The most common mistake unhappy lawyers make is a fairly simple one to correct. One of my clients reminded me of this last week when we were talking for the first time. “I hate my law firm,” she told me, “so I’m thinking about what my options are. I’ve applied to the Department of Justice, three in-house jobs, and a smaller firm. I’m not sure I want to leave law, so I think that about covers it.” When I asked her what she likes about being a litigator, she didn’t hesitate. “Thinking on my feet,” she said, “counseling clients, researching and writing really complex briefs, and persuading a judge into seeing my side of things.” She added, “But I hate the partners at my firm.” Working in-house, I explained, would probably give her the chance to do only one of those things on a regular basis: counseling clients. Even then, many of those clients – really, the business people at her company – might not always take her advice willingly. The rest of what she loved about her current job would almost certainly be left behind.
The question she had been asking herself was this: “Where else could I work with my JD and law firm experience?” That question had led her down a path that would probably lead to more dissatisfaction with her work, with the additional stress of having to prove herself with a whole new group of people. That isn’t rare. Unhappy lawyers often think in terms of traditional law placements, especially when they are not sure about making a transition out of law.
The better questions, and the more productive ones, focuses on what brings them joy. What elements of your work make you feel satisfied, accomplished, skillful, and happy? What skills are you using in those moments? What other professions and workplaces value the skills you enjoy using – the ones you may well have years of experience putting into practice? Career satisfaction comes from using the skills you love around and for people who value those skills.
As I explain in Life After Law, people who are drawn to law school often enjoy using one or more of a finite set of skills, including problem solving, project management, writing, counseling, helping others, and complex analysis. Many ex-lawyers have also become successful entrepreneurs and artists. Each chapter in the book summarizes the career transitions of at least a few different people who share each of those skills, underscoring the fact that there is so much more to choose from than the traditional options of in-house, government work, or another firm.
You should never limit yourself to traditional law options, especially at the beginning of your career transition process. There’s more: there is no single best option for any one set of skills, or any one person. It’s a happily wide and diverse range of choices.
My client and I, as it happens, enjoy many of the same things about litigation. I chose to use my love of thinking on my feet, research and writing instead to fuel my next career in academia. She may choose to become a solo practitioner, since she may be comfortable with developing her own book of business and either managing the minutiae of a service business or hiring someone to do that for her (as I wasn’t). Or she may do something completely different. I can’t wait to see what happens with her – and with you.