Leaving Your Legal Practice is Absurd and Why That’s a Good Thing

by Casey Berman

At the debates around the dinner table growing up, my parents and sister would always roll their eyes at my vociferous opinions and say I was no doubt a lawyer-in-training.

My eighth grade English teacher, my high school debate instructor, and my UC Berkeley advisor all saw how I liked to write, talk and enjoyed expressing my opinion as sure-fire reasons why I should go to law school.

So fast forward now to 1995, my senior in college. The logic I followed when applying to law school went something like this:

“I’m a Jewish kid who doesn’t like blood, so I won’t apply to medical school … and since I’ve been told my whole life I should be a lawyer, I guess I’ll apply to law school.”

 That was my thought process in applying to law school.  I thought more critically about my iPhone purchase years later than I did which graduate school I’d go to for three years of my life and what career I’d pursue.

Way out of my league

I started University of California- Hastings College of the Law fresh out of college. 22 years old and excited for my future, but about to become overwhelmed, beaten down and confused. 

Now, it’s not all law school’s fault. I take accountability. Before accepting admission, I needed to spend the time and effort to become more self-aware of what I was doing and why I was doing it. Going to law school “just because” wasn’t a great reason, which led to my unpreparedness, and that’s on me.

During my 2L year, I took the course Corporate Tax, and an encounter with a fellow tax classmate, Steve* illustrated in how much “in-over-my-head” I was at law school.   One morning in the Hastings cafe, as I hurried to get my assignment done before class began, I saw Steve. He was a bit older than I was, regularly participated in class, and always answered the questions correctly. So I asked him if he could help me.    

Steve generously assisted me, took over my pencil and paper, and knocked out this problem set in about 33 seconds flat.

I was astonished. “How are you so good at this tax stuff?” I asked him.

He looked up at me through his wire rimmed glasses and said “I should be. I was a CPA for 10 years before coming to law school.”

Here I was, on a grade curve, in tax class, with a seasoned CPA. Oh man.

The realization: practicing law is not for me

Fast forward now to 2000. I graduated law school the year prior, passed the California bar (on my second try), landed a job in San Francisco as VP Operations and In-House Counsel at a small software company. 

However, I never fully got into the flow of being an attorney. I leaned heavily on our outside law firm. I felt nervousness anticipating someone would ask me a question about the law that I would not be able to answer. And, I felt someone would “out” me as the imposter that I felt I was.

I found the law too “reactive”, and not proactive enough for my personality. When I was called upon to be the “adult in the room” and to say “no” to business ideas, when my heart actually wanted to create and brainstorm and experiment with these new business ideas. I was trained to manage the risks- when in reality I wanted to take those risks. 

And as I worked more and more as an attorney, even in an ostensibly “cool” in-house role, I realized being a lawyer was less and less aligning with what I found creative and meaningful that I was good at and enjoyed. 

So in 2004, I left the law.

The fears I faced

I left in July of 2004. Actually, I had made the decision to leave way earlier in April 2003. Let’s do the math: I waited over 15 months before I acted on this desire to change my life for the better. 

For a year and 3 months- I delayed, fidgeted, procrastinated and suffered.

Now looking back, I realize that I sabotaged myself for one main reason. I was afraid.

The fears at first seemed diverse and many: Fear of having “the talk” with my boss. The fear of what my parents and friends would think. The fear of how I’d make money in an “alternative career.”. The fear that I’d be considered a “quitter”. The fear that I wasn’t going to get my return on investment of going to law school and being a lawyer.

Through this all, I realized that there really is just one fear we have in leaving the law. One main fear, that all these other fears lead to: The fear of the unknown

People, and especially us attorneys, want certainty and no risk and perfectionism. “Sure I’ll make a life change, no problem!!”, we say to ourselves, “As long as I know before I make the change that everything will all work out for me.”

We all know that life doesn’t work that way. We can’t eradicate the unknown, but we can embrace it. Reminds me of what the writer and professor EL Doctorow said about writing, that I expand to life in general: “Writing (or life) is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Once I trusted my own headlights to lead the way, then I took steps to leave the law by finding my true self. When the anxiety, stress and misalignment of being in a job I didn’t like wore off, I remember thinking to myself “I really should have done this a lot sooner!” 

This realization led me to create something on my own and to help other attorneys who experienced the same fears, frustrations and anxiety as they want to leave the law.

Regret is no use: the inspiration for Leave Law Behind

End of happy story, right? Well, actually the new beginning. 

Even after I left the law, I gave myself a hard time about having gone to law school. I felt I had made a mistake, and I regretted having gone, where back in 1996, I should have searched for a job at one of the tech companies starting up at that time like Yahoo or Google.

Wallowing in pity and anxiety really got me nowhere. I see this choice now for what it was-a selection I made at a point in time when I was doing the best I could do.

Fast forward to summer 2009, when UC Hastings invited me to a speaker series on “Alternative Careers”. A room full of disgruntled, unhappy lawyers looking for a new life … and a pain I realized I could help solve. I then began blogging at leavelawbehind.com and soon took on coaching clients. 

And 2016, in order to help more and more unhappy attorneys find their “alternative” dream career, at a price that was reasonable and affordable, I created the Leave Law Behind Career Coaching Program– the first of its kind online course to help attorneys follow through on their choice to leave the law, at their own pace, with me guiding them each step of the way. 

And now you have the same choice. You can make a change. You can leave the law and find an alternative career that you love, that you enjoy, and that you are good at. 

Absurd = Good

You may call leaving your law practice absurd.  You may call it ridiculous.  You (or others in your life) may think it’s unreasonable or s just not rational.

You may say “Yeah, Casey, we’ll I’m not you, I’m different, I can’t just up and leave.”

I get it. I mean, c’mon, this is your job, right? This is how you pay your bills, how you provide for your children, what you went to school for, poured all of your time and money and effort. This is what people have expected of you.

You make good money, buy what you want, and you like the title.  

Leaving all of this is just absurd, right?

Let me ask you again: Leaving your law practice is absurd, right?

As you nod your head, I smile. This is great.  This is just how it should be.

Because if it wasn’t absurd, it might not be worth talking about.  It might not be worth even thinking about.  It might not be worth attempting.  Because, as Einstein observed, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

So there is hope, for you, and for that idea you have . . . to get that new “alternative” job, to set up that website around that lifelong hobby of yours, to open that store, to live off savings and travel the world for a while, to found that consulting business. There are numerous attorneys who’ve successfully achieved what I just described and if you are having the same thoughts and goals then you can make it happen too.

The very absurdity of leaving law is such a compelling reason to consider it.

*Steve is a fictional name of my former tax classmate.

Casey Berman is a graduate of University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and Founder of Leave Law Behind, a career coaching program that helps unhappy attorneys leave their legal practice for their dream, “alternative” career. Casey focused primarily on software licensing for five years before leaving the law behind in 2004. Since then, his career has helped him develop a wide range of skills, as Management Consultant, VP Operations, Chief Communications Officer and Investment Banker.