Should I stay or should I go? I found myself asking this very question at a very early stage in my legal career. If you are reading this, I assume you are also pondering whether or not you should stay in the legal profession.
This is a serious question and you should research it as much as
possible before making the decision. Approach the question as you would
any legal issue: be objective and reserve judgment until after getting
all the facts. Make sure to make a decision that honestly reflects your
feelings, because it is most likely going to be a decision that will
permanently affect the rest of your life.
For this decision process, you should consider a variety of factors,
many of which will be discussed in this article. If you do decide to
stick with the profession but believe your current situation is not
ideal, I suggest using the BCG job analysis tool to figure out if something else might be a better fit.
Why I chose to take a “hiatus” from the profession?
Like all attorneys, I worked hard during law school in order to work
for the best firm in my practice area. I succeeded and received an offer
in my third year of law school to work with a top IP firm. A month into
my career at the firm, I found out I passed the California Bar Exam on
my first try and was even asked to be a grader for it. I felt
invincible. I was working at a prestigious firm and, at age 25, I was
making more money than both of my parents combined. in fact, I was
making more money than most people supporting families do. I was the
envy of my college (and even some law school) friends. Like most naïve
starting attorneys, I thought I was set for life.
For various reasons, the firm was not a good fit and I started
looking elsewhere. Unfortunately, my practice area was, and still is,
very slow. Consequently, it was not feasible to find a comparable
position in another firm because there simply were not any openings. In
order to continue practicing as a lawyer, I found I would have had to
change practice areas and I started applying to positions and firms that
I would not normally have considered. As I interviewed, I realized more
and more that I was pushing myself to do something that I did not have a
passion for. I was too young to push myself into a career I did not
want to go into with full force.
While I was still interviewing for positions as an attorney, I spoke
to my recruiter at BCG and discussed my concerns about continuing with
the profession. My recruiter, like most BCG recruiters, was a former
attorney for a large firm and had the same concerns about the profession
that I had. In response, my recruiter offered me a position with BCG,
and at first I laughed at it. I thought it was a very sweet gesture, but
surely I couldn’t “downgrade” my profession after working so hard. Over
the next couple of months, I thought about it and, as you can see, I
took a chance and am now far happier than I ever would have been
practicing as an attorney.
Before making the decision to jump ship and enter another profession, I considered the following:
My motivation in going to law school
Like many who end up in law school, I went for some of the most
absurd reasons. Essentially, the final decision was made by a process of
elimination: I did not want to be in the medical profession, getting a
PhD took too long, I had no interest in going to business school…What
does that leave? Law school. Hey, why not? I liked philosophy and my dad
told me I would meet a good husband in law school and it would open me
to more opportunities. While the former didn’t hold true, he was right
about the latter. If it were not for law school, I would not have the
opportunity to be working at BCG.
I’ve interviewed countless other attorneys and have found that those
who had a legitimate reason for going to law school are much more likely
to enjoy practicing law. If you were someone who: (1) went to law
school wanting to be a lawyer, (2) has a close relative (usually a
parent) who is a lawyer and knew what you were getting into, (3) has an
interest in politics, and/or (4) wanted to change current law, then you
are probably in the right profession. Of course, motivations can change
after law school, but the overwhelming number of well-adjusted attorneys
continue to find their work interesting and challenging because they
have been working toward a goal for so long and still feel that they
have more to accomplish in their field. If you started law school unsure
of whether or not you wanted to accomplish anything as an attorney in
the first place, the chances are low that the work will excite you.
What motivates me?
You need to be honest with yourself and find out what motivates you.
While at work, see what stokes your fire. Is it money? Power? Prestige?
Intellectually stimulating work? A desire to help people? Client
contact? Giving back to society? Advancing the cause of justice?
I found that money did not motivate me, but then again, I only have
to support myself. Of course, everyone needs money and I would only work
if I could make a certain amount, but it wasn’t my primary concern.
More important to me was the need to feel independent and be respected
by my peers and superiors, and I also need to be in a supportive
If you are considering other professions, talk to people in those
fields and determine what drives those people and keeps them going back
to work every day. Compare these findings to what motivates you.
Do I identify with my professional peers?
Do you find that your personality and drive are similar to those that
you work with? Are the people you work with the type of people you
would like to associate yourself with? Attorneys in a firm environment
have to be able to work with each other every day. Whether it is
receiving work from a partner or consulting a fellow associate, if there
is no sense of camaraderie in these interactions, there is a low
probability that they are something to look forward to everyday. This
camaraderie usually stems from a shared sense of belonging and/or common
goals, and not having anything in common can be a sign that maybe you
are not cut out for the same kind of life as your professional peers.
Judging by the hours most firms require their attorneys to put in, it
is safe to assume that the attorneys in your firm are going to be a
significant part of your life as long as you work there. While it is not
necessary to be best pals with everyone, being able to get along with
your co-workers can be very important in determining whether or not you
are happy in the workplace. While not having anything in common with
them is a possible sign that you might consider another field, not being
able to be civil with your co-workers may be a sign that you have to
move firms. Firm cultures tend to run the gamut and the attitude of your
current firm may not be the best fit for you. However, you should not
necessarily take an unhappy situation to mean that you need to change
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 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 is really the one thing that should merit 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 bull
market, corporations have a continual need for in-house representation,
and the larger corporations can staff dozens of attorneys. 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 less hours and a
less cut-throat atmosphere, but also can mean less compensation.
Law school may be in your rear-view mirror, but, if the thought is
not too painful, it is always 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 strong 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 a lot 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 law degrees that have chosen other fields.
Is it financially feasible to move professions?
This is the biggest question when it comes to switching careers. Sure
less stress, more fun, and less time spent at work all sound wonderful,
but these things 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, and it is 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
than cliff dive. It is a common joke that the majority of graduates of
the top law school ended up there because they had nothing better to do,
but there is actually a bit of truth to it - many lawyers got into 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 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.
With many of the top law firms closing their doors during this recession
and firm stability becoming more abnormal, the legal industry is not
the safe haven it used to be, so leaving the profession now may not be
as impractical as it once was.
What environment am I most comfortable in?
I took a personality test to determine this. 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 able to miraculously decipher
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
My advice to attorneys in a slow practice area
If you are in any of the following practice areas, you are an
attorney in a slow practice area: corporate, M&A, IPO’s, project
finance/capital markets, “soft” IP such as trademark and licensing,
healthcare, environmental, telecommunications and some regions of
commercial real estate. Because there is not much work in these practice
areas, attorneys who would like to continue in the profession need to
be flexible with the areas of law they practice in.
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 are looking for 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. 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.
For those who need to make a change in their practice area, I refer you to the BCG Candidate Resource Center.
There you will find an article about changing your practice area.
Please read this and feel free to contact one of BCG’s recruiters about
whether it’s wise to change your practice area.
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, firms interested in hiring
associates want to ensure that they are committed to practicing 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.