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Summary: Many lawyers quit law due to the stress of the profession. This article offers lawyers advice as to how to take the next steps in their post-legal careers.
Law and the practice of law can be horrifically challenging. Long hours, broken relationships and broken spirits are just part of the downsides of law, causing legitimate lawyers to quit.
Should you feel an undeniable need to quit practicing law, there are services that can help you transition into other fields. Read this article to find out what those services are.
So you went to law school. You made good grades, graduated within the 95 percentile, and now you can be found putting in no less than 60 hours at a prestigious downtown law firm who honestly – or so you feel – couldn’t give two shits about who you are and what you mean to the nature of the business at large.
Decidedly, this has burned you out – you, who are in only your third month of practice since netting this $160,000 a year associate’s job, and guess what? You hate it. You hate everything about it. And now, you want out. You want out right now!
So goes the scenario for more and more recent law school students working in law. They graduate, obtain well-paying jobs, yet in a very short time, find those jobs to not be to their taking.
And now, these young associates want to quit. That’s right; they want nothing to do with law, at least not in the current form in which they are experiencing law.
The problem is they’re not sure how to transition away from the torture of the legal practice into something more akin with their desires and personality.
Maybe they should start by asking a fellow attorney who has also left the practice of law for a “better career.”
After all, like casualties of war, there are hundreds, if not thousands of them out there.
Life After Law
“Law is the only career I know that has a sub-profession dedicated to helping people get out of it.”
These are the words of Liz Brown, author of the help manual, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have.
According to Brown, this sub-profession of the legal field has found a market among lawyers who are experiencing moments of desperation to get out of the legal business, and for the first time have given critical thought to their careers.
Of course, the initial problem for these young lawyers usually begins with choosing to go to law school. This decision is made for reasons that have very little to do with the actual practice of law and without diligence about whether the profession is a real fit.
“I like to joke that I’m a Jewish kid who didn’t like blood so I couldn’t go to medical school, so I went to law school,” says Casey Berman, a former attorney and founder of the blog Leave Law Behind. Berman admits, “I spent more time thinking about my iPhone purchase years later than a degree that was expensive and took three years out of my twenties.”
As New York City career consultant Eileen Wolkstein explains, law school is very often the default choice of people who don't know what else to do. Needless to say, Wolkstein sees many unhappy attorneys in her practice, who at one time held the assumption a legal degree would open doors to many professions – which it can. However, as law school acts as a socially acceptable procrastination technique to delay more definitive career choices, time and money have slipped past these former college students as well.
To that end, the big reveal for these students comes once they are in law school in that the means to the end with legal studies leads mostly to a law firm job. It is, in a strong sense, their only choice.
“The types of people who go to law school seem to chase ‘the best’ like addicts,” says Marc Luber, founder of J.D. Careers Out There, a website for lawyers in career transition. “They want the best grade, the most prestigious workplace, the highest salary.”
What’s worse is it’s really not too difficult to get a well-paying legal job once a law student graduates.
Through formalized on-campus recruiting (particularly at top schools), the path to the law firm is so well-paved that students can navigate it on auto-pilot.
“My law school made it so easy to get a job at a firm that I barely had to do any work at all to generate several associate position offers,” says one former University of Pennsylvania Law School student.
To further complicate these lawyers’ career choice is the reality of their student loans.
“Big law was really the only path I considered. With the level of debt I incurred by going to law school, taking the highest paying job felt like the only real, responsible choice,” says another Ivy League grad.
While law schools are efficient at funneling students into law firms, much of the curriculum is based on theoretical analysis, and, as a result, little connects the training the students receive and the skills they will require to practice. In short, according to Luber, “People graduate from law school not knowing what lawyers actually do.”
Even so, while some find law practice fulfilling, the actual act of practicing at a law firm can be tough row.
Associates are expected to keep up a grueling schedule of billable hours and must be at the beck and call of partners and clients. As Brown points out, these working conditions can conflict with the expectations of many millennials who feel they should have more control over their lives.
To this end, young lawyers are often unprepared for the adversarial nature of practicing law. For example, while it is common for young lawyers to go into litigation because they write and speak well, “they don’t realize you have to go in and fight every day,” notes Berman.
Then there are also those who quite simply feel disappointment that there is not more social good in the work they do for corporate clients.
Faced with the realities of life in a law firm, discontented lawyers confront for the first time, often many years after they made the decision to go to law school, that law, or at least practicing in a law firm, may not have been the right choice for them.
“Put someone who wasn’t really chasing a specific path into a job that is very demanding and stressful and they eventually question why they’re there,” says Luber.
