What is like being a lawyer, but not?
March 27, 2013 3:02 PM   Subscribe

I am a senior transactional associate at a big regional law firm in a secondary market. I am probably not going to make partner at my firm, I am really sick of caring about typos, and I'm burned out. What can I do with my life?

In the grand scheme of law firm jobs, my job is pretty great. I don't get yelled at much, I bill a shockingly tiny number of hours for the basically-big-law-first-year salary that I get paid, I'm not chained to my Blackberry, my commute is amazing, sometimes, I actually get really excited about the subject matter, and I'm pretty sure all of the partners that I work for are human.

However, partnership is very, very soon, and I am not going to make it -- I've never run a complex deal, I don't have a specialty, I don't meet my hours, I've never met my hours, I have lots of typos in my documents and occasionally miss substantive things which "damage the relationship", and as a result, I have a reputation as "bright but needs to be more careful". I feel like I'm constantly on eggshells. I feel sick to my stomach thinking about whether Partner X said goodbye to me when she left the office or whether I turned around that e-mail for Partner Y fast enough. In actual truth, I'm more like a third year associate than the senior associate that I am.

My firm doesn't have an counsel track. I'm reluctant to talk to anybody senior to me (it's all partners).

I could go inhouse, but every place I've interviewed at talks about how they're staffed by ex-big firm people who wanted a better life but continue doing big firm work. I do want a better life, but every single time they talk about how their work is up to big-firm standards, I want to throw my leather interviewing portfolio in their faces and scream IT DOESN'T MATTER I DON'T CARE FUCK YOU.

In my dream world, my job would be doing transactional work for a nonprofit that I've already done a couple pro bono projects for, because they are nice, sane people with a really great goal and won't bawl me out or make me feel hideously guilty for typos or formatting errors. Unfortunately, I don't think they can afford to hire me, even for something like $20,000 a year plus health care. I have a contact or two that I can talk to, but I don't even know if jumping to nonprofit is feasible when I've been a corporate goon for so many years.

Help. What can I do? How do I even figure out what is realistic for me to do? I have no self esteem left. I feel like such a failure.

If it matters, married, no kids, dual income, no law school debt but the SO has educational debt, tied to the area for family and house reasons. At some point, I'd like to have children.

E-mail is so.many.typos@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't even know if jumping to nonprofit is feasible when I've been a corporate goon for so many years.

Talk to lawyers who work for nonprofits! Set up some coffee interviews or something. I don't know a thing about law, but I know that my nonprofit employs plenty of lawyers. This sounds totally possible, especially if you don't have law school debt.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:14 PM on March 27, 2013

Look for a smaller law firm in a similar kind of practice.

Look into non-legal opportunities in local companies, where the law degree can be an asset but not a requirement.
posted by yclipse at 3:20 PM on March 27, 2013

I sympathize with you but I think you're going to have trouble advancing in any professional track if your public-facing documents contain typos more often than very, very occasionally. This is no different in the non-profit field. Why do you have so many typos? Is it the sort of thing that a typing class would help? Or is it an editing issue, where you need to be going back over the material multiple times? Is it possible you have an undiagnosed learning disability related to writing? (I realize you're anon and can't answer, but these are questions you may want to think about to help correct the problem.)
posted by threeants at 3:34 PM on March 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

My law school has people who left private practice working in the career development office. Would you be interested in that?
posted by demagogue at 3:40 PM on March 27, 2013

This is tough to answer in non-lawyer fields without some sort of inkling as to what you'd want to do if you're not a lawyer.

Within the field, it's realistic for you to go into the nonprofit, or to find a small general-service firm that could use someone with transactional experience. My friend is at a firm that just hired a guy who is basically a tenth-year associate. He's bringing a few clients to the table, but mainly he's being brought in because he has transactional experience the rest of the firm lacks, and it facilitates cross-selling for other services. E.g. clients come into the firm because they need to setup an LLC, and then call the same number once they run someone over with a truck. That sort of a horizontal move would probably be feasible for you.

When you mention the interviews where everyone says they left big firms to have a better work/life balance but still do big firm work, you mention that you do "want a better life." But it seems to me they're talking about escaping problems that are not problems for you -- being tethered to the blackberry, people screaming at them, billing too many hours.

Nitpicky errors are the bane of my life at a law firm as well, but jobs within the field are few and far between where that issue goes away altogether. You could consider something crazy fast-paced, like low-level criminal, bankruptcy, or collections work. Those attorneys move so much paper that they don't have time to get everything perfect, though they still look sloppy to clients and judges if things are messed up. Nevertheless, the "good enough, what's next?" approach works a lot better in those fields than it does in most areas of the law.

