Help a lawyer find happiness?
May 9, 2007 3:10 PM   Subscribe

What kind of job/career-change should a semi-miserable lawyer look for?

Here's the problem: You've invested years and lots of dollars in your license to practice law. You make good money. But you are not so happy with practicing law. But you can't exactly quit and become a sandal maker on the beach of some Greek island because you have student loans! And a dog to feed! What to do?

With a couple of years of litigation experience, and a few years of in-house experience (Internet/New Media), where can you go that would still pay the bills?

Any ex-lawyers out there who've made a successful change?
posted by GIRLesq to Work & Money (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Not a lawyer, but curious; what is it about law that has turned you off? Could you perhaps switch to a different branch that would be more in line with your interests?
posted by lekvar at 3:14 PM on May 9, 2007

I wrote this elsewhere, if it helps:

You can do almost anything else. You now probably have certain skills that are assets in most professions:
--Law school taught you how to think and how to question.
--You have likely developed a sharp instinct for cutting to the heart of an issue, and sorting through masses of extraneous information.
--You’ve handled a lot of pressure and competition.
--No colleagues will seem quite as difficult to deal with as fellow law students were (except, in my opinion, if you become an academic).
--Basic contracts law will be an asset in anything you do for money for the rest of your life. (They should teach it in high school, but until then you have an advantage)

Downsides to a legal mind in a corporate or business career:
--Procrastination may be a hazard for lawyers, who need a certain amount of thinking time to work well. Outside the legal sphere, it’s far more damaging—a potential career killer.
--Efficiency is valued over completeness; thoughtfulness is often seen as self-indulgence.
--Winning the argument is no longer winning the battle.

A side note on culture shock: you'll be particularly surprised how comparatively few people in corporations or financial firms seem to consider the ethical ramifications of their work. You'll be stunned at how few people have any idea what the law is, or how it works. You’ll wonder why MBAs, engineers, etc. are so focused on “how”, and why they don’t seem to dwell as much on “why.” There is no cure.
posted by Phred182 at 3:15 PM on May 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

This probably depends some on exactly what parts of the current position are the problem.
posted by dilettante at 3:17 PM on May 9, 2007

What about the FBI?
posted by thebrokenmuse at 3:19 PM on May 9, 2007

But you can't exactly quit and become a sandal maker on the beach of some Greek island because you have student loans! And a dog to feed! What to do?

I know the specific example is facetious (right?), but I disagree with this from the outset. By saying "I can't" you immediately cut off all consideration, all creative thinking, all research, all imagination, and all dreaming.

If you want to be a sandal maker, say: "HOW CAN I become a sandal maker on the beach of some Greek island?"

Right away, you can start trying to figure it out. It might take a while, it might be hard, but you CAN do it. And if you are only worried about a dog, and not a spouse and children you are so much closer to making sandals than half of the adult population.

I have no cliue about what an ex-lawyer should do, but the specifics don't matter. DON'T say "I can't." Say "How can I??"
posted by The Deej at 3:28 PM on May 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Often, lawyers who transition into other areas of work do very well financially. Someone who was associated with the University of Texas law school told me that members of the Non-Practicing Alumni Advisory Council are, on average, more financially successful than practicing attorneys.

I have always thought that the best job for a no-longer-practicing attorney is writer. Law practice trains you for analysis, research, and writing --- great skills for a professional writer.
posted by jayder at 3:35 PM on May 9, 2007

Best answer: Oh, and note the Resources for Lawyers Considering Alternative Careers, linked on the NPAAC's website.
posted by jayder at 3:36 PM on May 9, 2007

Best answer: Occupations of some former lawyers and law school grads I know:

Judicial clerk, law librarian, history professor, law professor, high school English teacher, Wexis employee, writer, policy researcher, advocacy group director, legal recruiter, continuing legal education director.
posted by phoenixy at 3:41 PM on May 9, 2007

