An Open Plea to Lawyers: Make a Career Change if You’re Unhappy
by Becky Bye
f you’re not happy with your practice—change it! Life’s too short to robotically plug away in a job that gives you little or no personal satisfaction, even though it might supply a steady paycheck and provides "something to do" during the day.
In a recent ABA Journal article, the American Bar Association reported that a mere four out of 10 lawyers within six-to-nine years of their practice said they were satisfied with their careers.1 Therefore, a majority of mid-career lawyers are seemingly dissatisfied with their practice, after years of schooling, thousands of dollars in education, and thousands of hours of legal work under their belt.
I find this disheartening. People who possess the intellectual capacity to practice in our sophisticated profession, with their hard work ethic and their academic achievements, should not settle for anything less than satisfaction with their professional (and personal) lives. Just because society, pop culture, and even aspiring lawyers have stereotyped "successful" lawyers as those who practice in a certain type of firm, with a financially lucrative career and a certain type of lifestyle, meeting this stereotype is not any measure of success.
Other current articles reinforce the findings of this ABA survey and show a more concerted focus among attorneys to be truly happy. In a short article titled "Myths about Happy Lawyers," the author notes that approximately 85 percent of attorneys make at least one job change in their careers, and encourages lawyers to "not be afraid to move or leap."2 Another recent ABA article details the career journeys of "successful" attorneys, including a former Yale graduate and U.S. Supreme Court law clerk seeking happiness in another profession.3
I urge you to believe that you can live a satisfying personal and professional life, but it probably will involve some changes, and perhaps even financial sacrifices.
I use the words "personal" and "professional" together because most of your waking hours are probably spent at work or commuting to work. If you are unhappy with your job, the sentiment will undoubtedly transfer to your personal life and your relationships.
Permit me to give a personal example. Two years into my legal practice, I chose to leave a large law firm for the public sector. I also made a decision never to look back at what my paycheck at the large law firm might have brought me. Yes, I was making more money than many attorneys in the public sector, but at what price? Even when I was away from the office and at home or among friends, I found myself fixed to my BlackBerry and intensely preoccupied with work and the coinciding stress. I soon transformed from the bubbly, high-energy, fun person I once was to a very tired, exhausted, highly stressed person.
"Retiring" from private practice for the public sector was the best decision I ever made. I vehemently believe in the work that I do, enjoy the substance of what I do, and enjoy the office culture. The elated sentiment from my job satisfaction transfers into other areas of my life.
Unfortunately, many lawyers bemoan going to law school for a variety of reasons and, complaints about student loan debt aside, many simply do not receive satisfaction from their work. You probably will be happy practicing law if you find the right type of practice that suits who you are and your prerogatives. Various people I know simply have changed practice areas within their firm or changed firms altogether and have found the job satisfaction they sought.
Others have found success with slightly more drastic routes to changing their status quo. People have switched from the private to public sector into positions such as assistant attorneys general, prosecutors, and public defenders, among others. Others have left the public sector for private practice. Always remember that a day in the life of one type of attorney may be a complete sea change from your practice right now, and you might find the change to your liking.
It’s possible that you might be unhappy in a career that is integrated with the practice of law. If that’s the case, leave the practice of law for whatever makes you happy. A law license does not mandate that you become a slave to a profession that might never make you happy. Many former lawyers have found success elsewhere. For example, novelist John Grisham has bestsellers including "The Firm" and "The Client" under his belt. He is more successful as a writer than he ever was as an attorney. Jim Cramer, the well-liked (albeit loud), financial personality on CNBC’s "Mad Money," graduated from Harvard Law School. When he failed to secure a legal job he wanted, Cramer worked at various financial institutions before he became the well-known financial journalist and TV personality he is today. These people found success in these non-attorney roles because they are happy with what they do, which makes them do it well and with passion.
No matter where you are in your legal career, you should constantly evaluate and reevaluate your happiness. After introspection, soul-searching, and careful deliberation, if you remain convinced that your perfect career match is elsewhere, do your best to get there in calculated steps.
When I think of "successful lawyers," I do not envision people with large houses and turbulent relationships as successful, despite their résumés. I view success as finding a career that suits your personality, lifestyle, and intellectual interests, and finding true professional and personal bliss. D
Becky Bye may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. See Ward, "Pulse of the Legal Profession," ABA Journal (Oct. 2007), available at www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/pulse_of_the_legal_profession. The article also mentions that later in practice, the job satisfaction increases to six out of 10 attorneys, but as the article indicates, the change stems from people being in their practice long enough to decide that "law is for them" and to just stick with it.
2. See Levitt, "Myths About Happy Lawyers," ABA Journal (Feb. 2011), available at www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/myths_about_happy_lawyers.
3. See Gillespie and Temple, "Hunting Happy: In Grim Times, a Search for Joy in Law Practice Gains Ground," ABA Journal (Feb. 2011), available at www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/hunting_happy_in_grim_times_a_search_for_joy_in_law_practice_gains_ground.