Leaving the Law
By Joan Indiana Rigdon
Photographs by Patrice Gilbert
Maybe you’re 5 or 10 years out of law school, banking a nice paycheck, living in a handsome house. Your parents are proud. Your spouse and children are enjoying swank vacations and better schools. People you meet are impressed when you say you’re a lawyer. There’s just one problem: somewhere along the line, possibly even years ago, you stopped enjoying your job.
No one knows how many lawyers dislike their jobs enough to leave the practice of law. According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), for the past decade, between 5 and 10 percent of law school graduates report that they are working outside the legal profession within six to nine months after graduation. However, NALP can’t say how many of these never intended to work in law (some people only want the credential), continue to work in previous careers while still looking for a job in law, or have tried the law and already left.
The NALP Foundation for Law Career Research has begun a longitudinal study, “After the JD,” that is tracking more than 4,500 lawyers who were admitted to the bar in the year 2000. This year 80 percent of the sample reported that they were either “moderately” or “extremely” satisfied with their decisions to become lawyers. That implies that 20 percent were not.
Hindi Greenberg has a strong sense that thousands upon thousands of lawyers would like to leave their job. In 1984 Greenberg, then an unhappy lawyer, quit her job at a private law firm to found Lawyers in Transition, a counseling service for lawyers who are considering new careers. Over the past two decades, she says, she has spoken to more than 15,000 lawyers who were considering quitting the law.
They range from the cocksure, like one young lawyer who drove a sports car to his counseling session and told Greenberg that he wouldn’t work in any profession that paid a starting salary of less than six figures a year, to the chronically malcontent, like the lawyer who calls Greenberg every few years, professes desperation, collects names of people who might help him move into different careers, and then never calls them. “I realized all he did was surface every once in a while and complain and dive back down into the muck and do what he needs to do,” she says.
Greenberg doesn’t have any scientific data on what percentage of lawyers leave. But based on a recent survey of 150 of her clients, she figures that possibly 20 percent of them do, in fact, move on to different careers, including starting their own restaurants or other small businesses, such as running a bookstore or cabinetmaking. Another 40 percent move into related careers, like teaching or working for legal research firms.
The other 40 percent stayed put. Of this last group, a significant number reevaluated, but decided they were best off where they were, says Greenberg. Others wanted to make a change, but were afraid.
Many were held back by the prospect of a pay cut. Greenberg recalls one client who hated his job, but was addicted to his $275,000 salary. By his calculations, he couldn’t afford to earn less. Greenberg probed. How much were his fixed annual expenses? His answer: $265,000. This included a five-digit monthly mortgage payment and other outsized expenses.
Of course, most lawyers don’t earn that much. As of 2004, the median annual salary for a fifth-year associate was $115,250, according to NALP. Median annual salaries for public sector attorneys with five years of experience ranged from $40,000 to $52,000.
Greenberg tells her clients that they may not be earning as much as they think they are. For instance, an associate who makes $140,000 a year for working 70 hours a week with four weeks of vacation is making an effective rate of $41.66 an hour before taxes. The rate goes down to $36.45 for the same associate who logs 80 hours a week.
Seen in this light, it seems easier to leave.
Another obstacle: family and friends. Greenberg says one year, when she knew she was unhappy working for a San Francisco firm, her parents came to visit, and were wowed by her office, which featured an impressive art collection. She remembers her mother saying, “Now I can die in peace because I know you’re settled.”
A year later, as Greenberg prepared to make a career change, she called her mother. “Mom, don’t die yet,” she said. “I’m going to be quitting in a few months.” Her mother asked how she could do that, since she was working for a good firm, and making a good salary. Greenberg’s reply: “I’m not happy.”
The decision to switch careers is huge. People who do it must reassess who they are and what combination of work, hours, and salary might make them happier. Many of those who enjoy the work find the environment in which they practice to be difficult.
“You had to be brilliant all the time,” says Jancy Hoeffel, a former staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. “There was incredible pressure to be brilliant.” Then, of her former colleagues, she observes with a laugh, “It’s funny. You get the sense that people are a little jealous of lawyers who have left the law. There’s a sense that they’ve escaped.”
