You have been spending your days and nights at your law firm, churning away, billing hours, with no end in sight. What you have been longing for is a fresh start—a new beginning where you can do something different, with more meaning. Despite this lurking feeling, the fear of the unknown is paralyzing. The prospect of leaving your law firm is daunting and you do not want to lose everything that you have worked so hard to achieve.
However, these two stories are proof that the path to a successful career is not always linear. While one route to success might be from associate to partner at the same law firm, there is a multitude of alternatives. Here are two true stories of what can happen if you do decide to take an alternative path.
The Story of Rick Carroll
No aspect of the old adage “youth is wasted on the young” seems quite so true as that of the study abroad semester or the gap year—a rite of passage for many college-age students who get the opportunity to work their way through the pubs of Europe (while dutifully sending their parents photos of them visiting all of the historical sites). For the more adventurous amongst us, a gap year may entail volunteering in East Africa or “finding oneself” in Thailand.
After practicing corporate law for four years, and amid the crisis that plagues everyone as they realize that they have largely wasted their 20s, I had two distinct thoughts: (1) I did not know nearly enough about corporations and the financial principles underlying the legal work I was practicing, and (2) I really needed to get out and see the world.
On a whim, I applied to one (and only one) business school—Oxford—and was somehow admitted. Fast forward a few months, and I had quit my job, sold most of my worldly possessions, and was on my way to England, but not before first trekking across much of North Africa and the Middle East (which was in the midst of the Arab Spring).
Arriving at my residential college at Oxford (St. Edmund Hall—founded in 1236), I
This was a surreal experience. And, for a time, it was my life.
Starting the MBA, there was some trepidation that I was going to be out of my league. Certainly, this place would be filled with hard-charging hedge fund managers and aspiring titans of industry. And yes, my colleagues were all incredibly accomplished. But what I found was a group of brilliant, generous people who, like me, just needed a break from the “real world” to reflect on their lives and, frankly, to have a lot of fun.
With these new friends, my weekends were spent exploring European cities (courtesy of those ridiculously cheap Ryan Air plane tickets), while my weeknights were spent
I even managed to learn a little bit about business and graduate with my MBA.
Amazingly, other than some new student loans, my time off cost me nothing and gave me so much. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, filled with adventures, unforgettable experiences, and new, lifelong friends (many of whom are now clients!).
At the end of this gap year, it was surprisingly easy to transition back into corporate law. It may be hard to appreciate when you're deep in law firm life, but it is completely possible (and healthy) to take a break from the legal grind.
Thus, to all the young lawyers out there: Throw caution to the wind and quit your job!
The Story of Scott Perkins
I am always a little bit surprised when I hear someone talk about knowing—just knowing—from an early age that they wanted to be a lawyer. That is decidedly not how I ended up practicing law. Rather, I was a history major in college and decided to go to law school—as did many of my contemporaries—based on the oft-repeated cliché that “you can do anything with a law degree.”
The recession of the last decade made a lot of people rethink the wisdom of proceeding to law school based only on the somewhat vague advice that took me there. But I believe that the statement itself is a true one. After leaving law school, I spent close to seven years at a large firm with a practice targeted on corporate and commercial litigation. It was a great experience and could be exciting work, but I didn’t have the focus and desire to continue doing just that type of work for the rest of my career. I had always been interested in politics and government but was nervous about leaving the (relative) safety of a good job in private practice and switching to something else. After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to act on my interests and take an opportunity to move into government service—and I’m thrilled that I did.
What followed were three of the most rewarding years of my career. First at the Delaware Department of Justice and later as deputy legal counsel for Governor Jack Markell, I was able to work with some of the smartest, most dedicated individuals in government on both policy and legal issues. It taught me—better than any book—exactly how government works, and what needs to be done to keep government working well. And, given the wide range of legal issues that come before a government lawyer, it opened my eyes to areas of the law that I was not familiar with but have now grown to love.
Now back in the private sector, I am working on developing a practice that utilizes my commercial litigation background, my government experience, and my newer interests in health policy and law. I am happier in my work than I have been before—and it never would have happened if I had not taken the time to leave the well-worn path of private practice to engage in government service.
When law students or young lawyers come to me and ask for career advice, this is the story I tell them. And I suggest that if you remain open to leaving the “safe” path of staying in private practice, you can both grow as a lawyer and find new areas of the law that might change the way you work. Whether it is through government service, volunteering with charity organizations, working with legal aid organizations, or something else entirely, you should find something you are passionate about and not worry too much about taking time to pursue it. It worked out well for me so far, and it may work out for you, too.
So, if you are unhappy in your law firm job, remember, a legal background can add value in almost any career. The law and the skills it teaches (including persuasive writing, research, oral communication, problem-solving, public speaking, working with others, analytical thinking, and organization) touch every aspect of the world we live in. Find an industry or path that excites you and believe and advocate to prospective employers that your legal training is a benefit to their organization.
Entering into a new industry may force you to start at a lower position than you feel you deserve or as compared to your lawyer job. Keep in mind, though, that your lawyering skills and advocacy can help you advance quickly within that industry once you have a foot in the door. There is no one-size-fits-all formula to success, but by staying true to yourself and working hard, good things will happen. Your career satisfaction and happiness are worth it.