The Legal Industry Is Changing; Your Legal Career Can, Too

by Julie Norwell

Being a lawyer can be a life of extremes. After all, what other profession simultaneously ranks on lists of the most respected professions and the most hated professions?

The Legal Industry Is Changing; Your Legal Career Can, Too
The Legal Industry Is Changing; Your Legal Career Can, Too

Lawyers often spend years of their life and heaps of money earning a law degree only to find themselves overworked, highly stressed, and underpaid – or even, in the case of solo practitioners, not paid at all. Then they suffer the indignity of being the butt of numerous jokes in popular culture.

No surprise that attorneys, who work in a profession that inherently deals with confrontation, in a culture that values high billable hours over quality of life, will bear a mental toll.

“Billable hours are killers. As an attorney, you lack control of your own life. You’re on a wheel that is consuming you,” said Donna Mase, Senior Career Consultant at The Barrett Group.

An especially insidious stressor for many lawyers is the frustration of having no idea how to escape career pressures. They can’t change positions because who will take them on unless they come with their own book of business? They can’t leave law because they don’t know how to transfer their skills.

No wonder that a 1990 Johns Hopkins University study showed lawyers to be 3.6 times more likely to be depressed as people in other occupations. A similar 2016 study found not only that 28% of lawyers suffer from depression, but also that 19% of them have symptoms of anxiety and 21% are problem drinkers.

Lawyers, take heart! There is a way forward. You have more transferable skills than you realize. And changes in the legal profession over the past 10 years may well present you with opportunities you never considered.

Evolving Legal Industry

The legal industry is a different world compared to just ten years ago. New legal technologies, for one, have dramatically changed the way legal services are delivered. eDiscovery automation software has slashed the time it takes lawyers to sift through documents for relevant evidence. Digital business management platforms allow lawyers to automate many processes of case management. And new companies like LegalZoom offer customers standardized, professionally vetted, legal documents at a cost-effective rate for simple contracts.

In addition to technological efficiencies, cost-conscious clients and the pressures of globalization and business have drawn law work from many firms towards corporate legal departments and non-law firms. The result has been the downsizing or merging of traditional law firms.

Paula Nordhoff, Executive Career Coach and Program Manager at The Barrett Group, says that many attorneys view a move to an in-house corporate law position as an attractive solution. “There is better work-life balance, good benefits and income, and the opportunity to do interesting work that has a longitudinal impact on the company,” she says.

Others favor a position at a modern mid-size law firm. The resistance of traditional law firms to industry changes has prompted many to pop up. Leaving the law industry for a non-law company where legal expertise is valued is another valuable option.

Legal delivery is no longer just about lawyers and the practice of law – it involves a host of non-lawyers who work in business and technology, conjointly, with legal professionals in a newly developing field. “The practice of law has morphed into the delivery of legal services,” writes legal business consultant, Mark Cohen. Cohen sees this evolution as akin to the way the practice of medicine morphed into the field of healthcare. “Legal expertise is now but one leg supporting legal delivery’s three-legged stool that also includes technology and business,” he writes.

Opportunities will grow as the legal services industry continues to grow. On that front, the prospects look good. Between 2013 and 2018, revenues rose from $257 billion to $288 billion, and the number of people employed in legal occupations is expected to rise from 1.1 million in 2017 to 1.38 million in 2022.

Leveraging Legal Skills

The job market has changed quite a bit, and good attorneys will find that they have many skills that can benefit them as they consider a career change. Some skills are inherent to the profession, such as being organized, logical, and a good communicator.

Attorneys naturally have good people skills, which is very transferable, says Alay Yajnik, Founder of Lawyer Business Advantage.

“They have to work well with clients, opposing counsel, and judges. They are also good at looking at large amounts of data and building a coherent argument.” Add in negotiating, public speaking, and a facility for giving presentations – these are skills that translate well into many areas of business.

Many other transferable skills are developed throughout a career. Lawyers who focus on certain industries, for example, become de facto specialists in those industries. “Solo practitioners representing small businesses don’t realize they have learned a lot and contributed to those businesses,” says Donna Mase. “They could easily go in and take on roles that would be enjoyable to them, beneficial to the company, and play upon skills they have.”

How to Parlay Your Skills into Opportunity

Many lawyers seeking a job change struggle to figure out how to parlay their skills into a new opportunity. They exhaust the formal side of the job market speaking to recruiters who tell them they must have X years of experience and Y degrees if they want a new job, and they come to the wrong conclusion that “those are the rules.” They are stuck with their lot.

To the contrary, lawyers have more opportunities than they realize. In addition to many transferable skills, they usually have rich, untapped social capital.

“They can’t comprehend that 75% of people in the job market are hired by contacts outside it,” says Dan Resendes, Chief Consulting Officer at The Barrett Group.

“I’ve seen some truly amazing things happen – not because of who the lawyer knows, but because of who the people they know know. One client thought he had no experience with the nonprofit world, but 75 people in his LinkedIn profile were directly connected to nonprofits. He leveraged his social capital to land a job there. Your social connections are the most important asset!”

Even before leveraging your social capital, however, you should thoughtfully consider what you want and what you can offer. This is your value proposition. Why do you want a change? What are your core drivers and values? People for whom this isn’t clear might consider hiring a career coach who can guide them through a self-discovery process. Once you know what your ideal work environment is and what your strengths and weaknesses are, you will be ready to search for your ideal job.

Whatever you do, do NOT send 300 resumes into cyberspace. This is akin to throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. You will not get a job this way. Start by picking up the phone and being social. If you’re willing to put in the work and think outside the box, these baby steps will get you to the summit of Mount Everest.

Attorneys: Increase Income and Take More Vacation

Life is not easy for the owners of small law firms. They have to wear many hats: be an attorney, bring in the business, manage employees, and run the firm. In this video, law firm growth expert Alay Yajnik talks about his passion for helping attorneys increase their income and take more vacation.

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