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We’ve all heard it said: “You can do so many things with a law degree!” For many of us, especially those with an impractical undergraduate degree who were pressed by family members into applying for law school, it was like a mantra. It’s true, of course. But as some of us two or six or 10 years out of school have found, the easiest and most obvious thing to do with a law degree is to practice law. Doing anything else requires flexibility, determination, luck, and a willingness to take the risk and leave the familiar behind. Of course, for some, taking on an exotic or unusual job with a law degree in hand is easy. One former lawyer I know now manages a hockey team — but then again, his family already owned the hockey team. Not everyone has his advantages. It isn’t as easy as it sounds to escape the practice of law, and it’s even harder to escape the law as a discipline — a discipline that’s shaped and molded your career and your work style from the beginning. Whether the law was your first “real job” or not, those years of school and practice have made their mark, and while you may think you’re ready to let go of the law, you may find that the law refuses to let go of you. Have you really had it with the law, or is the grass just greener on the other side of the conference room? The first step toward leaving the law is convincing yourself that you’re ready and the timing is right. (The second step is convincing a future employer of the same thing.) You can’t let your frustration with that last series of all-nighters rush you into anything, but you also don’t want to cling to a job you don’t want just because you’ve invested so much time in getting there. Is it a change of scenery and style that you need — from big firm to small, from private practice to public service — or do you need a complete career overhaul? How far are you willing to go? It’s one thing to join an investment bank or switch to the business side of a company, and another thing entirely to follow your heart into a completely new profession. Before you do either, you need to consider not just where you’re heading, but what you’re leaving behind — and whether or not you’ll be able to go back. Naturally, there’s at least one thing you probably wouldn’t miss at all. “The No. 1 benefit, and you can definitely quote me on this, is not tracking billable hours,” says Karsten Amlie, who left Leibowitz and Associates in Miami to go in-house at Paxson Communications and is now president of PAX Internet Inc. ATTENTION TO DETAIL No one enjoys tracking billable hours. But it has one benefit you may not have considered — it’s a quantifiable, detailed measure of how hard you’ve worked and of what you’ve accomplished. Lawyers tend to be people who are used to clear, numeric measures of success — LSATs, grades, dollars, hours. Fuzzier measures might take some getting used to, and you may find that you miss a certain level of organization, both in yourself and in your colleagues. Maybe that focus on detail is exactly what you don’t like about law. It’s certainly one of the things people fear when they hire a lawyer for a nonlaw position. Many business people, for example, view their lawyer as the person who focuses on the trees rather than the forest and tells them why they can’t do something when what they really want to know is how they can. Says Amlie: “The most shocking thing to me, when I first started doing corporate development work, was hearing a business person say, ‘I love ambiguity. If the contract can be ambiguous, keep it that way, because that gives me more room to negotiate.’ The thing that took me the longest to get comfortable with was that you can’t always be focused on the legal consequences. You have to keep them in mind, but you have to look at what’s in the best interest of the company first and see it on a macro level. Once you’re thrown into the middle of a company, you see that people have to make decisions from the hip sometimes, and you have to reach a comfort level with being able to do that.” As a lawyer, you may not know when the urgent call about a deal or a sudden temporary restraining order will screw up your weekend, but once it comes, you know generally what to do with it. There are steps to take and, whether you’re running the deal or the case, precedents to follow. Getting it done, or at least to the point where nothing more can be done, is just a matter of time and hard work. But if that call says that your Web site has been hacked or a major consumer group has just boycotted your product, it may not be clear what you do next, or how. In other fields, problems often require you to invent the wheel before you can get rolling. Michael Maslansky, who left New York’s Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz to become president of MarketResearch. com, says that was the most difficult part of his transition: “In law, it was all up to me whether I got the job done and was successful, and if I worked more hours, I got more done. Now, I can’t do it all myself. I have to delegate some things and rely on other people, and sometimes we make mistakes. It’s a different process. I have to relinquish control.” PREPARING FOR THE REACTION One factor that eases the transition for many people is that there is a certain overlap between law and business. Leaving the corporate world entirely, however, requires that you deal not only with the magnitude of your decision but also with the reaction from friends, family, and former colleagues. “People thought I was nuts,” says Marty Scott, who walked out of Sidley & Austin in New York to move to California and is now an up-and-coming screenwriter, working on a $15 million feature in production. “There’s a perception that you gave up a ton to do this, and people really want to help. At least to my face, the reaction has been ‘Man, you really have balls. I really respect that.’ “ Financially, Scott gave up a lot to go after a dream. He left behind a six-figure salary, a new co-op, and any idea of job security to move in on a friend’s couch and learn a whole new industry. But there’s more to a move like that than just cutting up your credit cards. You have to give up the identity you’ve built for yourself in your years as a lawyer — the prestige, the stability, and the respect that goes with a career in the law. You also give up all the equity and confidence you’ve built up over those years — the stuff that lets you walk into a meeting or a deposition, sit down at the table, and convey that you know what you’re doing. “You have to be meek,” Scott says. “My big thing was to educate myself. I read every book, every magazine, and I go to every meeting I can. And I sit there, and I just listen. I’m just absorbing and learning, and I don’t say a word until I know what I’m talking about.” How long does the window stay open for Scott, or for anyone trying out an alternative career? If the dot-com fails, can you return to the firm? “A lot depends on how you leave your firm and how long you stay away,” says Laura Segal, a former Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison attorney who runs an employment search firm, Laura Segal & Associates, and specializes in attorney placement. “My advice to anyone who’s planning to do something completely unrelated to law or extremely risky is to try to take a leave of absence.” Even without a formal leave, it’s important not to burn any bridges at the old firm. While you might not want to return there, you’ll need those people as allies and references if you decide to return to the law, which may be a decision that you have a limited time to make. “I’d say there’s a grace period of six months to a year. If you’re extremely well-credentialed, it may be longer; if you’re in a highly technical practice, it may be shorter. Unless you’ve gone into a related field, after a year you begin to get stale. You lose your fluency in how to do a deal or write a brief, and it becomes much harder to go back.” The good news, according to Scott, is that no matter how far from the law you stray, that degree never becomes entirely worthless: “People respect a law degree. It’s assumed that you’re really smart, that you’ve got it together.” The all-nighters and the 80-hour weeks also pay off. “All that discipline, all that being anal about things — it makes you get up every day and be active and work toward something,” says Scott. “Even working at three-quarters speed, we’re still doing twice as much as most people on any given day. That stayed with me.” Apparently, you may escape from the law, but you can’t escape from yourself. K.J. Dell’Antonia is managing director at Sunny Bates Associates and Riverside Ventures. She can be reached at [email protected]

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