Clearing Two Big Hurdles

When I visit Bar Conferences and Lawyers in Transition Committees around the country, I often hear the same two hurdles identified by potentially transitioning lawyers.

How will I know who I am if I’m not a lawyer? (a/k/a the Identity Hurdle)

How will I be able to afford NOT being a lawyer? (a/k/a the Financial Hurdle)

I never dismiss either the Identity Hurdle or the Financial Hurdle. I acknowledge that both are real. But I’ve found that they are sort of tied up in each other and both are definitely surmountable.

So, let’s be impolite. Let’s talk about money.

Interestingly - while most fields consider it gauche to talk about how much money you make, in BigLaw, it’s perfectly acceptable. Salaries and bonuses are published, and for the most part, everyone knows what everyone else is making. Listen, I too remember the security of that feeling. When you leave the law, salaries are secret, hidden, unknown. But here’s the good news – they are also negotiable.

One of my first professional gigs after leaving the law was joining the executive team of a venture capital start-up company. After a few months on the job, I was offered a hefty promotion and it was time to negotiate a substantial raise commensurate with the new position. I was negotiating with the VC firm’s legal counsel who was using all good arguments - meager available funding, short-term sales record of the start-up to date, erratic market, etc, etc.

After he made his counter, I asked him if my requested salary was otherwise reasonable. He said yes. I asked him if he expected me to negotiate with outside vendors in the new position. He said yes, again. I then asked him how he could possibly expect me to negotiate fair prices with outside vendors if I could not negotiate an admittedly reasonable salary for myself.

He was persuaded. I got my raise.

I share this anecdote to help clear both of the big two hurdles.

First, regardless of whether you continue practicing law in the next leg of your journey or not, you are still a lawyer. Three years of law school, thousands of hours of case briefing, a bar admission, and some hefty practical experience is not easily discounted by the world, and you shouldn’t discount it either. Without exception, all of the successfully transitioning lawyers I talk to tell me their legal background is the differentiator in their later success. You don’t need to shed your lawyer identity when you transition away from the practice. You can embrace it. You can use it to succeed in fact.

The second reason I share this anecdote with you is this: that hefty salary I negotiated for myself in the start-up arena? It was still only about one-third of my prior law firm salary. And it all turned out just fine.

 A lot of transitioning lawyers get jammed up on the financial piece, thinking they can’t leave because of money. Lawyers need to ask not ‘how can I replace my law firm salary?’ but ‘what do I really need to make?’ and stop associating their own worth with their billable rate. If you take a hard look at your finances, with consideration of places to streamline, cut back, and reduce, then you can develop a real end game for transitioning. You need to come up with what I call “your number” which is not your prior salary, and not what you believe you’re worth (again, stop equating your value with dollar signs!) and instead come up with the salary you can live on when other reductions and sacrifices are taken into account (your number).

And then what?

Use your still vibrant lawyer identity to negotiate that number.

Does your Bar Association have a vibrant Lawyers In Transition Committee? Share the links with me at I'd love to shout out about them as well! 

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