Is Being Risk-Averse Keeping You Stuck In Your Legal Career?

risk aversion

How to overcome one of the biggest blockers to career change for lawyers

Risk.

As lawyers, it’s something we talk to clients and colleagues about regularly: “How do we minimise the risk of..?” or “What are the risks involved with doing..?”

Assessing risk is also part of human nature.

The reason we have survived and thrived as a species is that we’re still firmly connected to that prehistoric part of the brain that keeps us safe by avoiding danger, being suspicious of the unknown, and viewing any changes with extreme caution.

As lawyers, we spend our days carefully looking for the legal versions of the sabretooth tigers, poisonous plants and unsafe caves our ancestors were trying to avoid.

You can therefore see why many lawyers who are no longer happy in their careers adopt a “better the devil you know” attitude and put up with being unfulfilled at best and harming their mental and physical health at worst.

Negative Bias

But it’s even worse than that, I’m afraid!

Human beings have an innate negativity bias.

This means that our emotional response to negative events or outcomes is heightened.

Of course, that’s a really useful survival mechanism that prevents us from doing something again that nearly killed us the first time.

But in our thoroughly modern brain, it can also manifest itself in an enhanced negative emotional response to things that might do us harm, but that we’ve not yet experienced.

And what else are we trained to do as lawyers? To imagine the worst-case scenarios for our clients and mitigate against them.

The problem is that this tends to make us over-think the risks in other areas of our life.

Signs that risk aversion is holding you back

What are some of the signs you might be in a situation where your attitude to risk is the thing that’s holding you back rather than circumstances?

If you find yourself saying: “I know I need to make a change, but I’ll stick it out here for another year and see if things improve”, that’s risk-averse thinking – and guess where you’ll most likely be in a year’s time? And then the year after that. And then in another five years?

If you are always focusing on what you might lose (good salary, security, network, prestige) and never on what you might gain (variety, self-determination, fulfilment, happiness, balance), that’s risk-averse thinking.

For some people, risk-aversion doesn’t rear its ugly head until it’s time to take concrete action.

During the planning and research phase, you’re full of positivity and focusing on the benefits of making a change, but when the chips are down your negative bias runs in to crash the party and tell you it’s not worth the risk.

Here are some typical things I hear from my career coaching clients when we start to work together – do any of these sound familiar?

  • “I can’t afford to earn less.”
  • “I’m worried I won’t be able to go back to the law if this change doesn’t work out.”
  • “What if I don’t like my new career?”
  • “What if I make the wrong decision?”
  • “What if the grass isn’t greener?”

How to overcome risk-aversion

So, what are some of the strategies that I use with my clients to help them overcome their natural lawyer’s tendency to avoid risk-taking?

List

The first thing to do is rather “old school”, but it works.

Make a list of all the pros and cons you can think of about changing your role or career and about staying where you are.

The key here is to be as objective as possible when you’re doing this.

Running it past a trusted friend, career coach or other objective advisors can be a good way to check that you’re not unconsciously favouring one side over the other.

Sort

Now sort your cons list into long-term and short-term negatives and compare them objectively.

This can help you understand if you are focusing on near-term pain over much longer-term (and potentially more serious) downsides.

One classic example is to compare the short-term pain of taking a cut in pay if you change your career with the long-term damage to your mental and physical health if you keep doing what you are doing now.

Test

Now you really need to test some of the fears you’ve written down – again this is best done with the help of someone objective who can make sure you’re assessing things accurately.

Is it really true, for example, that if your new career didn’t work out you’d never be able to get work as a lawyer again?

Would you really lose your house if you moved to a new job only to be “let go” early in your new career?

Would your family really suffer if you took a job with a lower salary but that made you much happier?

If you’re working through this on your own, then do something for your personal life that you have almost certainly done for your clients – imagine some worst-case scenarios.

By picturing the biggest fears (losing the house, losing your family, and whatever other “big ticket” negatives you have) you force yourself to work through all the many bad things that would have to align before that actually happened.

This can help you to arrive at a more realistic appraisal of the likelihood of these actually happening.

Real Risk vs Perceived Risk

If you feel trapped in an unfulfilling job and you’re risk-averse it’s quite common for you to have unconsciously magnified the potential negatives of doing something about it.

Remember, there are very few career changes you can make that can’t be changed again.

Decisions about career don’t have to be “forever” decisions.

And most lawyers find that once they’ve taken the brave step to make a career change despite the perceived risks, it becomes easier and easier to make changes going forward.

Changes that will move you closer and closer to your ideal future.

To give yourself another perspective, ask yourself “what are the risks involved in staying where you are?”.

This is something I find lawyers haven’t given much thought to, and yet inaction can have negative consequences that are much worse than taking the risk of changing.

Most of us tend to think of “what if…” scenarios around making changes that we’re uncomfortable with.

It’s less natural, but equally useful, to look at the “what if’s…” involved in staying put.

Nothing will Change if you Change Nothing

For some people, taking a big leap of faith is too much.

For others, with encouragement, they decide to go for it and never look back.

But these aren’t your only two options.

For many of my clients, building up to a big change by making sequential smaller changes is a much better strategy.

This is why it’s so important that you seek advice and guidance that helps you to assess your attitude to risk objectively, and helps you to see if doing nothing really isn’t the risk-free option it may appear to be.

Matt Oliver

Matt is the founder of Law Career Plus and a former in-house lawyer (Sky Sports, London & Foxtel, Sydney). With over 12 years of experience as a career consultant & executive coach, he supports lawyers with their career development & career transitions. He does this through this website, a regular email newsletter and his one to one lawyer career coaching.

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