Saturday, August 27, 2011

Does Quitting Law Lead to Happiness?

One of the questions I get from a lot of people (mostly through anonymous emails) is whether I am happier since quitting my lawyer job. I think the answer is more complicated than whether I am more or less happy. What I do know is that when I was practicing law, most of my days were spent feeling trapped and hopeless. At the same time, however, the outside world provided me with validation in the form of respect (from non-lawyers), interest in what I do (again, from non-lawyers), and approval from my family and friends (mostly non-lawyers).

Since quitting the law, I feel more at peace and hopeful about finding my purpose in life. I do not wake up each day dreading work, although some days I find work a little unchallenging. Since we both now make more money, my husband and I have more control over our finances, and have created a plan for paying off our student loans within the next two to three years.


The outside world does not provide nearly as much, if any, validation anymore. When people find out I used to practice law, they inevitably ask me whether I plan to take the Bar in the state in which I currently reside. When I tell them no, they seem puzzled and I can tell they are probably wondering whether I "burned out" or was disbarred, or had a nervous breakdown. Rather than try to disabuse them of any such notions or explain my choices, I tend to simply change the subject. This is a struggle, since leaving the law was a major decision and it is a part of who I am, but I also think it is healthier at this point in my life to look forward rather than dwell on the past.

All this is to say that when one is weighing the decision of whether to quit law, one must consider how self-assured he or she is. If you are the type of person who must please your family or cannot live without a shiny job title, quitting might not be a good option at this point. Let me be clear that I do not sit in judgment of those who need approval from family or who enjoy working in a seemingly prestigious field. I get it. I used to be like that. I am just cautioning those who need these things to think twice before quitting the law. Try to create a support system that will be in place once you take the plunge.

You may also want to think about what you plan on doing with your free time once you begin working fewer hours per week at a job that most likely will not require your undivided intellectual and/or emotional attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  You need a hobby.  Or a passion of some sort.  Otherwise, you may end up falling back into law because you need to do something that the world recognizes as valuable, rather than what will bring you fulfillment or may actually be useful. 

One thing I began doing when I left the law was reading more about personal finance and trying to come up with a financial plan for the future that would hopefully lead to a dignified retirement for me and my husband.  I did not consider this a "hobby" at the time, but these days, when I am not working like a mad woman, I tend to be reading up on finance or listening to podcasts about it, or looking at spreadsheets documenting my journey out of student loan hell.  I believe this now officially qualifies as a hobby.

What are some of the obstacles that have been holding you back from leaving the law?


  1. This has really helped me - still not sure what I want to do, but know I am very unhappy, but it has given me food for thought.

    1. Thanks for posting this. I just resigned as an associate from a litigation firm. I have never felt happier. I'm no longer ranked by some billable hour number, and I can enjoy the important things in life like friends and family. While practising, I constantly felt stressed, exhausted and hopeless. I regularly had headaches and felt nauseous. The workload was crushing and I could not function properly. I'm going to go back to school in the near future to pursue another degree and find another career path that gives me satisfaction.

    2. I am so happy for you! I, too, would like to go back to school, but I am putting it off just until my student loans are paid off. I can totally relate about the headaches and nausea.

      I recently discovered a great book by Will Meyerhofer called "Way Worse Than Being a Dentist." Meyerhofer was an associate at a big firm for about two years before he quit, and these days he's a psychologist. He often counsels lawyers, law students, and ex-lawyers. His book is a collection of "war stories," so to speak. It really gives me hope when I read about others who have left the law and found their true callings. I highly recommend.

    3. To Anonymous, March 30 -- I am glad my post was helpful to you. I remember seeking out blogs by former lawyers when I was still practicing. It took me a long time to finally quit, but I truly think it's best to think trough big decisions rather than acting on emotion or impulse. I know your time will come when the stars will align and you'll be able to leave the law for something better. Please take care of yourself - it's really hard to remember that when you're stuck in law firm life, but it's so important!

  2. I feel exactly the same way. I have been practicing ten years now and have hated every minute of it. The hours, the stress, the petty fights with other lawyers, the constant thoughts that I'm just a tool to make rich people/companies even richer...I can't stand it. I couldn't stand law school either, so I guess that makes 13 years of misery instead of 10. I've tried changing firms, working for partners with different management styles, exercise regiments, anti-anxiety medications, seeing a psychogist, drinking alcohol (sad but true), but nothing helps. I simply hate the law and hate being a lawyer, and I'm tired of doing something I hate.

    That's the bad news. The good news is that I am in an excellent financial position to make a change, and I think at the end of the year I'm going to go for it. My student loans have been paid off for over a year now, and aside from my mortgage, I have zero debt PLUS I have about $60K in savings, which at the rate my wife and I are adding to it could easily be $80K or $90K by year's end. I have no children and my wife is also an attorney with a steady income (unlike me, likes what she does). So I'm seriously contemplating leaving the law at the end of the year.