Also, don't discount the fact that your firm may be able to find you a soft landing somewhere. I've seen that happen before, especially if someone is doing okay but isn't going to make partner. Develop a relationship with at least one person senior to you that you can bring this up with -- "Hey, I'm concerned about my track here, and I feel like I'm not going to make partner, any suggestions?" Though you may not have developed relationships with any clients that would convince them to bring you in-house, some of the partners may have those relationships and like you enough to find you a spot somewhere.

Good luck.
posted by craven_morhead at 4:27 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

What about being general counsel for a university? Maybe something like this would work for you.
posted by steinwald at 4:31 PM on March 27, 2013

My parents both worked for many years as deputies legislative counsel in our state. The work was relatively interesting, and a bit more like law school in that the issues were mostly theoretical. It was also a state job. Of course that would depend on where you live since you're not open to moving.

My brother thought that was boring, so he became a public defender instead.

But if there's a significant government presence where you are, there's always government agencies with in-house counsel, departments that have administrative law judges, and lobbying.
posted by Llamadog-dad at 5:16 PM on March 27, 2013

You could run for public office. I think politics is a pretty traditional non-lawyering thing for lawyers to do.
posted by steinwald at 5:20 PM on March 27, 2013

Litigation. More soft skills, and the paralegals do the heavy lifting drafting-wise.
posted by Pomo at 5:21 PM on March 27, 2013

Real estate. A law degree is now very handy but writing is not really part of the main job.
posted by parmanparman at 6:02 PM on March 27, 2013

I sympathize with you but I think you're going to have trouble advancing in any professional track if your public-facing documents contain typos more often than very, very occasionally. This is no different in the non-profit field.

Threeants, I assume you aren't a lawyer. I would bet my former biglaw salary that the "errors" OP is talking about are so ridiculously minor that most professionals wouldn't even look twice.

In my mind, there are two kinds of lawyerly perfectionism, one kind is firm-imposed, and the other is required by external realities. It's all a matter of money. When clients pay, let's say, $500-$1000 an hour, they demand perfect written work, whether a public document or not. Then clients pass that pressure onto partners, who make a big flipping deal about associate errors with no actual consequence (say, a formatting error in an internal memo). In my new job, I don't have to worry about that pointless stuff, because no one is paying me that kind of money (and given the volume of work, I just don't have the time). But I still lie awake at night worrying about whether I made a seemingly small error that could snowball into a real problem with very serious consequences. That's just the nature of the job, and sometimes it really, really sucks.

Anyway, the point of all that is that if you can accept the second kind of pressure, there are ways to avoid the first. If even the second kind is a problem for you, then you should try to get out of the law.

As for actual suggestions, have you given any thought to compliance jobs? No law degree required (though a bonus), very 9-5 and depending on the industry, decent money too. This is definitely something to think about if you have experience dealing with clients in areas of specialized regulation (think pharmaceutical, oil & gas, etc). There are also compliance positions at universities (and as I'm sure you know, GC at a university isn't really doable without some employment law experience).

Given that you have no law school debt, you have a ton of freedom. Nonprofit jobs aren't the easiest jobs to get, but if you like the basic transactional work, have you thought about a small firm that works primarily with small businesses and individuals? Or eventually moving into solo practice? I think working in a big firm you tend to forget that there are lawyers out there who make a living setting up small LLCs, partnerships, and what have you. I'm certainly not saying it's easy, but it's doable. And don't forget government. You'll find at least one attorney in almost every govt agency, whether it be local, state, or federal.

Oh, and you aren't blacklisted from nonprofits. Do as much pro-bono as you can do, and keep up those conncetions. (Just don't tell the nonprofits that you can't wait to leave the firm and slack off...).

I agree that tapping into your firm is a good idea. I'd also branch out into your bar association, and make connections with people who have different experiences. Big firm lawyers don't tend to pay much attention to professional associations, but you might be pleasantly surprised at how helpful they can be. Good luck with your transition.
posted by murfed13 at 6:19 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing compliance. I spent 8 years in biglaw in corporate transactions and M&A, 8 years in house in financial services, gradually transitioning to compliance roles (which are well paid, and much more about solving problems and being practically effective than being technically perfect). Lawyers are sought after in these roles. You don't need years of experience in a field either. You've probably touched on some relevant areas of regulation already - securities law and disclosure maybe? (Oh, and most people you work with won't recognize great glaring typos, far less the nitpicky "errors" that partners at law firms are wont to pick up on).

Lots of people aren't a good fit at big law firms. It's not a reflection on you. It's a very specific kind of business, extremely competitive, terrible for personal lives, and it takes a very specific kind of person to love it. There's a world out there full of exciting jobs you are going to love. You're ready to jump now, so find something and do it, you're going to have a new lease on life!
posted by yogalemon at 7:45 PM on March 27, 2013

There are "Lawyers in Transition" consultants who can work with you in this process. One I knew years ago was Celia Paul.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:10 PM on March 28, 2013

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