How should I talk to future employers about my unhappy stint as a lawyer?
August 14, 2011 11:15 AM   Subscribe

I was the asker of this question. I did end up losing my job, but thanks to your advice, moving on has been a lot less painful than I feared. Now I have a question about how to explain to potential new employers a) the circumstances of the termination, and b) my reasons for leaving the practice of law.

First, I want to thank everyone who responded to my previous question with so much compassion, I can’t begin to express how grateful I am. I sobbed with relief as I read your kind replies. It was the first time in a very long while that I didn’t feel utterly alone and hopeless.

Those of you who guessed I was a lawyer, you guessed right. I worked at a very small firm with three partners (I was the only associate). There was very little training, guidance, or mentorship given. When I started there, I was told that one of the partners would take me out for a lunch meeting every week or two weeks, and that I’d have a formal review every three months. That never, ever happened, which is how we got to the end of my year-long contract without them becoming aware that anything was amiss.

The partners told me that although I was a poor fit for the firm (they acknowledged that they couldn’t give me the support and structure I needed to thrive), they felt I was intelligent and capable, and would gladly give me positive references to help me find something I’d be better suited for. That was a relief, but I’ve been struggling to figure out how to explain to new employers why I was turned down for a renewal.

One of the partners suggested I should explain that I was going through a lot of personal difficulties at the time (for example, my father being diagnosed with cancer, and you can see what else I struggled with here), and the heavy workload overwhelmed me. But I would hate for that explanation to come off sounding like I’m prone to making excuses for poor performance, and that I let my personal life interfere with my performance to the extent that I couldn’t do my job. It also feels icky, like I would be using my father’s illness to get sympathy points. Are my concerns here valid, or should I take the advice of my former boss? If I don’t take his suggestion, what could I say instead?

As well, I’ve been searching for new career directions with the criteria that the hours should be more conducive to a healthy work-life balance, and the work itself should be less stressful. If asked why I no longer want to practice law, what should I say? I don’t want to give the impression that I don't like challenging work and I think the position I’m applying for will be a piece of cake, or that I’ll be out the door the second the clock strikes five. But I do want to emphasize that I’m no longer interested in practicing law, and won’t skip out on my new job the second I find a way back into law. How can I do this without sounding like a lazy ass who couldn't cut it as a lawyer?

Lastly, I’m glad to say that the last couple of months have been nothing like I was afraid they’d be. I’m so much happier and finally beginning to feel like myself again. Thank you everyone who told me things would be okay.
posted by sorrysockpuppet to Work & Money (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Why not say "It was not a good fit on two fronts: I wanted more mentoring that the firm was structured for and I found that I didn't enjoy the practice of law itself. I'm now convinced my talents and taste are better suited to X." It's what happened, isn't it?

So good to hear you're feeling happier! I had nothing to add to the thread, but I was sending you strength and wishing you courage. Good luck on the job hunt. :)
posted by likeso at 11:25 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, and if my previous question is TL;DR, here is the gist of what I had trouble with:

*Supporting my depressed long-term boyfriend who was having difficulty adjusting to a new country and finding work.
*My own anxiety and depression, which caused me to have trouble sleeping at night and concentrating at work.
*My anxiety that was centered specifically around billing my time, i.e. billing enough time in total but not billing too much time for any one task.
*Fear of disappointing my family and causing them to worry about me, especially since my father was sick.
*Fear of burdening anyone with my problem, which prevented me from getting any help or support.
posted by sorrysockpuppet at 11:29 AM on August 14, 2011

Best answer: Was there any one at all--a lawyer at another firm, maybe--you connected with during your time at the firm? Or do you have any friends with friends who have left the practice? Ask them for introductions to people they know who have successfully left the practice of law behind.

When I was moving out of being a practicing lawyer to what I do now (policy analysis for a nonprofit that does court reform), I spent a lot of time having coffee with people who had burned out in law, or had realized being a lawyer was not for them. We talked about how to move into other fields, the ways to talk about why you left the law, and just general moral support that it's okay to go through law school, bar review, and the associate hell years then walk away.