To get a better understanding of who leaves the law and why, Washington Lawyer interviewed several lawyers who decided to embark on major career changes. One lawyer’s love affair with practicing law ended in just two weeks; others grew to dislike practicing over the course of years. Some liked the work, but slowly burned out, or found other priorities, like raising children. Here are their stories.
Careers since law: pilot and search consultant
Robin Kardon was willing to make major sacrifices to her life as a litigator for a new career as a pilot. She took what ultimately became a 75 percent pay cut and sold her beloved home in a slow market so she could use her equity to help finance the switch.
In 1990 Kardon was 30 years old and had worked for seven years as a litigator in three private firms: Friedlander, Misler, Sloan, Kletzkin & Ochsman, PLLC of Washington, D.C., and two firms in the Chicago area. She figures that from 1983 to 1990 she billed at least 2,200 to 2,300 hours a year. Unfortunately, she never liked it. “Although I love the law, I didn’t enjoy the practice of law,” says Kardon.
In 1990, while speaking with a client who was a private pilot, Kardon became intrigued by his job. He gave her the name of a flight instructor. She took her first lesson in February 1991 and was hooked.
Kardon decided that she had to make flying a big part of her life. She convinced her firm to let her work part-time. At the time, she didn’t think of it as a step toward quitting. “I felt that was how I wanted to live my life, working part-time and flying part-time, and that would make me happy,” she says.
Under the new arrangement, Kardon worked three and a half days a week as a litigator and then spent Friday through Sunday learning to fly. A year later, in 1992, she became certified to teach.
In the process she realized she didn’t want to divide her life between flying and the law; she just wanted to fly. With moral support and occasional free meals from her friends, and against the pleas of her mother, Kardon quit. She took a job as a flight instructor, making $10 an hour, down from her previous annualized salary of $75,000 a year. She still had one year left on her law school loans.
She sold her home and took an apartment close to the airport. That hurt, because Kardon had partly renovated the house, and its once transitional neighborhood is now a hot market. She couldn’t afford to buy the house today. But she says she would do it all over again, because the move changed her life.
After working awhile as a flight instructor and regional airline pilot, Kardon began flying private jets for two Fortune 100 corporations. She got to fly all over the world, including China and Alaska. During her two days off in China, she walked on the Great Wall. While her clients were on a weeklong fishing trip in Alaska, she hopped a cruise, stood on glaciers, toured the mountains by air, and even sneaked in a seaplane lesson.
“I saw things that I never thought I would see. I did things I never thought I would do. I met some amazing people. I can’t even begin to describe how lucky I am,” says Kardon.
By September 11, 2001, Kardon was flying jets for regional airline Midwest Express. The terrorist attacks devastated her and her career. When air traffic resumed, Kardon and her colleagues flew empty planes. Two months later Kardon was laid off. She got another job flying private jets, and then flew for a struggling commercial airline for a year.
Kardon says she’ll consider going back into aviation when times look better for the industry. In the meantime she is working at the Chicago office of Major, Lindsey & Africa, a legal search firm. She spends her days talking to lawyers who are considering new jobs.
“I’ve come full circle,” says Kardon. “I went from being someone who was unhappy in my situation, who didn’t know where to turn for help, to someone who is the resource for those people.”
When she encounters lawyers who consider leaving the law, she encourages them to try a different firm or to look at their options within the law. But if they’re resolute, she tells them it is possible to leave.
“I always make sure they know, you are never trapped. . . . I’m out there as an example of being able to do it. You don’t automatically turn to stone or get struck by lightning if you’re not practicing law,” says Kardon.
Careers since law: many, including theater director, actor, and president of ProEthics, Ltd.
Jack Marshall spent a very short time practicing law. He quit his first and only such job, as a staff attorney in the Lowell, Massachusetts, district attorney’s office, after just two weeks.
Marshall graduated from Georgetown Law in 1975. In Lowell his job was to prosecute small-time criminals. He tried, but was appalled to find out that he was up against what he calls an “old boys’ network.” He was sure the defense lawyers played poker with the judges. His objections were repeatedly struck down.
“In two weeks, after getting beat up and humiliated in court, I was getting better at it,” says Marshall. But he figured that he still had a long way to go.
