How do I start a new career and where should I go to do that?
February 1, 2012 12:19 PM   Subscribe

About 18 months ago I dropped out of law school due to depression and amid a divorce. Since then I've been living with my parents in my tiny hometown and working for my dad. But this situation can't last forever for a lot reasons. So where should I go? What should I do to start a new career? And how do I get there?

Some other details that might be relevant: I'm male and in my early 30s. Before school I had a decent work history as an admin asst in law offices. I don't have any kind of technical background. The only skill I have is a decent ability to write, but it suffers greatly whenever I'm not feeling my best. I'm still considering a return to school, but I question my ability to deal with the rigors of legal practice consistently.

I don't have any real friends who could provide a support network for me while getting on my feet anywhere. I'd prefer somewhere east of Mississippi, but I guess I'm willing to go anywhere and do anything as long as it will give me a realistic chance of starting a good career. Thanks for any advice!
posted by fairlysober to Work & Money (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Will your folks pay for training for you?
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:31 PM on February 1, 2012

BTGG, Maybe. But I'd feel a lot better about myself if I did this on my own. And I already have about $200K in student debt so I'm not exactly eager to take on any more. What kind of training are we talking about?
posted by fairlysober at 12:36 PM on February 1, 2012

Cherish your escape from law school, which has been proven in studies to be a breeding ground for clinical depression (and a route to non-dischargeable debt in a collapsing job field.) Think of dropping out as one step closer to doing what you gotta do.
posted by steinsaltz at 12:38 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oops, I didn't see the $200K before I posted that, but really, don't go back to law school.
posted by steinsaltz at 12:38 PM on February 1, 2012

Steinsaltz, I think I agree with you. The only wrinkle is that I was at a T6 school. So there's a good chance I'd be able to find something decent. Don't know what that's worth.
posted by fairlysober at 12:53 PM on February 1, 2012

(T6=Top Six)

You say $200k in debt--so that means you were almost done, right? If you don't have much more schooling ahead of you--it's only a three-year deal--just slog through, get the degree and then try to do something with that even if you don't take a bar exam (though if you're smart enough to get into a good school, a bar exam will be a breeze) to get a law license.

You don't have to practice law. You could work for a PR firm or in-house at almost any smaller to mid-size organization where you could put your unique skills to use.

If you get the J.D. but not the license, you can apply to non-law jobs and say, "Yeah, I figured out law wasn't for me, but I owe $250 grand, so I figured I might as well finish, right?"

I say finish school. Otherwise you've got only the debt to show for it.
posted by resurrexit at 1:00 PM on February 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

I would also recommend completing school. But you don't have to do this immediately, do it when you're ready. And while you're waiting to be ready, do yourself a favor and study up from the syllabi of the classes you'll eventually take. It's gonna be really boring, but if you force yourself to do it, it'll be really worth it.
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:07 PM on February 1, 2012

Yeah, at this point law school is a lot of people's biggest regret -- mine included. Look on the existing student loans as a sunk cost and don't let law school -- or leaving law school unfinished -- constrict your ideas about what you should do.

It's not clear to me whether you're asking a geographical question (where should I go to get a job, any job?) or a personal one (what should somebody like me do?), but you haven't provided a lot of information to go on.

What do you think you are good at? What have you tried and failed at? What have you tried and succeeded at? Where have you liked to live? What's that been like?

You say that your only skill is writing, but I have to suspect that you are limiting yourself. You've managed the expectations of a number of lawyers and had a "decent work history" doing not only writing but -- I'm going to guess here -- a lot of the organizational and administrative work that a law firm requires. Those are accomplishments and skills. Maybe you don't want to use them anymore, but those are skills and you have them.

It sounds to me like you are starting to climb out of being shell-shocked by some traumatic experiences and you are starting to feel some inchoate feelings that you need to make a change. Those feelings are probably right and you should consider listening to them, but be kind to yourself and let yourself have the time you need for your feelings to take form. Figure out what you want, and what you have to do to get it, and if it's worth doing what it takes.

