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Help! I’m Trapped in the Law

Lawyer Avenue
May 20, 2010
By Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

An extremely bright and accomplished woman attorney explained to me why it was impossible for her to do anything but practice law at this point in her life. Having worked in both government and private settings, she was certain she had a clear idea of what her chosen profession entailed, and concluded that no area of the law would hold her interest.

She had a very clear sense of personal priorities and knew she wanted family to come before work. She did not apologize for her unwillingness to work a 60-80 hour week. But her remaining law school debt loomed largely before her. And furthermore, she just couldn’t imagine NOT being a lawyer; not after having invested so much time, money and hard work in her field.

Essentially, she believed she was trapped; that she had no options except to continue doing the work she was trained to do and to remain forever dissatisfied.

In my counseling experience, this is a fate to which many lawyers believe they are doomed.

The fact is, dissatisfied attorneys can find rewarding work both within and outside of the legal world. I’ve worked with lawyers who are now teachers, writers, marketing executives, entrepreneurs, lobbyists, private investigators, legal career counselors, mediators, and psychologists, to name only a few. I’ve also seen attorneys transform their lives by changing practice areas, moving from a large to a small firm, transition into academics, or by choosing alternative work arrangements.

But before you can make a change, you have to believe that you can. Here are four common myths keeping lawyers feeling trapped in their jobs:

MYTH #1. It is irrational and wasteful to choose not to practice law after completing a legal education.
REALITY. Many professionals consider a legal education to be the best type of overall training a person can have. Your legal education will never be wasted, regardless of the work you choose to do.

MYTH #2. Your work experience gives you a thorough and realistic picture of the universe of legal practice.
REALITY: Most lawyers are aware of only a small percentage of work options available to them. In reality, you have a large menu of job opportunities from which to choose. To fully educate yourself, investigate every practice area; the advantages and disadvantages of work in large, medium, small, and solo practices, as well as opportunities in all levels of government, law schools, the judiciary, public interest, bar associations, business and education.

Alternative work arrangements also exist in some work settings. Surveys indicate that many women attorneys neither know about, nor take advantage of flexible schedules or part-time arrangements that may be offered by their firms. In fact, many women lawyers are not even aware of their firm’s maternity leave policies.

Some women do not choose to use alternative arrangements for fear of being permanently “mommy-tracked.” This concern is often well-grounded. But as shown in the book, Presumed Equal, there are vast differences among law firms in the flexibility of work arrangements and opportunities for advancement and partnership they offer women who choose thee options. To find out about alternative practice areas, check the ABA Web site and follow the links to every section and practice area. Attend your local Women’s Bar Association meetings and network with lawyers from different work settings. Certainly, if you decide to change practice area, you’ll have to make yourself marketable. But there are steps to follow and role models to inspire you; many women lawyers have already paved the way to success.

MYTH #3. There is no other way to produce sufficient income to pay down law school debt besides continuing to work as a lawyer.
REALITY: There’s no question that law school debt can be daunting. But so is the prospect of spending your life feeling trapped. There are many ways of generating income once you leave the law behind. By pursuing your “right livelihood,” you’ll put yourself in a better position to pay off your debt in the long run simply because you’ll be more effective and successful in your new field.

MYTH #4. You’ll need another degree to find a job outside of legal practice.
REALITY: Consider the skills you’ve acquired through law school and your legal experience: the ability to write clearly and persuasively, to think on your feet, to think analytically, and to communicate effectively, to synthesize ideas, problem-solve, advocate and advise. Although certain professions (like medicine) require a degree for licensure, many of the careers you’re likely to consider will value the skills and training you’ve already acquired. Most will require experiential training (internships, for example) rather than degrees. Though some schooling may be required, it probably won’t be as rigorous (or expensive) as law school was.

Finding career satisfaction is never impossible. The key to finding career satisfaction either within, or outside of, the law is to:

  • Do a thorough self-assessment of your interests, talents, values and passions.
  • Carefully and thoroughly research all the possible options available to you — including many possibilities you’ve never before considered.
  • Conduct extensive informational interviews to ensure that the work you’re considering fits with your life, not just your interests.
  • Make a long-term, step-by-step plan which includes strategies for addressing financial needs.

Many attorneys find it easier to accomplish the above steps and ultimately reach their new career objectives by establishing an ongoing relationship with a professional coach. Coaching is convenient. Since it is conducted via telephone (with email and fax backup), you don’t need to add travel time to your busy schedule. And the structured, task-focused nature of coaching can allow you to accomplish your objectives more efficiently.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from her 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession. LawyersLifeCoach is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.


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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

Rockville, MD
Phone: 844-818-9471

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