using them elsewhere. Remember that employers prefer candidates who will make their lives easier, and who present the least possible risk. Emphasize your past accomplishments in the kind of transferrable, generalized terms that clarify their value in your next career. By using what you’ve actually done as indicia of your likely success, you can build both your own confidence and that of your employer that you are a valuable, if nontraditional, hire.
The Half Step: Even if you’re not yet sure you want to make a transition, you can take effective “baby steps” toward a new career by applying these principles in a slightly different way. One of the easiest ways to decide whether a transition is right for you is by modifying Steps 1 and 2 (identifying your preferred skills and thinking about alternative ways to use them) to fit whatever time you have. One effective technique is to spend five or ten minutes at the end of every day thinking about what, if anything, brought you real satisfaction. Was there a moment when you felt great about what you did? Conversely, what did you especially dislike about the day? Over time, these observations will show you a pattern that may help spur your thinking. These quick notes help you turn your “gut feeling” into usable data. You can decide what to do with it later, as your knowledge base grows.
Although changing careers is seldom easy, the rewards that come from doing work you love are immense. No matter what field you go into or how long you take to do it, using this step by step approach to transition will help build your confidence and increase your chances of both success and joy in your new career.
Liz Brown is the author of LIFE AFTER LAW: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have (Bibliomotion; 2013). She is an assistant professor of business law at Bentley University and former litigation partner at an international law firm. You can follow her on Twitter @lizafterlaw.