Real life stories of lawyers who have left the law

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When Casey asked me to write a blog for Leave Law Behind, I asked myself what would be most helpful to the LLB community. Having interviewed hundreds of former lawyers, and profiling 30 of them in my book, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the JD You Have, I thought it might be helpful to offer some specific, practical, realistic advice on how to leave the law for a more rewarding career. I hope these guidelines will help get you through what is rarely a simple or straightforward process.

First, let me tell you a bit about me. In 2009, I was a partner in an international law firm and had been in private practice for a dozen years.   Although I enjoyed law at first, as my 20s became my 30s, I found litigation more and more draining. It took having my daughter for me to finally take a somewhat blind leap out of my firm. Despite being miserably sleep-deprived, my maternity leave was the most fun I had had in years. As I developed my new career after a few false starts, I learned so much from interesting ex-lawyers all over the country that I decided to write the book I wished I had had when I was trying, and failing, to leave law behind.

Life After Law tells the detailed stories of more than 30 successful ex-lawyers who have moved into a wide range of fields, from entrepreneurship to psychotherapy to media management.   All of the ex-lawyers I know with who have transitioned to a better Act II have the following things in common:

1. They use the skills they’ve loved using for years. Every ex-lawyer profiled in Life After Law found new and lucrative way to use the skills they love using. Importantly, these aren’t always the skills they were praised for when they were lawyers. You can be good at something you don’t truly enjoy, and those skills aren’t a promising foundation for a career you love. Instead, to help identify what I call your “preferred skills,” think about what gives you the most joy, makes you feel most alive, and gives you a sense of purpose and excitement. What comes to mind? Even generalities can help get you started.

Most lawyers are drawn to some corner of practice based on their inherent interests, falling into one or more of these categories: writers, analysts, healers, consultants, and advocates. Other lawyers are entrepreneurs, artisans, or teachers at heart. These skill sets can help point you toward your next career. Life After Law groups the stories of happy ex-lawyers according to these eight skills sets so that you can see how other people with those interests reinvented their work lives.

For example, if you like analysis, you might want to follow ex-lawyer analysts like Meredith Benedict, who became a health care strategist, Alison Ranney, who became a recruiter for non-profit institutions, or Christopher Mirabile, who co-founded one of the largest angel investor networks in the United States.   Ex-lawyers who liked the consulting aspect of law include Greg Stone, who owns a successful media company, Lisa Montanaro, a productivity consultant and life coach, and Susannah Baruch, who created a public policy consulting career that also lets her spend time with her children.

2. Their first step away from law wasn’t their last. Most transition stories are at least a little messy in retrospect. Few happy ex-lawyers come up with their dream career while they are bogged down at work they don’t enjoy, especially time-intensive work. More often, it takes some time away from that pressure, and some experimentation, before you find the new career that really makes you tick.

For example, before Valerie Beck started Chicago Chocolate Walking Tours, she left her firm to become a Mary Kay salesperson. She used both the negotiating skills and contacts she developed in law and the small business skills she learned in sales to launch a company that eventually expanded to several other major cities.   I became the executive director of an investment group focusing on women-owned businesses and flirted with development before realizing, through adjunct teaching, that I really wanted to go into academia instead. The road to your next career may not run in a straight line.

3. They’re so glad they left. Really. Every single one of them. Think about it. Have you ever met someone who regretted leaving the law?

Managing the financial aspect of leaving the law can be challenging, but it is doable. The process of transitioning to less income, and the change of identity and sense of personal loss that can entail, if often harder than actually living on less (which, of course, most non-lawyers do). If you’re still in practice, my advice is to reduce your expenses as much as you can. Figure out what you need to live on, realistically, and aim for that as a minimum salary. If you can find a way to part company amicably with your law job so that you can collect unemployment and get bridge health care until you get a new job, there is no shame in that. You may also find that your new career is less expensive. You may no longer need so much, for example, in the way of fancy suits and recreational shopping.

I’ve used these principles myself, moving from partnership in an impersonal international firm to – eventually – my dream job of teaching undergraduates and MBA students at a university near my home town.   I still use the research, writing, mentoring and public speaking skills I loved using as a lawyer, but have ditched the adversarial life and my billable minimum (for which my family is grateful). There are hundreds of thousands of happy ex-lawyers out there, and it is absolutely realistic for you to join them no matter where you are in the process. You’re never too smart or too successful to start a career you love.

Liz Brown is the author of Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the JD You Have and an assistant professor at Bentley University, which does not have a law school.   A former litigation partner, Liz is also the former Executive Director of Golden Seeds, the largest source of angel funding for women entrepreneurs.   She is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

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14 thoughts on “Real life stories of lawyers who have left the law

  1. Thank you for inspiring me! I have been denying and underplaying my true gifts and interests for years and your article has provided further support in encouraging me to follow my passion.