OnPreview: if you're only like a semester short then maybe you should finish even if you don't want to practice law. If your school has any counseling (either therapy or career) then take advantage of that while you're there to try designing the career and the life that you want. You're going to need to know what you want.

Good luck.
posted by gauche at 1:09 PM on February 1, 2012

Law school is hard - but then, so is any worthwhile career. If you're nearly done, go back, finish your degree, and take full advantage of the resources that law school offers job-seekers. (For example, if you return in the fall, there's fall recruitment.) Plenty of non-traditional legal employers do on-campus interviews.

The difference between $200K and another few dozen grand in debt isn't going to be significant in your day-to-day life, but the difference between having the degree or not could be. Get the degree, and then sit for the bar.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 1:17 PM on February 1, 2012

Finish the degree. Then look into teaching legal writing.

Disclaimer: IANAL or a TOLW (teacher of legal writing).
posted by chicainthecity at 1:25 PM on February 1, 2012

chica, Really? At my school all of the legal writing instructors were part-timers who usually worked full-time as lawyers also. What would I need to do to make myself a good candidate for a full-time teaching position?
posted by fairlysober at 1:31 PM on February 1, 2012

chica, Never mind. I just figured out what IANA means.
posted by fairlysober at 1:32 PM on February 1, 2012

Finish the degree.

Yes. Probably. I'd say that if you're more than three semesters in, you should just grit your teeth and finish. The additional debt isn't going to be that big compared to what you've got already. But if you're less than three semesters in, you've probably got most of that from undergrad, so you might almost double your current debt load. That's probably not worth it.

The thing is, even if you never get a biglaw job and go into solo practice, you can still probably make more money as a lawyer than you can without your degree. And if you've already got $200k in debt, it may well be worth the extra couple-ten grand to give yourself that extra income potential.

Before law school, I worked 60 hours a week a three part-time jobs and cleared about $23k, gross. With a law degree, I work about 50 hours a week and make between two and three times that. I'm not exactly getting rich, but even with student loans factored in I'm still netting twice what I used to gross. That plus the fact that I'll probably never have to do shift-work or be on my feet all day is totally worth it. To me, at least.

Then look into teaching legal writing.

No. These don't pay particularly well and are frequently dead-end adjunct academic jobs. If you want to be a full-time teaching position, you need to graduate high in your class, clerk for a federal judge--preferably on the appellate level--and publish a few serious academic papers. You may or may not need to work for a big firm first; that's increasingly optional. But publication is increasingly required.

Basically, the way I see it, the people who are good enough to end up as law professors already know who they are. Well more than half of my professors clerked for the Supreme Court.
posted by valkyryn at 1:38 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

valkyryn, I know you're probably right, but I don't think I'm cut out for running my own firm or being a partner. And at the moment the government is mostly not hiring while in-house jobs prefer biglaw experience. Otherwise it just doesn't seem to be acceptable to work for someone else you're entire career.
posted by fairlysober at 1:53 PM on February 1, 2012

If its a legit top 6, finish. Absolutely. You'll get some job, at the very least, which is better than the status quo.
posted by downing street memo at 2:09 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you tend to depression -- and your posting history indicates that you do, fairlysober -- the practice of law will be a tough row to hoe but could, in the right circumstances, be manageable. Running your own practice will be orders of magnatude harder.

If you have a solid support network, including sources of referrals, and friends who live nearby to where you practice and who encourage healthy mental habits; good sales and marketing abilities or the commitment to develop those things; strong organizational and bookkeeping habits (because to start out you won't be making enough to hire somebody to do these things for you) and you can motivate yourself to do the work of building a practice, alone, day-in and day-out, without remuneration until you start to get clients with money in hand, it will still be a difficult, solitary endeavor.

