How to Change Law Firms Without Losing Your Soul

After almost 14 years with my former firm, I made a change to a new firm this May. As excited as I was by the new opportunity, it was a hard process. There were many thoughts swirling in my mind and there was a ton of emotion. My reasons for making the change will remain private out of respect for everyone involved, but I have already said publicly that I was grateful for the start my former firm had given me. In this way, the goal when I left was not just to pursue a new opportunity but to do it while causing as little pain as possible.

Experience tells me that I am not alone in this. Even when a job is no longer right for us, we may feel loyalty to and genuinely want the best for the team we are leaving. We may need to maintain good relationships since lawyers in some jurisdictions might all know each other. Or maybe we just don’t want the personal baggage of knowing we made a hard situation worse with nasty behavior.

With all of those things in mind, here are the steps I took that helped me make my decision and leave with as much grace as possible.

1. Pick a new firm with good values.

Most of us would like to think that we are perfect angels and would always do the right thing no matter what. But, the truth is that we are social beings and are heavily influenced by those around us. Thus, if you want to live your values, it really helps to work at a firm aligned with them. One of the best things you can do to make a good transition is to pick a firm with good people who can support and guide you and will not put inappropriate pressure on you. In other words, the first step towards leaving well is to be sure that you are joining a team with good people.

2. Don’t gossip before you give notice.

This may be one of the hardest things for lawyers to do because we are incredibly social. Yet, this is why you should be cautious about sharing information about your plans too soon. Word spreads quickly among lawyers and the rise of social media has made that phenomenon even faster. To honor the feelings of your colleagues and allow for a planned message to clients, it is best to avoid discussing your plans publicly before you give notice to your firm.

3. Don’t play games with client relationships.

This one should be a no-brainer since the ethical rules prohibit it, but the temptation to get a competitive advantage in retaining clients is always there. Don’t give in. Following the rules when it comes to client relationships in the midst of attorney transitions is essential. Not only does it avoid putting clients in an awkward position, it also avoids behavior that will all but guarantee an acrimonious relationship with your former firm.

4. Talk to calmer and wiser people.

Though you should be discrete about it, life change necessitates seeking counsel from a wise and stable person. Ideally, this person can listen to you and remind you to take the long view and walk in the other person’s shoes. They can help you to focus on your future instead of getting embroiled in issues from the past. They can help you avoid becoming defensive or combative because you feel frustrated or unsure.

In the best case, they can even help you prepare for the difficult conversations that await you and help you plan out how you are going to give notice. Taking the time to talk out your concerns and plan out your course of action with a trusted advisor will help you stay true to your values even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

5. Manage your emotions.

Leaving a law firm is not just a business transaction. It also means changing or perhaps terminating some relationships. Emotions are likely to arise on all sides. It doesn’t work to fight them, so your best bet is to care for them. Expect that you may have to deal with a range of potentially conflicting emotions both in yourself and others. Plan in time to write or talk these issues out with interested parties or trusted friends and relatives. Move as much as possible to discharge excess energy and relieve stress. Give yourself grace as your emotions fluctuate from elation about the future to sadness and even grief about the past.

When you change jobs or think about changing jobs, guilt may be one of the first emotions you feel. Our work as attorneys and roles in our firms can serve as a foundational part of our identities. The idea of changing these roles can cause us to feel like we are being disloyal or doing something wrong. Or it can just cause fear about what the future might bring.

At the core of many of these emotions, you may often find judgment. When you can move past the judgment or at least hold it a little less tightly, another opportunity opens up. Instead of focusing on whether you or your decision is good or bad, you can focus with more precision on how to execute your decision the right way. If you make ethics and values the cornerstone of your transition plan and balance the emotions of yourself and others, you can change your law firm without losing your soul.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Is Compassion for Others Different from Self-Compassion?

I spent a lot of time this summer thinking and writing about compassion. For much of the summer, I was writing my forthcoming book on mindfulness and compassion for lawyers (more details on that to follow). I also completed the Compassion Educator Certification course with the Compassion Education Alliance. In the midst of all this writing and learning, I realized a gray area existed in my understanding of the subject.

Most of the time, teachers instruct self-compassion separately from compassion for others. But as I wrote about it and thought about it more I realized something unexpected: they weren’t separate at all. This was kind of surprising to me, so I asked my teacher and the founder of the Compassion Education Alliance, Aly Waibel (full bio below), to clarify. Her answer was so good that I asked her for an interview so I could share it with you here.

Q. Self-compassion is fortunately getting more attention lately, but is it any different from compassion for everyone else? If so, can you explain how? 

AW: Compassion is the awareness of another’s suffering coupled with a willingness to take action to relieve it. Compassion is relational and so always includes self and other, by definition. The suffering we’re aware of may be in ourselves or another, and the compassionate response or the desire to relieve the suffering is similar, regardless of who is suffering. 

