No Limits

Tips for Successful Transition from Traditional Legal Practice to an Alternative Career

Stinson Woodward Ferguson
If you're considering a switch to another part of the legal field, there are a number of issues to take into consideration before making the leap.

If you're considering a switch to another part of the legal field, there are a number of issues to take into consideration before making the leap.

Have you ever daydreamed about working outside traditional legal practice in an alternative career role?  Perhaps you went to law school to practice law but have decided you want to take your talents elsewhere. Or perhaps you’ve experienced a change in life circumstances and want to explore a corresponding change in career course. You may even be considering remaining in traditional practice while adding some non-traditional work to your plate. 

Job satisfaction is just as much about what you do as it is about how you do it.  Generally, how you transition into a new role sets the tone for your post-transition experience. So, how do you set yourself up for a successful transition to alternative work?  Below are a few things to consider as you plot your move. 

Know What You Do Not Like To Do.  Not that you should avoid all things you don’t like—but know what they are and take them into account when evaluating a new opportunity. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to identify and chase our passion.  Part of that, however, is assessing what makes you uncomfortable or does not motivate you or come easy to you in the workplace.

We are quick to seek information on salary and benefits associated with a potential career shift. We are slower to conduct a similar assessment of the tasks  we aren’t willing to tolerate.  Absent such an assessment, we might find ourselves working for a cause about which we are passionate but in a role mismatched with our motivations and preferences.

Do you enjoy interacting with the general public?  Do you enjoy working with people?  What degree of autonomy are you aiming for in a new position?  To what extent can you tolerate being told what to do and being on someone else’s schedule?  Are you able and willing to travel during the week or on short notice? 

What a job entails is usually more straightforward in a traditional legal setting.  Non-traditional work is not as clear-cut.  The best decisions are informed ones.  Aim to be just as informed about the job description and benefits as you are about where you are as a person and what you are not okay being asked to do.

Have A Life Outside Of Being An Attorney. Is the fact that you’re an attorney the most notable thing that people know about you?  If so, you may find it challenging to convince an interviewer to consider you as anything else. Having friends that aren’t lawyers broadens your perspective and enhances your level of exposure.  Many times, non-traditional job opportunities present themselves through non-attorney connections. Civic and community involvement can help you expand your network, but aim to commit to causes which truly ignite you. Often when you leave a traditional legal job, even if on good terms, you leave the close relationships built behind.

Having a life outside of being an attorney will help increase the likelihood that no matter where your career takes you – your support system and professional circles will remain intact.

Consider Keeping Your Foot In The Door Of Traditional Practice.  Unless you are certain you never want to be involved in traditional legal practice ever again, consider keeping your foot in the door.  Don’t be quick to go to inactive bar member status or ditch your legal networks.  Stay plugged in with your local, state, and national bar associations. Seek and take advantage of pro bono opportunities in your area. 

Pro bono work can help you keep your traditional practice skills sharp while providing much-needed assistance for the disadvantaged. Formal pro bono opportunities also often some with malpractice coverage and resources to enable you to provide competent assistance.

Focus On Your Finances.  There are few things worse than wanting to make a move and feeling like you can’t because of your financial situation. It is easy to slowly become trapped by things intended to offer satisfaction and mobility.  Also, many of us have responsibilities that will continue regardless of where we work—so planning ahead is a must.  It is important to be able to see beyond the “right now” and make short-term sacrifices that translate into long-term options.

If you haven’t already, seriously consider building a relationship with a financial advisor not connected to your employer. A financial advisor not connected to your employer will help you feel free to discuss investment, long-term plans, and retirement. Most employers will contribute to or match your retirement contributions—but in many situations those contributions don’t follow you if you leave unless you’ve worked there for a very long time.

Expect your interests and priorities to change. Aim to know what you are signing up for, and what the financial consequences are of you leaving an organization.  It doesn’t matter how much your employer is contributing if you lose it when you leave.

Have Thick Skin. Many of us in traditional legal practice have identities closely tied to our work.  Even when you are excited about a new chapter in an alternative role, you have to re-imagine and reinvent yourself in new ways; unlearn things that became second nature in traditional practice; and prepare yourself for questions and commentary from family, friends, colleagues, and people you interact with who learn that you decided to transition. 

Prepare to be challenged about your decision to leave traditional legal practice. You may even be asked why you wanted to “quit being a lawyer.” Aim to transform these instances into opportunities to educate others about the degree to which skills and abilities from traditional legal practice are valuable and transferable to alternative work. 

With all this said, there is no one recipe or path to success.  Doing these things won’t guarantee a successful transition any more than not doing them will prevent it. Most important is that you do what you believe is best for you in a manner that is achievable for you.

Stinson Woodward Ferguson

Stinson Woodward Ferguson is an Associate Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, South Carolina, focusing primarily on energy and water issues. She is a licensed funeral director and also serves as Director of Organizational Development for the J.W. Woodward Funeral Home, Inc. Prior to her current roles, she previously served as Director of the Pro Bono Program for the South Carolina Bar. Prior to her leadership at the Bar, she worked as a trial attorney, focusing on construction and utility litigation, commercial dispute litigation, financial services litigation, and environmental matters, advising and representing construction and utility companies, lending institutions, and healthcare providers. Prior to private practice, Ms. Ferguson clerked for the Honorable Kristi L. Harrington, South Carolina Circuit Court, Ninth Judicial Circuit. She also worked for the S.C. Environmental Law Project as part of a fellowship program.


She earned her Masters of Environmental Law (LL.M.), summa cum laude, from Vermont Law School, with a concentration on Energy Law and Policy. She earned her J.D. from the University of Georgia, where she was the recipient of the School of Law’s Public Interest Fellowship. She earned her B.A. in French, magna cum laude, from Converse College. She is certified to Teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and has taught adult students from Asia, Europe, and South America.