Should I quit being a lawyer to become a counselor?
August 21, 2012 7:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm a lawyer who's thinking about going back to school to get my masters in counseling to become a counselor. Is this a bad idea? What's it really like to be a counselor? Would I like it?

I graduated in the top ten percent of my class from a top 25 law school about five years ago. After law school I spent several years clerking for federal judges. Since then I got married and moved to a new state, where I passed the bar but am having an incredibly difficult time finding work as a lawyer. (Stupid crap economy.) Right now I’m an adjunct professor at a local law school and do a little bit of part time legal work for a law firm in the city I’m from, but I can’t find anything around here that’s full time. The thing is, though, that even in the legal work I’ve done, I’m not really that excited about it. I really enjoy(ed) the intellectual pursuit of law school, but I find the day-to-day work of being a lawyer boring and uninspiring.

All that to say, I’ve started reevaluating my options, and I’m considering going back to school to become a counselor. It’s something I thought about doing when I was an undergrad, but I decided to go to law school because I thought there would be more job security (ah, the irony). I think it’s something I would enjoy because I really enjoy listening to and helping others. Several people have told me that they think I would be good at it. I briefly saw a counselor myself several years ago, so I sort of know what it’s like from the patient side of things, and from my experience I think I would like it, getting to work with people and help them gain new insights to experience a more fulfilling life.

But I’m reluctant to go back to grad school if I’m not sure I would really love what I would be doing. So I guess my questions are:
(1) Did you make (or do you know of anyone who made) a major career change like that of a lawyer to a counselor? How did it work out? Do employers find it strange?
(2) What is it actually like to be a counselor? What’s the day-to-day of the job like?
(3) If I do pursue this, how do I choose the school I go to? (We’re pretty much stuck in the LA area because of my husband’s job, but there are quite a few schools around.) Do I decide based on school rankings? Cost? The individual program? What’s important in a school?
(4) Is there a way to get a masters without getting into (much) debt? (I don’t have any debt from law school, thankfully, but my husband has some school debt and I’d prefer to avoid taking on much more if possible.)

Bonus question: My husband and I are planning to start a family in the next year or so, so I’d (hopefully) be pregnant and then have a very small child while completing the program. Is that incredibly stupid of me to even consider? Will having those outside commitments be prohibitive in pursuing a career like counseling?

Bonus bonus question: Are there any other similar careers that I could/should consider?

Thanks so much for any help/advice/wisdom you can provide! If you need any more information, I can contact the mods, or you can email me at
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Many years ago, I got married, and we saw a lawyer to talk about his debt, my business, his business, etc. The lawyer was in transition from lawyering to counseling, and was terrific. He explained the legal approach to marriage, and helped us talk about how to deal with our financial issues, legally and as part of a relationship. He now works for a legal aid group as a lawyer/counselor/IT guy.

Before you get too far down any new road, take some vocational tests, and get a good reference librarian help you research job outlooks for various occupations. And go do information interviews with people who do counseling.

You could put out a shingle and do divorce, custody and other issues that require a mix of legal and personal counsel.
posted by theora55 at 8:14 PM on August 21, 2012

Have you thought about doing something like being a Guardian Ad Litem? In Illinois (and I'm presuming most other states), GALs are lawyers who work in the best interest of children during custody cases. It might make you feel less bored, or like you are making a difference, but it's probably heartbreaking at times too.
posted by katypickle at 8:22 PM on August 21, 2012

I see counselors a LOT. (*)

The first thing you want to consider is what kind of counseling you want to do. The department that governs the process of getting those kinds of jobs in California lists the different licenses available, but the basic idea is:
  • Do you want to deal mostly with normal people problems, with addiction problems, with getting-basic-skills problems, with getting-along-with-each-other problems, or with serious mental illness?
  • Do you want to work for a big organization, or in a partnership, or completely on your own?
  • Do you want to work mainly with kids or mainly with adults?
  • How comfortable are you with working with people who are extremely disturbed and/or who have limited capacity to progress from week-to-week?
  • Are you willing to work within the confines of a manualized therapy program like CBT/DBT/etc.?
  • How open-minded are you about the wackier stuff that's popular in psychotherapy, like EMDR?
There are so many different ways of being a counselor that it's really hard to know how to answer the rest of your questions. I know counselors in private practice, counselors who work a smooth 40-hour workweek for a large corporation that provides tons of benefits, counselors who work for a large employer that mostly isn't in the business of counseling, etc.

I will say that the majority of counselors I've seen, actually did something else first. Especially the ones who do addiction counseling.

You may want to think about working in mediation - which is something you can already do with your existing (expensive) credentials.

(*) Like, I've spent, I don't know, probably 240 hours in various IOP/partial hospitalization programs run by MSWs and and LCSWs and LISWs, and I saw a PCC for an hour a week for six months, and I see my current therapist for about two hours a month (and have for the better part of three years,) and I've had about 20 1-hour appointments with my EAP counselor, who is an LISW-S. I started doing therapy when I was about 7 years old, and met my first psychologist (in his professional capacity) when I was a little bit less than 2.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 8:23 PM on August 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you heard of Will Meyerhoffer, the BigLaw attorney cum therapist who was featured on Above the Law? I don't know if he still writes there (I went in house, praise Zeus, and am no longer a reader of ATL), but you might look over his blog or drop him a line.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:24 PM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know a lawyer who did this and says it's the best thing she's ever done. She has many lawyers among her clients. YMMV.
posted by Cocodrillo at 2:22 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it’s something I would enjoy because I really enjoy listening to and helping others...I think I would like it, getting to work with people and help them gain new insights to experience a more fulfilling life.