Self-compassion is a new term, and was originated by Kristin Neff as an antidote to self-esteem, which is based on social comparison. The self component of compassion is important to develop as many of us are inclined or conditioned to offer compassion to others and we can forget about ourselves. We can forget that we are just as deserving of compassion as others, or forget to include ourselves in the circle of compassion.

Most of us have a negative critical voice in the head that is constantly narrating our experience with judgments, criticisms and preferences. This voice in the head can be like a bully or cruel tyrant. Self-compassion is a way to bring awareness to this negative self-talk in order to shift it toward more kindness. It helps connect us to our core values and strengths so we are more resourceful and available to others.

Q. So, why are we hearing about all these studies that say self-compassion is good for us? Why would we want to build self-compassion at all? Shouldn’t we just focus on building compassion overall?

AW: There are three RCT studies on the Mindful Self-Compassion training program and over 4000 published studies on self-compassion in other forms. This growing body of research suggests that self-compassion is a primary factor in predicting resilience, decreasing stress, and increasing wellbeing.

The benefits of recognizing our common humanity and offering ourselves the kindness we’d offer a friend are many. However, it’s one component of the bigger process we call compassion. Compassion is relational and our concepts of self and other arise simultaneously. Any time we practice compassion for another, we are the primary beneficiary, and when we practice compassion for ourselves, others in our lives benefit. 

Q. Are you saying that self-compassion and compassion for others aren’t in opposition to each other? Do they actually work together/help each other? 

AW: They must go together, like two wheels of a bike. We can’t have one without the other. If we go too far into compassion for others we run the risk of becoming codependent and if we go too far into self-focused compassion we run the risk of becoming narcissistic or indulging in unhealthy self regard at the expense of others. 

It’s all about balance. When I’m attending to my own needs, for example, I’m less of a burden on my loved ones. When I practice self-inquiry to question the thoughts I’m believing that cause my own stress, I feel more freedom and peace. And then I’m more aware and available to others who may need support or help. When I’m overly self-focused, I miss opportunities to help others. When I’m overly other-focused I run the risk of becoming burned out and then, again, less helpful to others. Most of us have experienced going through a really difficult time or life event and how offering compassion to someone else in the midst of that can feel really good. In other words, shifting focus away from me and my suffering to be there for you can support us both. 

So the caution around self-compassion, for me, is that it may sound like it’s separate from compassion for others, or compassion in itself. Compassion is one process – it flows through individuals and helps each one who is involved — the giver and the receiver. Eventually, the distinction between the giver and the receiver of compassion becomes much less relevant. So regardless of where the suffering originates (in me or in you) the response to it is the same — an awareness of it and a willingness to relieve it, to reduce overall suffering in the system or in the world. 

Q. Wait, if there is no dividing line between compassion for self and compassion for others, how do I protect myself and set appropriate boundaries?  

AW: My experience is that with compassion practice, boundaries naturally arise. I don’t need to calculate, plan or think about boundaries as much. The ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ are more natural and intuitive and flow more naturally. There’s less obligation to say ‘yes’ and less guilt when ‘no’ is the answer.

Q. If compassion is a natural response for most humans, why do we need to do practices to cultivate it? What’s the best way to get started?  

AW: It’s sort of like working out. If we’re fortunate enough to have healthy bodies, we can work out and build our muscles to become stronger, or not. The body is innate and what we choose to do with it, or how we train it, is a choice. Compassion is like a muscle we’re born with that we can build with practices (meditation and visualization practices), so when we’re confronted with suffering in and around us, the compassionate response and capacity to relieve the suffering will be more likely to arise. Similar to how athletes will visualize their race or the game before going out to the field, remembering or imagining moments of compassion in a visualization or meditation can have a similar effect on our performance out on the field of daily life.

One of the best places to start practicing compassion is with mindfulness. Mindfulness is being with what is in the moment without judgment. You share great resources for getting started with mindfulness on your blog! 

Most of us are very caught up in thinking – thinking about the past, planning for the future, judging others or circumstances, comparing ourselves to others, etc. We can get so caught up in and distracted by our thinking that we miss the present moment. And compassion requires our presence. 


Aly Waibel has taught mindfulness and compassion courses and workshops since 2012 and she is a Senior Certified Teacher of the Compassion Cultivation Training course developed at Stanford University. Aly received her PhD in Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies at the University of Arizona College of Education in 2015 and has served in nonprofit leadership roles since 2015. She is currently the Associate Executive Director of Professional Training and Operations at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. In 2021, Aly founded the nonprofit organization Compassion Education Alliance (CEA), a global collective that offers courses and support to compassion practitioners, educators and social change agents. She works closely with her fiancé, James Wood, author of Ten Paths to Freedom: Awakening Made Simple.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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