It pays to be both patient, and proactive when considering a career change

We talk a lot about the importance of being proactive. The reality is that career change takes time. Short-term decisions can have long-term consequences, so it pays to be patient. You’re considering leaving practice. You’ve got a few ideas in mind, but you’re working through a pros and cons list. That’s a great idea. My best advice is to let the finished list sit there, and you can come back to it in 3 months’ time. This may be controversial, but it pays to consider a career change very carefully. Unless you are sitting on a great offer, another three months is time well spent. Any move is emotional, so give yourself the time to make a decision with confidence.

How to approach a career change

How did I approach leaving practice? I spoke to people I respected, absorbed lots of advice, and took my time to make the decision. It was clearly the right thing to do at the time, but I’m still glad I listened to the advice and took my time with the process.

At the outset, it’s important to know that there is no going back. It is rare to leave practice and decide to return. I’m sure people do it, but I’m yet to meet one. There are lots of reasons for this. You’ve moved on, you like what you do now, you can’t be bothered keeping your practicing certificate and the process to get it back is a pain. Whatever it is, people don’t tend to want to return to a practice environment. So your decision is permanent.

It makes sense, then, to first consider whether simply moving firms or jurisdictions is your best course of action. A change of environment, new colleagues and different work could be what you need. If you love to travel, want the overseas experience and are willing to take the plunge, it makes sense to try it.

Either way, you are going to find out if practice is something you can commit to for the long-term. The beauty of the international (or national) move is that you get the personal experience and the exposure to different ways of doing things. Law firms in Australia or New Zealand operate differently to elsewhere. An increase in responsibility, a decrease in politics and exposure to different clients might be what you're looking for.

Ask yourself why you want a career change

As with any change, it's important to consider why you want to make the change in the first place. What's driving you, and how you can align the change with what you value. Finding your "why" requires digging a bit deeper than “I don't seem to like this”. If you don't, you're more likely to make a change that doesn't work out, and you'll have to go through the process again. That's not a terrible thing; your why will keep changing over the course of your life. But it makes sense to understand what matters to you and how something new can deliver that.

The benefits of leaving practice are individual and dependent upon what you end up doing. Maybe you want to work less intense hours or start your own business. Maybe you want to follow a passion, work in a different environment, or take on a new commercial challenge. The benefits you derive will be what you make them.

If you want a better work-life balance there are things you can do that fit and things that aren’t going to deliver that. Just because something is different doesn’t mean it's better. There tend to be different pressures and expectations instead of an absence of them. For many, the key reason to leave is the chance to do something they want to do. Something they've put off doing for other reasons. It makes sense, then, that these people tend to reflect most positively on their move.

What could go wrong?

There are pitfalls and it is worth being open about them. You can view other options through rose-tinted glasses, where reality is different to expectations. Patience is an important part of the process. You need to work through these expectations to find out what you are getting into.

Some people do regret walking away from all the study and hard work it took to get that great job in practice. Many miss the intellectual challenge, the camaraderie and the status. There aren't many other gigs that give you the status kick of working for a top law firm. It can be tough to walk away from that. Some struggle with personal expectations around what they thought they would achieve. The money they thought they would make. How they define success, no matter the outcome of their move.

There are also family expectations that you will need to manage. It was a massive shock for my mother when I decided to go in another direction. She kept asking me for 5 years if I could go back! But you can’t expect others to understand your reasoning - even your mum. The point to all this is that leaving can be great if you are ready. But there are professional and personal challenges that you need to be aware of.

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