Feeling Stuck?

If you’ve got the Clash song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” stuck on repeat in your head…read on.

Many associates are unhappy. In fact, stats suggest seventy percent of lawyers would change their profession given the chance.

You always have that chance. But if you feel ambivalent and stuck, this post contains a tool to help you sort it out, get clarity, and take action. Even if the next step is deciding to stay, this will help you. Then you can free up your energy to focus, be more present, and enjoy your life. Isn’t that what you’re here for?

Decisional Balance Tool

Human beings are inherently emotional. Our subjective experience is often clouded by the most recent or poignant experiences in our lives–which can be a huge obstacle to constructive decision-making. To make clear, beneficial choices, we often need to find tricks to step back and help us focus on the big picture. Enter: the decisional balance tool.

Created by two psychologists, Janis and Mannin, in 1977 to help addicts and alcoholics make decisions to change their behavior, the decisional balance is an amped up pros and cons list. It helps you see the opportunity cost of both making a change and NOT making a change.

“Opportunity cost,” if the term is new to you, is an economic concept describing the value or benefit of something that you must forego or give up in order to acquire or achieve something else. It expresses the basic relationship between scarcity and choice and plays a crucial part in ensuring that scarce resources are used efficiently.

In our professional lives, what are the scarcest resources we have? Time and energy. If you are thinking of making an exit from law or biglaw, let the exercise below help guide how you devote your own time and energy. Here are five steps to show you how.

Step 1: Draw a Four-Square

Draw a simple 4-square table in the middle of a piece of paper. You now have four quadrants, or a four-square.

Then label it as follows:

You can use this tool for any decision: Should you marry the person you are dating or not? Move to Los Angeles? Buy the apartment? For the purposes of this exercise, focus on the decision of whether to leave your biglaw job or not.

Step 2: Fill It in Quadrant by Quadrant

Work clockwise from the top left:

  • List all the advantages/benefits of leaving your biglaw job. Write down everything you can think of.
  • Move to the top right box and fill in the disadvantages or costs of making a change or leaving.
  • Drop down a quadrant and fill in the disadvantages/costs of NOT making a change.
  • Finally, go to the bottom left quadrant and fill in the advantages/benefits of NOT making a change or leaving biglaw.

Don’t leave anything out. Include the emotional, the social, and financial issues at hand for you. This is only for you. No one is going to see it or judge it. Do not let your inner critic stop you from writing something down (e.g., because you don’t think something SHOULD matter to you, even though you know it does). Notice that part of you, say hello, then keep going.

Here’s an example, filled in for an imaginary associate at a large law firm:

Notice that things on the diagonally opposite quadrants are related, but not exactly the same.

Step 3: Quantify it

Hopefully, by now, you have had some insights and feel some relief from seeing all the thoughts that have been swirling in your head down in black and white. But now what?

Not all of these factors are created equally. Some are more or less important to you than others. So we need to quantify them.

Go through each factor you wrote down and assign it a value on a scale of 0-10, with 0 meaning that it’s not important at all to you and 10 meaning that it’s extremely important to you.

Go with your gut. Don’t overthink it. Write down the number that first pops into your head and then move on to the next.

You might be surprised by what comes out. Again, do not sensor yourself.

Here’s the example scaled for importance by our ambivalent associate:

Step 4: Add it Up

Add up the total value in each quadrant. By the end, you should have one number per quadrant that shows how important all the factors in that quadrant are for you. As you can see in the example, the advantages of leaving the biglaw job and the disadvantages of NOT making a change outweigh the other quadrants.

Step 5: Decide

That’s not the end of the story. The numbers alone will not make your decision for you. That said, the tool is a way to let parts of your subconscious out and to help you visualize and quantify a complex cocktail of considerations and emotions. Now that you see them in black-and-white, it will hopefully be easier for you to embark on a constructive and clearheaded decision-making process. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Important decisions are hard. The Latin root “cide” to kill or cut off is part of the word “de-cide”. When you make a decision, you are cutting something off. But choosing not to leave a job that you’re ambivalent about is choice, as well. And now that you’ve looked at the opportunity cost of NOT making a change, you can see what’s truly at stake.

Next Steps

If you decide that leaving your firm is the right choice for you, the challenge isn’t over. Even associates who are clear on what they want often lack the confidence to take action. They may not know what to do next. They might be fearful to make such a life-altering change.

If you feel one or both of these things, that’s completely normal. You are not alone.

Here are some ideas to increase your confidence and help you act on your decision.

  • Brainstorm (that means write down ALL ideas) reminders of your successes. Look back and take stock of all your accomplishments.
  • Work with a coach.
  • Attend a meetup or networking event to learn what’s happening in an industry or market segment that interests you.
  • Attend a professional association for an industry that you are curious about.
  • Write a list of family and friends who you believe have had interesting and meaningful lives. Pick up the phone or send them a message and set up a time to talk with them about their careers.

Bottom line: Do something.

Yes, something is lost by making a change. But the decisional balance tool shows you also what you stand to lose if you DON’T act.

Don’t over think it.

Insight comes from action not thinking,” says Marie Forleo, one of my favorite entrepreneurs and coaches.

Life is short. Don’t live with nagging regret that you could be doing something else. Get started. I believe in you.