    Problem is, I have no idea whatsoever what I'd do with myself if I left. Not a clue. Everything I would want to get into is either unattainable (like aviation administration...I'd love to be part of running an airport, but the aviation adminsitation community here is dominated by Mormons with a reputation for only hiring other Mormoms) or I'd have to go back to school, and I've already fought my way out of student loan debt once before and I don't feel like doing it again. So I don't know what to do. And that only adds to the hopelessness I feel on a day-to-day basis as a lawyer: I don't like where I am, but I don't know where else to go.

    Also standing in the way is that my inner circle of friends and family are the kind of people who would look down on me if I left the law. They're the kind of people who measure success based not how much money you make or what your social status is, not based on whether you are happy. You could be a happy as a clam as a janitor and most of my friends and family would consider me a letdown or a failure. Basically, they're your average American. Mind you, I wouldn't let this stand in the way of leaving the law, but it's still something I think about.

    So what I'm most seriously considering is doing the one thing I haven't tried short of leaving the professional altogether: trying a new area of law that I might enjoy more (or at least not hate), or seek out an in-house position. If that solves my problems, great. If not, then hopefully a solution will present itself. But in any event, I plan to make some kind of drastic, life-altering move at the end of the year, because I'm definitely not happy right now.

    1. Sorry for the late reply, Paulie Vegas! I just got back from NYC and had a crazy workday. I am so sorry to hear you're miserable in your current attorney position. Here are my thoughts:

      1. I love the fact that you're debt-free but the house and have some cash savings for an emergency fund. You are in an excellent position for a career change, so I hope you feel good about that.

      2. Have you ever read 48 Days to the Work you love? It's a great book by Dan Miller. You should check it out. His theory is that you have probably already discovered what your life calling is. Think about a time in your life when you were happy doing what you were doing, even if you weren't making money at it. What are you drawn to when you're not busy practicing law? Thinking about these things will probably clue you in to what you should be doing for work. The trick is turning it into something that pays. Which brings me to my next thought.

      3. I have interviewed multiple people who have left the law and been successful in other ventures, and one of the insights I've heard is this: do something you love in your free time, and don't assume you're going to make money at it. If you do something in your off-hours thinking you're going to strike it rich, you probably won't get anywhere. One of the guys I talked with has always had a passion for lacrosse. So he coached in his free time and was always busy doing that, but he never felt exhausted because he loved it. He started his own lacrosse equipment design company, and did that in his spare time while he worked in-house. Eventually, he was asked to join a sports equipment company full-time, and he runs the lacrosse division. Of course, he no longer practices law now and he is quite happy and successful. He attributes his success to the fact that he did not focus on money. He just enjoyed what he did and then the money came. He also suggested connecting with other like-minded people in order to build a network of people that will help you discover how to make money in the area that you love. Another attorney I know went back to school at night to get a Ph.D. in psychology and he's a practicing therapist. He still practices law part-time for the income, but he is fine with that because he gets to do what he loves most of the time, which is helping patients. If you think you need to go back to school for a career change, you can probably cash flow it if you stick with your current position for a little while. Or, you can maybe draw up a budget with your wife to see if you could cash flow it while she sticks with her firm and you go down to part-time while you're in school. Try to fund your education without loans so it won't be a burden.

    2. 4. I also like your idea of going in-house or switching practice areas. What did you think you would be doing when you went to law school? Did you picture helping people with financial trouble or helping people plan their lives/estates? Maybe you could do consumer bankruptcy or estate planning. I know an attorney who was miserable at a big firm, but he stuck with it for about three years and was finally recruited by a big client to go in-house. He's much happier now. Do you have any idea what kind of company you would want to work in-house for? Try to brainstorm on that a little.

      5. Are you with a big firm now? Since you have ten years of experience and (possibly?) experience with a reputable firm, you could probably start your own practice for very little cash. That way, you can pick your clients and only work on matters of your choosing. Even if you don't want to start your own practice, you can always go into practice for yourself as a fall-back if you've got enough experience.

      6. What are you doing right now to restore your spirit/mood when you're not working? Do you enjoy reading, athletics, photography? Try to find something to do that will help you balance out your life a little bit, and you might start seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I think the more of a life you have outside of law, the more easily you are able to picture yourself working in a non-legal position.

      7. I am sorry your family/friends are narrow-minded when it comes to careers. Do you have anyone in your life, even if they are peripheral, that would support your decision to leave the law? Try brain-storming and come up with a list of people that you can talk to about this and ask for their support. Most people have at least one person in their life they can confide in about things like that. Maybe it's your spouse. Tell that person or people what your fears are. You'll know if you're talking to the right people if you feel better after the conversation, rather than worse.

