Get Out: Artist in a Lawyer Suit

Dear Jennifer,

I’m three years out of school. I lasted 18 months at my big law job, where they inexplicably placed me in IP litigation despite the fact that I’d never indicated any interest in IP law and had no experience in IP law.

I jumped ship with no plan, and miraculously landed in a federal clerkship lasting slightly longer than two years. I have less than a year left now and am panicking over what to do next. 

I thought I might go back to a firm for a year or so, but talking to a recruiter caused me to have panic attacks & sudden suicidal ideation.

I want nothing to do with the law. Just thinking about staying for a minute longer makes me feel endlessly hopeless. But I feel stuck because I don’t think I can find a job that’ll pay well enough to let me make the jump. I just bought a house (not brilliant, I know), and my partner and I combined have around 180k in student debt. 

woman in ombre suit napat-seang
Photo by Napat Seang on Unsplash

I was really good at law school, and I’m smart, but it was a terrible fit and an awful choice. I hate sitting in an office all day and doing what feels like nothing. I love the judge I work for, but the actual work I do feels like doing the same repetitive IRAC. I’m bored to tears most weeks. 

I’m an artist. I minored in studio art in college but gave it all up during law school. Six years later I picked it back up and the love for it is still there. I’m a good teacher. If either felt like a viable career option, I’d be gone in a heartbeat. But teaching requires another degree/certification, which I can’t afford, and even if it didn’t, there’s the 50%+ pay cut I’d be taking… and we all know about starving artists…

I just feel really stuck in this job and completely hopeless about my next steps. Am I doomed to go back to a firm? Is there no other way?

Artist in a lawyer suit

Dear Artsy,

There’s a lot to unpack here.

Usually, when my clients’ values/priorities are profoundly misaligned with law, it boils down to not having a good reason for going to law school. The common denominator is not knowing yourself well enough, and not believing enough in yourself.

That might sound accusatory and judgmental, but it’s not. Unhappy lawyers do not have the lock on lack of self-knowledge and confidence at the tender age of 21 or 22, when they choose law school.

That means at some point, you’re going to have to tune in to your actual wants, needs, and preferences.

There is no shame in recognizing that who you are and who you want to be is profoundly misaligned with any version of practicing law. Don’t let anyone gaslight you into feeling weak or ashamed because you “can’t cut it in law.”

Find Your Core Self

So who are you, really? What are you here to do “with your one wild and precious life?”

What I see from your letter is that art and teaching are some of the core of who you are. I doubt those are the only things; sometimes our dearest desires stay in hiding until they feel it’s safe to emerge.

What I’m NOT saying is you must therefore become an artist or a teacher. Instead, you need to look for jobs that include a significant dose of teaching and art.

Those functions won’t necessarily be found in a job title. You’ll need to dig.

Look Past the Job Title

Teaching, for example, can be a part of corporate training, of community outreach, or of grassroots activism—for starters. The key is to dissect job listings for functions that involve teaching and art/creativity.

curious gecko philipp-lublasser
Photo by Philipp Lublasser on Unsplash

Check out, a site developed by the Department of Labor. This ingenious tool lets you select a job family, and then drill down into specific jobs for types of skills and knowledge needed. It’s an idea goldmine!

Once you get an idea of a job type or industry, start looking for meetings where your possible new tribe congregates. If you like these folks and what they to do, get involved in one of their projects. Working together like that is a fabulous way to build really meaningful connections, and those are important for your career switch.

OMG I Have to Figure it Out as I Go?

Doubtless this all sounds fairly terrifying if you are the typical introverted lawyer. Start slow, but start. Accept that not every effort will pan out. It only takes a couple to pan out for this strategy to work.

If you want out of law, you’re going to have to join the majority of the workforce who live just fine without a predetermined career path.

Question Your Assumptions

Lawyers usually look for the magic ticket out, that one ideal job that will transform their career. Sometimes it works like that.

To make your leap from law work, consider taking on a couple different types of part-time work. Maybe assemble a mix of one thing that’s entrepreneurial and takes a lot of marketing and promoting, and another thing that is stable and predictable but might not pay all that well.

Be sure to research options for restructuring your student loan payments. A whole niche industry exists to help you make loan repayment possible without starving.

questioning guy andre-hunter-
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

More importantly, rethink every financial area of your life. What do you pay for now that you can do yourself/learn to do, with the extra time you’ll have? Or, that house you’re saddled with—can you sell it now? Can you rent it out while living somewhere cheaper? Is there part of the house you could convert into a guest quarters and rent out online?

What about driving for ride-sharing services, or finding something in other parts of the gig economy?

Before you say no, really question why not. If your deep-down answer is something like, “but what will _____ think?”, keep questioning. Those people aren’t living your life, so their opinions aren’t relevant.

Listen to That Shrieking Inner Voice

You’re going to need a little bit of courage and belief in yourself. But if the idea of doing whatever you dream up does NOT make you “have panic attacks and suicidal ideation,” surely they are worth trying?

Your soul and your body are screaming at you to run from law. Listen to that wisdom. Have faith in your creativity—aka problem-solving skills—and your ability to learn and be resilient. You got this.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who has never taken a psychology class, but maybe should to understand her deep obsession with craft supplies. She has been coaching unhappy lawyers on career change for a decade. You can email your question, or set up an individual consultation, by emailing her at


    • I so love that you’ve started this advice column. I am a recovering lawyer who is so much like this writer in that the degree to which I loved and excelled at law school is perfectly matched by the degree to which I hated and felt inadequate at practicing law. Ironically, my dream job turned out to be the one I formerly held before thinking I needed to go to law school. While I was fortunate enough to have a full academic scholarship and so don’t have student loan debt, I still carry the guilt burden that I “wasted” someone else’s money. My answer to that is to handle the occasional pro bono case where I am helping someone navigate a system that is so stacked against the underdog. I’m still glad to have a law license but even more glad that I don’t depend on it to make a living.

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