Not all that long ago, a few days before the Christmas holiday, I found out that I was going to be laid off from the New York law firm where I worked. The fact that I was being laid off came as a total shock notwithstanding the state of the economy since 2007. I had survived something like four prior rounds of layoffs, my billables had always been excellent, I had a winning track record of success in litigation and I was generally well-liked at the firm. I was in denial that a layoff could happen to me.
In some sense, the timing couldn’t have been worse, but in one sense, it couldn’t have been better: two weeks before finding out that I was going to be laid off, I had hired a coach to help me work through the fact that I had actually been quite unhappy in my career for some time. Through my work with my coach, I found a way to build a new, wildly satisfying career within months of what would otherwise have been a devastating event.
I now coach other lawyers, including lawyers in transition. Although each client is different, I’ve found that the following steps are helpful to virtually every lawyer undertaking a career transformation.
1) Remember that in Darkness lies the Seeds of Possibility.
Once the initial shock of being laid off or terminated passes, I often find that many attorneys are secretly relieved by what has occurred. Like me, many have quietly been unhappy for some time in their jobs, and looking back, may have even hoped for such an event to trigger transformation that they were afraid to undertake.
Following the transitional event, I ask clients who are struggling with the emotions of shame, fear and loss of identity to consider whether they can see any benefits to what has taken place, and whether the job transition can in fact be viewed as a step toward empowerment rather than a step back. What opportunities might be available now that might not have been available before?
For me, my first great joy post-layoff was being able to have breakfast with my husband instead of racing off to work—something that we had never experienced in our married life. A partner at another firm who lost his job in an office closure discovered the unexpected pleasure of finally having the time to finally pursue an interest in stand-up comedy. Another relished the opportunity to go to a yoga class in the middle of the day.
Finding inspiration and even excitement in the transition is the first step to moving forward. Take advantage of the new opportunities available to you and enjoy them—they are reminder that life, thankfully and joyfully, goes on.
2) Tap Into What You Want.
When we are in transition, identifying what we want from a career, as opposed to what we don’t want, is often difficult. I ask clients to undertake writing exercises when they are struggling with identifying their ideal next career step. This requires finding a quiet place where you will be left alone for at least an hour. After taking a few moments to relax, whether through deep breathing, meditation, or other relaxation exercises, sit down with a pen and paper and focus on one question: if money, prestige and the opinions of my friends/family/significant other were no object, what wildly inspiring career path would I undertake– the idea of which makes me overjoyed?
This exercise can take some time and even a few passes, but is often a critical step in recovering from a traumatic job event, because it reminds us that a new professional life is coming, and that we can create it as we wish. If, however, you are one of the many lawyers out there who suffer from burn-out and find that you are only able to focus on what you don’t want as opposed to what you do want, it’s time to talk to a coach or other professional who can help you to tap back into your heart.
3) Tackle Your Saboteurs.
Any dream job is just a dream without execution. Many unhappy lawyers know what they secretly want to do next in their professional lives even as they sit miserably plodding along in a job they despise. What keeps them there? Thoughts such as: I’m scared I’ll never amount to anything if I start my own law firm. My father will not be proud of me if I become a cupcake baker instead of being a lawyer. Becoming a freelance writer will never be as prestigious as being a lawyer. What if I fail? Repetitive thoughts such as these—and we all have them—can multiply a thousand fold once we have lost a job. They are saboteurs on the path to future career satisfaction, and must be addressed head on.
For example, when I realized that I didn’t want to go back to a law firm post-layoff, I was truly afraid that my father would stop being proud of me if I chose to not return to practice (and this at forty years old!). I tackled this saboteur by literally sitting down with my father, despite my fears, and asking him whether he would still be proud of me if I chose another career path. Of course, the answer was a resounding yes.
Each of our sabotaging voices must similarly be dealt with as directly. Overcoming the fear associated with those voices also empowers us to move forward toward what we truly want.
4) Seek Out Positive Advisors and Role Models.
All of us need support in times of transition. This is not the time to surround yourself with naysaying friends and colleagues who will reinforce the saboteurs already at work in your own head. Hire a coach who will support and guide you through your transition. Surround yourself with friends who believe in you and in your ability to become the person you want to be. Most importantly, seek out those who are successful in the profession or legal environment that you admire, and ask them how they achieved that success. Very successful, seemingly busy people will almost always make time to help out someone who is interested learning from their experiences. Tapping into that success is also a wonderful reminder that others have become what you seek to become now.
5) Execute, One Step at a Time.
It is all well and good to dream of changing careers or starting down a new path within the law, but execution is often the scariest part. I suggest that clients who are confronting fear (a big saboteur) take the execution of their professional goals one step at a time. When I was starting my coaching business, I had a period of time where I didn’t know how I was going to get from being laid off from my big law firm job to actually launching my business. In order to deal with this fear, I sat down and literally made a list of everything I knew I had to tackle at that moment in order to get from A to B. Sure enough, one by one, those items got ticked off my list. Each single step built the muscle of believing in myself, and each step, however small, pushed me further along the path to my dream.
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