Since you have a background in law, but you would like to join a more 'helping' profession, have you considered mediation? If you have an empathic mind, an interest in helping people with problems, and a tolerance for conflict, it might be a way to help people gain insights and come to peaceful conclusions while building on your existing skills.
posted by epanalepsis at 5:23 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you do decide to get a degree in counseling consider getting a Masters in Social Work from a properly accredited school like UCLA. More generic counseling masters degrees can be limiting, especially if you ever move to another state.
posted by mareli at 6:05 AM on August 22, 2012

One consideration is that as a lawyer you may be used to people coming to you with a problem with expectations of a decision or course of action. Some clients in counseling will want this as well, but many will need considerable time to talk through their feelings and some will never want you to advise them. If you enjoy law because you are a subject expert or trusted adviser you may not find counseling satisfying, but if you are genuinely a good listener and know how to guide people to reflect differently on their situation it could be a great career change.
posted by dgran at 6:09 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should look at the job prospects for new graduates of the programs you're considering. The unemployment rate for new social work graduates, for example, is about as bad as for lawyers right now. If even part of your consideration is that you haven't been able to find a job in law, you should know that your prospects in a counseling field might not be much better.

Additionally, what do you actually want to do with your degree? "Counselor" can mean a lot of different things. Do you want to be a social worker, or a psychologist, or something else? Are you planning to start your own business? Are you going to try to get hired by a nonprofit or a hospital or a school? Before you take on debt and spend years of your life on this degree, you should make sure you have a plan that will allow you to actually support yourself in your new career. Figure out what sorts of jobs actually interest you, and then look at the credentials required for those jobs, as well as whether those jobs are actually hiring.

I realize that you're unhappy right now, and so it's tempting to jump into something that sounds as though it will make you happier. But you're actually trying to make a decision that has ramifications for your entire life, so I think that the first thing is to be practical about this. Figure out what you actually want, then figure out what it will take to get there. Then you'll be able to decide whether you want to take this risk.
posted by decathecting at 6:56 AM on August 22, 2012

(1) I transitioned into counseling after doing other random things. Several of my cohort in school had done the same. Employers don't seem to find it that strange... counseling seems to be a common enough second career.

(2) The day to day of being an intern or an entry level therapist is likely very different than your perception based on being in therapy. Either way, you're seeing clients and writing case notes, but the positions for therapists working toward a license often involve working with clients who are under-resourced, mandated, and/or dealing with more severe mental health challenges. They are good people, deserving of help, and needful of it, but they can be extremely challenging to work with and may make only incremental progress. You can lead them (or any client, for that matter) toward insight, but it may not be sufficient for change. There are triumphs along the way, but there will be days where it's just tear-your-hair-out frustrating. Also, one commonly held idea about being a therapist is that you get to give your clients advice... and, it kinda doesn't work like that. You help people find their own answers that are right for them, which sometimes has you sitting on your hands and biting your tongue in an effort not to say "JUST DO THIS." The first few years of getting adjusted to all of this, and also sort decoupling your self-worth and confidence from your clients' every up or down, can be kind of emotionally brutal (this is a high burnout field). I have seen starting therapists start/grow a family on top of all that, but I'm not sure I could have.

(3) Cost and convenience are major, huge factors (they were honestly my only factors when I applied... just so happens my most convenient state university also has an excellent counseling program). Think about whatever public universities are close by. Make sure it's a program accredited by CACREP. Other than that, try to see what the professors have published and what they do research in as a way to get a read on what the department values or specializes in. Definitely talk to some current students and get their feelings about the program.

(4) I would strongly, strongly advise not going into much, if any, debt for a counseling degree... employment is hardly certain, and you will likely spend the first few to several years out of school working very hard for ramen-level income. You want to try to find a graduate assistant position that offers partial or full tuition reimbursement. That's probably your best bet. This is also a way the large public research university helps... you're more likely to find grad assistant positions there than at most private programs. Keep in mind, as you're considering financial impact, that most counseling programs expect you not to have any other job the second year of the program, as that is your (unpaid!) internship year. During the second semester of that year, you're apt to be working full-time at your internship site on top of taking classes and trying to pass comprehensive/licensing exams.

I don't mean to be super negative about it... it's a field I'm glad I've gone into, overall. I love my clients, and there are days when it is very rewarding. But, I know I went into it with a much rosier, more pollyanna view of what it was going to be like, and (while it may not have changed my decision) I wish someone had given me a more realistic picture so I might have been a little more prepared for some of the pitfalls. Think carefully before you decide to do this, try to maybe do some volunteering or working as a mediator or guardian ad litem (or even a CASA) - something with a heavier emotional load - and figure out whether you love working in that direction or whether it shreds your soul. Also, the point made upstream about social work degrees being more portable is very true... consider that as an alternative to counseling... you'll have the same job opportunities, in general, but you'll be trained from a slightly different perspective (more systemic than individual).
posted by scandalamity at 1:11 AM on August 24, 2012

I work with young people at risk and one of my clients who has been in care has an "independent visitor" who is also a magistrate. I really respect her, she's definitely changed his life!
posted by misspony at 4:41 PM on October 19, 2012

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