Then he got a call from Georgetown. While he was a student there, Marshall had distinguished himself by pursuing a parallel career in theater. In his freshman year, when he first laid eyes on Georgetown’s moot courtroom, he was struck by what a great stage it would make. Soon after, Marshall began recruiting faculty and fellow students to perform in Gilbert and Sullivan shows. As he recalls, the entire school turned out for his first production. His efforts won praise from the dean, who felt the shows increased school spirit. That marked the founding of Georgetown’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society, now 32 years old.
On the phone, Georgetown Law’s incoming dean, David McCarthy, wanted to know if Marshall would like to become the law center’s first director of development, in charge of capital fundraising. McCarthy figured that if Marshall could found a theater within the law school, he could start a fundraising operation. Marshall jumped at the chance. One plane ride later, his traditional law career was over.
Marshall found it easy to leave partly because he didn’t expect to use his law degree strictly to practice law. His father, who also holds a law degree, had used it to work in various managerial positions and to start his own company. “He was always talking about the fact that people misused a law degree. They used it as a limiting degree, whereas he felt that it was the most versatile of all graduate degrees,” says Marshall.
It has been 30 years since Marshall graduated from law school. Since then he has logged four years as a fundraiser; seven years designing and implementing public policy studies for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; two and a half years running a health association that faced bankruptcy and other legal problems; seven years running member services for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA); and five years in various positions including marketing and telecommuting general counsel for a New Jersey litigation consulting firm. (Marshall says he was really just a general counsel on the firm’s letterhead, and that the position didn’t actually require the practice of law.)
For each job, Marshall rewrote his résumé to emphasize his skills in building and running organizations. Though the individual jobs were quite different, they had one major thing in common: they allowed him time to pursue his theater career.
While he was fundraising at Georgetown, Marshall founded a six-member group called the Music Lobby, which performed law-related parodies of shows such as The Sound of Music. Law firms hired the group to do special events.
Vice President Walter Mondale once hired the group for a reception. In 1984 the group gave its last performance, for the annual dinner of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Marshall notes wistfully that if his actors had wanted to work full-time, retooling the same basic routine, they could have taken the place of the hit group the Capitol Steps.)
While Marshall was at ATLA, he was hired to stage Twelve Angry Men for the group’s board. It was a big hit, and inspired him to help found the American Century Theater, which he has run for the last 10 years.
Marshall then met a fellow Georgetown Law graduate who was teaching ethics seminars and wanted them to have more of a dramatic flair. Marshall wrote scripts and hired actors. In 2000 he spun it off into his own business, ProEthics, Ltd., which stages ethics seminars for corporations, law firms, and the District of Columbia Bar. Two years later he quit his job with the New Jersey consulting firm to pursue his ethics acting business full-time.
These days Marshall is hard to miss in a crowd: when he performs his most popular corporate ethics skit, you can see him dressed as a space alien, with a shiny cape, a flamboyant belt, boots, mask, and, to add to the effect, a completely shaven head.
Earlier this year, when his parents were visiting, Marshall remarked, “‘Dad, I wonder. I feel bad. I’m sure you and Mom are thinking that you didn’t send your son to Harvard and Georgetown to have him running around in a space alien costume.’ And he said, ‘Well, son, we knew you’d be doing something like that.’”
Marshall knows he could be earning much more if he was practicing law. Of his fellow law school graduates, he remarks, “A lot of them are making a lot more money than me. A lot of them nonetheless are envious of me.”
In addition to occasionally getting paid to dress as a space alien, Marshall is almost always home for dinner with his wife and 10-year-old son. “I absorbed my dad’s values a long time ago,” says Marshall. “He always infused everybody in our family with the idea that money and salary were not the way to measure success. It is much better to be doing things that made you productive and happy, and made you available to your family.”
Former public defender and intellectual property lawyer
Career since law: journalism
Wendy Leibowitz says her enthusiasm for the law was quickly beat out of her during her first legal job, as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan. When she joined after graduating from Stanford in 1990, she was idealistic. “I was going to defend the poor. I was going to defend the Constitution,” she says.
Instead Leibowitz discovered that she was a rebel, and not particularly good at functioning as part of an organization. She says her supervisors were so focused on their mission that they failed to manage the lawyers beneath them. “You have these people who start with great enthusiasm, and they beat it out of you, and very quickly, too,” says Leibowitz. She didn’t get along with her supervisors and was fired in 1992.
