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What happens when a legal career path isn’t right choice for you?

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Going to law school and becoming a practicing attorney is often a calling. The desire to help others, to encourage the rule of law, and to enforce those laws evenly across society is a beneficent goal. But too many of us get pulled (or pushed) into attending law school for less altruistic reasons.

The money looks good. Maybe there’s a family directive. Or sometimes law school provides a holding pattern for smart people who aren’t sure what they want to do with those smarts.

Pros of the legal profession

There’s an old adage that says you can do anything with a law degree. While I believe that if you’re smart enough to go to and graduate from law school, you’re probably smart enough to learn to do most any job out there, that isn’t the same thing.

You can attend law school from any undergraduate background. The training you get in law school—the reading, writing, critical thinking, persuasive tactics, communication skills—are all very transferable and very much in demand across careers. You can learn them in law school while safely “hiding out” for three years without having to face the world of work. And although technical legal skills may be less marketable outside the practice of law, a JD is definitely evidence of intelligence and hard work capabilities.

Cons of the JD

Despite the hype, having a JD itself isn’t always seen as an asset when it comes to working in different fields. There are several negative stereotypes that can attach themselves to a law degree.

Assumptions may be made that you’re arrogant, argumentative, or perhaps obsessive in your pursuit of the perfect answer rather than being able to make a gut-level decision. If you never practice traditional law at all, others may assume you didn’t do well in school, weren’t able to pass the bar, or simply weren’t employable as an attorney. If you do practice for a few years before trying to transition out, you may be seen as a quitter or someone who couldn’t “hack” it.

Reasons to choose law

There are many, many good reasons for choosing a career in the law. Working as a lawyer can be intellectually and creatively challenging. You can make a difference in people’s lives, conceivably at both the macro and micro levels. You’re often a trusted, respected member of the community. You can make a nice living, and your friends and family have you to lean on when they encounter legal problems.

But the law isn’t right for everyone. As with any profession, there are tradeoffs. Much legal work is tedious. The hours are long, and collecting for all the hours you bill isn’t always easy.

As a profession, we face many “haters” who view us as money-hungry sharks who are no more than a necessary evil. The nature of the practice of law is often adversarial; if there was no conflict or potential conflict, everyone would just shake hands, and there would be no need to hire lawyers.

As I noted, the beauty of a legal background is the panoply of gifts someone who is legally trained brings to any and all areas of work. As a trained attorney, you’re a problem solver. You’re a listener. A critical thinker. You can analyze, strategize, communicate, and prioritize concerns.

You understand what it means to be a confidant, a fiduciary, and you take that responsibility seriously.

You can choose to use those skills in an unlimited number of directions, but you need to approach the pursuit of a new career carefully.

If not justice, then what?

For more than 30 years, I’ve been consulting with lawyers and law students about these four steps, which I believe can help them transition from the law into something that will make them feel more professionally rewarded:

1.Assess yourself. Before you can move anywhere, you have to understand what you’re looking for and why. Ask yourself: How did I get onto the law path? What’s right and what’s wrong about it for me? Where have I been the happiest, and what was I doing at the time?

If you can’t be candid with yourself, drag an old friend or dear family member in to help you clearly assess who you were and who you are now. If you’re less of the person you used to be, figure out what’s missing.

2. Assess the market. Once you know what makes you tick, take a look around and see which areas or industries value people with your strengths and interests. Look well beyond the law and related fields. You can take cues from hobbies or subjects you read about or even by looking at roles your friends have that make you feel jealous. You don’t need anything more than a seed of an idea to begin a market assessment.

3. Tap into your resources and network. Most career changers need a leg up from someone in the new field willing to go to bat for them. This is the step where you make those connections. This is the part where you seek out people who’ve already made it in your chosen path who can tell you everything you need to know.

What are the entry-level jobs called in this market? Which companies and firms hire for those roles? Which parts of my legal background will actually be beneficial in this new field? What should I steer clear of when talking about my background?

4. Sell and market the “new” you. Contrary to what you might have thought, this is the last step and not where you begin. Once you know who you are, what you have to offer, and why a particular market will value you, and once you’ve created some contacts in that area, that’s when you can begin to market yourself. It’s only at this point in the process that you can put together an appropriate, properly targeted resume. And it’s only at this point that you’re educated enough about which parts of you are truly marketable in this new capacity.

If you choose not to pursue a career in justice, remember that the law isn’t bad—and you’re not bad—it’s just that the fit is wrong. Figure out where you do fit, and then use the amazing skills you gained on the way to becoming a JD to pursue most any path you like.

Cheryl Rich Heisler Cheryl Rich Heisler, President/Founder of LAWTERNATIVES, offers individualized career consulting to lawyers and law students on exploring careers inside, outside & around traditional legal options. Her own career paths include big law, brand management, professional speaking/writing and mixology! Heisler currently sits on the ABA Career Center Board and writes for both Student Lawyer and Experience Magazine.