On Well-Being

How to mindfully navigate a career transition

  • Print


“I think about walking out of my job all the time, but I have no idea what I’d do. All I know how to be is a lawyer.”

This is something I hear frequently from the lawyers I work with. Many lawyers excelled in academics, so they just followed the list: Do well on the SAT, get into a good college, do well on the LSAT, go to law school, pass the bar, get a good law firm job and eventually make partner. They believed this path was the ticket to a comfortable, secure and happy life.

Yet, for some, checking all the boxes and being successful only leads to discontent and a feeling that there must be something more to life. Navigating a career transition is often a messy and complicated journey. Lawyers tend to strongly identify who they are with what they do. A frequent question I see lawyers struggle with is, “If I am no longer a lawyer, who am I?” They fear what others would think of them if they left the law. It’s scary to think about abandoning the incredibly difficult and long journey. They take pride in how hard it was to get to where they are.

I often see that these feelings of discontent were there for a long time. There was an inner voice that told her she didn’t really want the law firm job, but she took it anyway because she should. She struggles to find meaning and fulfillment in her work, but she can’t. The crushing billable hours and the grind of the work leaves very little time for anything more. Then one day, she looks up and realizes she’s been at this job for 11 years.

If this sounds familiar to you, here are some mindful practices that may help to guide you and make a more easeful transition.

Let Go of ‘All-or-Nothing’ Thinking

Often, lawyers will get stuck in binary thinking. “I have to quit my BigLaw job immediately or stay forever.” Having to choose between two monumental decisions generally tends to cause anxiety. The thought loop might look something like this. I hate my job, but I can’t quit because I still owe $150,000 on my student loan. I have to pay the mortgage and my kid’s nursery school. Besides, I have no other skills, so I can’t do anything else.

Consider the possibility that there may be many alternatives that you just can’t see yet. Change the inner dialogue to: I’ve been a lawyer for a long time, so it’s going to take some time to figure out what I want to do next. I don’t have to make a decision right now. I have time to explore. In the meantime, I am grateful that I have the means and the resources to be able to figure things out.

Start to identify “all-or-nothing” thinking. Every time you catch yourself stuck in that thought loop, practice replacing it with a more helpful thought.

Follow Your Curiosity

When I was going through my own career transition, the coach I was working with asked, “What do you love to do?” Confused, I asked for clarification. She asked, “Do you have hobbies? Things you do simply because they give you joy?” The answer was that I didn’t. I just didn’t have time for anything more than work and family. The idea that I could take time for myself and do something for the sheer joy of it was so foreign to me. Also, it felt self-indulgent and selfish.

Over the course of a year, with a lot of gentle nudges from her, I eventually did start to explore my curiosity. I signed up for a fiction writing class, a public speaking class, and I tried beer making. I bought a sewing machine and started sewing again. I learned how to make bread from scratch. I reached out and met people who had interesting jobs. I started taking long walks on Sunday mornings, intentionally leaving the iPhone in the car. I started to learn and identify when I felt joy.

Eventually, when it came time to find the next job, all of these seemingly unrelated practices fell into place. I knew myself better, and I was able to easily identify those opportunities that felt right—and perhaps more important, those opportunities that weren’t meant for me.

Carve out a small chunk of time, even if it’s just 30 minutes a week, and put it on your calendar. Earmark that time to do something you enjoy. It can be reading a fiction book, writing, going to a class or going for a bike ride. Don’t worry about whether you’ll actually enjoy the activity or not. Don’t worry about whether it’s making good use of your time. Simply choose something that sparks your curiosity or something that seems like fun—and try it.

Be Gentle With Yourself

You’re not bound by who you thought you should be when you were in your 20s. There was no way for you, as a 20-something, to know what you should be as a 40-something. It’s OK to change. It’s OK to take a detour.

I recommend keeping a journal to write down what you’re experiencing and to help you untangle some of the complex emotions. Notice the inner critic. What is that voice saying? How is that voice keeping you small? How is it holding you back?

One of my favorite mindfulness exercises is by Dr. Kristin Neff, who studies compassion. Set aside a bit of time, and repeat the following phrases:

May I give myself the compassion that I need.

May I learn to accept myself as I am.

May I forgive myself.

May I be strong.

May I be patient.

Finally, recognize that you may go through many careers in your lifetime, and this is OK. Give yourself the permission to course-correct. Ask yourself: What would I tell my best friend or my child if she struggled with the same issue? Have an open mind.

As the adage goes: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Go to jeenacho.com/wellbeing for an audio version of the compassion practice.

Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco. This article was published in the ABA Journal magazine with the title “Changing Course.”


Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.