Should I Stay or Should I Go?: A Recruiter Reflects on an Age-Old Question, Part II

In the second of a two-part series, Claudia Spielman, BCG Attorney Search recruiter, uses her own experience to guide young attorneys (though the advice applies to anyone in or contemplating a career in the legal industry) on how to evaluate what to do when choosing to leave a law firm.

What viable alternatives do I have?

If I did not get the opportunity to work with BCG, I likely would still be working as an attorney. I am very glad it worked out, though, because it has proven to be the right choice for me. Having an idea of what the next step could be if you do choose to leave law will be necessary for many people.

The uncertainty that can arise from leaving something that you have worked so hard to achieve for nothing in particular is a drastic step that may end up making you even unhappier. The remedy for that lies in finding a new career path that you believe will make you happier. This point merits the most attention in this process. Without having something else in mind, there is more willingness to look back and regret; having something to look forward to changes that.

While there are not as many opportunities for working as an attorney outside of a law firm as there were a few years ago under the tech boom, corporations have a continual need for in-house representation , and the larger corporations can staff dozens of attorneys. Still, in-house corporate work may end up being a lot like a law firm, and if the actual work is what you are trying to get away from, this is probably not the best option. If however, the law firm environment is what you find stifling, in-house work tends to mean fewer hours and a less cutthroat atmosphere, but also can mean less compensation.

Alternatively, though law school may be in your rear-view mirror, if the thought is not too painful, it may be possible to go back and teach . A strong mind for legal theory and a desire to mold the legal minds of tomorrow are what make a good candidate for a professor. Excellent academic credentials certainly do not hurt, either. Summers off, less stress, and more time and resources available for research and publication are what make these positions so highly sought after. Similarly, working in the public sector for the government or a public interest group may seem like a step down in terms of prestige, but it can mean more interesting work and a lot less stress.

Careers that have absolutely nothing to do with the law are also a possibility, as a law degree is much more versatile than you might think. A legal education is welcome in almost any field, as it shows strong training in the ability to think analytically, and it hones writing skills. Putting that training to use for something other than the law may seem abnormal, but there are thousands of working Americans with J.D. degrees who have chosen other fields.

Now that you have a sense of where you'd like to go, you still must consider whether it is practical for you to go at all. Sorry, but it's true. There are a few questions you should answer as part of your analysis:

  1. Is it financially feasible to change professions?
  2. Do I need to be in a stable profession? How risk-averse am I? And
  3. What environment am I most comfortable in?

Is it financially feasible to change professions?

This question looms large when it comes to switching careers. Sure, less stress, more fun, and less time spent at work all sound wonderful, but they all come at a cost and that cost can run up to $100K per year. Firms are traditionally some of the best-compensating organizations in the world, and very few other professions are going to pay six figures to start. Are you willing to sacrifice a very large chunk of your annual income for an opportunity to get away from it all?

This question essentially comes down to what matters most to you. If you are truly unhappy working in a law firm, then there is plenty of incentive to take a pay cut. As another type of professional with a good education, you will most likely be able to make as much as you need, although that is always relative. Someone like me, who does not have a family counting on a large check from me, can take the plunge with very little concern for the money. Others must consider salary first and foremost because of familial or other financial obligations. The age-old question of whether to choose happiness or money will not be decided here, but both come with pros and cons. It's up to you to decide which takes precedence.

Do I need to be in a stable profession? How risk-averse am I?

Some people are going to dive off a cliff as soon as the opportunity arises, and others are afraid to walk out the front door without checking and double checking if they locked the bathroom window. In general, the legal industry is filled with people who are more likely to go back to the window for a second look rather than cliff dive. It is a common joke that the majority of graduates of the top law schools ended up there because they had nothing better to do, but there is actually a bit of truth to it -- many lawyers entered the profession simply because it is safe and respectable. These are the people that are the least likely to enjoy the work and probably the most in need of a change, yet the least willing to actually make one because it requires risk.

I was able to jump off the cliff, but only because at the time I did, I had a net at the bottom. Leaving the legal industry would be a risk no matter what you are leaving it for, but having something to fall back on is comforting.

What environment am I most comfortable in?

I took a personality test to determine this one. While the questions on those tests are usually leading (e.g., the question, "Do you like work to come in at a slow pace or a busy pace?" is of course able to decipher miraculously whether you like to work in a relaxed or hectic atmosphere), they more or less get you to think about the questions that you might not otherwise consider in your job search. If you are unwilling to put your career in the hands of some Internet technology, then feel free to consult us.

My advice to attorneys in slow practice areas

Your practice areas may be experiencing slowdowns. It happens. When I left the practice, areas in the doldrums included: corporate, M&A, IPOs, project finance/capital markets, "soft" IP such as trademark and licensing, healthcare, environmental, telecommunications, and some regions of commercial real estate. Because there was not much work in these practice areas, attorneys who would wanted to continue in the profession needed to be flexible with the areas of law they wanted to practice in. The same holds true today. The areas on the up or down swing will shift, but if you are in a down practice, you must recognize that point and take appropriate action.

For example, if you are a corporate attorney who does not have any work, you need to think of alternatives to solidify your position within a firm. Many corporate attorneys transition into positions as commercial litigators. This does not have to be a long-term career change, but you must do it if you would like to continue in the profession. Nothing is forever, and most careers take some strange turns. Who knows, it may benefit you in the end. Perhaps you will meet a contact that you would not have met as a corporate attorney and voila! You've got yourself a client. One note: If your long-term career goal is to be a partner for a major law firm, then you must stick out the downturn in the economy.

Do your homework

So you've asked the questions and are ready to go, right? Wrong. Be a good lawyer. Do your homework:

  • Talk to your peers (law school classmates and/or co-workers), mentors, law school career counselors -- anyone who can help shape your perspective and push you in the right direction. And of course, feel free to contact a BCG recruiter. It's our job to offer you advice about your career.
  • Read about career changes and other ways to use a law degree -- your law school career center or its bookstore likely has books on this subject.
  • Make a list of pros and cons for both staying and leaving the profession. Discuss this list with all who will be affected by your decision: your significant other, family, friends, and whomever else you feel may be affected.

When the decision is made, question it before you act on it

One more thing you may want to take into consideration when making your decision is whether or not you are likely to second-guess yourself and choose to go back to working in a law firm. If you think that you might, then you almost definitely should not leave. For starters, in a down economy, law firms are not going to be all that sad to shed some excess attorneys, and a firm that you unexpectedly left will not be thrilled to see you again two months later if you have a change of heart. Additionally, other firms want to ensure that their staffs are committed to the law, and if you have already proven you are not by leaving for something else, you will undoubtedly be seen as a question mark in a profession that is used to periods. Ultimately, though, if you can see yourself actually going back to firm practice, then you probably are not as fundamentally unhappy with the law as you might feel at the moment. Perhaps you just need a change of scenery within your current career and not an actual career change; or maybe all you need is a month in Paris. Questioning your decision now will prevent you from having to question it later, when there is a lot less you can do about it.

by Claudia Spielman

This article courtesy of BCG Attorney Search.