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Escaping the "Golden Handcuffs" of a Top Law Firm

Q: I am a fourth year corporate associate at a top New York law firm. I have had great opportunities with my firm and am currently living in London and working at our office there. The salary is excellent and the people are very intelligent and interesting. However, I am miserable. I wake up in the morning dreading going to work, knowing that I'll be at the office until midnight again (I work on capital market transactions at the moment). I also do not (and never really did) find the work interesting. I like the parts of my job that don't have much to do with the law - client contact, running drafting sessions and meetings, organizing, etc.

I have been unable to come up with an alternative career and am wondering whether going to a career counselor might be a solution. I've done things like the Briggs Meyer test and found out what I already know - that I am well-rounded, extroverted, etc., but that doesn't point me in the direction of a new career. I have a master's in international relations, am proficient in French, am a good writer, and a better communicator. I feel like my skills and natural talents are going to waste in my current position and want to change.

I am willing to take a salary cut, and am not too bothered by doing something considered "less prestigious" if it means that I will be able to have balance in my life again and at least on some days, not want to cry at the thought of a another day at work. I would, however, very much like to stay in London if possible for a little while longer.

Do you have any advice for me on how to move forward and find a solution? Or recommendations for career counselors that have international experience? I feel like a solution must be there, I just can't seem to find it, and I don't want to waste any more time waiting for it to find me!

Thanks and I look forward to receiving your advice.

A: Your unhappy experience, unfortunately, is exceedingly common among highly competent and successful law firm attorneys -- the problem of golden handcuffs. I hear these accounts every day in my Washington, D.C. consulting practice, and I actually had a similar experience myself in the early days of my own legal practice. Fortunately, your handcuffs do not seem to bind you too tightly, as you seem prepared to abandon some of the perks of your employment in favor of a position that brings greater satisfaction. The depth of your despair about your current situation may actually become your greatest ally in helping you to overcome any remaining resistance to making a fundamental change in direction.

From what you report about yourself, it appears that a fairly radical career change may be needed perhaps to a position that uses law as a stepping-stone but not as a direct component in practice. It is difficult to imagine a traditional law practice that emphasizes people contact and minimizes exposure to the law to the extent you desire. As a first step, I would find a copy of Deborah Arron's hugely useful book, What Can You Do With A Law Degree? (4th edition). I buy copies by the carton from the publisher and make it available to all of my disgruntled lawyer clients. I'm sure it can be obtained in London. The appendices of this book are a treasure trove of specific ideas about ways to use a law degree outside formal practice. Second, I would recommend that you find a career counselor specializing in work with lawyers, if one can be found in London. It is difficult to find a substitute for a series of structured conversations with a sensible professional familiar with issues of personality, interests and values in the legal workplace. Third, I would consider taking one or more of the vocational tests widely used in the field, especially the Strong Interest Inventory. A trained career counselor can also help you interpret the results of the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), which you have already taken.

Finally, I would urge you to reconsider your decision to prolong your stay in London, if you don't intend to stay there over the long run. It is a wonderful city, but it may be difficult to develop a clear set of objectives for alternative work while employed in a geographic location so far from where you expect to relocate. An alternative approach might be to seek a non-legal professional staff position with one of the international development or non-governmental organization headquartered in London while you take account of your longer-term professional goals. The disadvantage of this approach might be that searching for an interim position in London could handicap your networking efforts and distract you from your primary objective of shifting your career and changing the fundamental balance of priorities in your life. Good luck in your search. You are not alone.

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