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Are You An Attorney Looking to Change Jobs or Careers? Look Before You Leap

In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn observed that part of human development involves "going into debt of one kind of another (even if only to yourself through bargains that may imprison the soul)."  Might this be especially true for lawyers?  We put ourselves through three or four years of grueling doctoral studies that can fundamentally reshape our views of the world and we often graduate owing tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, needing to find work that pays enough for us to retire that debt, usually many years after graduation.  Many times that work demands long hours and causes us a huge amount of stress.

Are you a lawyer who would love to change jobs (or careers) due to the stress of your work, but feels you can't due to the adverse impact on your checking account such a change would entail? In her recent Fiscally Fit column in the Wall Street Journal, Terri Cullen offers some useful advice to those who may find themselves in such a situation when she recounts the experiences she and her sister had when each of them were deep in debt, working at very stressful jobs, and attempting to find new, well-paying work.  While Ms. Cullen and her sister rebounded successfully from their difficult situations, Cullen acknowledges the difficulties that could face a "newly minted lawyer slogging away at a corporate job to service $100,000 in student-loan debt."

Reflecting on her own experience--finding herself owing substantial debts, but feeling trapped in a stressful job in order to pay those debts--Cullen says she and her sister had each needed a better plan "for finding a new job and for managing cash flow."  Her advice is based on two fundamental suggestions: decide why you're unhappy and whether you must leave your current job, and, if you decide you must move and take a cut in pay, take proactive measures to minimize the financial shock of moving to a job that pays less than your current position.

First, consider why you're unhappy in your current job; look at the sources of your discontent so you can deal with the causes rather than just the effects.  Specifically, consider options other than leaving such as:

  • taking a new job in another department at the same firm;
  • working more flexible hours to ease stress at home; and
  • finding ways to make your job more interesting.

The feasibility of these alternatives will vary according to your current position.  For instance, in-house counsel may be able to change her work situation more readily than she could if she were a partner-track associate at a large law firm.  However, continuing to work for your current employer offers some benefits, including keeping your seniority at the firm (which can sometimes prevent you from being laid off); and allowing you to pay down the debts or to save more without the disruption of a major job change.

However, if you determine that leaving your job--and firm--is your only reasonable option, Cullen recommends that you ease the financial shock of moving to a lower-paying job by doing the following:

  • focus on reducing your debt, and devote as much of your disposable income as possible to paying down debt to free up cash;
  • build up your savings now, in case you face unexpected expenses after you move to a new job;
  • investigate the state of the job market and find ways to distinguish yourself from other applicants before sending out resumes;
  • acquire some new skills that will prepare you for a new job or new area of practice--ways to do this include reading, self-study, CLE courses, and doing some pro bono work in a different area of law under the guidance of a skilled mentor;
  • network with others, including former employers, personal contacts, and your alumni association; and
  • use online networking services like,, and to expand your universe of contacts.

Happily, Ms. Cullen reports that she and her sister are now both happy about their job changes and confident they did what the right thing.  She closes with this advice: "So when a job makes you miserable, don't let your finances stop you from jumping ship. Just look before you leap."

By Steve Imparl, guest blogger

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It is nice from time to time to see career management advice that is driven by suggestions for things to do before the fact rather than after.

In the past, most of us would sense a lot of the signs that we should be doing something and still not be motivated enough to act until it was too late and the leverage of looking for a job when you have one was not an option.

Hopefully people are starting to absorb the message that "nobody cares about you more than you."

At ExecuNet one of the most postive signs we have seen over the past is that in 1988 when we started nearly every member who joined the network was in transition. In 2007, 70%+ of our membership is made up of senior executives and professionals who are currently employed.

I think this sort of statistic bodes well for those who understand that there is much you can and should be doing to exert more control of one's professional work life.

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