I went to law school because I didn’t know what to do after college and I'm bad at math. Law school seemed like a safe, respectable path and gave me an easy answer to what I was going to do with my life. And, as part of the millennial generation obsessed with test scores and academic achievement, I relished the spoils of a high LSAT score, admission to an Ivy League law school, and a job offer from a fancy corporate law firm.
I spent my first year as lawyer holed up in a conference room sorting piles of documents wearing rubber covers on my fingertips that looked like tiny condoms. Eventually, I was trusted with more substantive tasks, writing briefs and taking depositions. But I had no appetite for conflict and found it hard to care about the interests I was serving. I realized I had never seriously considered whether I was cut out to be a lawyer, much less a corporate litigator. After a few years, I just wanted out, but I had no idea where to begin.
I knew that I was not alone. Law-firm associate consistently ranks at the top of unhappy-professions lists and despite starting salaries of $160,000, law firms experience significant yearly associate attrition. What I didn’t realize was that the plight of burnt-out attorneys, particularly those at law firms, has recently spawned an industry of experts devoted to helping lawyers leave law. Attorneys now have their choice of specialized career counselors, blogs, books, and websites offering comfort and guidance to wannabe ex-Esqs.
“Law is the only career I know that has a sub-profession dedicated to helping people get out of it,” says Liz Brown, author of the help manual, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have, published last year.
This sub-profession has found a market among lawyers for whom the moment of desperation to get out of the law firm is the first time they have had to think critically about their careers.
The problem can begin with the choice to go to law school, which is often made for reasons having nothing to do with the actual practice of law and without diligence about whether the profession is really a fit. “I like to joke that I’m a Jewish kid who didn’t like blood so I couldn’t go to medical school, so I went to law school,” says Casey Berman, a former attorney and founder of the blog Leave Law Behind, who admits, “I spent more time thinking about my iPhone purchase years later than a degree that was expensive and took three years out of my twenties.”
Law school is very often the default choice of people who don't know what else to do, explains veteran New York City career consultant Eileen Wolkstein, who sees many unhappy attorneys in her practice. There’s an assumption that the degree will easily open doors in many professions, and law school acts as a socially acceptable procrastination technique to delay more definitive career choices.
Once in law school, however, joining a law firm can seem like the only choice. “The types of people who go to law school seem to chase ‘the best’ like addicts,” says Marc Luber, founder of J.D. Careers Out There, a website for lawyers in career transition. “They want the best grade, the most prestigious workplace, the highest salary.”
Through formalized on-campus recruiting (particularly at top schools), the path to the law firm is so well-paved that students can navigate it on auto-pilot. “My law school made it so easy to get a job at a firm that I barely had to do any work at all to generate several associate position offers,” says one of my former University of Pennsylvania Law School classmates. The appeal of the law firm is only enhanced by the reality of student loans. “Big law was really the only path I considered. With the level of debt I incurred by going to law school, taking the highest paying job felt like the only real, responsible choice,” says another Ivy League grad.
While law schools are efficient at funneling students into law firms, much of the curriculum is based on theoretical analysis, and, as a result, there’s a disconnect between the training students receive and the skills required in practice. “People graduate from law school not knowing what lawyers actually do,” says Luber.
Though there are those who find it fulfilling, practicing at a law firm can be rough. Associates are expected to keep up a grueling schedule of billable hours and must be at the beck and call of partners and clients. These working conditions, Brown points out, can be at odds with the expectations of many millennials who feel that they should have more control over their lives.
Young lawyers are also often unprepared for the adversarial nature of practice. It’s common for people to go into litigation because they write and speak well, but “they don’t realize you have to go in and fight every day,” says Berman. And many feel disappointment that there is not more social good in the work they do for corporate clients.
Faced with the realities of life in a law firm, discontented lawyers confront for the first time, often many years after they made the decision to go to law school, that law, or at least practicing in a law firm, may not have been the right choice for them. “Put someone who wasn’t really chasing a specific path into a job that is very demanding and stressful and they eventually question why they’re there,” says Luber.
Attorneys often feel trapped, however, by what Brown terms the “twin bonds of money and status.” Many lawyers start out in a firm job with the intention of paying-off loans (which, in 2012, averaged $140,000 for undergrad and law school combined), but quickly become accustomed to the lifestyle comforts their hefty paychecks afford. And for a type-A, trophy-collector lawyer, not being associated with an elite, if much maligned, profession is almost unthinkable. Then there’s the guilt at walking away from a degree in which they've invested so many resources, says Kate Neville, founder of Neville Career Consulting, a Washington D.C.-based firm specializing in transitioning attorneys. Plus, lawyers are frequently operating in a bubble where there is very little recognition of the validity of alternative careers. “You can’t just talk about quitting,” says Brown. “That’s crazy talk at a firm.”