How to Change Careers After Law School (and Why You’ll Probably Have To)



Changing careers after law school is never an easy decision, but lawyers today don’t always have a choice.

Between a dismal post-recession job market and underwhelming salary expectations, landing a legal job that pays the student loan bills is far from a sure thing. Add to that the stark reality of day-to-day legal work, which often falls short of expectations, and you have a recipe for a growing number of people leaving the law.

Fortunately, in today’s fluid job market, pivoting after law school is easier than it used to be, and there are some great alternative careers for lawyers out there—if you know where to look and how to position yourself.

We asked Joe Patrice, Editor of Above the Law (and former litigator) to weigh in on the trend.

Why did you want to become a lawyer?

I had a favorite professor in undergrad who told me she thought I’d enjoy the law. Like most people who go to law school, I enjoyed reading, writing, thinking analytically, etc. And my professor was right—I did enjoy aspects of it. Law school was a lot of fun, and I was lucky enough to graduate before the bottom dropped out of the market in 2008, so I had a good job at a Biglaw firm in NYC.

What made you want to switch careers?

I had some great experiences—a deposition here, a trial there—but found the day-to-day practice of the law was pretty mind-numbing. It was a lot of reading through reams of documents and checking off names, and not nearly as much writing as I thought there would be.

I also hit a point where it looked like I wouldn’t be able to progress much more. You have this expectation that you’ll be an associate for a few years, work your way up and eventually be making really good money as a partner or manager. But the reality these days is that law firms, particularly big ones, don’t have much incentive to keep people around long. There are only a few spots at the top, and pretty much everyone else gets cycled out within about eight years. They can always get a first-year to do your job for less money.

So what are the typical options for someone being “cycled out”?

Within the legal field, there are some alternatives. I started at my firm with a class of about 40 people, and only two are still there. The rest moved to boutique firms, found in-house legal jobs somewhere or completely transitioned out of the industry, like me.

As for whether you decide to stick with law or not, it depends. For some people, it’s really hard to give up on the idea of being a lawyer. It’s understandable—you worked hard to get into law school, graduate, pass the bar. You probably have six figures worth of student debt to show for it. But these days, staying in the legal field “at all costs” can mean making $8.25 an hour as a contract lawyer—the frightening bottom of this industry. And the truth is, you could be making a decent living and enjoying yourself more in a different profession.

Do you think every law school grad should consider the possibility they’ll eventually have to change careers?

I do tend to recommend having an exit strategy, especially if you plan to work in a Biglaw firm. Again, a very small percentage of people make partner. The firm may hold onto you if you have niche expertise, but that’s pretty rare. Everyone else is gone before eight years.

So how do you prepare your exit strategy?

First and foremost, aggressively pay off your law school loans. Having a ton of debt hanging over your head limits your options. Lawyers tend to make decent money right out of the gate (the problem comes later when your income stagnates), so don’t waste those years letting your lifestyle rise to the level of your income. The less debt you have, the more options you can consider if and when it comes time to change careers.

I also recommend using your time as a lawyer to make as many connections as possible. For example, if you’re in corporate law, you’re meeting people all the time—maybe you’re prepping a business owner for deposition, or your co-counsel is on the board of a non-profit. Build those relationships and keep them going, and they should pay off when you start putting feelers out.

And finally, if you can start toe-dipping into your next profession while you’re still working as a lawyer, I’d highly recommend it. I knew I wanted to make writing a central part of my day-to-day life, so I started picking up freelance writing gigs before I even thought of leaving my job. When the full-time editor position opened up at Above the Law, it was perfect timing for me to take the leap.

I would think that having a law degree and passing the bar make you an appealing applicant even for non-legal jobs.

Absolutely—most employers know that it speaks volumes about your intelligence and work ethic. It’s pretty much assumed you must be analytical, organized, good at project management. Plus you’re aware of the potential legal ramifications of business decisions, which can be really helpful to a company.

Probably the biggest hurdle for most people is simply giving up the dream of being an attorney. But if you can open your mind and look at all the other options, hopefully you’ll find something that makes you just as happy, if not more so.

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ABOUT Bob Park Bob Park was the Head of Career Strategy & Professional Development, working with the company's borrowers to help with job placement and career management at SoFi. He has worked with post graduate talent for more than twelve years, and was formerly Assistant Dean of Career Management at the Simon School of Business.


11 thoughts on “How to Change Careers After Law School (and Why You’ll Probably Have To)

  1. Very enlightening! My son is an undergrad sophomore majoring in poly sci and Russian. He has an interest in law school. Should I discourage him ? What about government law opportunities ?

    Thanks,
    Concerned mom

    • I am currently a lawyer. I have been trying to transition out of this field for a couple of years with little luck as employers have seemed hesitant to even speak to someone with J.D. as they assume they are over-qualified, will want a crazy salary, or will eventually want to return to the legal field. Personally, I discourage anyone that tells me that want to go to law school at this point and I know several other lawyers who do the same. The field is over-saturated and law school is incredibly expensive, even the lower tier schools. I was lucky to have a steady job out of law school, but only because I had been working as a paralegal for the firm for a few years prior to getting licensed. I am not sure what you are referring to when you mention “government law” but I feel experience and networking beats an advanced degree everyday.

