The sunk costs fallacy is one of the biggest obstacles unhappy lawyers face when they start to consider leaving the law.

Have you ever thought, “If I leave my job/the law, I’ll be wasting all the time and money I spent becoming a lawyer!”

Of course you have, because literally every lawyer thinks this at some point (or daily)! It is normal to be worried that leaving the law is a waste of time and money.

Here’s the good news: the time and money that you spent becoming a lawyer was not a waste, even if you leave legal practice.

In episode 045, I talk about how to reframe your thoughts about waste when it comes to your career so that you have a better chance of creating a career and life that you love.

Mentioned in this episode:

Episode transcript

TFLP 045: The Sunk Costs Fallacy

Intro: 

Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Cottrell, and on this show I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let’s get right to the show. 

Sarah: 

Hello, everyone! This week on the podcast, we are talking about another myth that keeps lawyers stuck in their jobs even though they’re not happy with them. And that myth is the sunk cost fallacy. 

Now, I know this is not the first time we’ve talked about this on the podcast, so this is probably familiar to many of you. But let’s just run through it again because, I’m telling you, this is one of the ones that I hear the most when I talk with people. This was something that I struggled with. It’s pervasive.

So what is the sunk cost fallacy? The sunk cost fallacy is this idea that you have put a lot of time and money into something—in this case, your law degree and legal career—and therefore, you shouldn’t “abandon it,” because those things would be a waste. Okay? Another way of saying it, or another way that you might be thinking about it would be thinking something like, “If I leave the law, I’m throwing away all the money and the time that I spent becoming a lawyer.”

Here’s the thing: that’s just not true. Because no matter where you go, no matter what you do, the experience and the knowledge and everything that you’ve gained from your experience of law school and becoming a lawyer, those things go with you to whatever new job or role you end up in.

And many of the guests on the podcast have shared how, having moved into a different non-lawyer role, they still use a lot of the skills that they developed in law school or in legal practice in their current spaces. Which makes sense, right? We know this on an intuitive level, that everything in our lives, all the experiences that we’ve had, are things that we bring into every role that we have, and inform our ability to do those roles. 

But I think one of the reasons it’s so pervasive is particularly because of the money piece, right? Because if you had a large amount of law school loans like I did, that is a lot of money. Especially because my husband also went to law school, we had a huge amount of law school loans. It was literally the size of a mortgage, and it feels there’s this emotional attachment of like, there’s all this money, there must be something to show for it. And we have a very often narrow definition in our own minds of what we should have to show for that outlay of money, especially if we’re still in the process of paying those loans off. 

So I understand that. I completely understand that! I mean, I’ve been there. That’s why I think it’s so important for lawyers to be able to reframe that kind of thinking and see this kind of thinking is a sunk cost fallacy, right? “I’ve already put in the time and money, so therefore, I shouldn’t leave. Even if I’m super miserable.”

You’ve heard it described in the podcast multiple times, right? Like, you’ve heard people say that they had this realization of like, “Am I gonna spend another two, three, four, one, whatever decades doing this job, that is, you know, crushing my soul and killing my spirit because I don’t want the last however many years to be a waste, or however much money?” When you think about it, and you move through it logically, right? It doesn’t completely make sense. 

Shinah Chang said something really helpful about this in our conversation on episode 11 of the podcast. I’m going to read you her quote, because I think it was just so good. She said, “Wouldn’t it be more of a waste to know that you are not meant for this and to spend your entire life doing it anyway?” 

Our brains are wired to keep us in the place that we are, right? Because our brains say, like, “Where I am is safe, even if it’s kind of a mess. I understand sort of the dangers here. Doing something new is scary and unknown.” And so your brain is keeping you safe. 

But if you find yourself falling into the sunk cost fallacy, you need to reframe it in the way that Shinah talked about it on episode 11, which is: what is more of a waste, knowing that this is not for you and continuing to do it anyway—potentially spending the rest of your life doing this thing that you know is not meant for you—or something that you’ve already expended in the past, where it’s like, that’s gone? You can’t change what you did in the past, but you do have the opportunity to change your future. 

So if you find yourself falling into the sunk cost fallacy, really try to think about this reality that your future is the thing over which you have control. 

So, I hope this has been helpful. I know that it’s hard. The sunk cost fallacy has a stronghold on the minds of many people when it comes to thinking about their jobs as lawyers. But if you can release it, let it go, and turn yourself towards your future and making your future more of what it needs to be in order to fit your values and your priorities, you have an infinitely better chance of finding a career and a life that you love. I hope this was helpful. 

Don’t forget that on Thursday the 25th, I’m hosting a two-hour live Career Clarity Intensive Workshop for anyone who’s wanting to carve out some time to really focus on getting some clarity around their career and what they want. You can go to formerlawyer.com/live to register. 

And I will talk to you guys next week!

Outro: 

Thanks so much for listening today. I absolutely love getting to share these stories with you. If you haven’t yet, subscribe to the show, and come on over to formerlawyer.com to get even more support and resources in your journey out of the law. Until next time, have a great week!