Many lawyers who are dissatisfied in their jobs have long thought about doing something other than practicing law but feel stuck where they are because they don’t know what they want to do or what other types of jobs they would be marketable for.
Some in this position are paralyzed because they feel they have to be certain of what to do next before they let anyone know they might want to leave the field, concerned that doing so conveys a sense of failure or that they aren’t good at being a lawyer. Others apply to any and all postings they think they could qualify for because they want out of their current situation—and are increasingly frustrated when they get no responses.
These attorneys are often similarly frustrated by the limitations of the resources they turn to for guidance on how to move from Point A to Point B and what to do if you don’t know what Point B is.
• There are a substantial number of books published specifically on “alternative careers for lawyers” that typically focus on what drives people from the profession, contain long lists of other types of jobs, and provide anecdotes of individuals who have made the switch to become media celebrities, novelists, business moguls, or professional chefs.
• Recruiters are paid by employers to find people who “check off” multiple boxes and have substantial experience doing specific types of work so are not necessarily knowledgeable about people interested in making a shift.
• Standardized assessments that measure personality type, aptitudes and interests often deliver disappointing results that suggest lawyer, judge, researcher, or politician as professions for which they are well suited and simply confirm things these lawyers already knew about themselves.
• Career services offices at their alma mater—both undergrad and law schools–are not typically staffed to serve alumni. They are focused on helping current students get jobs so are not experienced in advising people in the workforce on how to make a career change.
Lawyers who want to make a change legitimately need more information in order to make a decision about what other types of work they might be marketable for and what they want to do. In order to get that, there is no substitute for talking to people about what you’re looking for, what you bring to the table, and where you could add value.
Making a successful career change is not necessarily a sequential process where you first figure out what you want to do and then go after it. It often requires simultaneously making a good impression while soliciting information you need in order to decide whether or not you want to pursue those types of positions and how to market yourself for them effectively.
The following are tips for those who find themselves in a similar situation, whether by choice or due to the market.
1. Recognize that every job has its pros and cons
Attorneys who are unhappy at work or have regrets about going to law school can get caught up in figuring out what path they should have taken instead. It is important to recognize that there is no one type of work that you were destined to do or a perfect job out there meant for you.
There are going to be pros and cons in any job, so it is in your interest to take the time to prioritize what it is you want out of your work life and what you want to avoid. Maximizing income? Autonomy? Time? Socializing at work? Intellectual stimulation? Living in a certain place? Developing a set of criteria will give you a lens to evaluate different types of positions and which tradeoffs you are willing to accept.
You are likely to be in the workforce for decades, and priorities tend to change over time. When evaluating next steps, think about whether work that is a good fit now positions you for where you want to be 15 years down the road.
Whether you feel that since you spend the majority of your waking hours at work you need to find a job you enjoy, or think “work is work–that’s why they pay you for it” so need a job that provides enough money and/or free time to pursue outside interests, most jobs people land fall somewhere in the middle.
2. Don’t let postings drive your search
Applying to postings online without any other action on your part puts your resume in a pile in an HR office along with hundreds of others. The odds of getting pulled out of that pile and in front of the hiring person are not in your favor, particularly when you are trying to get a job doing something different than your recent experience—and those odds are even longer if you submit the same resume for every posting.
Letting postings drive your search puts you at a severe disadvantage because the vast majority of jobs—70 percent is a common estimate—are gotten through networking, and most jobs are never posted.
You have to become proactive in figuring out who you know who might be helpful in this process and reach out to them appropriately, i.e. NOT to ask for a job but for their perspective. Cast a broad net in identifying your contacts because it can be a neighbor of a friend’s cousin who makes an introduction that leads to a job.
3. Remember that Market research=Due diligence
Lawyers know nothing if not how to conduct research. There are basic market research questions that can guide your search.
• What industries are hiring?
• Who are the players in any given industry, whether businesses, government, or non-profits?
• Who are the employers in a given field that have deep enough pockets to pay you?
• What do these employers hire people to do outside the GC’s office?
• What does their org chart look like?
• What are the titles used in jobs that are posted?
• What is their business model? How can you advance that?
Rather than immediately applying to postings you think you are qualified for, use job boards as a research tool to see what criteria are listed under different job titles. “Lurk” on LinkedIn to check out the background of people who do other types of positions and to get up to speed on issues people in the industry are talking about. Identify which professional associations, conferences or trade publications can help you identify employers in the industry and areas of demand.
The next article in this series will present the final four steps to moving forward from the law.
Kate Neville provides direction to attorneys interested in making a career move, whether within the practice of law or to another field. A graduate of Harvard Law School and Princeton University, Kate practiced law as an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and served as a Special Counsel in the public sector before shifting to do management consulting work for both public and private sector entities. She founded Neville Career Consulting in 2007 to advise attorneys how to identify the full range of their professional options and how to pursue them successfully, providing tailored and practical guidance in all phases of a job search.