The other day I was coaching a client — a lawyer who is moving into his next act. Although he is excited about his new project and about into next phase of his career, he feels the challenge of developing the new venture while still doing legal work part-time.
He admitted that he is reluctant to let go of legal practice, in part because he invested a lot of time and money into law school and into developing his skills and expertise.
He believes that if he doesn’t continue to maintain a foot in his legal practice he will lose his skills.
It seems like a “waste” to leave behind his skills just as he is finally reaching proficiency and being recognized in his area of expertise.
I know this challenge well; I faced it when I left legal practice to start my business as a residential real estate broker.
There’s lots to unpack in this situation. His surface challenge is divided focus, but this is really about a fear of letting go, not just of his old career but also of the identity he built around it. His surface problem runs deeper into issues regarding time, status, cultural conditioning, expectations, and more.
Most pressing for my client was the idea that he would lose his skills if he didn’t keep practicing law. This idea was implanted in him by others, and he believed it even though he could see that trying to continue that job was interfering with his new venture.
Skills vs Application
What I want to address here is the distinction between the skill and the application of that skill.
My client’s mindset had a pure lineage to our cultural conditioning.
For the first few years after I left my role as an attorney to start my business as a residential real estate broker, people frequently asked why I left law. More specifically, they asked something along the lines of:
Why would you leave law after you spent all that money and time to become a lawyer?
Or they would say things like,
If only you had known you didn’t want to be a lawyer, you could have avoided the expense of law school and all that time as an attorney.
Interesting to note that the only people who didn’t say these things to me were other lawyers. It’s not just because they know why people leave the legal profession. It’s that lawyers know that law school teaches a way to think, not law.
You Take Your Skills With You
When I left the practice of law, I didn’t abandon my lawyer skills. In fact, I use those skills every day in all areas of my life: in my real estate practice, in my coaching, in speaking, and in developing comedy and blog articles and programs.
In fact, it was the skills I cultivated as a lawyer that allowed me to see the patterns in what I do and realize that I can help more people by expanding into coaching and speaking.
How to See vs What to Look For
Law schools teach a way of seeing and thinking more than they teach what to look for.
Yes, we learn some substantive law. But laws change. The essence of what we learn is issue spotting, seeing patterns, building an argument, seeing all sides of an issue, persuasive writing, asking questions. As an attorney I cultivated skills in advocacy and honed my ethics.
Law school exams are open book. The test is not about the substance of the law, it’s whether you can see the issues raised by a fact pattern.
The skill is in the methods and process. Laws change; its inevitable that if you’re out of the mix for a while you’ll lose touch with the substance of the law. The skill is in the methods and processes you cultivate. For lawyers, the skills of issue-spotting and seeing patterns, the mastery of analysis and persuasion, questioning, ethics, advocacy — you take these with you.
Master the Skills, Evolve the Application
Understanding this distinction can help you see your through line as you embark on a career change.
To outsiders, my evolution from lawyer to real estate broker to coach and speaker, seems like radical changes. To me, it’s just been a gradual shifting of the application of my skills as I continued to pursue mastery in them.
Whenever you move from one thing to another, you must give up some things. That’s the nature of life: destroy to create. But your skills and experience are never in the discard pile. You take those with you because they become a part of you.
Skills remain. Just the application differs.