Many law students enter law school with stars in their eyes and leave three years later with a law degree, significant debt and if they are fortunate, their first job as a lawyer. The barriers to entry to legal practice are high: three years of expensive school, followed by a bar exam to even enjoy the privilege of calling yourself a lawyer. And while your legal education ideally prepared you to think like a lawyer, your first year as a lawyer – and even the few afterward – typically involve a steep learning curve.
The legal profession is notoriously tough. Burnout and depression are high, and what starts as a young lawyer’s dream job can quickly turn into a nightmare as billable hours and long hours alike take over. There are, of course, many things young lawyers can do to experience less stress at work, from carving out “me” time to turning down more work professionally and effectively among others.
But the fact remains that an International Bar Association survey in 2022 found that 20% of young lawyers intend to leave the legal profession entirely within five years.
After a little over a decade of litigating, I decided to leave private practice and in fact legal practice behind. The decision was a few years in the making and has turned out very well for me. But getting to the moment when I felt comfortable saying goodbye to active legal practice took time and ultimately felt like a big leap of faith in myself and my ability to transfer my hard-earned lawyer skills to other work. And upon reflection, that makes sense. After such an investment in ourselves to earn a law degree and pass the bar, followed by years of hard work to begin to master the practicalities of actually practicing law, saying goodbye to all of it in favor of an alternative career path is a big move. It’s not easy for many lawyers to do, and is not helped by the proliferation of what I think is one of the biggest myths I heard as a law student and continue to hear to this day as a former attorney: a law degree opens the door to all manner of career. It is true that many of the skills you learn as a lawyer are transferable skills, meaning they can take you beyond law practice to a second career elsewhere. But a law degree isn’t the key to any job; and in fact, can be a detriment to job seekers who are passed over for roles because they seem overqualified or who are dealing with hiring managers who just cannot believe they want to do something other than practice law. The key is to figure out how to make a case for yourself for that new role and broaden your career options.
At the end of this post, I list some alternative careers I have seen lawyers explore. It’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch, and there is quite frankly quite a bit of work that goes into any job hunt, but especially one for which you are changing careers.
1. Thinking through your motivations – why did you go to law school? Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Is practicing law the only way to achieve your goals? (If the answer to this question is yes, maybe you’re just practicing the wrong kind of law or in the wrong lawyer job for you!)
2. Figuring out which parts of your current job you enjoy and which parts you hope to never do again.
3. Identifying the things that matter to you, like which industries appeal to you, what kind of schedule you want, whether you want to manage others or act as an individual contributor, how much money you need to live, how comfortable you are with risk, and so on. These are important questions it is worth spending time to figure out, so your next move is a good one,
4. Taking a realistic look at your finances. Do you owe student loans? Are you making bank in biglaw and not sure how much money you can actually live with?
5. Relying on your support system. Thinking out loud and having conversations with important people in your life can help you understand why you’re unhappy and what to do next. And consider practical things: if you are supporting a family on your current salary, quitting your job tomorrow may not be an option!
6. Learning: Research jobs that seem interesting. Use your existing professional relationships to network. Conduct informational interviews. Get details about what a daily life in each job you’re considering.
7. Upskilling: learn about new skills you may need to learn to bolster your resume
8. Review and update your resume to tailor it to the jobs you want to target.
9. Applying for jobs you want.
10. Tracking your efforts. As you apply to jobs, tweak your resume, and interview, you’ll continue learning about where you want to end up. Keep track of these thoughts as you go to continue building a strong sense for your new career path.
With that in mind, here’s my list of realistic alternative careers for lawyers. Some of these are alternative legal careers and others don’t require any knowledge of or experience in the legal industry at all.
Whether you were a litigator or transactional attorney, you likely have strong writing skills. You can put these to use in a variety of ways, including as a technical writer, content writer for law firm websites, legal case writer for legal educational companies, contributor to legal publications, and more. Fun fact: when I wrote Acing OCI, my guide to law firm interviews, my editor was a former lawyer!
Recruiting requires many skills lawyers use all the time: learning about new things and people, persuasion, negotiation, communication, and persistence. Many legal recruiters are former lawyers, and it can be a very lucrative career.
Small Business Owner
Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, but owning your own business can be great. Many former lawyers do so as career coaches, franchise owners, real estate investors, financial planners, and more. Note: if you want to leave law behind because you hate business development, I would not choose this path. You need to hustle.
Good lawyers excel at persuasive communication as well as building relationships, two skills you need in sales. Think about a trial lawyer – she isn’t just focused on the facts but on storytelling and building trust between the lawyer, judge, and jury. Sellers do the same with their clients. I know many lawyers who transitioned to a career in sales who are killing it, especially if they’re selling within the legal industry.
Many lawyers leave law behind to teach, but not always in law school. I know lawyers who have become law professors but also taught law classes in business schools and to undergrads.
Most large companies employ compliance officers of some sort, whether they are focused on antibribery and anticorruption compliance, financial compliance, product/safety compliance, some combination of these or other areas of compliance entirely. Depending on the role, a law degree is helpful but not required.
A relatively new job within the legal industry, legal operations staff provide strategic planning, financial management, project management, and technology expertise that help legal teams focus on providing legal advice. Many big inhouse legal departments have a legal operations guru, and these people can wield a lot of power, holding the purse on many budget items with direct communication lines to executive leadership.
I can think of several former lawyer friends who transitioned to a career in real estate. Many people think of realtors as having an easy job – just show people around homes – but the reality is much more complex. It requires hard work and excellent communication to identify and retain clients and strong negotiation skills to close business. Having a background in law, especially an ability to explain complicated concepts in simple terms to new home buyers, can make you an invaluable asset to your clients. Beware: this job is not necessarily friendly to your work/life balance. Many realtors lose evenings and weekends to house showings and client meetings.
Community Organizing / NonProfit Work
This is a broad category, but your persuasion skills can be put to great use in a variety of organizing and nonprofit roles. I do a lot of volunteering around voter protection, and many of the staffers in this area are non-practicing lawyers. The same is true in fundraising, especially in the area of planned giving, for which an understanding of trust and estate law is definitely helpful. And if you want to do this type of work in the private sector, you can look into becoming a lobbyist.
Every day is a new challenge for people who work in HR, and they frequently work closely with the legal team to address issues from employee disputes to application of new regulations to internal investigations. Having a legal background can be a huge help without requiring you to actually opine on the law.
Non-Practicing Roles in Law Firms: Marketing, Recruiting, Professional Development
Many of the staffers in my former firms had JDs. This is especially true in big law – these are large businesses and need lots of non-legal staff to make them run. These include talent management and professional development roles: one of the skills you learn as you gain seniority in a law firm is managing (a real struggle among many mid-level associates). But if you enjoy it, managing people (or “talent” as employees are known within many industries) can be a great transition from the law, especially if you excel at giving feedback. You can also work in recruiting, or marketing, or law firm operations – similar to legal operations above.
Starting down a new career path toward a job that is a good fit for you – and a better career than practicing law – can be scary, but the good news is that it can also be really rewarding when you find yourself in a new job, industry, or career that feels like the right choice.