Tonya Fitzpatrick had an impressive law career, by anyone's standards. She'd served as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Education. She'd worked as a legal advisor to the Department of Homeland Security. And she had not only a law degree, but a master's from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Yet she wasn't satisfied. So in early 2009, she left law to pursue what had, until then, been a hobby, creating a media company with a travel focus.
"On paper, I've had a fantastic career, but, again, it just wasn't ... my calling," says Fitzpatrick, who now hosts a radio show with her husband called World Footprints. "What we're doing right now is so much more purposeful than what the legal industry was providing us."
Plenty of lawyers are happy in their careers. But those who aren't often stay in the profession because they're not sure what other fields to pursue, or what type of job would make them happier.
"So many lawyers that I work with panic," says Caroline Dowd-Higgins, director of career and professional development at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who also works as a career coach. "The truth is they can do so many things with the law degree ... If they can drive their own marketing message and talk about what they do well, they can shift gears. That's the secret weapon: to be able to help others understand what you do well."
What do lawyers do well? They tend to have excellent written and verbal communication skills, says Dowd-Higgins, who authored a book called This Is Not the Career I Ordered. Lawyers often are strong negotiators, solve problems strategically, and can think critically and analytically. Identifying those transferable skills and applying them toward your next job, career experts say, is the best way to set yourself up for a successful career transition.
It worked for Ellen Covner, a former health care lawyer who now has her own landscape company, Custom Gardens, outside of Philadelphia. "I'm really analytical," Covner says. "I've switched from analyzing a legal problem and coming up with a solution to [tackling] a landscape problem: What does the property look like? What does the client want?" And her personality benefits her when overseeing her own company, too. "I like being in charge," she says, "[and] I don't have to get something decided by a million people before it can happen."
In addition to your transferable skills, consider the type of law you've worked in, and look for work that's related to your specialty, says Heather Krasna, director of career services for the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs and author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service. "[Law] is a valuable degree even if you're not using it anymore [as a practicing attorney]."
If you're unhappy working as a lawyer, here are a few alternative careers that may suit you:
Advocacy work. Lawyers often have experience advocating on someone else's behalf, which means a shift to working for an advocacy group could make sense. "Those are directly transferable skills to a nonprofit [organization]," Krasna says.
Entrepreneurship. Particularly if you oversee your own law practice, consider running a business or nonprofit organization unrelated to law. Your skill set likely puts you in a good position to head up a new venture; lawyers understand the value of the billable hour, know how to negotiate contracts like leases, and often have a client-focused thought process, which can benefit new businesses, Dowd-Higgins says.
Therapist. Because lawyers often enter the profession with the goal of helping others, some transition into a field that seems unrelated: therapy. This could require earning another degree, says Dowd-Higgins, who has seen lawyers become therapists. Consider a job as a marriage and family therapist, which made our 2011 list of Best Careers.