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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