You have published a book, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have. Tell us more about the problem you are trying to solve.
I wanted to make it easier for unhappy lawyers to figure out what they want to do next and how to make that transition successfully. The legal profession traditionally has been hostile to career changers. When I started thinking about leaving the law, I worried that everyone would see me as a failure. I worried that I was, in fact, a failure. The more I talked with people outside of law firms, however, the more examples I found of happy people who had left the law to do a fascinating range of different things, from becoming nurses to novelists to rabbis to angel investors to therapists. I wrote Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have to give more people the courage to leave unsatisfying careers, to showcase role models for doing so, and to provide a “how to” kit based on their experience and my own.
You write about both men and women. How are female lawyers’ issues different from men’s, when it comes to stepping away from the legal profession?
One big problem for women lawyers is the way their work is measured. The fact that most private firms gauge lawyers’ productivity in terms of billable hours is disastrous for women who are trying to balance work and home responsibilities by being more efficient at work. There is no reward for efficiency if you have to put in 1600 hours a year. That is one factor driving more women away from law practice. One advantage women have over men in leaving is that employers tend to be less suspicious of women who leave the law, especially if they have kids. Taking time off, especially to have children, also gives women more of a socially sanctioned break in which many realize that they don’t particularly want to go back, and that can spark a career transition as well.
You write about eight paths that current or former lawyers can take to find happiness. Can you give us examples of women you encountered who successfully leveraged their legal backgrounds into new careers—at 40 or later?
Absolutely! Deb Volberg Pagnotta spent more than a dozen years in state government roles before developing a diversity training practice. Ten years later, she became a communications professor and now teaches at Iona College. Deborah Felton used her experience as a community volunteer to become the Executive Director of a senior residence in her community in her 50s. Clare Dalton, a highly respected legal scholar, started training for her next career as an acupuncturist around age 60 and now has a thriving practice. Every time I speak in front of a group, I hear more terrific stories about women who left the law at 40 or later. And, of course, I’m one of them. I became a tenure-track professor in my early 40s.
What advice do you have for women in midlife who are seeking to depart from their legal jobs or come back to the workforce, while leveraging their law degrees?
Do it! I have never met a lawyer who regretted leaving the law. Also, do it sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until you have perfect clarity about your next career, which can be very tempting given the perfectionist tendencies lawyers often have. Taking the first step usually shows you where the next one should be. You can start small, with periodic informational interviews that can help you learn more about other options. These are less scary when you think of them as a research project. Your goal should be just to ask questions briefly of another person rather than selling yourself or asking for a job. In general, there are more resources available for you now than there have ever been before, including books like Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have. If you think you’d benefit from structured support, I recommend programs like New Directions, run periodically by Pace Law School, which can be enormously helpful in both returning to law and finding alternatives.
Liz Brown is a business school professor, former law partner, and the author of the Amazon best-seller, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have. Her insights on alternative careers for lawyers have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the ABA Journal, among other publications. Before changing careers, Liz practiced law at international firms in San Francisco, London, and Boston, advising senior executives at Fortune 500 companies on legal strategies and managing multi-million dollar cases from inception to successful resolution. Liz graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and is currently an Assistant Professor at Bentley University. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did YOU leave the legal profession for a new career or pursuit in midlife? What did you do?