Leaving the Practice of Law: Options Outside of the Law Firm

Leaving the Practice of Law

It may seem difficult to imagine why some lawyers choose to leave the practice of law after attending law school, passing the bar exam, and working so hard to advance their careers in the legal profession. Many law firms and businesses have pondered why there are so many unhappy lawyers and many lawyers have wondered what it will take to finally make the career change.

The legal profession no longer offers the same promise of a successful life as it once did. Instead, many attorneys have found themselves trapped in a law firm where their work is undervalued and their personal lives are nonexistent. Even those who have become partners in a firm, which is the peak position for all aspiring attorneys, are finding less success and fulfillment in their careers.

This article will look at two major contributors to the rise of unhappy lawyers and the reasons so many lawyers leave the practice of law. It will also outline changes that one can make within the legal industry to continue practicing law before giving attorneys ready to leave law some ideas for alternative careers.

The Makings of an Unhappy Lawyer

Lawyers have stopped practicing law at somewhat alarming rates. The American Bar Association conducted a survey that found that nearly a quarter of people who graduated with a law degree in 2000 no longer practice law as of 2012. There is an impending sense of doom within the legal profession as more people with law degrees choose to find a job outside of the industry.

As we mentioned above, there are a few reasons that lawyers are unhappy and have left law practice. For some, the negative culture in big law has contributed to burnout and interference with their lives. Others have realized that they were wrong about their interest in law and have pursued other careers or even gone to other professional schools, such as medical school. Still, others have become disenchanted with a career that they thought would help them use their skills to impact the world in ways that would matter.

Large law firms are notorious for overworking their associates the moment they earn their law degree. It is accepted within the profession that associates will likely work one and a half to two times the 40-hour work week. The additional pressure of billable hours and the scarcity of new jobs that pay the same amount leave a lot of associates reeling after their first year in their careers. Additionally, with firm and other salaries not matching the rate of inflation, the money-to-work ratio is no longer the large draw it once was.

Interestingly, the culture of many establishments was created when the workforce was dominated by men with wives at home to handle their lives outside of work, a culture that has not changed even with the shifting workforce.

Additionally, many lawyers may find themselves staying in their current jobs due to a lack of financial literacy within the profession. It is common for lawyers to miss out on learning how to use their money wisely, even if they had to take a pay cut to find a new job. This further encourages lawyers to stay in a firm they despise rather than find one with lower pay but more balance or impact. Learning about resources and planning that can help set you up for success even with a lower salary can have a huge impact on your career.

Finding New Life Within Law Firms

If you are struggling with the big law or business aspects of law but would still like to find a meaningful career as a lawyer, it may be time to find a new firm or organization to work for. The idea that movement within the industry is discouraged is a thing of the past. It is becoming less and less common for partners to value loyalty over good work and quality business. This means that you do not need to keep the only job you had since graduation to become a partner at a firm.

While it may make the rise to the coveted position a little longer, a lawyer leaving their current job to explore different practice areas or other firms can help expand your portfolio and expose you to clients and areas you may be interested in but have never been able to access.

Those looking for a new job should consider a practice area or sector that excites them. Maybe you are a corporate lawyer, but the idea of practicing immigration entices you. Some lawyers would like to make the switch from litigation to legal research. Other attorneys have a knack for organizing and starting a business, so they may want to explore working for a start-up. Research the areas that excite you, have coffee with a lawyer in the field, and listen to the advice of those who can speak on the practice.

It may be helpful to consider options outside of big law as well. Lawyers may often feel overwhelmed when considering the move from big law firms to small or boutique firms, but the move may be more balanced and make the lower potential salary worth it. Some attorneys may join nonprofit organizations to do work that has a greater impact and allows them to interact with and give advice to individual clients rather than a business.

There are ways to find a fulfilling career within legal organizations; however, for an attorney that is disheartened or overwhelmed, making the switch from a legal career may be the best move.

Alternative Careers to Practicing Law

If you are considering a new field or career outside of being an attorney, there are ways to use your skills and experience to provide for yourself and your family.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of opportunities to explore for those looking to leave the legal profession behind.

Professor at a Law School

One option that many people will pursue is to become a professor at a law school. This allows you to use your skills and expertise to teach a course for new lawyers hoping to take on the profession. Professors can interact with students and be at the forefront of academic thought within the field.

Being a professor allows you to limit much of your work to the week and allows you to explore other opportunities, such as legal writing and research. Many former lawyers have found creative ways to integrate their law degrees with their interests to create journal articles and research that have influenced the laws and field for other attorneys.

Human Resources

Occasionally, a former attorney will find a fulfilling career in human resources or employee relations. This can be particularly true for lawyers who often found themselves fighting on behalf of a business rather than an employee. By becoming a human resource professional, you can engage with employees and address many of the same concerns that you have in your previous posting. Committing to bettering the lives of employees within another company can help an attorney feel connected and fulfilled.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Many former attorneys have found dispute resolution to be a creative route to take after leaving the legal workforce. A lawyer can become a mediator or an arbitrator and use their expertise to help others find mutually agreeable solutions. This can be a rewarding change because it helps them move away from adversarial work and towards collaborative and restorative work.

Anything that Intrigues You

It is not uncommon for a lawyer to completely pivot and find a brand new sector to work in. Some attorneys will become teachers, open bookstores or bakeries, write a novel, or even go to medical school. Passion for a project or new idea often leads to more fulfillment than staying in a place that undervalues you and drains you of your passion for work and life.

Final Thoughts

Reminding yourself that you are more than just your job is an important step in leaving the practice of law. Your life should be more than the job or title you have. Finding fulfillment and a purpose aren’t always easy endeavors, but we all owe it to ourselves to make a change if we are unhappy. Finding a place that you love to be in and surrounding yourself with people who value your work can be the best thing for your life, whether it is at a law practice or not.

To learn more about the legal profession, alternative dispute resolution careers, and more, check out ADR Times’s blog!

Emily Holland
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