Tips on Transitioning:
Is There Life After the Law?

By Gretchen Otto

 

Many of us attended law school with stars in our eyes from watching too many Perry Mason and Matlock reruns. There will, however, always be a certain percentage of lawyers who will graduate to dislike the actual job, or perhaps just a traditional or large firm setting, for personal or other reasons. Some lawyers may even find themselves in a position where they remain at a job that makes them miserable because they feel like they have “wasted” their law school education, or that a career change will make them less of a “success.” There is good news for this group of lawyers. Many people have downsized their practices or even made the transition out of the law and are very happy and productive in their subsequent careers.

Lise Hamilton Hall worked with large and small firms in New York and Pennsylvania before opting for full-time motherhood and a part-time law guardian practice. This satisfying balance affords her both an outlet for her legal skills and sanity-preserving interaction with adults. She is retaining work skills and maintaining a seamless résumé should she choose to go back to full-time practice. She also finds her law degree valuable in her volunteer work on various boards of directors, thereby helping her with the real psychological and sociological stumbling blocks of feeling like she is not using her degree.

If you are unhappy in the practice, put together a list of factors outlining the costs and benefits of your current job. Your list should include all the factors associated with your employment and even consider such intangibles as your social environment and the amount of pressure that billing or marketing creates for you. Quality of life issues such as your commute and family time should also be considered.

Hamilton Hall suggests that if you have made your list and are still considering a leap, then the first step out of a traditional or larger firm would be to scale back your lifestyle. Make a financial plan for getting out of the practice. Set a realistic budget. Meet with a financial planner if you have to. For a cheaper solution, you might look for a community education course on budgeting for a household as well.

Don’t forget another potential option. Being of counsel or even working out a space sharing arrangement might be worth exploring before you make a final decision to leave your current situation, particularly if your dissatisfaction primarily involves stress over partnership. Evan Loeffler of Seattle, Washington (and an editor of GPSolo) happily exercised the latter option to start a thriving solo practice, and would highly recommend exploring it.

Hamilton Hall also notes that your choices now, or as you begin your law firm life, will limit your range of choices in five years. Going into your firm with a financial exit plan is appropriate even if you don’t currently dislike your job. She observes that for your firm, your employment is a business arrangement. Thus, for you it needs to be a business deal as well. Reassess as necessary every six months. Ask yourself frequently if your current situation is meeting your goals.

Lastly, don’t forget the resources of your law school’s placement office. They have experienced many people transitioning in and out of the practice and can assist you or just cheer you on.

Happy lawyering . . . and perhaps beyond!


Gretchen Otto, Esq, is a lawyer and freelance writer living in Northern Virginia.
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