Next she tried an intellectual property firm in Manhattan. The pay was great and she liked the work, but again felt alienated by the culture. She recalls working very hard on one case, only to find out weeks later that her work had been discarded. The case had settled, and no one had bothered to let her know.
Part of Leibowitz’s problem was that she didn’t have any mentors at the firm to help her get the type of projects she wanted. In general, she says, she was “at the mercy of the first partner who comes walking down the hall with extra work. I just felt, well, I have to do what anybody gives me.”
Eager to get out, Leibowitz wrote a letter to Steven Brill, who had recently created Court TV. She suggested ideas for coverage. He responded by offering her a job at another Brill media outlet, American Lawyer.
It was 1994. Leibowitz took a 33 percent pay cut to switch careers. She says the move was feasible because she had made it through law school on scholarship. Still she had to make some major adjustments. To keep her tony, one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s East Side, she had to take a roommate. Later she traded down to a tinier apartment.
Leibowitz has since worked for several publications, mostly covering technology. She now lives in Washington, D.C., where she happily works full-time as a legal writer. She is not at all nostalgic about her law career. “I vaguely remember looking through files, and reading a lot of fat books,” she says.
Former public defender
Career since law: professor
A lot of female lawyers don’t intend to leave the practice of law, but end up doing it to devote more hours to family life. That is what happened to Angela Davis, a former public defender who now teaches law at American University Washington College of Law.
Davis was born in segregated Alabama in the 1950s, and wanted to be a civil rights lawyer from the time she was in sixth grade. Her second job out of law school was as a public defender for the Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia. She did that for six years, often working 12-hour days for six or seven days a week.
Then she gave birth to her daughter. After maternity leave she returned to PDS, but worried that she couldn’t meet her daughter’s needs without shortchanging her clients. “There are women who can do it and who are doing it,” Davis says of mothers who are also trial lawyers. “I just couldn’t manage it.”
She was sad at the prospect of leaving, but as it turns out, she didn’t have to leave. The deputy director job opened up; its hours were relatively sane. Davis got the promotion. She was thrilled to remain involved, although not directly representing clients, in public defense work. Three years later she moved up to director.
As she ascended, her duties became more administrative. She loved lobbying on policy issues. But she didn’t like lobbying for money. “I felt that I represented every client in the whole office. If I didn’t get that budget, then we weren’t going to be able to function. The stress of that really started to get to me,” says Davis. She had always promised herself she would leave before she burned out. So in 1994, after 12 years, she prepared to move on.
Unlike private practice lawyers, Davis didn’t have the worries of having to walk away from a huge salary. She recalls a summer intern who worked at PDS through a private firm. The firm allowed its summer associates to spend half of their summer at a public interest job, but still get paid through the firm. As director, Davis saw the intern’s paperwork. “His summer salary at the firm, at an annual rate, was more than my salary as director of the agency. And he was a second-year law student. I just screamed with laughter. Even the director of the public defender’s office is making less than the law students.”
She quit to become executive director of Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition. But the job “ended up being too many different things,” she says. When Davis’s one-year commitment was up, she was ready to move on.
Over the years Davis had done some adjunct and guest teaching at Georgetown and Harvard. Then she got a chance to become a visiting professor of law at George Washington University Law School. “I just loved it,” she says. In 1996 she moved to the American University Washington College of Law, where she is now a full professor.
She is elated with her new career. She says she loves teaching criminal law and practice, the act of teaching itself, the students, and the chance to write. She is now working on a book titled Arbitrary Justice: The Failure of the American Prosecutor. During the summers she writes. Overall she is not necessarily working fewer hours, but the work is less stressful. She also has a more flexible schedule, and sometimes works from home, which allows for more of a personal life.
Davis continues to feel that her years at PDS were “the most important work I’ve ever done or will do.” But she likes the academic life better. “I love the freedom of being a law professor and being able to do lots of other professional projects in addition to teaching and writing,” says Davis.
Then she adds something that a great number of lawyers would find hard
to say about their jobs: “It’s wonderful. It’s a great
job. I think I’ll be doing this forever.”
Freelance writer Joan Indiana Rigdon wrote about lawyers on sabbatical in the July/August issue.