The greatest victims of the law-school bubble of the 2010s were the poor souls who attended law school believing it was a stepping stone to a reliably lucrative career, only to graduate into a lackluster legal job market with crushing amounts of student debt. Only 60 percent of law students who graduated in 2014 were working in full-time, long-term jobs that required a law degree nine months after graduation. Many of the rest were unemployed or working in jobs they could have gotten without a J.D.
But what about the other victims: The law school grads who do find stable jobs practicing law—then find out they hate it?
That’s Ann’s predicament. After college, she volunteered abroad and then went to law school hoping “to help people and do some kind of social justice work.” (Also, “frankly, I didn’t exactly know what else to do, and, as my dad always says, I like to read, write, and argue.”) But in law school, she found that the public interest internships that appealed to her were too competitive for her to get a foot in the door. She ended up clerking for a business law firm during law school and then landing a job as an associate at a firm specializing in a niche area of corporate law after she graduated in 2014. She now spends her days reviewing retirement documents, drafting minutes from meetings, and filling out tax forms.
“I feel incredibly grateful to have found a legal job at all,” Ann wrote in an email to the Ladder. “But after a year-plus here, I’m getting to a point where I can’t stand the work or the subject matter.” She misses face time with other human beings—“many days go by where I have no client interaction whatsoever,” she told me during a phone conversation—and feeling like she’s making a difference. Her firm won’t let her do pro bono work and discouraged her from joining the board of a local nonprofit. Now she volunteers for an animal rescue organization in her limited spare time to scratch her altruistic itch, and she’s started applying for public-service-oriented government jobs. “Am I crazy to want to give up a stable job at a reputable law firm to try to find my ‘passion’?” Ann wonders. (She asked that we use her middle name to prevent people in the firm from recognizing her.)
Lawyers have been asking that question—and answering, “No, I’m not crazy!”—since long before anyone imagined the law labor market could be subject to bubbles. Plenty of people are dissatisfied with their jobs, but there may be no industry that breeds more misery, boredom, and regret than private law, thanks in part to the “billable hours” system, which causes many lawyers to spend virtually all their waking hours at the office. “There’s not a lot of incentive to be efficient, and so if you are good at getting stuff done quickly, you just get penalized for it,” says Jennifer Alvey, a career coach and the author of the blog Leaving the Law (tagline: “Find work and a life beyond the billable hour”).
But lawyers who consider leaving the law face plenty of psychological and societal obstacles. No one wants to feel they’ve wasted years pursuing an unfulfilling career, and lawyers are burdened with especially heavy sunk costs: After spending three years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on law school, plus several grueling months preparing for the bar exam, they can feel like it’s too late to change their minds. Admitting that you got such a big—and expensive—decision wrong is not easy.
There’s also the money they make, or hope to make later. “It can be really hard to leave, because once you get into a firm and you get this great salary, you get this sense of identity,” says Liz Brown, the author of Life After Law: Finding Work You Love With the J.D. You Have, who made partner at a law firm before deciding to leave the profession.
As Alvey and Brown’s experiences go to show, one career option for disgruntled lawyers is to become a consultant, coach, or counselor specializing in helping other lawyers figure out second careers. There are other options, too. In her book, Brown profiles J.D.s who’ve gone on to become a university president, an artist and designer, a therapist, a public policy advisor, a baker, a journalist, an acupuncturist, a rabbi, and the founder of “an expanding empire of chocolate walking tour companies.” It is literally true that you can do anything with a law degree—as long as you’re comfortable with the fact that you could have done the same thing without a law degree.
It’s common for people to go into law hoping to make a difference, only to be disillusioned by the reality of lawyering—and to feel isolated and starved for human interaction. Many who decide to leave the profession find themselves in a much worse position than Ann, because they have no idea what kind of work might make them happy. Alvey says that she advises clients, “Figure out what you actually like. What are the things that you would do if no one said you must do this?”—and that they frequently respond, “I don’t really know.” Brown writes that she used a children’s book belonging to her daughter, Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?, for inspiration when she was trying to figure out what to do after law.
In many ways, transitioning from law to another profession involves the same steps as any other career change: Figure out the skills and strengths you enjoy using. Set up informational interviews with people in jobs that seem interesting to you. Revise your résumé to emphasize the skills and keywords that hiring managers in your desired field will look for. Writing, analysis, advocacy, counseling, management, and research—all core law skills, according to Brown—are useful in just about any industry.
Many lawyers have to figure out how to adjust to lower salaries—which can be especially difficult when you’re paying off student loans. “Sometimes your best option is to do as much networking [as you can] and maybe try to serve on a board … in an area that you’re interested in eventually transitioning into and just pay down your debt as fast as you can for a couple years,” says Alvey. Ann is in a good position to change careers now—as someone at the beginning of her law career, she’s not yet making so much money that it’s hard to walk away from, and she was lucky enough to get some of her loans from a family member who charges a much lower interest rate than the government or a private lender. Starting salaries in government agencies that provide legal and social services to low-income and elderly people in her area aren’t too far from her current salary, although the potential for salary growth is much lower. And working for the government (or a nonprofit) would qualify Ann to have her federal student loans canceled under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program after 10 years. If you don’t care about earning gobs of money in the long run, it’s not a bad deal.
Plus, government jobs often have much more reasonable work schedules than private law jobs. They can be draining in their own way—but Ann, who has experience in public-service work, is in a good position to judge her aptitude for helping underprivileged people all day. Of course, not all government jobs involve public service, and burned-out lawyers with other skill sets can find happiness in government jobs, too. Alvey had a client who moved from a boutique law firm to “a fairly boring government agency” dealing with taxes, who she says is “happy as a clam” in his new job.
Leaving the law requires a bit of a contradictory mindset: You want a strong sense of direction rooted in your own strengths and interests, but you also want to be open-minded enough to try new things and learn from your experiences. After all, most people won’t jump straight from a soul-sucking corporate law job to a job that fulfills them deeply. Alvey talks to clients about “bridge jobs”: “Figure out some jobs that are going to get you more experience and more skills and more context to help you along that path to where you want to go.” Casey Berman, another lawyer-turned-consultant, abandoned a clerkship at a Bay Area public defender’s office to do legal work at a startup, then became in-house counsel for another software company, and then became the communications officer for a third tech company. Each step piggybacked on his legal skills and got him more experience in tech, his chosen field. He now works as a management consultant in the tech industry.
But those bridge jobs might end up taking you in a different direction than you expected. Brown, the author of Life After Law, thought she wanted to work in “development”—i.e., fundraising—for nonprofits, but she discovered that she hated asking people for money. She returned to square one, took a career seminar for mothers who’d taken time off from work, and met a business law professor who connected her with an adjunct gig teaching law to business students at a private university in Massachusetts. To beef up her academic résumé, Brown wrote research papers, designed curricula, and organized conferences. When a tenure-track teaching position at the university opened up, she applied and got the job. “Every step led me to the next one, but I couldn’t see the whole path at any point in the process,” she writes.
Not every former lawyer’s second career looks quite so teleological in hindsight—but even though there are no guarantees, Ann should absolutely take steps to escape the tyranny of the billable hour. No job is engaging and fun all the time, but Ann’s feelings about corporate law go far beyond the typical workplace doldrums. Life is too short for a humanitarian extrovert to spend her waking hours staring at retirement documents. And the only thing worse than going to grad school for a profession you hate is staying in that profession for years on end out of fear.
Need career advice? Got a problem at work? Email email@example.com.