How to Transition Out of the Law or Into a New Practice Area

“I am fed up with being an attorney. I want to know what else I can do with my life!” Those are words I often hear when lawyers begin career counseling work with me.

leaving the law

Lawyers decide to explore options outside of the law for many reasons. Some attorneys are burned out by stressful environments and a lack of control over their hours. Others have been worn down or damaged by interactions with negative or overly critical partners or others in their workplaces. Still others have chosen a profession that does not play to their strengths. Some of the people I counsel would be unhappy in any profession, often because they carry psychological baggage that weighs them down.

Wanting to leave the law does not mean that you are actually going to get out. When you attempt to move into a non-legal field, you can expect to be viewed skeptically. You often need to make a pretty convincing case for yourself. Potential employers are bound to think that you may be taking a vacation from the law but that you will return to legal practice as soon as you find an opportunity that pays more. Other employers will wonder about your ability to get along with co-workers and supervisors. Some employers will question your ability to remain loyal to their workplace. Employers may reject you because of what they assume to be your monetary expectations. Still others will make assumptions about how argumentative or arrogant you are likely to be, simply because they believe lawyers have those traits.

Many non-attorneys continue to have an idealized view of legal practice. These people cannot understand why you would want to leave the law. Lawyers leaving the profession usually need to do a convincing job of explaining their seemingly aberrant behavior to people who do not understand the stresses and strains of the legal work world.

Despite these barriers to transition, I have successfully counseled many attorneys who decided to leave the law. Who gets out? Why are some lawyers successful when there are many who have the intention of leaving but do not accomplish that goal? There are five key factors I have learned to assess to predict a lawyer’s successful transition from the law.

These factors are: 1) the carrot, 2) the stick, 3) grit, 4) economic reality, and 5) the ability to engage in rapid relationship and trust building.

1) The Carrot

One of the most important factors to assess is the “carrot.” What are your needs? What draws you away from the practice of law and how deeply does it excite your interest? If you are profoundly interested in a pursuit outside of the law, especially if it is a long-standing interest or a mission you believe has importance and meaning for you, it is more likely that you will realize your goal of leaving the legal profession.

Sometimes I ask clients to tell me what they envision themselves doing other than the law, or I ask them to tell me about someone who has the job they think they would like to have. I ask these questions to assess the “carrots.”

There might be a strong interest or passion that has been buried under a pile of “shoulds.” “I should be a lawyer because I can make money doing that. But I wish I could develop this idea I have for an app that I know would be very popular.” “I know I ought to stay in the law because I can have a secure job, but I would love to be a broadcast journalist.” I have worked with attorneys who had these dreams and successfully transitioned their careers. In each case, the attorney had reason to believe that she would be successful before fully leaving the field of law.

There have been many other attorneys who made transitions out of the law or into non-legal jobs where a JD was either preferred or at least not a barrier to transition. Some of my clients have successfully left the law to move into financial planning, compliance, strategic communications, sales for a variety of services for lawyers, professional development, career services, and many more fields. In each case we looked for the “carrots.” People who need work/life balance or a collegial team, work that ends at the end of the day, or a mission of making the world a better place can find these and other “carrots” in non-legal jobs or other settings within the legal field. The “carrots” guide them to jobs that are better matches for their personalities.

2) The Stick

Another important factor is the “stick.” The stick is whatever it is you are trying to get away from in your work world. Your stick might be a difficult partner, the stress of trial work, demanding clients, or a poisonous work environment. When the stick has to do with the way you are practicing law, it tells me that you will probably need to modify or leave your present workplace, but it does not necessarily mean that you will be happier with a divorce from legal practice.

But what if you never liked the practice of law at all? What if you became an attorney to please your parents, for example? Many attorneys enter the field because they are urged to do so by well-meaning significant people in their lives. Some of these “helpful” people may have dreamed of being lawyers themselves, but could not fulfill those dreams. What if you are living out someone else’s dream? That is a stick with greater weight. If you are truly uninterested in the content of the law, modifying your workplace will not enhance your satisfaction because you still have to spend a lot of time thinking about content areas that are uninteresting to you. You are more likely to have the degree of motivation you will need to successfully leave the law.