You could do Biz Dev or be a Chief Admin type person for a start up. Those folks need to be skilled in crafting deals and not needing to pay a lawyer to read the contract will be a big plus.
posted by COD at 3:42 PM on May 9, 2007

I had a question the absolute reverse of yours a few weeks back. I'm a law school graduate and never passed the bar. I moved to a different state to run my family business and decided to take the bar in my new state..but I've since changed my mind. A lot of what makes it difficult for lawyers to change careers is that few other careers (that don't require additional training) offer you the prestige of saying "I'm a lawyer." I work 10 hour days in the beauty industry now. It's my family's business and I will take over all the stores (in three states) once my parents retire. It's very, very successful but people still look at me cockeyed when they find out I have a law degree. It's always "You have a law degree and you're doing this?"

If you can get past that...that very fundamental need of successful people to feel..well...successful, there are many things you can do. I worked in the state legislature for many years after law school. I interacted with the public, drafted legislation, directed media relations for my senator...and loved it. I wasn't paid much but it was a state job and I have tons of good benes.

You might also check out being a lawyer outside your current corporate situation...I did a lot of work with a private foster care agency during my legislative days and they had an in-house guy there whose sole job was to protect foster kids. I thought that was cool. If I were you, I'd go to, plug in the keyword "law degree" in your search and knock yourself out.

Finally, don't fear the student loans. They will get paid. There are people working legal aid jobs for $30K a year who are paying off their student loans (I know it's a fact because some of them are my classmates.) Another of my classmates is financing her art career by doing doc review. It sucks but it's enough money for her to spend most days painting.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 3:44 PM on May 9, 2007

have you thought about becoming a law librarian? you already know how to research, and i'd be surprised if you didn't have some ability to tell or show others how to research.

you get to use your degree (and the time/money investment that degree represents), you get to work in an area that you already know something about (bonus points if you have foreign langauges or interest/experience with civil law jurisdictions!), and you get to hobnob with law librarians, who are the coolest and the geekiest of the bunch!

it only takes about one year to get an MLS, but plenty of courthouse law librarians only have the JD. check it out!

on preview . . .phoenixy mentioned it, so i guess this is a second . . .
posted by deejay jaydee at 3:47 PM on May 9, 2007

Well-placed sources tell me the Foreign Service is full of ex-lawyers, and it's easy to pay off your loans at a hardship posting ...
posted by anjamu at 3:55 PM on May 9, 2007

You can work for Lexis Nexis. They archive loads of legal materials and need people with actual bonafide legal experience to look through the cases and transcribe them, or whatever it is they do. This is assuming that reading law isn't what is sucking out your life force currently. I personally know a guy who went into law, hated it, had loads of loans (that he went into default on, sorta) and who eventually found a job at Lexis Nexis. As I understand it, he loves his job, he's well paid, and he's finally making payments on his loans.

I'm pretty sure that if the bit you liked about being a lawyer was making gobs and gobs of money, this is not necessarily the best job, as I'm guessing you only make 60k/yr or thereabouts.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:15 PM on May 9, 2007

You could get a job at Nolo Press. Though they're looking for a customer service rep now, not lawyers. I met someone once who works there, and she said the place is packed with former-lawyer editors. The way she talked about it made it sound like a great place.
posted by rtha at 4:24 PM on May 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks guys! Keep the suggestions coming please!

To answer some of the questions above, the worst things about law, IMHO, are:

(1) long long hours;
(2) constantly fighting against people who want to commit fraud and do bad things in general;
(3) not being able to point at some pretty painting, or movie, or song, and say: "this is what the people I work with make."

I am thinking about judicial clerking (thanks for reminding me) but worry that I might get bored being in chambers so much with no real people contact. And I would definitely teach high school or junior college but fear the pay cut would be too big.

So basically, I'd like my same pay, with reasonable hours, and with people who put out a product that is anything other than a plague on mankind, please. :-)
posted by GIRLesq at 4:41 PM on May 9, 2007

Last month, I attended a speech on this very subject by the author of this book.

