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Options for Unhappy Lawyers

By Marty Nemko

I recently received this letter:

Dear Dr. Nemko,

I would imagine that my problem is fairly common. I am a young attorney who is $100,000 dollars in debt, but not so sure I want to continue in the practice of law. I am looking for career options so that my education will be utilized. What are some smart choices?

Patrick (last name withheld)

Alas, Patrick, your situation is most common, indeed. Studies find that 75% of lawyers are unhappy in their career. Here are some law-related careers that generally yield greater satisfaction. These are drawn primarily from The Lawyer’s Career Change Handbook: More Than 300 Things You Can Do With a Law Degree by Hindi Greenberg and What Can You Do With a Law Degree by Deborah Arron.

Alternative Dispute Resolution. Corporations, non-profits, government agencies, hospitals, prisons, media organizations, and unions hire people to resolve disputes without having to go to lawyers. To that end, they hire mediators and ombudspeople who facilitate decisions but don’t make the decision, and arbitrators who do. Alas, competition for such jobs is fierce. To succeed, you probably need some additional background in mediation and must develop a track record by starting as a volunteer. In addition, you likely must develop relationships with people in a position to hire you or refer clients to you, for example, judges and higher-ups in human resource departments of large organizations. See the mediation section of your local and state bar associations. Another in: Convince corporate HR departments to let you train a group of employees on how to resolve disputes. Invariably, disputes will arise that they can’t solve—enter, you, The Mediator.

Consultant to organizations too small to have in-house counsel: For example, you might do a compliance audit to be sure a company’s policies, employee manual, and practices are complying with OSHA, EEOC, ADA, SOX, employment law, and other government mandates. Then train staff on how to improve their compliance and perhaps rewrite employer documents: for example, employee handbooks, standard contracts, etc.

Non-lawyer work for law firm: Law firm manager, client services manager, director of, training, communications manager, personnel recruiter, marketing/PR director, Chief Quality of Life Officer, Image (looks, demeanor, communication style) manager.

Law librarian within a law firm, corporation or university. This usually requires a one-to-two year masters of library science.

Legal instructor. Of course, it’s tough to land a job teaching in a law school, but there are other options for lawyers who’d love to teach: continuing education for lawyers in-house, for bar associations, or for-profit firms. Or teach at a school that trains paralegals, legal assistants, or court reporters. At a community college, you could teach such courses as business law, ethics, real estate law and criminal justice. Perhaps you might create an online version of your training and sell it to law firms to use as continuing education.

Work at a law school. It’s tough to land a professor gig but how about admissions officer, director of student affairs, alumni relations, career advisor, development professional (fundraiser).

Work for a bar association, for example, as director of continuing education, complaint reviewer, disciplinary proceeding prosecutor, supervisor of community service efforts, membership director, or public affairs specialist.

Writer or editor for a print or online legal publication or book publisher such as Nolo Press.

Producer or host of legal TV or radio show.

Lobbyist. You draft, monitor, and shepherd legislation, usually on behalf of a special interest group.

Courts hire a surprising number of lawyers as researchers, administrators, even bailiffs (with some police training.)

Nonprofit work: Lawyers are frequently hired in development (fundraising), especially planned giving.

Negotiator. Most often, you’ll work for a labor union or employer but you might try becoming a freelance negotiator, helping people and businesses making a major purchase or even in negotiating their terms of employment.

Provide a service or product to law firms, for example, computer systems, management consulting, insurance. For other ideas, check out the display ads in legal publications.

Legal videographer (depositions, will signings, accident scenes)

Spokesperson/public affairs representative for a company, nonprofit, or government agency.

Headhunter specializing in attorneys.

Agent for artists, writers, performers, or athletes.

Contract administrator. Government agencies and government contractors hire these people.

Business valuation expert, business broker.

Staffer for an elected official.

Elected official.

Director of ethics at a company, university, hospital, or government agency.

Risk manager for an insurance company, government agency, corporation, university or hospital. Typical issue: The screw cap on five percent of 1,000,000 quart bottles of oil are defective, but it’s impossible to know which five percent. Do you recall all 1,000,000?

Political campaign manager.

Foreign service officer. Know, however, that you’ll spend two years in a random country, then two years in another random country. It usually takes years until you’re allowed to settle down. And you must learn each country’s language. Bantu, anyone?

Special agent with the FBI, CIA, DEA, or Dept. of Justice.

Grant proposal writer.

Career coach to lawyers. I have more lawyer clients than in are employed in any other profession. Perhaps that’s because there are so many unhappy lawyers.


Sometimes, you needn’t leave the law altogether, but merely find a rewarding or not overly competitive specialization. Consider these: intellectual property, internet, estate planning, education (representing schools, colleges, or students) elder, employment, environmental, immigration, health care, bankruptcy.

Solo practice is especially workable in a rural area, where you’re a bigger fish in a little pond. Your chances of success also increase if you rent a desk in an existing law firm or adjacent to a business that might offer potential for cross-referral, for example, an accounting firm or insurance brokerage.

If you are experienced but without a book of business, consider small law firms or government agencies. My daughter is a prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Dept. Many federal, state, and local agencies also hire lawyers, for example, consumer affairs, health, and real estate.

Legal Aid. They hire attorneys both as staff lawyers and as administrators.

Magistrates are judges that handle cases related to government, for example, crimes committed on government land. Administrative law judges are employed by many government agencies and handle, for example, special education lawsuits against the public schools. Judge advocates handle military and veterans cases.

Hearing officers may handle small disputes, traffic violations, or juvenile cases.

Court commissioners handle probate, law and motion or other procedural matters.

Policy and planning attorney. Working for a nonprofit or the government, you review or draft legislation so as to avoid lawsuits later.

In-house. Being employed as a lawyer by a corporation or nonprofit may be less stressful than for a law firm. For example, you usually don’t have to clock billable hours. Check out the in-house section of your local bar association.

For stories of lawyers who have found greener pastures outside the law, see Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers (4th ed.) by Gary Munneke and William Henslee.

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