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Careers in and Out of Law

Do you wish you could feel happier in your work, but you know something is wrong?  If you answered yes, you are not alone.  There are many lawyers who are examining whether the job they currently hold is the right one for them, or whether they should even stay in the legal field.  However, my rough statistics, after counseling lawyers for over fifteen years, indicate that for every ten lawyers who say they are unhappy with their work, at least four eventually carve out a comfortable niche in a job within, or related to, law.  Only two of those ten actually leave the law and move into other fields.

The balance of those ten fall into the following categories:  one, after researching the alternatives, makes a reasoned choice to continue in her current legal job; one decides it is the wrong time financially or emotionally to make a change; and the last two spend a short time thinking about a career move, then decide it takes too much effort and continue unhappily in their jobs.

But if you are one of those individuals who does want to cultivate increased job satisfaction, it is beneficial to spend some time reflecting upon your reasons for wanting to leave law.  You might come to the conclusion that you don’t have to completely leave the profession, but instead can find a legal job that better fits your abilities, interests, and work style.  Maybe all you need is a minor adjustment to your current working situation to remedy the frustrations—perhaps moving to a different firm, area of law, type of client, or community will suffice.

Those individuals who have worked at only one or two law offices are often surprised at the varied dynamic of other offices and practice specialties.  They think, incorrectly, that all law practices are like the one where they are unhappily working.  In many work situations, it is the intraoffice relations that cause work to be enjoyable or contribute to its aggravations.  If you are dissatisfied with your work environment, talk to attorneys in other firms about their office culture and relationships to discover if perhaps you do need to move because you are in a particularly bad work situation.  As a result of this research, you may find that your discomfort isn’t really with the law, but with your colleagues.

If collegiality isn’t the problem, perhaps a move to an alternative practice—one that removes some of the stress factors—would be enough.  Ask other lawyers about the daily routine, the stresses, the benefits, and the growth and income potential in their areas of practice.  For example, if your discomfort is caused by the confrontation necessary in a litigation practice, switching into a business or corporate transactional practice may be the answer.  Keep in mind that various practice specialties often require different work styles and personality types.  A lawyer who enjoys plaintiff’s personal injury work, handling intense negotiations and conducting trials, would probably be bored with the detail and documentation of an estate planning practice.  Conversely, a quiet, methodical, contemplative thinker would be constantly traumatized running in and out of court as a public defender or district attorney, but might thrive when drafting detailed contracts or researching complex environmental regulations.  Therefore, investigate different practice areas that might more comfortably fit your work and personality style.

Some lawyers even propose alternative practices to their firms.  One of my clients discovered that all that was necessary to avoid the anxiety caused him by litigation was to develop an appellate practice at his firm, handling appeals from the firm’s own cases as well as cultivating outside appeals.  He loved the strategizing, analyzing, researching and extensive writing, and he did not have to go into court nor deal with opposition attorneys on a day-to-day basis.  And his firm liked that it no longer had to hand over its clients’ appeals to outside attorneys.

If you always envisioned yourself becoming a legal “star,” it is often a harsh realization that gaining recognition in a large city is difficult.  For that reason, some lawyers decide to move to smaller communities, where they can become a “big fish in a small pond.”  A client of mine, who in law school had formulated the goal of achieving broad recognition, is now a name partner in a law firm established in a small town in a tourist area.  His five-lawyer practice is the largest one in the area.  He serves on the town planning commission, acts as the grand marshal at the yearly parade, and is known by everyone in the community.  He acknowledges that he never would have had the same success or recognition if he had stayed in a big city.  But in the smaller environs in which he practices, he has achieved his goal.

There also are many opportunities to work as a lawyer outside the narrow confines of traditional law firms.  If you love the law in its theoretical rather than its practical application, you may find contentment working in a research and writing position—with the courts, legal book publishers or legal research services.  If you like to operate as part of a team, to further the business of an employer and to counsel and work preventively, then seek out an in-house position.  You can also find legal work, as a litigator, as a transactional attorney, or as an in-house counsel, within not-for-profit organizations, bar associations, universities and colleges, or with the biggest legal employer, the government.

Individuals who decide to examine the various options outside of law are often very surprised at how their legal training has developed useful, transferable skills that are much in demand in the workplace.  Legal education and work provides excellent training in analytical thinking, communication, writing and persuasiveness, all skills that can be used in many endeavors.

Large numbers of lawyers who switch careers move into politics, real estate, banking, finance, the communications fields, or business management.  Other defectors seek even father afield.  Lawyers who are no longer practicing law range from a humor consultant, to a retail store owner turned real estate developer, to a land use planner turned psychologist.  Former lawyers are growing their own small businesses (and not so small, like The Sharper Image and California Pizza Kitchen).  They are managing companies and not-for-profit organizations.  Teaching high school.  Developing public speaking careers.  Working in corporations or universities or government agencies or hospitals as ethics officers or risk managers.  Writing screenplays.  Running for political office or managing a political campaign or its fundraising.  Getting licensed as business appraisers or investigators.  Leading gourmet bicycle tours of Europe.  Involving himself or herself in some aspect of the publishing world, from publisher to editor to novelist.  Training as massage therapists or mediators or acupuncturists.  And so on.  When my book, The Lawyer’s Career Change Handbook, was first published, I gave a talk at a very large Border’s Bookstore.  The woman who worked as the publicist said that she, as well as a number of other people, in various jobs within the bookstore, were former lawyers.  Any interesting career option that exists probably has at least one former lawyer already involved in it.

So if you aren’t happy in your current work, look around and ask around.  Keep your eyes and ears open.  You don’t necessarily have to leave law; perhaps you will find there actually is a legal niche for you.  But if you do decide to take a big leap, your options are limited only by preference, imagination, ambition, and the willingness to spend the time and energy necessary to investigate and cultivate your next professional incarnation.

Hindi Greenberg, J.D., who was a business litigator for ten years, is the president of Lawyers in Transitionsm in Phoenix and San Francisco, and consults nationally with individual lawyers on career satisfaction and options in and out of law and with law firms on retaining or outplacing their attorneys.  She is the author of The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook, published by Avon Books/Harper Collins.  Hindi may be reached at (480) 669-8586 or by email at



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