The book is more of a brainstorming and reference aid than a step-by-step walkthrough of any particular A-to-B career change, and it's repetitive in places; but she seems to cover a lot of ground. Everybody who attended received a complimentary copy. I got two. You're welcome to the extra, if you want it. E-mail in profile.
posted by cribcage at 5:30 PM on May 9, 2007


My dad did landscaping for a few years, and then become a financial counselor for the county's financial aid recipients. He has since been moved to a large urban highschool, where he helps out people like teen mothers and stuff. He also works at H&R Block during tax season.

So, you know, really you can do whatever. Someone with a law degree who doesn't want to practice law is in, essentially, the same boat as someone with a BA in English who doesn't want to live forever in academia.
posted by kavasa at 6:14 PM on May 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Why not corporate law for a company that you believe in? You might enjoy small start-up type operation where you are a key part of the executive team, do some law yourself and manage the outside lawyers for the specialized stuff. It would pay decently well ( and have the upside potential of stock options), you would be helping people who want to create this wonderful company from doing something idiotic and/or illegal that would come back to bite them and you could point to a cool product say, this is what hte people I work with make"

Just interview carefullly and make sure you are happy with the integrity and personalities of the top managers - good executives value practical lawyers who give good advice, bad executives ignore them (making for a lousy job)
posted by metahawk at 6:17 PM on May 9, 2007

I made this transition some years back, from law firm to Something Else Legal. After a decade of alternative law jobs, I'm back practicing law again. I'll first recommend another book. The author, Deborah Arron, has been doing seminars on what can be done with a law degree for at least 15 years.

Someone mentioned LexisNexis. Well, my last non-practice job was spending 5 years with them as a work-from-home legal editor. Good side-- I pretty much got to set my own hours so long as the work got done, the work was sometimes interesting, I had good benefits, the dress code was great, and the 2-hour workouts in the middle of the day were great for my bod. Bad sides-- pay was rotten, about what a decent legal secretary makes, the work was often Really Boring, there was essentially no career ladder if that matters, and while no one ever proved it for sure, as our group shrunk through attrition, no one was hired as replacements, and I'm pretty sure those jobs went to India. Neither L-N nor West do much hiring for legal editors any more. If you want to work for them, you better enjoy sales. Both companies are BIG on fostering their corporate culture. We home-based editors were mostly immune from having to be corporate cheerleaders, but we still had to make appropriate noises on occasion.

I did other legal editing gigs, for a state bar and a state agency. It had its moments.

You could go contract lawyering, with your experience. Arron wrote a book about this too.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 8:12 PM on May 9, 2007

What type of work did you do in-house? And where are you located? Both will affect your options here. For example, if your in-house experience was as litigation counsel -- essentially managing outside litigators -- that's a lot different than if you were doing product counsel work (advising about legal issues related to possible new products -- sounds like this might be what you did?), or if you were doing corporate work, or if you were the company's general counsel, doing all of this.

Your skill set can probably be applied fairly easily to some sort of policy work -- maybe thinktank or non-profit. That might not pay the bills the way you want though. And from what I understand, this work can be very similar to in-house work.

Most people I know left firms to go in-house because the hours were better in-house. If you're leaving an in-house position because the hours are too intense, I doubt you'll find something that pays comparable for fewer hours.

Clerkships have some advantages -- you could leverage your litigation experience. They open a lot of doors in terms of prestige and connections. You get exposed to a lot of different legal issues, so you might see something that sparks your interest. A clerkship usually has a set time period, which gives you time to explore all your options without taking an actual hiatus or leave of absense or anything that might look bad down the line. But keep in mind that most clerkships, at least at the federal level, have a very long hiring cycle. You'd be applying this summer for a position starting in August or September '08. From what I've been told, you don't just sit in chambers by yourself -- it's fairly dynamic and interactive, at least at the trial level. You interact with the judge, the parties/counsel, and all of the other clerks in the courthouse pretty regularly. The appellate clerks I know are a little more isolated.

