If a waitress declared she was thinking about a career change, her friends and family probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But a lawyer?
After years of law school, internships, landing a job at a law firm and climbing the ladder there, a lawyer who wants to call it quits likely would get a few questions.
As in, “Are you crazy?”
Or, “What the heck will you do instead?”
And, of course, “How on earth will you ever be able to pay off your student loan debt?”
But a juris doctorate degree isn’t a ball and chain, and just like workers in other careers, lawyers can sometimes decide to move on to something else.
Fortunately, pivoting after law school may be 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.
Reasons Lawyers Might Consider Making a Career Switch
It might seem shocking that a lawyer would want to make a career change, after all they’ve spent years studying and preparing for this career, but it’s not all that uncommon. Television and film can make it seem like practicing law is a thrilling blend of opening and closing arguments and life-changing verdicts passed down by the jury, but there are plenty of mundane tasks in the mix.
In some cases, legal work can be relatively dull. Instead of high stakes court cases, it can be a lot of reading, research, and paperwork. Sometimes the work can be isolating as a lot of time is spent thinking of ideas and writing alone.
Beyond that, lawyers can face a ton of pressure at work, which can lead to a stressful day-to-day work environment. Lawyers have a lot on their plates: tracking deadlines, handling client demands, staying on the partner track, keeping up with the changing laws and regulations, and more.
Not only can the stress of the job be exhausting, especially at “big law” firms, getting the job done can require long hours—no matter the firm. Combine that with the fact that oftentimes a lawyer’s schedule is out of their control, dictated by the courts or bosses at a firm, it’s no wonder some lawyers are interested in looking for another career path.
As an editorial from The Young Lawyer Editorial Board for The American Lawyer points out, many employers have expectations for their workers and a method for tracking how they’re doing. It might be a sales goal that’s been set at a car dealer, a punch clock for line workers, or a certain number of clicks for an online content provider.
At most law firms, that measure is billable hours. Not how many hours the lawyers actually work, and not the quality of the work, but how many hours they can bill to a client.
“Used appropriately, billable hour standards can set clear expectations for lawyers and supply a dose of objectivity to measuring their contributions, ensuring that comparable work receives comparable reward,” the editorial board writes. “For instance, a lawyer who has had an extraordinarily busy period of firm or client work should be recognized and compensated accordingly.
“But there can be pitfalls. The legal profession is rife with examples of billable hour requirements gone bad. Too common are the stories of law firms with a published hours requirement, and then a de facto set of often much higher hourly expectations to advance or demonstrate commitment.”
In a stressful, highly competitive environment, the editorial continues, “Lawyers burn out, retention suffers, and work quality suffers.”
All worth it if the pay is great, right? Except the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the 2018 median pay for a lawyer as $120,910 per year—which means half of the lawyers out there are making less than that.
And some are making far less—including contract lawyers that firms are increasingly hiring to perform the same functions as an associate, but without the expensive commitment.
The truth is, many law school graduates could be making a decent living and enjoying themselves more in a different profession.
So How Can You Prepare Your Exit Strategy?
Leaving a career as a lawyer can be a huge decision. If you’re considering making a career switch you might want to think about preparing an exit strategy. Here are some ideas for planning ahead as you think about making the jump from lawyer to the new career of your choice.
Aggressively Paying Off Student Loan Debt
Having a ton of debt hanging over your head might limit your options. Refinancing student loans could be a good choice for those who have higher interest, unsubsidized Direct Loans, Graduate PLUS loans, and/or private loans. (Federal loans carry some special benefits that are not accessible
if you refinance into a private loan—such as student loan forgiveness and forbearance—so be sure you know what you’ll lose.)
If you have solid credit and a good job (among other factors), you may qualify for a better interest rate and/or terms with a private lender that can help you get out from under that student debt faster. And some private lenders, including SoFi, consolidate and refinance both your federal and private loans into one new loan with one manageable payment.
SoFi also offers other benefits to its members, including career coaching that could help you transition to your next job. There are a few things you can do outside of refinancing to help you be better equipped to move on when and if you wish—or when something better comes along.
Creating a Budget and an Emergency Fund
Lawyers tend to make decent money right out of the gate (the problem comes later when income can start to stagnate), so it may be wise to avoid spending those years letting your lifestyle rise to the level of your income.
If you haven’t already, two ideas for that relatively high-earning time is to start building an emergency fund and putting together a reasonable budget. If you think your salary will take a hit should you leave the law, you can make it a goal to cut some costs now, before you make your move.
Using Your Time as a Lawyer to Make Connections
Building professional relationships and keeping them going could pay off when you start putting out feelers. Be professional, respectful, and if you decide to ask someone for help, be clear about what you want—advice, an introduction, or a job.
Try moving your focus from what you don’t like about your current job to how you might transfer your knowledge, skills, and passion to a new career. Lawyers can make good researchers and investigators, compliance professionals, business analysts, executives, and entrepreneurs. Some go into law enforcement. Many end up in the media or communications.
Can You Have a Non-Legal Job With a Law Degree?
Absolutely. Employers typically know that a law degree can speak volumes about intelligence and work ethic. It’s likely assumed you must be analytical, organized, and 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, you may find something that makes you just as happy—if not more so.
Want to get your student debt under control so you can more easily move on to your dream job? Check out SoFi to see how refinancing your student loans can help.
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