Professional options for a burned out lawyer?
May 11, 2011 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Help me get out of the legal profession, before it kills me.

So, I've been a personal injury defense attorney in NYC for about 12 years now. Unfortunately, it took me that long to realize how much I hate it. Too many conflicting obligations and deadlines, too much to keep track of. The stress is just too much, and I'm not handling it well anymore.

The problem is, I'm 40 years old, have bills to pay, and have never really done anything else. I went right from working crap retail jobs to law school, and it took me a very long time to acknowledge what a bad idea this has all been.

So, I need some helpful advice as to where to go next. What sort of avenues of employment can a lawyer burned out on the profession actually reasonably seek out, and have a decent chance of obtaining a decently paying job? I have no real ideas at this point, am on the verge of intense depression, and could really use some advice.

Throwaway email if necessary:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Work for an insurance company?
posted by blargerz at 7:02 PM on May 11, 2011

Would there be a different, less stressful area of law that you can switch to until you can figure this out? I realize you want out of the profession completely, but perhaps you need to transition out....

Also, it would be helpful to know what your idea of a "decently paying job" means. For someone like me, a school counselor, that would be about 50K a year. I suspect you may not find that decent at all.
posted by Sal and Richard at 7:06 PM on May 11, 2011

Remember those people who said that a JD is a flexible degree and can be applied to many different fields? Well, they're filled with crap, and then again they're not. If you're doing personal injury defense work, then there are huge areas of the law that you haven't explored yet. In my practice I've seen people switch to criminal defense, or immigration work, or education law, or any number of things. The good news about those fields is that you can get started in any of them with a few CLEs and some simple cases to start with, if you don't allow your Westlaw subscription to expire.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:09 PM on May 11, 2011

Keep calm, first of all. If you're on the verge of depression, please take that seriously and responsibly, for your clients' sake as well as your own. It's okay to admit that you have taken on too much and need help: it's not okay to watch deadlines go by because you're mentally paralyzed.

A lot of Bar Associations have confidential help lines for lawyers struggling with mental health problems: please take advantage of whatever you can find.

PI defense might put you in good stead to work in the insurance business, or possibly as in-house counsel. You might find that a non-litigation practice is more your pace than what you're dealing with doing defense.

What I think you need is a plan to get yourself into a good headspace so that you can visualize your next steps. That sounds vaguely new-age, but I'm serious. You want to get to a place where you have some ideas about yourself: what needs you have that are not being met in what you currently do; what it might mean to meet those needs; what you want to accomplish with the rest of your life; and so on. I find that, when I'm really stressed out, I can't envision myself in any kind of positive way, and that affects my ability to follow my own calling. I have to believe it's the same for others.

So make some time for yourself. Maybe you have some vacation time saved up. If it's necessary for you to take a leave of absence, maybe you do that. Maybe you can find a way to qualify for some FMLA leave. If you work at the kind of place that allows it, maybe you can speak to another attorney about lightening your caseload for a couple of months.

Then you breathe. Slowly and peacefully, until you've let all of the work problems face away and you can start to confront what's underneath the person you have to be to get through the week. Start to think about those questions above: what's not meeting your needs? What do you _want_ to do? What skills are transferable? What does it look like to have your needs met? What are you interested in? If you won the lottery, what would you do with your time? Is there a way to do some of those things now? Would you be willing to move out of NYC to do what you want?

It will take some time to do, and you may want to seek therapy along the way, but the alternative is to bail in a bad economy, or keep working until you snap. Neither of those are good options. You've got to envision a future that is compelling to you, make a plan to get to the vision, and then work the plan. You're at the first step, the envisioning, and it's not something that you can do when stressed and borderline-depressed.

Good luck to you.
posted by gauche at 7:12 PM on May 11, 2011 [7 favorites]

I can imagine why you hate personal injury defense.

Have you considered criminal defense? It's stressful, but it's a completely different kind of stress and much more manageable (in my experience) than the stress of litigation.

I loathe litigation and personal injury practice, but I'm pretty happy doing criminal defense.
posted by jayder at 7:22 PM on May 11, 2011

Anything you want.

No, seriously. You've spent over a decade in one of the most difficult professions there is, in a major city which is known as one of the most competitive locations in the world for that profession. You're smart, you're hard-working, you're good with people and writing and deadlines. It's a tough time to be looking for a job, it's true, but you're a great candidate.

In your post, you sound desperate and frightened. You want out of your current job at any cost, but you're afraid you're not qualified to do anything else. But you are! In some ways, the school --> "terminal" job path is a blessing, but I think it makes it easier to lose sight of the lesson people learn if they have to spend a few years bouncing from 2-year-job to 2-year-job: there's always another job.

Take some time off, if you can. Talk to a therapist, make sure you're not in any danger, get yourself to start feeling better. Then, think about what you want to do. Think about the stuff you daydream about when you're sitting at your desk, where you wish you were, what you wish you were doing. Then, find out what steps you need to start training into that job. And go, and be happy.

On preview: what gauche said.
posted by kagredon at 7:32 PM on May 11, 2011

One of my favorite neighborhood priests was a lawyer for twenty years before he changed careers.

In addition I'm involved with a number of software engineers who are dropping out of the computer industry in their 40s to become therapists and social workers.

There are a lot of professions a hard working well educated person can succeed at, and middle-aged people often bring a wisdom and maturity that fresh young faces lack. Don't sell yourself short.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:52 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

There was another question a day or so ago, seeking new career ideas for a burnt-out lawyer - some of these might be food for thought.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:11 PM on May 11, 2011

I recently met a lawyer who was doing some career re-evaluation, and she said the book "The Creative Lawyer" was a helpful place to start.
posted by itstheclamsname at 4:24 AM on May 12, 2011

Hard to give specific advice without more information, and the throwaway email is borked. But I guess I'd start by suggesting that maybe what you need isn't a new career--40 is a bit late for that--but a new situation. Are you working for yourself or part of a firm? Either way, getting a job at a different firm can really switch things up. I moved from in-house to a firm earlier this year, and my life is hugely different--and better. Hell, why not consider a switch to the plaintiffs' side? No more billing clients!

There are also other areas of law, as has been discussed, and I really think you should look into those, because at this time in your life, your law degree and legal experience are your most valuable professional assets. Anything else could mean starting from scratch, which could be a hard thing for someone twelve years into their career.

Also: consider moving. NYC is an incredibly difficult place to practice law. I do insurance defense--mostly PI--in a mid-sized Midwestern city, and while there is stress involved, a lot of it is just me adjusting to the new firm and getting to know the partners. It gets a bit easier every week. You've been practicing long enough that you should be eligible for admission to other state bars on motion.

MeMail me if you want to share more details.
posted by valkyryn at 6:31 AM on May 12, 2011

Look for positions in "risk management" departments of companies or universities.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:18 AM on May 12, 2011

I'm in regulatory compliance in the healthcare industry ... I have a law degree but am not licensed. Memail me if you're interested in learning more. (P.S. I love my job.)
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 10:03 AM on May 12, 2011

What do you _want_ to do?

More practically - what do you find yourself doing when you can do whatever you want?

I know a lawyer who putters in cars. He should be a mechanic because he absolutely loves it.

Start from that point and start walking
posted by IndigoJones at 5:16 PM on May 12, 2011

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