      • I agree with this. I absolutely have found my JD to be a hindrance more than a help in applying for non-legal jobs. Also, I graduated from a well-known law school that’s one of the top 25 in the country and can’t even pay off the interest on loans each month with my public interest lawyer salary. I don’t get a pension or health insurance. I do not enjoy my job and have to take antidepressants just to get myself to get dressed, go there and do enough that I don’t wreck my clients’ cases. Blessed to have finally found a way into a new field at a comparable salary and with benefits. Don’t do it.

        • What jobs do you recommend to people who have a law degree but have no interest in taking the bar? I went to law school to have a better legal and business sense but I don’t actually want to be a lawyer. After graduating from law school I don’t know what kind of profession would appreciate my law degree and have a decent salary.

          Thank you for any piece of advice.

    • Please discourage him. Law careers are few and far between. Government jobs are very competitive to obtain as well. I know very few lawyers who are satisfied with their careers, those few who are still working attorneys.

    • I’ve been practicing law nearly 19 years and I would most definitely discourage anyone from going into this profession. This business is brutal. There are way too many lawyers. Where I live the median income for attorneys has dropped to $54,000 a year, meaning half make less than that. Very few make a hundred grand or more a year where I practice. Far fewer than you think make that anywhere. I do a little better than the median, but I never know if I’m going to have a job the next month. Often we don’t bring in enough to make payroll and often I don’t get paid. I’m supposed to get a salary plus a percentage of the business I bring in paid out in “bonuses” but I haven’t gotten a bonus in nine months and my employer is behind several thousand in my salary. We have four offices and some are in worse shape than others. Part of the problem for us is that oil and gas prices are down and revenues from that industry is what keeps the economy going in our area. Revenues are down by about 50% in one office where the economy is pretty much all oil and gas. It’s just a very tough time. If I was in any other career I’d quit my job if my employer wasn’t paying me regularly, but the fact is there is nothing else out there and very little business to go around so I am lucky to have a job and get paid most of the time. Solo practitioners are filing bankruptcy left and right.

      I never dreamed I’d be making such little money 19 years into my career, but the reality is that hardly any lawyers are making great money these days. You work yourself to death, late nights, weekends. You’re never done with your work. There is always so much you need to do and somebody is always coming at you with some emergency thing that has to be done yesterday. I have no life. I barely see my family. The years just zip by. If my kids wanted to be lawyers I think I’d lock them in a closet until they come to their senses. They see what this career does to dad though so there is no risk of them ever wanting to be lawyers.

    • Great question.

      First, there will always be a need for attorneys, and certain aspects of law will continue to demand top talent (and pay for it). Although law firms have increased their reliance on contract attorneys, most will continue to hire full time associates—especially in areas of specialization. That said, it is hard to get hired and build a career in law if you don’t have a passion or high level of interest in the career. We would recommend your son spend some time shadowing attorneys to better understand the day to day.

      Second, the school matters. If your son can get into a top tier law school, then he increases the likelihood of building a strong career. Top law firms (which is a great place to start your career) recruit from top law schools. So if your son loves the law, understands what it means to practice it, and can get into a great school, then it will be a good decision for him.

      Third, the JD is actually a great education. It makes you a critical thinker, improves your verbal and written communication skills, and provides you fundamental understanding of how things work—not to mention the fact that you learn how to deal with ambiguity (law is anything but black and white). It’s a valuable education that can be applied to many different things.

      Last, a career in the 21st century is going to look very different that it did in the 20th century. Many predict that we will have five careers (not jobs, but careers) before we are done working. So the more educated and skilled you are the more options you create.

      Hope that helps!

      • This is advertising garbage. Law school and law are terrible ideas for nearly everyone. You may be highly educated but employers don’t care, they want male able cheap work. Get a job, do that job, move to other jobs. Law was one of the worst decisions I’ve made and I went to T14 school with some scholarship.

        • Sleepless, this statement … “If your son can get into a top tier law school, then he increases the likelihood of building a strong career. Top law firms (which is a great place to start your career) recruit from top law schools.”

          Is actually a type of misdirection.

          If person attends Harvard, Columbia, Yale, etc, for law school, chances are, that person will also have opportunities to be recruited by management consulting, financial services, and IT companies just as well, by virtue of those campuses having extensive alumni connections everywhere. And thus, if Bain & Co, Morgan & Stanley, or Google, are hiring Harvard grads, then that’s exactly what it is, Harvard grads, not specially related to studying the law.

          And yes, I’d known Columbia Law grads end up in finance.

    • I am a federal government lawyer, and I have a great job that I happen to love. However, we are like unicorns, unless your son wants to live in DC. Openings are few and far between, and they are extraordinarily competitive (our last attorney opening received over 500 applicants). Even though I have a good job, if I could go back in time, I would not go to law school unless I got a full scholarship (too much debt for not enough payoff). Much like the interviewee, I just enjoy problem-solving and writing. Discourage your son. It’s not really worth it!

  2. Another hurdle is the public perception of being a lawyer and what they think that means. When you apply for a no traditional job with a JD, the #1 question is WHY? Lawyers ae so successful and make so much money. Why would you want to do this?( HR in my case). The rest of the work has a TV perception of the law as a career. Be prepared to answer that question over and over.

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