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Your legal experience is an asset, not a trap

That long-term career plan? It can be limiting. Instead, start with a shorter vision.

As a professional development coach for lawyers, I don’t use many technical legal skills in my day-to-day work.

However, going to law school and practicing corporate litigation for a few years were critical to helping me figure out what I wanted to do with my career in the long term.

These experiences provided me with firsthand exposure to various facets of the legal industry, and they gave me the precious gift of time to think about what I liked and didn’t like in my average day as a working professional.

Today, I find my career highly fulfilling and extremely relevant to what attracted me to law in the first place.

How I got here

I knew almost immediately upon starting my career that I didn’t want to be a lawyer forever, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I had a false belief that, before I left the legal field, I needed to understand exactly what my future career path would be in its entirety.

On top of this self-imposed pressure, I worried that if I left the law completely, all of the time, energy, and money I spent in law school and in my legal practice would be wasted.

My fear and worries were so strong that I convinced myself to stay in practice several years longer than I wanted to, even though I knew it was an unhealthy fit for me.

In my current role with a company that specializes in coaching legal professionals, I work with lawyers at all levels who are going through struggles similar to the one I experienced in those early years. Some of my clients find a lot to love about their law practice but suspect they might eventually want to move into a job that better supports their interests and goals— whether something adjacent to law or something completely different.

Because they think they need to have a 5- or 10-year plan in place before making any major decisions, however, many end up staying in their job with dwindling workplace engagement and a disheartened personal outlook.

Think small, in a good way

I’ve learned a lot from leaving my legal practice and beginning a new career in professional development. The most important lesson, though, was that following a 5-, 10-, or 20-year plan for any career is pretty unrealistic.

It turns out that nothing in life is permanent. External circumstances change as life unfolds—you may switch cities or have new financial or family commitments. Your internal interests and desires might change, too. A job that felt invigorating at age 30 might feel draining at age 50.

So instead of sitting behind my law firm desk trying to guess what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I decided to focus only on figuring out what I could see myself doing for the next two years. Once I made that shift in perspective, I felt freer to explore career options I was curious about.

For me, that curiosity involved working in learning and development at a law firm. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that type of work forever, but I knew it was interesting enough to motivate my career switch and sustain me for several years. (I also realized that if I was wrong in this choice, it wouldn’t be the end of the world; I could pivot again and still be OK.)

This first job helped me discover that my favorite aspects of my work were coaching and training lawyers to achieve their personal and professional goals. That knowledge helped me tailor my next job search to be even more specific to what I love—finding a place where, even though I’m no longer at a law firm, I still provide professional development coaching and training to attorneys and other professionals.

It’s all cumulative

Another lesson I learned is that every experience builds on the last so that your past is continually enriching and informing your future. My nontraditional job in the legal field still benefits from my formal legal training and school experience—that effort and money wasn’t a waste at all.

Had I not started my career as a lawyer, I’d never have known that the type of work I do now was even an option. And my experience working in law firms has given me a personal connection to and passion for my work, as well as a network of colleagues and an insider’s knowledge of the legal industry.

Your previous experiences can never be a waste. No matter how untraditional your job or career may be in the end, you always bring along with you the skills, wisdom, and networks you’ll have developed in law school and in all of your past opportunities.

A nontraditional legal career may seem daunting after living and breathing the law for several years in school or in practice. But remember that you don’t need to plan out your entire career before you make a change. And all the effort, energy, and money invested into your legal career will set you up for success, no matter where your career takes you.

Rather than feeling trapped by your decisions to go to law school and practice law, get curious about what work interests and excites you. Then think creatively about how your previous legal experience can help get you there.

Katie Aldrich Katie Aldrich is a coach at Fringe Professional Development. Katie spent almost ten years working in law firms, first as a litigator and then as a professional development manager. Along with providing individual and group coaching, Katie has developed and delivered programs on career development, building effective relationships, and mindfulness for lawyers.