3) Grit

Next, there are a group of personality traits that indicate you have the motivation and tenacity to make a career transition. Tristan Jones embodies these traits. Tristan Jones was a British sailor who was crippled in World War I with a back injury and was not expected to walk again. Not only did he make a remarkable self-motivated recovery, but he went on to become a solo sailor. He sailed around the world with his one-eyed dog and wrote books about his adventures. At one point he decided to sail his boat on the lowest and highest (altitude) bodies of water on earth: the Dead Sea and Lake Titicaca. He had to figure out ways to transport his boat, get past surly customs officials, deal with dreadful weather, insects, sickness, boat repair, and a host of other seemingly insurmountable problems. In his book, The lncredible Journey, he tells the story of his travels, which he accomplished without the assistance of financial benefactors.

Jones’ determination and tenacity were remarkable. But in addition to those traits, he gets high marks for initiative, creativity, flexibility, endurance, and perseverance. These are the ingredients that compose what you might call the “Tristan Jones factor,” or you could call it “grit.” How hard will you work to accomplish your goal? Fortunately, you do not have to be as determined as Tristan Jones in order to leave the law, but these traits are the ones that will help you to make a successful move.

4) Economic Reality

Another factor that must be assessed is your economic situation. Dan had been building a successful practice for over 15 years, but his interest in the law had plateaued. Bright, creative, and restless, Dan was fed up with “a life of bickering in court.” Before becoming an attorney, he had wanted to do free-lance writing, but his family had discouraged him from pursuing that path. When his best friend died of a heart attack at 51, Dan felt the pressure of time for himself. He burned to leave the law to become the free-lance writer he had always dreamed of becoming.

The problem was that he had a wife and three college-bound children who were accustomed to an affluent lifestyle. Even if Dan were willing to make a radical change in his lifestyle and live on far less income, his family was not. We spent time exploring, evaluating, and ranking his priorities. Although his first personal priority was to become a writer, he had an even higher-ranking priority, which was to maintain and support his family. Before doing that analysis, Dan had felt angry about being pushed by others to continue to practice law. After our counseling work Dan felt that he chose to continue to work as a lawyer to support his family, at least for a period of time.

Dan decided that his short term goal was to do as much free-lance writing as possible. He negotiated an “of counsel” arrangement with his firm, cut back on his work hours, and sold their second home to help finance his reduced work-schedule. His long-term goal was to leave the law. Once Dan acted on his plan, he felt relieved and his legal work life became more satisfying. Dan is less certain at this point that he wants to leave the law altogether. He has achieved a sense of balance in his life that is gratifying and permits economic stability.

5) Effective Opportunity Development

The last key piece to a successful career transition has to do with understanding and utilizing information about how to effectively develop opportunities and jobs. This is often called networking, but I prefer to have my clients think about this process in a different way. Instead of “networking” I teach them how to go on a quest using a medieval quest analogy, where they have a clear idea about their mission, which is to find some of the wizards and knights in this realm/ industry/ field and get creative about how to meet them.

It is important to be prepared to have well-scripted, small vetting meetings with multiple people in the industry they are trying to move into. These meetings are what I term “rapid relationship and trust building.” The goal is to become known and trusted by people who are already in the industry; this is an effective way to become the “insider who gets hired.” Such an approach opens doors and develops potential jobs and other opportunities for the job-seeker. But the messaging matters. You cannot ask someone for a job first thing because that limits the amount of intelligence you will gain.

The focus is on learning about the industry and learning gossip, hearing rumors, developing knowledge about what is happening on-the-ground, finding people already doing the work you would like to be doing, and learning from them. The focus is also on doing research so that you know the places where your skills could be useful and valuable, and articulating your value in these vetting meetings. Since more magic happens in person, I teach my clients how to engineer their luck by identifying people who are well positioned in the field and understanding how to connect with them in person if possible. This process includes giving back to people who help and guide them. These ideas and scripts are in my book, Job Quest: How to Become the Insider Who Gets Hired.

Conclusion

Transition out of the law is not easy but you can do it. You just need to know what to do and have the tenacity and motivation to work your way to your second life.