      8. Take care of yourself and remind yourself that it's only life. Try not to take things too seriously or you'll get stuck in a negative mind-set. Life is about change, and change can often be painful. But pain also teaches us about who we are, which can be joyful. When I left the law, I learned a great deal about who I could count on, and I learned that work is just work. I am still the same person no matter what I do for money. At your core, you are who you are and that will never change no matter what job you have.

      Email me if you want to chat more. Thank you for reading!

  3. Paulie Vegas -- great post and good for you for considering leaving the law.

    I posted above as "anonymous" on April 15, 2012. Without getting into too many specifics, I can say that working in a litigation firm, and working for a boss with a short temper has made my work environment nothing short of toxic. There's simply nothing enjoyable about showing up to the office. Endless emails, voicemails, paper piling up, deadlines, and threats of professiional negligence claims from potential screwups due to overwork have made my daily life at work just a nightmare. There's little time for mentorship, and when you take some time to ask other lawyers questions, you're instantly behind in billable hours. Then there's the inevitable exhaustion and fatigue from stress.

    A while ago I had an in-house corporate gig as a law student and I can safely say that law firm life and in-house life are like night and day. When you're in-house, you have one client only - your company. You work at a corporate office with employees who mostly aren't lawyers, and while there are stressful moments, it's generally a much more relaxed job. Legal work you don't want to do in-house or can't do in-house is usually just sent to external law firms, to cover the more painful legal work for you. That being said, in-house jobs are very hard to attain because of a poor job market. I would take an in-house role if the opportunity presented itself but we're in a bad job market.

    I have the benefit of a supportive family. I have many other interests outside of law and a great group of friends. I personally know a number of non-practicing lawyers who have found other things to do with their lives and they're generally very happy.

    Remember what Steve Jobs said at the 2005 Stanford Commencement: "Your time is limited on earth, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma and the results of other people's thinking." Those words are so true and should be kept in mind.

    If you're in a position to leave law and your gut tells you to do it, then go for it.

  4. Omg I am so glad to have read these posts. I left the law last year, after a year of the stress most of you have described here. However, since then I have found it nearly impossible (well no, not nearly....actually impossible) to find any position outside the law. I've encountered a lot of resistance bc of my law degree and the perception that I am just looking for another job bc of the troubled economy, but that I will not stick around in a lower paying job once a good legal job pops up.

    So I really want to hear from those of you that have done it and what are you doing now.

    1. I am the poster above, and upon reading my own post, I see that I wrote that I left after a year of stress. Serious mistype! I have practiced for over TEN years. Just so that you know that this was no sudden decision by a new attorney.

  5. Hello, Anonymous 08/23/12 at 10:30p.m. and thank you for reading! I'm sorry you're having so much trouble in the non-legal job market . I have a lawyer friend who just scored his first well-paying, non-legal gig. It has a software emphasis, so that probably helped. Maybe the jobs you're aiming for are too low-level. When you say "low-paying," do you mean relative to your lawyer gig or do you mean minimum wage range? Do you have any specific skills you can highlight like computer, customer service, writing, sales, anything? I'm sure you do, so that's a good place to start. Also, have you taken the JD off your resume? I know you practiced for ten years, but do you have any non-legal work experience from before that? There are ways to disguise the lawyer title. If you want to know what I did, email me at

  6. I appreciate reading this blog and comments. I graduated from law school in 2010 and passed the bar on the first time but was unable to get a job in this economy. I must admit, I envy those who had the opportunity to work in the legal field - it's a chance I never got, other than through the unpaid legal internships I did. (I did 3.)

    I am now facing a crisis because 6 months ago, I realized I would have to get out of the legal field if I ever wanted to get a paying job. It's hard to suddenly change gears when everything you have done for the last few years has been oriented towards the law. I don't even remotely know in which direction I need to go - only that I need to move to another field fast.

    The one blessing from all of this - and it is truly a blessing - is that I realize that I escaped a bullet. Reading blogs like this makes me realize that it is probably a blessing to have never worked as a lawyer. It seems that few people I know actually enjoyed it. So, thanks for giving me a perspective that has assuaged my bruised ego and make me appreciate something that I probably would not have appreciated had I not read this blog.


    1. I'm sorry to hear about your trouble trying to break into the legal market. You graduated at a really tough time, unfortunately. Do you still want to practice law or are you leaving it out of pure necessity? Do you have student loan debt? I'm glad you're feeling better after reading the post and comments. Email me so I can get some more specifics on your situation and maybe send you some helpful resources. Thanks for reading!

  7. Thank you for your post. I recently got accepted into law school but I am having anxiety leaving my 3 young kids and about the tremendous student loan debt. Your post is helping me realize that it would be a better idea to just not pursue law and an affirmation that I am making a good decision because life has much more value. Thanks again for sharing your story. God bless you.