Four Steps to Take Before Quitting the Legal Profession

by Mary Kate Sheridan | October 29, 2018

  • My Vault
Leaving Legal Industry

You slogged through three years of law school, went through bar-exam hell, and have logged more hours at your firm than you knew existed in a day. And now you’ve realized you don’t want to be a lawyer. I know what you’re thinking—and what everyone who has an opinion is telling you: All of that time, money, and effort for nothing.

But it isn’t for nothing. Take it from a former practicing attorney who went down an alternative path. Legal skills are highly transferrable to a number of other fields. The key is figuring out which of those fields matches your goals and interests. That’s not to say you should play willy nilly with your profession. The legal industry is competitive, and if you’re not certain you want to drop the esquire, you should take as much time as you need to figure it out. But for those who are certain that their path is non-legal, below are some tips for exploring alternatives.

Pinpoint your Dissatisfaction

Jumping ship before you understand why you’re unhappy is a mistake (unless the job is destroying you mentally or physically). You’ve spent years priming yourself for a career in law, so at some point, you must have thought the profession was for you. Give yourself some time to soul search. What is it about being a lawyer that you dislike or that feels incompatible? Then take a second step to determine if it can be fixed. Perhaps you’ve realized that your skills lag in legal writing and that researching is the bane of your existence, but you still enjoy legal issues. Maybe it’s not that you dislike being a lawyer but rather that you need to explore alternative practice areas. On the other hand, maybe you’ve realized that the adversarial nature of law is too strenuous for you or that while everyone else is vying for the big cases, you’d rather be hidden in your office editing all of the briefs and memos or doing anything but legal work. Decide what it is that is pulling you away from the profession and whether it can be altered or if it’s time to head for the door.

Determine What Would Fulfill You

"Fulfill" is a dangerous word because it is not always possible to be fulfilled by our careers, just like it isn’t possible for many aspects of life to fulfill us. But a profession that will consume a large portion of your time should bring fulfillment to some of your goals. Prioritize your professional goals and then consider what types of activities and tasks would best match the ones at the top. For me personally, I realized that writing and editing were my favorite aspects of practice, and although I really enjoyed working at my firm, I wanted to write and edit all the time. I created a list of professional considerations, including work tasks, career path, work/life balance, salary, use of my JD, and more, and I weighed the importance of each. I concluded that being creative and writing full-time trumped all of the other priorities. By taking time to assess my needs for professional fulfillment, I was able to make a more informed choice in how to direct my career post-law-firm.

Talk to People in the Alternative Industry

Obviously, you don’t want to publicize that you'd like to quit. But you should discretely use your contacts to connect with professionals in the industry or type of job that interests you. Hop on LinkedIn, and see if there are any alumni from your schools who would be helpful. Talk to friends outside of your law firm about your desire to move on and ask if they know anyone who could give you some insight into the industry.  Reach out to your law school and undergrad career services offices, and ask for advice on how to forge a new career path. And if you trust any of your colleagues and think they would be helpful, ask if they can introduce you to anyone in your new potential industry. Also, some firms offer career guidance, so if that is part of your firm’s culture, have a confidential meeting with the career counselor available. Don’t just hand in your resignation and leave without knowing what you’re getting into. When I decided to pursue a non-legal career, I spoke with a variety of writers and editors in different types of roles, from freelance writers to book editors to writing professors to specialized content creators. It became very clear to me just from these conversations which roles would suit my professional needs and which would not. You never truly know what an experience will be like until you gain first-hand information on it.

Block the Noise

One of the most difficult aspects of leaving law-firm life was the shock people expressed that I’d “throw away” all of that education and experience. I wasn’t worried about what they thought as much as second guessing if I was making a terrible mistake. But you are an adult and a professional—if you’ve carefully weighed your dissatisfaction and goals and concluded that it would be best to move on, you should trust yourself. Doors won’t automatically open just because you’re a lawyer, though. And sometimes trying to prove yourself in another industry—where you’ll inevitably be asked why you left law—can be daunting. The expertise you’ve developed in law school and in practice—including communication skills, critical thinking, research abilities, and more—will be an asset to you, however, and you can continue to use those skills for your entire professional life. Experience is never a waste, and building upon it to craft a profession that suits you will be far more useful to reaching your goals than sticking with one that drags you down.

Filed Under: Law | Networking | Workplace Issues

Tags: alternative legal careers | BigLaw | law firms | quitting law firm job | quitting legal job

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