I just gave up my own small practice after two years of trying to make it work. Those two years have left me fairly depressed and bitter about a lot of things, so you should feel free to take what I'm saying with a grain of salt. But there are a lot of stories like mine out there: don't just assume that you'll be fine once you have that J.D. It's not like that anymore.
posted by gauche at 2:19 PM on February 1, 2012

This is kind of a stretch, but have you considered pursing a dual-degree? Many of my friends are enrolled in a joint JD/MLS program, and they have incredibly bright employment prospects. A friend who graduated last year decided that he couldn't cut it as a sole practitioner and didn't want to do grunt work for a big firm, so he went to work as a university librarian. YMMV but depending on how many units are needed to finish your program, it might be a smart move to pick up a "fall back" career.

And, of course, many student loan lenders will suspend your student loans if you're a full time student.
posted by oxfordcomma at 2:20 PM on February 1, 2012

You say that your only skill is writing, but I have to suspect that you are limiting yourself. You've managed the expectations of a number of lawyers and had a "decent work history" doing not only writing but -- I'm going to guess here -- a lot of the organizational and administrative work that a law firm requires. Those are accomplishments and skills. Maybe you don't want to use them anymore, but those are skills and you have them.

Gauche is right about this part and, I'd say, also right about not practicing law. But being a lawyer does not limit you to practicing law in terms of working at a firm, starting your own, clerking, etc. I get the feeling any of these would be terrible for you. And forget about teaching at a law school (unless you were just killing it and near the top of your class prior to your personal issues--but if you were middle-of-the-road or worse, probably forget it for the reasons valkyryn said). But even despite being a lawyer, or even just having the J.D. but no license, you could work for so many different types of companies in a sort of administrative/procurement/contract/HR/something role and be a totally kick-ass complement to them because of the inexplicable set of skills we learn in law school.
posted by resurrexit at 2:36 PM on February 1, 2012

You are so close... Just finish. Already 200k in debt, a little more for a top 6 degree is fuckin' worth it.
posted by jjmoney at 3:08 PM on February 1, 2012

I'm one of those folks who a) struggled with depression both before and during law school b) hated law school and c) finished my degree and never practiced but use my degree (in my case in regulatory compliance in the insurance industry.)

Even though I favorited someone's comment about quitting, I also did so before reading the amount of debt you have. With that in mind, I say finish the degree. No, the market for $200,000 a year attorneys isn't what it used to be but there are loads of opportunities out there. The whole job market shifted during the recession and the upside of that is, people no longer flinch as much when you say, "Nope. Not practicing. Got the degree and I'm gonna chart my own course."

My particular course was legislative affairs (I worked for a state legislature before kind of accidentally falling into compliance. I love it. It's 9 to 5, not too much in the way of being adversarial. I use my legal training every, single day. I have an opportunity to move up because I'm in a large company.) There are also jobs in city or state government, in non-profits, etc. Memail if you want so I can stop this thing.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 3:22 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

A job just exactly like that, that's exactly what I'm talking about.
posted by resurrexit at 3:25 PM on February 1, 2012

I don't think I'm cut out for running my own firm or being a partner.

I'm not saying you have to practice law. You don't. But just having a JD will make you more attractive to a variety of employers, even in the business world. I'm not talking in-house counsel either. There are plenty of positions in which having a JD would make you an attractive candidate, e.g. marketing, insurance claims, finance, even software development. And don't even get me started on HR. The HR VP of my previous employer is a lawyer, and she's not in Legal. Companies across the country need help with compliance work in just about every department. Plenty of these aren't actually attorney positions, but they would absolutely benefit from having a JD.
posted by valkyryn at 4:00 PM on February 1, 2012

And lest anyone think I'm just being a law school booster here, I'm the guy who posted this. I still regularly give the same advice.

But the OP here is already part-way through the degree. Don't know how far, and like I said, exactly how far matters. Quitting after one semester? You got away easy and haven't been too badly indebted. But quitting halfway through law school is sort of the worst of both worlds. If you don't finish, you've got all the debt and nothing to show for it. If you finish, at least you've got the JD and can try to do something with it.

Just finish.
posted by valkyryn at 4:04 PM on February 1, 2012

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