If, by any chance, you're in Chicago, I'd be happy to meet for coffee and talk about this. But I think your instincts are good. In interviews for jobs in other professions, you say that although your partners felt you were intelligent and capable, the culture at your specific law firm was a poor match. You say that you enjoyed x, y, and/or z about being a lawyer, but that your experience as an attorney showed you you'd much rather use your Skill Set to do Other Career. If you can pull it off, making a light-hearted joke about lawyers can work in your favor. It's not unusual for former lawyers--or even lawyers who ditch the partner track with extreme prejudice--to talk about needing better life-work balance. You say that you don't mind working hard--or that you love problem-solving--but that you want to be able to leave work at the office when you leave work, even if it's been a 10 hour day.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:33 AM on August 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Quite a while ago, I left the law profession because I was unhappy. It wasn't even the work load the led me to quit--I didn't like the adversarial nature of the job and the culture of the profession. I only practiced for about 3 years. I've been in the nonprofit field ever since, which is a much better fit for my personality and interests. Most people seem to understand immediately why I would choose to leave the profession. Lawyers have a reputation of being unhappy in their jobs. In fact, I think it earned me some respect for having the guts to walk away.
posted by parkerposey at 11:42 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

The solution that one of the partners suggested was the problem with your performance from their point of view. Be aware that if you use this person as a personal reference, they might tell potential employers that. I'm not sure what to suggest for mitigating that - whether you should take the bull by the horns and bring it up in the interview with an emphasis on what you've learned about taking care of yourself and seeking help when needed from the experience, or leave it be, and focus on the fit issues from your side, as likeso suggests.

I would have no hesitation in saying that I am looking for a job with a better work/life balance (but I work in the nonprofit sector, where at least lip service to the value of work/life balance is common), with the understanding that sometimes you have to put in the hours to get a project done. I suggest you ask questions about the work schedule (when/how often are 10 hour days needed), comp time, telecommuting (if you're interested in that) and the characteristics of a person who thrives in the organization and role, to show that you're being thoughtful about trying to find a good fit this time around.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:47 AM on August 14, 2011

Offices that truly care about work life balance are generally filled with employees (managers included) who themselves care about work life balance, and who want to be surrounded by others who have healthy attitudes toward work. I've been lucky enough to work in organizations that were very big on work life balance, and it's something we looked for in candidates and that we always emphasized during recruiting and interviewing. In those environments, saying that you're looking for a better work life balance isn't going to be interpreted as code for "out the door at 5pm".
posted by telegraph at 11:52 AM on August 14, 2011

I have nothing that speaks to your specific situation, but--in all seriousness, no snark intended--I'd say that the average non-lawyer has no trouble understanding why somebody doesn't want to be a lawyer anymore. Lots of places would consider the fact that you were capable enough to be a lawyer, but want to do something different now, as an asset.
posted by Rykey at 11:58 AM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Emphasize the positive. Say what it is about the new career direction that attracts you. (Not just that it is less stressful than the law practice, but something more specific: you like the organization's mission, you want to work with non-profits, you want to work with a certain population of clients, etc.) You can even flat-out compliment the organization or the industry that you're trying to get into. crush-onastick has a good point: you can say what you liked about the law, or what attracted you to the profession originally, and pivot from there to talking about why the new job or career would be a good fit for you. If you do that while acknowledging that the hours and culture of the law firm were not a good fit for you, it shows a certain level-headed self-awareness that I think would reflect well on you.

I, personally, would not take the tack the partner suggested of saying that you left because of personal difficulties, unless the interviewer brings it up or asks why you left at that specific time. Then I might say something like "I was trying to figure out my next step, and when some personal crises came to a head it was the appropriate time for me to leave." I'd try to avoid getting into details of the personal crises.
posted by Orinda at 11:59 AM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all, I am so happy to see you posting, I remember your dilemma so well. I hope you yourself see how far you've come in a short time -- from possibly suicidal to getting back out there to face the next part of your life. It's really impressive.

