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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

Life After Law: What to Do When You Don't Want to Be a Lawyer Anymore

Talk to a surprising number of people who went to law school, and you’ll hear a remarkably similar story: There is a moment, usually in your second year (and often, precisely when you’re in the middle of an interview, convincing the interviewer—and yourself—just how passionate you are about the intricacies of contract law), that a creeping feeling begins to take hold. All of a sudden, you realize that this pricey, hard, and tedious thing you got yourself into is not at all what you want to do for the rest of your life.

My eureka moment came in my second year when I realized that, although I began law school to save the world through international human rights law, I was going to have to plow my way through constitutional, contract, and torts law (and a million other yawn-inspiring courses) before I got to something even remotely relevant to my goal. In the end, I finished my degree and practiced as a public defender for three years, but all along, I knew I would eventually leave.

As I came to that decision, I asked myself a lot of the same questions you’re probably asking yourself: Was your sweat equity, financial devastation, and physical abuse (from the lack of sleep and amount of caffeine ingested) all in vain? Should you throw in the towel, deal with the disappointed parents, and face up to the loss of law school prestige?

My advice: If you’re still in school, stick it out. Suck it up and graduate, and then come up with a new game plan for your career. And if you’ve graduated? There is a life after law, and you can use everything you gained earning your JD to get there. I’ve done it; my classmates have done it (from my class alone, I know of a singer, a comedian, and a fashion blogger); and here’s how you, too, can turn your law degree into a job you love.

1. Come to Terms with Your Decision

My earliest indication that I might be in the wrong field was when I seriously considered keeping my minimum wage retail job after law school graduation because I loved the fashion industry so much and law school so little. And even while I enjoyed my work and colleagues at the public defender’s office, I knew I had to be honest with myself; the strict practice of law was not where I wanted to be.

But knowing you want to leave is only half the battle—for most people, making peace with the decision to not practice law is the hardest part.

Likely, the first thing that’ll come to mind is the debt you’ve accumulated. Admittedly, this one is tough; nothing weighs quite as heavily on your mind as knowing you have tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to pay back—which a cushy law job would certainly help with. That said, there are high paying positions outside of law, and some government programs offer loan forgiveness after working for a set amount of time. I also recommend living as frugally as possible. Covering up your unhappiness with expensive meals and the latest gadget won’t make you as happy as knowing you have the freedom to cut and run if you want to.

You’ll probably also think about all the time you invested in your degree. Yes, law school was long and hurt like hell—but whether you end up in a legal position or not, your degree (and those three long years) is still a selling point. In fact, in every single one of my post-law jobs, the fact that I had a law degree was an absolute plus. (And Nadine Ellman, lead singer of the band Our Last Summer, says she uses her law degree for contracts and copyright negotiations with producers and agents.)

One of the hardest things to come to grips with is losing the prestige that came along with the legal field. As a lawyer, you’re valued counsel to your clients, and let’s face it—just mention that you’re a trained attorney to anyone within earshot, and watch how the tone of the conversation changes. But as you consider making a career change, remember that the prestige is still there; completing law school and passing the bar are both huge accomplishments.

There are plenty of objections that you’ll have to face. But take it from me—none are so convincing that they should deter you from pursuing what you really love.

2. Merge What You Have with What You Want

As Jess Salomon, the lawyer-cum-comedian puts it, “The law can be a valuable tool, but no matter what you’re doing with it on a daily basis, it can be very procedural and narrow.”

So, bust out of that the box that you’ve packed yourself into and reframe your issue. Instead of thinking about what jobs might put your degree to good use, start thinking about what you love and what might make you happy. Then, you can start to match that list up with jobs that involve those elements and make use of some of the skills you’ve learned.

In my case, I stepped back and realized that the parts I loved about my work were creative writing, crisis management, and constant interaction with people—and that those things could translate well into careers in public relations, politics, and issue management. I started browsing communications positions, and I noticed that a primary job requirement was advocacy for a client. That was exactly what I did as a public defender—I just had to reposition that skill.

Break down the roles you’re interested in, then build a case to prove that you’re qualified, highlighting the skills you learned in law school. For example, if your dream role requires effective communication skills, you can be confident that through the Socratic method and trial experience, you’re a convincing communicator. If an employer is looking for someone who can expertly synthesize complex ideas into understandable formats, you can go ahead and thank all those case summaries and corporate law memos you wrote in law school—because complicated issues (and the need to explain them clearly) exist in every industry. In a position I had at a tech startup, this skill was key to being able to explain compliance requirements to developers and sales teams—and it was a huge selling point to my employer.

The skills you learn in law school can seem impossibly specific to a legal role, but by repositioning your strengths, you can meet the requirements for so many other options.

3. Use Your Analytical Skills to Figure Out How to Get There

Law school trained you to get to a firm conclusion in a reasoned way—and that’s precisely the skill you should apply when you’re looking at jobs that, at first glance, may not seem like a good match for someone who just graduated from law school.

Maybe that means finding a company you’re interested in and first joining the legal department. Then, once you’ve established your worth (and have a foot in the door), you can make a lateral move into a non-legal position in a department where you might be happier.

Or, you might consider working as a contract attorney for a few years; even document review can help you gain some basic legal skills, patience, and a sense of how to avoid common areas of litigation, which may be helpful if you open your own business. A stint as a trial lawyer can help you break into communications. Doing detailed state-by-state analysis as a law firm associate can lead to a career in government affairs, where you need to understand and know how to research state specific legislation (and how to leverage or avoid it).

If you are looking to hit the non-legal path right out of law school, make sure to take the classes that you think are needed for that career. Is the tech industry is your area of choice? Opt for computer law or privacy classes, which tend to be very technology focused. If artistic paths are more your speed, you’ll want to take entertainment law or an intellectual property class.

Whatever you choose, don’t be deterred by job descriptions that don’t quite match your background. In fact, hiring managers are interested in people with legal backgrounds—after all, law school teaches you critical thinking, tactical problem solving, and sheer determination. You’re bringing a unique and valuable skill set to the table—just be clear about how that translates into your dream job.

As soon as you know don’t want to pursue a legal career, deconstruct what you need to do to get from point A (law school) to point B (dream career), and then start making a plan to get there. On that note:

4. Leverage Your Network

Ask any job search expert out there the best way to land a new job or start a new career, and you’ll hear one word: Networking. The good news for you? After spending a three-hour class being grilled in front of 100 of your classmates on the intricacies of the sale of a barren cow, asking for an introduction to anyone in your network should be a piece of cake.

“But I only know lawyers,” you may be saying. “How can lawyers help me get non-lawyer jobs?” But let’s face it: A majority of the lawyers you’ll talk to have probably given at least some thought to leaving the law—or have friends or colleagues who have—so they’ll likely be able to offer you words of wisdom or introduce you to people who’ve been down your road before.

At the same time, it’s important to expand your network beyond just attorneys, and especially in your new field of interest. Join trade associations and mine LinkedIn to find people who can help you. Go to happy hours, talk about your passions, and explain that you’re looking to make a career move. Make sure to build relationships before you make an “ask” of your newly networked contacts—but also be ready for the best case scenario, when your contacts think of you immediately when they hear of job openings in your field of choice.

You might be shaking your head at all the work it’ll take to escape law, thinking, “This will never happen; I have to be realistic—I have debt to pay off.” I’ve been there. But stay the course, focus on your end game, and build your strategy. From where I stand (outside the law), it looks like word has gotten out that former lawyers are great hires, and there are more and more jobs outside of the traditional legal realm that say “JD preferred.” And that’s you!

Photo of woman walking courtesy of Shutterstock.