A research attorney/staff attorney position might be good. It has some of the benefits of a clerkship -- decent hours, with your experience decent salary, variety of potentially interesting legal issues; but without some of the downsides -- regular hiring cycle, work with a bigger variety of judges and clerks so less likely to feel confined, etc.

You might also consider taking a turn towards recruiting -- most of the top legal headhunters are former lawyers, as are the career services folks at all the law schools -- or marketing or firm admin. A lot of big firms are hiring marketing and mangerial people with legal backgrounds now. My former employer had ex-lawyers doing marketing, recruiting, and interal stuff like a firmwide "Associate Development Director" or something -- she was basically the focal point for all complaints the associates had, and then would talk to partners about it, etc.

(For reference, I quit a 1000+ lawyer firm two weeks ago and I'm starting a clerkship on Monday. Worked closely with the GC of an internet startup before I went to law school).
posted by jewishbuddha at 8:27 PM on May 9, 2007

I loved studying law, but hated practice. After 4 years in NY and London, qualifying in both, and it still sucking, I had to get out.

I just went and interviewed for a bunch of different things, and used the interviews themselves as a form of due diligence - from that I knew that in-house was a turn-off, investment banking was the other side of the same coin, but I loved strategy consultancy. Have been here 3 years now and loving it.

The legal skills are very portable - you know how to write, how to run a meeting and how to handle clients. These are far more valuable skills than you know (and far rarer than you think!). I didn't even do an MBA to transfer, just came across and got thrown in at the deep end.

Think about which bits of the job you do like (for me it was sitting down with clients and figuring out what they wanted and how we could help - it was the rest of the stuff like drafting the 100 page contract that I hated). I still get that, and (joy of joys), we were engaged by a major law firm so I got to tell my old bosses how they should run their business!

Good luck!
posted by csg77 at 1:00 AM on May 10, 2007 [3 favorites]

This might be common knowledge, but some advocacy groups split up tasks -- eg, at NRDC, they have a litigation department, so my friend who's in charge of a certain area of advocacy decides whether to bring a case, and to some extent determines the legal strategy around a general subject area (eg, "forests"), but then one of the bulldogs from the litigation department does the actual legal batlling. So even though she's still a member of the bar, (and I think gets paid to reflect that), she spends her time thinking about things like coalition-building, which forest-related issues should be their top priority, and how to explain the issue the public.
posted by salvia at 7:57 AM on May 10, 2007

My federal clerkship involved long hours, crappy pay, and a ton of legal research. It sucked. If you want one, start now looking for 2008, and remember that lots of other people are looking for one as a way out or a way up.

Don't consider being a contract attorney as a viable long-term option. Forget income stability. You will have weeks where you don't work at all, then weeks where you are expected to work 80 hours starting right that second.

You have a ton of options - oh, and keep your law license active. I did, and sometimes I still need to trot out with, "I'm a lawyer..." Pick what you think you want to do, and then figure out how to leverage the law experience to give you a leg up in the new target job. Sorry, I know that's harder, but you can be competitive in a lot of different fields.
posted by KAS at 8:01 AM on May 10, 2007

not being able to point at some pretty painting, or movie, or song, and say: "this is what the people I work with make."

For what it's worth this is a malaise common to people in all kinds of professional fields. As a coder I enjoy solving problems and creating products but I often end the day feeling like I did nothing more than moving electrons into different positions. I hear the complaint from lawyers like you and policy wonks on the Hill.

For whatever reason it's a common problem to be frustrated with the lack of a physical result to your labor. Be prepared to make a very radical shift in what you do if you really need to have a resultant product and the end of the day/week/month. There's a reason so many people have woodshops or restore automobiles - it's a hard metric to meet at work in modern society.
posted by phearlez at 3:31 PM on May 10, 2007

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