    1. Kiki & Casey thanks for putting your article and comments out there, I found it very interesting and also (like Kiki) inspiring but also incredibly helpful in trying to figure out how law can help me to go into something else, you are right though, I used to just think I am rubbish at this job, but now I am thinking things I used to be terrified of (like public speaking) now come easily to me and this can only help me now I am considering jumping out of law. I would be very interested Kiki to know how things are going for you and whether you have continued in your decision to leave the law or whether you (like when I tried previously) found yourself dragged back into it.

  2. I have no doubt that a handful of highly successful attorneys, such as the ones profiled above, are able to transition into other fields that they love.

    Unfortunately, for the “little people” (who, for example, do not have Harvard or the University of Chicago on their resume, or were not partners at multinational law firms), just having a paying job is a struggle. For them, leaving the law becomes a necessity in this over-saturated market, complicated by the fact that a law degree from a non-elite school is worthless (and in some cases, less than worthless).

    Therefore, although well meaning, I think the overall theme of this article (and this blog in general) is somewhat misleading. Transitioning careers is never a “cake walk,” but it’s virtually untenable for your “average” lawyer (without additional schooling/training, connections or having some rare talent).

    1. Thanks so much for the comment. I hear where you are coming from … but really, when it comes to leaving the law behind, no one (on this blog especially) said it would be a cake walk. Quite the opposite – it takes a lot of planning, self reflection and work.

      And when it comes to leaving the law, there really aren’t any “little people”.

      I touched base with Liz on this, and in general, her and my thought is that career change is absolutely doable regardless of where you got your degree because you are not “selling” your degree to a non-legal employer, but rather the transferrable skills you have developed in law school or practice and that can further that next employer’s goals. Focusing on the pedigree rather than the functional cross-over of the roles can be unnecessarily self-limiting. “Rare talents” are rarely necessary; the logical, managerial, problem-solving and analytical skills ex-lawyers bring to their next careers are uncommon enough in the general population. Connections, however, are important and anyone can develop them – see Liz’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Informational Interview” chapter.

      Hope that helps. Thanks again for the comment!

      Casey

    2. In my opinion you are completely are wrong. If you want to keep feeling that way, is your decision. If you feel is too “risky” to transition without another degree try to save some money and get an MBA. I am a foreigner with a law degree from a non-US university, and I am doing pretty good, I just studied hard and got into an MBA program. IT WORKS! It is fucking hard, but you can do it. Actually, is hard because is risky and sometimes with a lawyer mindset it is “humiliating”. Starting again? Small Business? Working with these kind of people? Yeah, that is the mindset that sometimes we need to get rid off. Believe me, it is completely possible, and once you do it you are going to feel a huge relief. Sometimes you will need to start again but with some of the skills you have gathered from your law career you will be “better” trained that the rest. For example, well-educate, professional, analytical, strategical, etc. Also there are some weaknesses normally that you need to solve cynical, transactional, cocky, self-centered (luck of empathy), close minded, etc. But is completely doable.

      1. S.G. – Brilliant reply, identifying the cynicism and your last paragraph was hilarious & made me laugh out loud, but get yourself a spell check lovey ? Or improve your proof reading skills (that’s a joke – your email was great and I found it useful and helpful) thanks S.G.

  3. After 2.5 years of practice, I left. Fifteen years later, I look back and say, “Thank goodness!” My exit strategy? International development had always been a major interest, so my entry point was the Peace Corps (perhaps the best training and testing ground for US grads interested in international development). From there, a role in operations & then to programs for INGOs and UN agencies. In work, as in life, we get what we settle for.

  4. I am stucked in Delhi India as a lawyer and finding ways to change the profession …I am planning to move outside India for something better ….but not finding ways …..

  5. I graduated law school in 1997 and have spent the majority of the past 20 years as a deputy prosecutor at the State level, with a couple years away for a stint in private practice. Very early on in my career I knew the law was not for me and yet I trudged on; I never really thought leaving was an option. I couldn’t just throw away the investment I made, right? Days lead to months; months to years. Back to the office and court I would go.

    Now, I’m 47 yo, married (to another lawyer who actually enjoys it) with two kids (14 and 12). Obligations abound. Still, I yearn to get the hell out of the law. Life is too, too short to spend the majority of your time doing something that you not only don’t enjoy, but that actually takes away from the quality of your life. (If banging your head against the wall hurts, then stop.). I’ll get out someday (I hope) but the lesson here is “take action.” It will not happen on its own. And if you want my advise: do it sooner as opposed to later. With that said, even for an old dog like me, it’s never too late, right?

    1. Thanks so much for the comment and the detail. For all of us old dogs 🙂 it is never too late. As you said, we only have one life in this body, any time is the right time. What baby steps are you taking next?

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