First Steps for Disillusioned Lawyers

You are not alone in your discontent with law practice. Many lawyers struggling with disillusionment, stress, and the "golden handcuffs" of their employment continue to ask whether other work, either in law or another field, would better suit their interests and improve their quality of life.

In recent years, almost one hundred practicing lawyers have consulted my office on career change issues, finding support in a rigorous self-assessment and goal-setting process. Presentations sponsored by area law schools, management training in law firms, and a widening network of contacts have brought specialized career transition services to an increasing number of lawyers in private, government and public interest service.

Does Career Coaching Really Work?

You can take hope from the following recent successful experiences by lawyers completing a career transition:

  1. Despite fear of jeopardizing her position, a partner in a major law firm has arranged part-time status in order to spend more time at home with her children;
  2. A first-year associate, after acknowledging his miserable experience practicing law and his "secret passion" for designing Web sites, left his firm to accept a high-paid position designing Web sites for a major accounting firm;
  3. A lawyer with 15 years of experience in private and government service has abandoned law practice, with no regrets, to pursue a life-long interest in acting;
  4. A 12-year veteran of service in two major law firms and at a high level in government has abandoned law to "clear his mind" and pursue a PhD in sociology;
  5. An in-house counsel to a major industrial firm is preparing to leave her company to develop a private practice in financial planning;
  6. A second-year associate has left her firm to pursue full-time graduate studies in speech pathology, while a more recent law graduate unhappy with her options in law is seeking a Masters in Social Work (MSW) degree;
  7. Another recent law school graduate has accepted a non-legal position with a major investment house in New York; and
  8. Several lawyers are actively pursuing non-legal positions on Capitol Hill.

In addition, other lawyers have sought assistance in revising resumes and preparing for interviews. After much reflection, several clients have decided not to change employment, but have decided instead to address underlying patterns of discontent through individual psychotherapy.

Is There Hope for Lawyers Who are Still Adrift?

It is difficult, and often painful to clarify career goals and overcome personal "resistance" to change. Many lawyers wrestle for years with conflicting goals and values; as in my own experience, career change often occurs through a series of career moves over time. A clear "vision" for professional life can be helpful, but is often elusive; more often, motivation for change comes from physical and emotional pain associated with current employment. Many clients recognize that a failure to respond constructively to their discontent can jeopardize their physical and emotional health. For example, three recent clients have survived life-threatening diseases, such as cancer, and realize that a major realignment of their life priorities is essential in order to sustain their recovery. By contrast, career change may be more difficult or more gradual for lawyers who can tolerate their situations or whose discontent is less concentrated in one or more "symptoms." The most difficult cases may be the high-salaried law firm partners or in-house counsel, whose family situations and life styles appear to require them to continue in their current positions, despite unhappiness.

A common mistake of lawyers in career transition is to quit career counseling too soon, before completing their self-assessment, overcoming their resistance, and experiencing satisfaction from their progress. Because results are often slow to appear, doubts can arise about the value of a structured career assessment process. A consulting session that is canceled may not be rescheduled, and as time passes, momentum is lost. If you are in this situation, you may wish to consider whether it would be wise to continue meeting with your career counselor occasionally, or at least to schedule a single meeting to summarize results to date. The initiative is always up to you. Keep in mind that it is normal in career change to experience discouragement and frustration. With persistence, you can achieve the profound relief of leaving an unhappy work situation and aligning your work with long-standing interests and deeper values.