I would not make reference to personal issues or challenges or crises (or keep it super simple -- dealing with serious illness in the family). I would give a more "professional" truth -- you spent time at a small law firm and came to the conclusion, along with the partners, that you were grateful for the experience and most particularly, for the insight that the practice of law is not for you. I would then go on to list all the qualities your education and time at the law firm have provided, and discuss sincerely how those as the very things that will help you excel in the new position.

Good luck. You are doing great!
posted by thinkpiece at 12:09 PM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

thinkpiece is absolutely right. to put what i think is basically the same point in a different way, you don't need an "excuse" - i.e. you don't need to apologize or ask for anyone's indulgence. you had a job experience, and now you're looking for another job experience. this is an entirely non-shameful situation.
posted by facetious at 12:50 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a lawyer, but building on thinkpiece's answer: To tell potential employers you were not renewed because of personal difficulties sounds like you're a bad fit for many jobs, and that you might flake out in any future difficult situation. Whereas telling a potential employer you're changing jobs (or careers) because you were a bad fit for the culture of that firm and/or the practice of law makes it sound much more specific.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:58 PM on August 14, 2011

Best answer: Right, I think slot of non lawyers would understand why someone would leave the legal field, especially with it being in the news so much for downsizing and cutbacks.

I think if it fits in with the kind of new job you are looking for, you could start with saying that you figured out that you and the law were not a new fit and you wanted something that would allow for a better work life balance than eg 70 hours per week with little ability to plan when the late nights would be.

If pressed for more detail, I would mention (again, only if the new job didn't have these characteristics): that you wanted a collegial and team-centered atmosphere, with folks on the same level as you who could help train and show you the ropes rather than an atmosphere with all managers who didn't have time to mentor; and that you found the practice of billing your time out at very high rates to be charged to clients and thus accounting for every six minute (or whatever it was) increment of your day to be a bit silly and not something you really wanted to spend your time worrying about. I think non lawyers would understand why that lifestyle wouldn't be a good fit.

I remember your question, too, and I'm so glad you're out from under that rock and feeling better! Congratulations to you for having the courage to make a change, and good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 1:14 PM on August 14, 2011

I too remember that post. I'm impressed that you've come so far!

I agree with the above. You want to sound like things were fine there but not a perfect fit, and you appreciated the experience and learned from it. In particular, you have thought about what your strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and capabilities were, and you used that to search for a job that would be a good match for you over the long run. And here you are now, and you believe you will excel at this job because A, B, C.
posted by salvia at 2:34 PM on August 14, 2011

Nthing all the answers above. You don't have to say anything more about why you left other than that the practice of law just wasn't your thing. Quite understandable, and the fact that you can bring your education and experience to another job more suited to your interests and personality is a big plus.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:27 PM on August 14, 2011

Well, one way to get around this type of question is to be positive rather than negative. So for example: "I'm really interested in x,y,z (where x,y, z is some uniquely positive thing at the new job) and at my old position I didn't have the opportunity to explore my interest in x,y and z, so now I'm looking for a new job where I can explore my interest in x,y,z. "
posted by bananafish at 5:43 PM on August 14, 2011

Can you say that you "needed to take a period of time off work to care for family members" (your depressed boyfriend, your father, yourself!) and "the small size of the law firm meant this was not possible for them" (true, that's kind of why they had to let you go instead of giving you some unpaid leave to sort yourself out, right?)

It sounds like this is the sort of minor exaggeration of the truth that your previous employer would not contradict.

And you can just say straightforwardly that you have come to realise the practice of law is not your thing. I bet they will see the truth of that in your eyes as you speak!
posted by lollusc at 7:48 PM on August 14, 2011

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