Another Factor: The Twin Bonds of Money and Status
Attorneys often feel trapped, however, by what Brown terms as the “twin bonds of money and status.”
Many lawyers start out in a firm job with the intention of paying-off loans. However, at the same time these lawyers quickly become accustomed to the lifestyle comforts their large paychecks afford them.
This is especially dangerous for the type-A trophy-collector lawyer, who despite their not being associated with an elite firm believes they have failed their profession.
Then, of course, there is the guilt of walking away from a degree in which they've invested so many resources, insists Kate Neville, founder of Neville Career Consulting, a Washington D.C.-based firm specializing in transitioning attorneys.
Add to that the fact lawyers frequently operate within a bubble where there is very little recognition of the validity of alternative careers, and a young lawyer’s spirit can be quickly broken.
Given these stumbling blocks, many attorneys need hand-holding from outside sources in redirecting their careers.
“I realized,” said a client of Dr. Wolkstein after seven years at a leading New York law firm, “I had no life plan and having a slight breakdown about it, I decided to go to a career therapist.”
According to Dr. Wolkstein, it’s not uncommon for lawyers who’ve been at firms for years to feel “so beaten down that they need help to regain their sense of themselves.”
This help often begins with circling back to the questions these attorneys failed to ask themselves before they went to law school.
“I advise everyone that the first step of finding the right path is to figure out who you are, what you want, and what you’re good at,” says Luber.
Luber, who provides any visitor to his site J.D. Careers Out There with The Career Mirror: Reflection Questions for your Job Search.
With an attempt toward the introspective, Luber’s questionnaire asks lawyers to ponder, “What does ‘success’ mean to you?” and “if you won the lottery how would you want to spend your time?”
Skills that Die Hard
Of course, transitioning lawyers must not only engage in soul-searching, but also figure out concrete strategies for breaking into a new field, a task that might seem daunting to those who went the law-school-straight-to-law-firm route.
“Law school doesn't teach you how to market yourself,” explains Neville, who coaches clients in networking skills and articulating and reframing their abilities for prospective non-legal employers. Wolkstein’s work with clients often includes assigning homework in the form of putting together lists of potential networking contacts, sending out emails to university alumni, and attending industry events.
“For the first couple months, I barely did what she suggested at all because it seemed too time consuming,” says a former big law attorney who enlisted Wolkstein’s help in transitioning to an in-house position at a media company. But after realizing “I didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted to find a new job, I slowly started to follow her instructions, and began to see results shortly thereafter.”
Additional education is at times needed for attorneys who want to break into entirely new fields, volunteer or gain intern experience. Sure, this can be disheartening for lawyers who were previously touted for their abilities, which in turn were rewarded with cushy perks of having secretaries, firm-provided meals, and town cars, but are now starting low on the totem pole once again.
“It’s a long and hard journey that requires the person to be persistent,” says Wolkstein.
Just the same, the good news is for those who do persevere, the change can be incredibly rewarding.
“I have not met a single former lawyer who regrets changing professions,” writes Brown in Life After Law. “Most wish they had done it sooner.”
And whether a lawyer goes into government or starts a business, the skills learned as attorneys, such as hard work, attention to detail, and thinking strategically become assets in new professions.
“You always use the analytical skills and writing skills,” says Don Shacknai, a former lawyer who now holds the title of first deputy commissioner at New York City’s Housing Preservation & Development agency.
Here’s the silver lining in all this: Following the financial crisis, which saw the implosion of several major law firms, the grassroots alternative career movement is gaining traction in the broader legal world.
Amy Impellizzeri, author of the forthcoming Lawyer Interrupted, a guide for lawyers looking to make career changes within or outside the law states, “The bar is starting to realize that every law school is not going to be able to place students in law firms the way they used to, so there have to be other avenues.”
While for some the corner partner office may still represent the pinnacle of legal achievement, the expectations for a successful career are changing and there are now ever-expanding resources for J.D.s who want to leave law.
Just because you went to school for law and have successfully practiced within a law firm, does not mean you have to torture yourself by staying with a career that neither you agree with, nor it agree with you.
Law is a difficult endeavor, and one that requires a certain character and substance of human. Never blame yourself if you feel you aren’t cut out for law and as a consequence, can no longer stand it. Look instead to this article for practical advice as to what you can do in lieu of practicing law. If anything, you will still use the valuable analytical, speaking and writing skills law school has taught you, as well as have understood and lived through the grind of working at a law firm.
If that doesn’t prepare you for life and a good, strong, healthy career, nothing will.
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