What do you get when leaving law?

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When I was thinking about leaving law, I focused a lot on all the things I would lose:

  • Money
  • Status
  • Long hours
  • Working weekends regularly
  • Achingly boring work
  • Colleagues who were anything but collegial
  • A known career path
  • Did I mention money?

I was right about nearly all of those things. But the most amazing things about my new career were the unanticipated gains. At the top of the list, how much better I felt doing work I actually enjoyed. My soul ditched the gazillion-pound albatross it had been lugging around while doing work it despised. I had no idea how heavy that burden was until it wasn’t there.

The other biggie for me was discovering the pleasure of working with people who weren’t pathological naysayers. People who had hope, optimism, and a positive outlook on life. As Martin Seligman points out in his book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, law is the only profession in which the most successful members are quite pessimistic (see the Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy? chapter). It’s understandable, because the job of a lawyer is to look for the downside and protect against it.

But if you have a creative bone in your body, law firms in particular are a completely toxic environment. Creative folk do their best work when hopeful and optimistic. Even if you’re writing about awful topics like suicide, the creative part of your brain is happy, because it’s making a new story, though an individual character may not be doing so hot. Creativity is not born of fear, but good lawyers often are. That’s not a judgment, just a fact. Yet I did not truly understand the implications of those facts for my psyche for a very long time, until I had already committed to leaving law and jumped. So I thought I’d share with you, in case it helps you screw up the courage to make the leap. If the legal environment is destroying you, know that another environment really will be better.


  1. Oh, I don’t know I tend to disagree that the good lawyers are pessimistic. The good lawyers, the few, are optomistic. While you must look at the problem from all angles, you have to be optimistic that you can resolve the problem fairly.

  2. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. Even though I decided against law school before finding your blog, I’ve enjoyed reading about your experiences and journey.

  3. I completely agree. I was a happy, jovial, glass is half full kind of person before attending a top 10 law school. While there and in my 4 years of subsequent big law practice, I became depressed and sad and just not the person I was. I lost my job in the economic mess of last fall. People around me have become shocked by the noticable difference in my personality. I’m back to my jovial, happy self. I just didnt realize how soul-deadening the entire process was for me. Everyone I know says that they’ve never seen me so upbeat and happy, even though I’m still unemployed. 😀

  4. I definitely have to say that my ex-coworkers, whom I still talk to, say that I look a lot happier now that I’m not in BigLaw anymore.

  5. I love your blog. I am also in the process of leaving the law. I’ve always hated it and has made me depressed through all the years that I’ve been practicing. I’ve never told anyone in my former office that I was depressed. God knows they’ll see it as a sign of weakness. But one day I’ve had it up to here with law and decided to just quit. But I am full of anxiety at what the future holds for a middle aged lawyer like me. The title of this post really struck me because it’s the very same question I’ve been asking myself. I live in a third world country and the options for a 45-year old lawyer who wants to change his career are very slim. I try to be optimistic that something will come up, but honestly I don’t know what to do with myself.

  6. You are so right! Twelve years ago I left law practice and started on a journey to a new career. Today I’m a clinical psychologist and couldn’t be happier. Being a lawyer was always like swimming upstream for me, because it valued attributes that ran counter to things I truly cared about. Now I used my intellect, but also my interpersonal skills, empathy, and creativity. I think there are a lot of lawyers like I was, just not feeling quite “right” and unsure what to do about it. I say, if you can envision doing something else, consider going for it. I’m so glad I did.

    1. Oh wow! I am so happy to have stumbled across your comment here. I am a lawyer planning to apply to a PsyD programs this fall to become a clinical psychologist. I realize your comment is from 2012 and that this is a long shot, but I would love to learn more about your experience making that transition if you’d be open to talking with me!

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