If you are a lawyer who’s been grinding away for a couple of years at a job that makes you miserable, a job you hate, you need to read this. You need to stop whatever you’re doing, to receive some hope and encouragement.
Maybe you don’t know there are other options. Perhaps you don’t think you’re good enough. Possibly, the money is too good to pass up where you’re at. Well, I’ll tell you this, and it’s the same thing I’ve been telling people since I started teaching high school in 2004: No amount of money is worth you being miserable at the thought of going to work every day.
If you are one of those lawyers unhappy with your situation, you don’t need the most vibrant personality or longest resume to start looking around for a different job. What you need is the fortitude to pursue what you want, the wherewithal to grab hold of an opportunity that presents itself to you, and (not to be underestimated) the ability to act appropriately and not present yourself like a total weirdo.
Leave the job you hate to find more fulfilling work.
Today, I’m going to share with you the experiences of lawyers who were unhappy in the job situation and took the initiative to find work that was more satisfying to them.
Grab hold of the opportunities you make.
Martha: I quit my first job after two years after accepting it wasn’t a great fit and I needed to find something else. My lease was also up and I have family in DC so they offered to let me come live with them while I figured it out, as “It’s a whole city of lawyers, there has to be SOMETHING!” I was now unemployed and living in a basement. Awesome.
After complaining on Twitter about rejections and starting over, someone DM’ed me to ask what I wanted to do. In undergrad I focused on war, strategy, and conflict, and I really wanted to work on defense issues. I went to law school thinking I’d learn the legal side and then go back to policy work, not appreciating the market was terrible (I started in 2009) and the practicalities of getting a job with a law degree.
Being in D.C. was my chance to do what I’d wanted to do from the beginning, so I told them as much. They happened to have a friend who did defense policy work. I had lunch with him and asked, “How do I do what YOU do?” It turned out his firm needed an intern. I started 6/1/15 and now I’m our director of operations and also have a few clients I handle.
Part of my work now is legislative research and drafting, along with drafting necessary memos and advocacy material. I could have done this job having gotten a master’s, but to be honest I’m glad I got a JD and very glad I practiced for a bit. The advocacy skills I developed as an attorney help me every day.
Never burn your bridges.
JD: I was a litigation associate for 6 years. Loved the firm and trial work. Hated the BS that comes with litigation and a lot of donkey cases that came my way for being low on the totem pole. I was stressed out and carrying work with me everywhere. You know how it is grinding in a firm as a litigation associate.
I switched to in-house at the end of last year and it has been night and day in terms of stress and life balance/happiness. I am doing more transactional work and also managing outside counsel on litigation. I papered the city to death for about 1-2 years. Getting offers and also interviews. Turned the offers down because I didn’t like the “fit.” Landed this job thru networking via manager at my old job before law school.
I saw the posting and realized the manager had a connection with our chief legal officer. It got my foot in the door and I got the offer. My resume didn’t even make the cut initially and didn’t even land on her desk. If not for the connection, I would not have received an interview.
The message that I would share with readers is: Don’t get discouraged if you don’t land another offer right away. Keep applying and looking for new opportunities. Relationships are important too, so never burn bridges.
Weigh the risks and rewards.
Matt: I left the firm I was at for 5 years, joined two friends from school at their firm, and added my name on the door. I couldn’t be happier now. I do not advise people to do this without some planning. It is not as easy as I may make it sound. I’ll just say that I was in a fortunate position to be able to do that. I don’t have anyone depending on my income (kids) and I left my old firm with over 100 open cases and about 150 clients. I was in a fortunate position. If I had kids, I may not have done it. If I didn’t have all those open cases, I would have been super broke for a few months, maybe more.
Relationships are key to business success.
Kate: So when I was miserable I started reaching out to colleagues and older lawyers and kind of politely venting to see if what I was experiencing was just the pains of being a lawyer or if my problems were uniquely related to my firm. I wasn’t positive I wanted to leave my firm necessarily. I was actually thinking I needed to quit law because it wasn’t for me.
After a few lunches, I knew I was miserable because of my firm so I reached out to a few connections – partners at firms who I knew from mentoring or summer clerkships. Reaching out to people for advice kind of converted into job hunting when I realized I didn’t need to quit law.
The partner I had clerked under at large local firm had left and opened a new branch of a larger regional firm. I approached him mainly for the connections, hoping for an email intro to other firms in town that might be hiring. He ended up recruiting me to work for him.
Keep your connections fresh. Even though I was no-offered at large local firm, I still ended up being able to use that clerkship for something.
Do your homework and persevere through setbacks.
Elizabeth: I was working at a firm library – big for its market, but it was one large office in the state’s largest city and a tiny office in the state capital. It was really busy – it had just grown its IP practice (from one to seven attorneys, with more practice areas) and had instituted a new procedure for conflict checks that involved the library.
I had temp’ed there for a while and I liked the firm culture. It seemed stable and cohesive, and while there were definitely some attorneys people tiptoed around, all in all, people worked hard and were good to each other. However, that changed. It was subtle, with no one thing I could point to as illustration, but in general it became pretty tense and seemed less cohesive and I felt uncomfortable.
