Need a change? Take a break from law, follow your bliss

July 2015 | First Focus

Amy Impellizzeriy

Amy Impellizzeri

Leaving the practice of law – or just taking a break from it – is something many lawyers would welcome. Some fear they may be in the wrong career and want to try something else while others want time off but worry it will have a negative effect on their career.

Lawyer Interrupted: Successfully Transitioning from the Practice of Law – and Back Again,” a new ABA Publishing book by Amy Impellizzeri, explores the practical and ethical considerations for lawyers seeking a break for temporary leaves of absence, taking care of family, changing careers, disciplinary actions and retirement. The book offers strategies for professional exploration and development as well as real-life, off-resume issues that lawyers struggle with.

Impellizzeri comes by her knowledge honestly. In 2009, she took advantage of Skadden Arps’ offer of a yearlong  leave of absence for one-third the salary and a guarantee to return to her position (an offer made as a way to stave off layoffs). The author took the sabbatical in order to explore writing as a career, and ended up not going back. To date she has published essays, articles, a novel and “Lawyer Interrupted.” We caught up with Impellizzeri to gain her insights and lessons learned about the process of taking a break from a legal career.

You write that the lawyers who are the most unhappy are those “farthest removed from a client who is doing anything.” What do you mean by that?

This is a piece of wisdom that I first heard from Art Bousel, founder of the Lawyer Career Spa in Oregon, which I later tested out and reaffirmed as I interviewed and researched trends among lawyers in differing sectors. Those lawyers at the lower rungs of large firms, and other lawyers farthest away from those clients who are creating or manufacturing the products, documents or ideas at issue tend to be the least satisfied in the long run.  This may well be a key reason we see longevity amongst solo practitioners who have firsthand contact with their clients as opposed to low-level corporate law firm associates who may toil on motions and other strategy documents without ever meeting a client or a representative of the client – let alone a key decision-maker at the client company. While not universally true, it is difficult for many lawyers to find reward and meaning in the hard and tedious labor required when the direct connection between lawyer and the person or people whose story they are trying to tell is lacking. 

What are some steps lawyers should take before taking a break from law practice?

The biggest piece of advice I hope potential interrupted lawyers will take from “Lawyer Interrupted” is to actually plan for their break … from the beginning. It’s tempting sometimes to run out the door without a plan other than making good on dormant gym memberships and catching one’s breath, with a vague idea about starting a business or opening a restaurant or writing a book.   

Not a good idea.

As Nathan Sawaya (the lawyer-turned-Lego-artist) told me: “Listen, it’s a process, right? I tell people who ask me — if you really want to follow your passion of making clay pots, that’s great. Good for you. But you better take a pottery class first. You know what I mean? You better plan for it.” There are ways to make sure gaps in your resume are miniscule – e.g., maintaining your license, doing appropriate pro bono and contract work – and also ways to make sure the time is productive – such as strategic volunteering, which is something I talk about at length in “Lawyer Interrupted.”

You advise lawyers who are trying to figure out their next move to consider what they would do for free. How does that process work?

It’s not a very easy process for most practicing lawyers. Ask any ambitious and high-billing lawyer: “What do you like to do for fun?” and you are likely to hear a lot of stuttering, maybe even a few minutes of awkward silence. One of my favorite interrupted lawyers, Jill Donovan, founder of the jewelry company Rustic Cuff, told me about how for years she took up a new hobby every year – while practicing and later teaching law – in order to really cultivate and explore interests outside the law. One year, she took up Russian, another year she took up tap dance. She also took up running and poker and making jewelry. It was this last endeavor that really called to her. Jewelry-making was a hobby that Jill decided to focus on again one day – if she ever had the chance.  Well, Jill left her legal teaching position and turned her “hobby” into an international jewelry empire in less than five years.

The truth is that transitioning from the law is not easy and requires hard work and commitment in order to deal with fallout, including financial and identity issues. If you can identify a next step that you love so much you’d do it for free — or at least for much less than you were pulling in as a lawyer —  you’ve taken a great first step toward finding a venture you can pour your heart and time and energy into, which will indeed be necessary.  

In one chapter you quote former practicing attorney Susan Cartier Liebel, who says that law school attracts “many happy, creative people and then gives them no outlet for that creativity.” One solution she suggests is to change the way one practices law. Please explain that.

Susan is a dynamic, out-of-the box thinker who made a career out of incorporating creative thinking into her handling of cases. Shaking up the routine motion practice, exploring mediation solutions and collaborating with colleagues and adversaries are just some of the ways practicing lawyers can demonstrate creativity every day. 

Of course, some lawyers are simply practicing in the wrong field. Take, for example, corporate lawyers who would be happier handling trusts and estates; criminal lawyers who might be happier mediating custody disputes; insurance lawyers who might really be more satisfied hanging out a shingle as a general practitioner. If you are an unhappy lawyer, you need to ask the question: Am I am unhappy being a lawyer – or just being this kind of a lawyer?

You write that “law schools still focus their career counseling and job recruiting primarily on law firms … so many lawyers leave law school with little information about alternative careers.” How do you suggest changing that?

In a perfect world, law school rankings would no longer be based on how many new or recent graduates are placed in “J.D.-required” fields. The truth is that a law degree is one of the most versatile and valuable post-graduate degrees in today’s market. Law school graduates are trained in nuanced analytical thinking, problem-solving, research and writing and yet the most coveted positions for today’s law school graduates are low-level associate positions at high-paying law firms.

The costs and incurred debt for this amazing degree make the risky move of utilizing the degree to start a business, run a nonprofit or collaborate on some other entrepreneurial venture largely cost-prohibitive. Plus, there is a lingering stigma about leaving law school to start up one’s own firm; there is an archaic perception that this is something an attorney does if she/he has few other options. 

It would thrill me if “Lawyer Interrupted” helps motivate the discussions needed to spur the perception and attitude shifts needed to truly recognize the versatility of today’s law degree.

What mistakes have lawyers made when they took a leave of absence that others can learn from?

In addition to some of things we’ve talked about here – e.g., failing to properly prepare, failing to keep in touch with colleagues and contacts – one important lesson I’ve learned from many is not to go back too soon. It can be a disaster to forego proper exploration and introspection because you feel it’s arbitrarily “time” to go back. While it is true that the least risky amount of time to leave is for one year … after the one-year mark, it’s better to stay out the right amount of time for you, rather than trying to go back too soon.