Is There Life After Law Firms?

By Marcia Pennington Shannon

Just remember that sometimes career transitions need intermediate steps.

Law firm life is not for everyone. Every year, many lawyers jump off the partnership track and leave the law firm life to pursue different paths, sometimes because they dislike the firm environment, sometimes because they’re dissatisfied with the practice itself, and often because they want to do something else that’s a better fit.

Fortunately, there are many choices for those who don’t want to pursue the traditional path of becoming a partner in a firm. To begin, get ideas about what’s out there. Be really open to new options. Ask people what they do. You’ll find out about things you didn’t even know existed.

To get things going, let’s look at some of the non-firm options that have brought lawyers greater satisfaction and then explore steps you can take if you believe you would like to transition to something new in your career, too.

An overview of options. You name it and someone with a law degree is probably doing it—whether it means practicing law in a non-firm setting, working in a different type of law-related position, or engaging in an entirely new kind of career.

Many lawyers have moved into attorney positions within government, public interest organizations, associations, academic institutions, and the business and finance world, just to name a few non-firm settings. For those who want to continue practicing law, these settings can offer benefits and professional or personal satisfaction that law firm life may not, depending on individual interests and desires. For example, someone driven by a particular passion for environmental concerns may find that passion best met in a public interest organization. Someone who thrives on interaction with business people may relish the everyday life of an in-house counsel position.

Law-related options, or those options where a law degree serves as an added benefit but is not a requirement, also abound these days. For example, those lawyers working in legislative positions find the law degree adds value and credibility, as do those in compliance officer and risk manager roles. Legal publishing, law school teaching and administration, and lobbying fall into this category as well. Wherever law intersects with the work of an organization, those with law degrees add a special set of knowledge and problem-solving skills that aid in the ability to do their job at the highest levels.

Many are finding satisfaction in pursuing coaching and consulting specific to the legal profession as well, in various areas relating to marketing, management, finance, technology, and beyond. As just one example, Deborah Solomon, a former antitrust lawyer, uses her knowledge of law firm life to help attorneys be successful in their positions through the coaching process.

Then there are those who do something completely different from the practice of law and yet find their legal training adds to their list of qualifications. One former practicing attorney who switched to a career in secondary school teaching notes that practicing law helped him become a better communicator and persuader, skills he has found very useful in the classroom. Others, such as an attorney who started her own catering business, found that her legal training and experience not only helped her in negotiating contracts with clients and vendors but also in being able to handle multiple demands under great time constraints.

Identifying what’s a better fit: The self-assessment process. If you’re feeling that the law firm life isn’t for you but you are unsure what a better path might be, your first step should be to undertake a self-assessment process. Self-assessment consists of gathering data about your interests, skills you enjoy using, your values, substantive experiences, career and lifestyle preferences, and your vision of your future. You can accomplish this assessment in a number of ways, including completing career assessment inventories and answering a series of corresponding questions, looking for themes and highlights in the results. A professional career consultant can also be helpful.

Exploring the field: Market research and information interviews. If you’ve been thorough and honest in answering the questions in your self-assessment inventory, you will find that you’ve collected a range of valuable information about yourself. You can then analyze the information to identify themes and preferences that stand out. This will give you clues about what kind of work and settings would best suit you, enabling you to home in on options you may want to pursue. Then you will want to gather information about those options by doing some market research.

Begin with written resources about the options that would be a good match to your talents, values, preferences, and goals. And, of course, you have the Internet, where you can search for information on a range of levels, from overviews about various careers to blogs where people dish the dirt about the ups and downs of their field.

Once you have explored options, you are ready to conduct information interviews, which are excellent tools for career exploration. Information interviewing gives you a reality check: Is this particular field really what you imagine it to be? Kate Neville, a former practicing attorney and now a career consultant, is a strong believer in the benefits of the process: “It is hard to understand what a field is really like until you’ve had a conversation with someone who is in the field on a day-to-day basis.” As she points out, “It is best if you can go in with some questions prepared ahead of time about what you want to learn about a particular field.” With that in mind, toward the close of an information interview, you can ask the interviewee if she could suggest other people for you to talk to. Generally, it’s a good idea to cast as broad a net as possible when it comes to information interviewing opportunities.

Setting goals. You’ve sifted through your options, narrowed down your preferences, and now envision yourself on your future path. How do you move forward in the process from here? Writing down your specific goal, describing the steps you will take to get there, building corresponding timelines, and examining solutions to potential obstacles are all imperative in making a career change. Yes, you could fall into a position, but will it be your path or someone else’s?

Your next steps may include going back to school, getting training in certain skills, or moving to a position that is not exactly your “dream job” but gives you experience needed to make the bigger transition. Just remember that sometimes career transitions need intermediate steps. Be creative in your career path planning. But be patient, too. Impatience often leads to the wrong path because you may be jumping from one choice that doesn’t fit to another. Do the work necessary to make the best match for you.

There are many options outside of law firm practice, but not all of them are going to be a good fit for you. Taking the time to thoroughly analyze information about yourself and match it to available options will much more likely lead to satisfaction and success in your next position or career.

For More Information About the Law Practice Management Section

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 38 of Law Practice, June 2007 (33:4).

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Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, D.C., attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She may be reached at .

Copyright 2008

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