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Leaving The Law: Finding the Right Mix for Your Passions

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Offering legal career advice or mixing up cocktails—both can help members of the bar. Don’t forget to find your passion.
Offering legal career advice or mixing up cocktails—both can help members of the bar. Don’t forget to find your passion.

Ever since experiencing my first career transition out of the law, I knew I wanted to help other lawyers recognize that they, too, had options beyond traditional practice. Whether that meant leaping off from technical or transferable skill sets, or some combination of the two, my gut told me legal professionals were too smart and too multifaceted to simply wither at jobs they found unfulfilling on a personal level.

What I didn’t know was that career transition can become addicting.

Ever hear the old adage, “Life’s too short to drink cheap wine?” I’d make the analogy that life’s also too short to give yourself over to a demanding job that doesn’t pay you back on an emotional level.

Lawyers often make a nice living, but I counsel way too many attorneys for whom the personal toll is just too high. The hours, the stress, and the adversarial nature of traditional law practice today can be an adrenaline rush for some but a nightmare for others.

When enough is enough

We all have different tolerance levels for pain—physical and emotional. I knew I wanted to leave the law after just a few years of practice. But I’ve worked with lawyers who knew they needed a new direction after only six months on the job and students who knew it after one semester in law school. Others’ higher pain thresholds allowed them to stick it out through multiple job changes, multiple medical issues, and even multiple marriages.

Since I can’t accept that there are all that many attorney masochists out there, I choose to believe the reason for the large number who continue to suffer is that they don’t know or understand that viable choices do exist. My first career change from law was into a marketing role in a packaged goods company; I certainly didn’t see that listed as an option when I was in law school!

Why is leaving the law so hard? Investing thousands of dollars and thousands of hours in obtaining a law degree can bind you to the idea of practicing law. The people who love you are proud of you and want you to reap the financial (and other perceived) benefits of your hard work.

But it’s often equally true that those people don’t understand your personal level of frustration or disenfranchisement with the limited range of traditional legal career options. And if you can’t see options beyond the law for yourself, there’s little for others to go on in terms of freeing you from your own restrictions.

My favorite conversations with clients involve hearing about the things they enjoy doing outside of work. Whether their passions revolve around playing or coaching sports, diving into theater or music, investing their money or time in companies or organizations meaningful to them, cooking, reading, volunteering, or whatever else, their demeanor changes and their engagement levels skyrocket as they fill me in.

I’ve even witnessed physical transformations in my clients as they talk. Their posture becomes more upright, their facial color brightens, and a smile replaces the clenched jaw they wore into the office.

Yet it fascinates me how few people, without being coached, stumble onto the idea of following this train of thought toward a new role.

Enter the side hustle

If a complete and total career change isn’t in your immediate future, what about finding joy (and maybe laying the groundwork for a future transition) through a hobby or side hustle?

Working as a former lawyer in brand management set the ball in motion for my next career metamorphosis. Other unhappy lawyers who heard about my move began reaching out to me to find out how I’d made the change.

As I began coaching them informally on the side, it became clear that there was a need and market for this specialty and that I really loved helping other lawyers see the big picture. Motivating them to take the necessary steps to direct their ideas and energies into tackling a career move became a challenge I knew wanted to take. I did my homework, left my corporate role, and my legal Lawternatives was born.

Full disclosure here: In reality, not every pastime will turn into a dream job. You may not make any money, and there may even be some costs associated with getting started.

But know that directing your focus inward will definitely offer you an increase in pleasure and a better and more balanced outlook on life. It will also offer a respite for your mind and body from an overwhelming, overstimulating career in the law and the joy of doing something on a regular basis that nourishes you.

You’ll have the opportunity to learn about different careers and perhaps meet and network with a wide range of people doing things other than practicing law for a living. Your horizons will expand, and other ideas (for work and pleasure) will start to unfold in your brain.

On a personal level, had I not already become a believer in the power and energy that comes with career change, I might never have taken my interest in cocktailing seriously. I might never have invested in bartending school and, without that, I might never have had the credentials to break into any part of the business.

Had I not made connections in the spirits industry through my contacts at bartending school, no one would have known that, as a former practicing lawyer, I had the brain power to learn fast and communicate clearly. That led to a freelance role as a brand ambassador for an emerging brand. That role—as a side hustle—lent me enough “street cred” to start my own signature cocktail business, Mixed metaPours.

A toast to pursuing a passion

At the end of the day, career consulting and mixing signature cocktails really do have a lot in common. Each client has a unique set of tastes that need to be satisfied. Each takes a mix of ingredients, some trial and error, and a bit of creativity and patience to achieve the desired outcome. And each results in a happier, more relaxed member of the bar.

Wishing you all success in your next challenge—whether it’s ahead of you or just a step to the side. Cheers!

Cheryl Rich Heisler Cheryl Rich Heisler, President/Founder of LAWTERNATIVES, offers individualized career consulting to lawyers and law students on exploring careers inside, outside & around traditional legal options. Her own career paths include big law, brand management, professional speaking/writing and mixology! Heisler currently sits on the ABA Career Center Board and writes for both Student Lawyer and Experience Magazine.