Escape from the Planet of the Lawyers

A lot of lawyers out there are unhappy campers, but they don’t have to be. Anyone in the legal profession who is unhappy at work needs to realize they have skills – and options.

Men in suits run across a field.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Anne, my office boss, buzzed me: “A 13-year-old reader is calling from Chicago. He is worried about his father, who is an attorney.”

Seconds later I was speaking with “Timmy.”

“Mr. Beaver, my father, Hal, is a lawyer and is so sad all the time. He works for an insurance defense law firm and comes home telling us that he just can’t take doing things, bad things that hurt people with insurance claims Dad says should be paid, but his boss tells him to fight the other people so the law firm can bill for more hours.

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“Dad says over and over again that he hates being a lawyer.

“Mom says that he needs to get out of law, but Dad says that we have bills to pay and he can’t just walk away. I love my dad and am worried, really worried, Mr. Beaver. Do you have any suggestions?”

And then, my young caller began to cry.

One of Thousands of Lawyers Who Want Out

I ran this situation by the authors of a just published book, Your Total Wealth: The Heart and Soul of Financial Literacy, by Lyle Sussman, Ph.D., and David Dubofsky, Ph.D., CFA. The following touching and commonsense recommendations from the authors are an insight into just how down to earth and practical Your Total Wealth is.

Sussman: The case of a sad, unfulfilled attorney afraid to change careers because of financial obligations is far from unique. There are many successful professionals (physicians, engineers, dentists, lawyers) who toil only for the dollar while losing their soul, and their self-respect, little by little.

Unless he sees the future as possibility and potential rather than the past as an obligation, he will never be fulfilled professionally.

At present he is rooted in a toxic situation. My advice for Hal is to start cutting the roots now, with a goal of all roots severed within 12 months. And give your wife and kid a hug for their loving concern.

Dubofsky: I always tell my students to work in whatever makes you happy. If you enjoy what you are doing, it isn’t work, and you will look forward to every day, rather than dreading the start of the workweek.

The young man says, “Mom and I tell him to get out of law into something else,” but just what is “something else”? Does he have a passion that he wishes he was involved in?

Hal’s Law Degree Can Be His Escape from The Planet of the Lawyers

To Los Angeles-based attorney Nicole Kuklok-Waldman, “The situation described by your young reader isn’t unique at all. Dozens of research studies over the past several years demonstrate that the highest rate of depression in any profession is law.”

“Close to one-third of all lawyers suffer from depression, with suicide among the leading causes of premature death. The divorce rate – 35% – is significantly higher than for most other professions.”

But she is quick to shine a spotlight “on the tools that Timmy’s father already has, which is a ticket out of The Planet of the Lawyers, if he chooses to leave law completely.

“About 25% of lawyers leave the practice of law within 10 years of being admitted to the bar. Being required to do things that violate their sense of morality – right and wrong – just to keep their job, ranks high in their reasons for getting out.

“By the way Timmy describes his father, Hal is in real trouble.

Kuklok-Waldman strongly maintains that, “Hal’s professional experience makes him a ‘lucky lawyer,’ well-prepared for a wide variety of jobs, both in law and in completely different fields,” adding, “and I can tell you this from personal experience.”

Working as a first-year associate in litigation, she “almost quit law completely, but explored other areas, left that firm and now love what I do as an attorney.”

She also helps attorneys explore other occupations through her eight-week Lucky Lawyer online course. “I help you figure out what you want and how to get it, because I think you are lucky to be a lawyer. If you are unhappy, everyone loses: your employer, you and your family.”

Tips for Unhappy Lawyers Who Want to Make a Change

A career change for an attorney may involve changing roles or practice areas within the legal industry. This allows you to leverage your skills and experience by finding an intersection between your old expertise and your new practice area.

Regardless of what state you are at in your career, switching jobs as a lawyer can feel intimidating, says Kuklok-Waldman. But there are some basic questions and easy steps to finding a more satisfying work-life.

If you’re an unhappy lawyer, Kuklok-Waldman says, the first step is to focus and get a clear idea of what you like, don't like, want and don't want to do for a living. Be specific.

  • Don't like your current job?
  • What don't you like about it?
  • What do you like about it?
  • Do you like drafting emails but not briefs?
  • Do you like having to work in an office setting?
  • Are you a morning person?
  • What are your top five strengths?
  • What would you do for free?

Why does this matter? Here’s an example from Kuklok-Waldman:

“A friend of mine worked in Big Law with me as a transactional attorney and eventually left to pursue her dream of being a chef. She finished cooking school and went to work in a two-star restaurant kitchen, and realized — the first night — that the stress in a kitchen is like a transactional closing every night. And guess what one of the things she hated about being a transactional attorney? You guessed it. Closings. The grass is always greener, and you should for sure consider following your heart. But make sure you get clear on the path first.”

How do you get clear on the path forward? Kuklok-Waldman offers these tips: Research and talk to people. You need to start building a bridge between what you are currently doing and what you want to achieve. The best way to do this is by setting aside time for your next steps and sticking to this goal. Use LinkedIn, Bar Associations, Facebook Groups and other professional organizations to find people in different practice areas and see what they do. This can also help you find ways to leverage your career skills, just in a different area.

She also suggests getting involved with organizations affiliated with the job you want to transition toward. Offer to volunteer, join a board or find a mentor who can help you gain real-world experience before you leap into a new field.

“Once, I took on a pro-bono asylum case in the immigration courts,” Kuklok-Waldman says. “Have I mentioned I'm not an immigration lawyer, but that I'm a land use lawyer? But guess what I found out? Much of immigration law is the same administrative law I practice in the land use context, just with different facts. I figured that out, and I won my case.”

Remember, this is about figuring out what you like ... but also discovering what you don't. So, get clear on both. Even in a miserable job, some things are good. Start with those. What do you like that allows you to grow? Professional autonomy? Good mental health benefits? It all matters.

Kuklok-Waldman concluded our chat with these reassuring comments:

“A lot of people feel stuck. My message is that you are not stuck. There is hope; there is a way to figure out a plan. There is a way to escape from The Planet of the Lawyers!

Anyone reading today’s story who thinks, “This sounds like me,” should visit her website,


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."