Plus, I wanted to teach and the local environment was trying to kill me (allergies). So, I decided that I needed to get out. The problem was that there were a lot fewer academic jobs there as there were here in the Bay Area. Step 1 became: ‘Get back to the Bay Area.’
I interviewed for a contracting job where I was hired 24 hours after the phone interview. I had a month to move between states, and a week of that would be spent out of town/the country. Did that, with a lot of help from my spouse. A month after my interview, I was at a new job in a different state.
After 4 months, I assessed whether I wanted to stay where I was and for how long. This firm didn’t have the tension of my old one, but it felt much less cohesive. And I still wanted to teach. So, I started looking around in terms of academia. The Bay Area has seven law schools. That was a benefit. But a drawback was that there is a particular set of skills that people tend to have when working in different parts of academic libraries. It’s very segmented and very deep, and I did not have THAT experience, despite working in an academic library before law school.
Luck came my way again – my law school alma mater was hiring, and the contact remembered me. I asked if I would be seriously considered if I applied, and she said yes. So I started preparing – DMing experts on Twitter, reading blogs, putting together outlines and resource binders. I got to the all day interview, powered through the flop sweat and dry mouth and 4 different interviews + a presentation and lunch with these people. And I didn’t get the job.
I couldn’t really blame them, as I didn’t have that exact experience that niche academic libraries typically look for. But now I had all of this research. And somehow, I parlayed it into doing an out-of-state CLE, and I started thinking about doing a podcast and building up my authority cred.
And then, I get a call offering me the job – the other candidate turned it down. So, luck again. And now I am here. In academia, about to teach my first course, and I like it so much. But to encapsulate – it took a fair bit of risk, a lot of family support, more than a little luck, and a readiness to pounce and prepare when risk and luck paid off.
Finding the right fit may take some effort.
I saved this one for last because you don’t want to miss it or skim through it. Bob really lays it all out there.
Bob: I’m an attorney with four years of experience who moved diagonally through several jobs to finally make it to one that fits me and uses my strengths. It can be done. My last job (and last few before that), I liked the work, but management was unresponsive at best and abusive at worst. Hundred-hour weeks, verbal abuse, unclear or inconsistent job expectations, lack of management support, a total lack of recourse, the whole schmear. It took enough of a toll on my physical and mental health that I knew I had to get a better job.
If all you want is a job, you can get a job. You probably have a job. The trick is getting one that suits you. Know what you want, know your strengths, and let other people know. The first two are necessary prerequisites.
I wanted a job with semi-predictable hours, with a reasonable salary and responsive management, that I could reasonably argue was serving a public good. I could litigate but strongly preferred not to. I’m flexible in terms of practice area—I’m not attached to a particular area, and I learn systems quickly, often quickly enough to teach others. I’m easy to work with and pretty personable; one of the benefits of having a lot of disparate work experience and hobbies is that you can talk to anyone about anything.
Once you know your strengths, take a look at your resume. It should tell a story that shows your achievements and trends over your career. This is important because you’re a lawyer—everyone has a doctorate, and all your first year’s experience are grunt work. Sorry. But by now, you know your strengths (see above!), so play them up, and give your resume that third dimension that helps you stand out. My resume shows that I’ve switched practice areas twice since being licensed, learned quick enough to get promoted to management positions, and improved performance metrics in several areas while delivering quality work.
After that, letting people know your wants and strengths is relatively straightforward. Choose who you let know. I got my current job by taking a broad but targeted and efficient approach to applications. Based on my wants and my strengths, I knew in-house was likely a good fit. I focused my applications on in-house and JD-advantage jobs, figuring that a good work environment would be an acceptable trade-off if I had to change fields again. I wallpapered the Internet with my resume and stalked LinkedIn to find connections who might be able to get my story in front of the right people. I also had friends I’d made through college, law school, Twitter, LawyerSmack, and relatives shopping my resume around. Since I’d given them targets and an easy narrative hook to sell me, it wasn’t a huge ask. I eventually got in a room with a few hiring managers, got an offer, and it’s been a great experience since.
Choosing who to let know is where things can really get interesting. I got an interview with a recruiting firm by drawing a guy on Twitter as a cartoon bird carrying a bazooka. (No kidding.) But that’s an example of someone finding out about my strengths (easy to work with, personable, committed to quality work) who got hooked into finding out more. Once I told him I was a lawyer looking for work, flexible, and quick to learn, he sent my resume to my area’s branch of his recruiting firm. It didn’t pan out, but not everything needs to. All you need is one.
And for the love of Mike, have savings. Folk wisdom has it that you should have six months’ worth of expenses saved for emergencies. A job sucking the life from you is an emergency. It takes time to find one that’s a good fit, and not having savings means you don’t have the leverage to reject a bad fit.
There are so many avenues for getting out of the job you hate and into the job you want. Everyone featured here used different methods of obtaining the satisfying work they’re in now. I want you to understand there are both traditional and out-of-the-box means of finding work and getting out of the job that’s making you miserable. It will take effort, perseverance, and using the connections you’ve made, but what you’re looking for is out there. And if it’s not, blaze a new path and create it.
Photo by Christian Guthier.