From the magic circle dream to ‘a grim reality of being over-worked, under-valued and unhappy’

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By Martin Underwood on

The biggest challenge is admitting to others that you are unhappy, says Oxford-educated law exile Martin Underwood


It would be too simplistic to say corporate law firms are full of unhappy and exhausted lawyers.

Some people do thrive there. For them, there is satisfaction in working long hours, tackling mountains of paperwork and taking on tight deadlines.

Some find their work genuinely interesting, while most stick around for the financial rewards. However, for many, the work is gruelling and the money is simply not enough.

Landing a job at a magic circle firm has been the key driver during many years of study and hard work. It’s been a difficult journey up to this point but you’ve done it, you’ve got there.

But then you realise that there are too many “shoulds” at this point. You should be happy, you should be living the dream, and you should be excited by the career prospects ahead. What happens, then, if you’re just not?

The problem is highlighted by a recent study that found two-thirds of lawyers said their jobs do not meet the expectations they had of working in law. The common perception is that the law is a glamorous profession with mammoth salaries, working on interesting cases, having real-life impact and actually making a difference. It’s a well-trodden route to success for high achieving humanities students who aren’t sure what to do.

For many, this image of success turns out to be met by a grim reality of being over-worked, under-valued and unhappy. It’s hard to identify what is the bigger problem. It could be the disappointment of the attractive depiction of law in the media compared with the daily grind of being a lawyer. Or maybe it is the realisation that the things you thought would inspire you do not in fact motivate.

After so many years of hard work towards a certain aim, it is not a sign of failure to say, “actually this isn’t for me”, or “this isn’t what I thought it would be”.

You are not alone in having that thought. More than half of the lawyers who took part in that study said they wished they had embarked on a different career path. You might be one of the few who makes a change. The first step is to admit you’re unhappy.

Having uttered that acknowledgement to yourself, the next challenge is to say it to somebody else. Saying aloud to others “I am not happy” is something of a taboo full stop.

Telling your colleagues “I am not happy in this profession” is going to be an uncomfortable conversation. Some might feel judged that their motivations and the things they find satisfying may be the very reasons you are leaving a career in law. Others could be shaken by the resonance your words have to their own niggling doubts. There is a reason why many people, despite being unhappy, do not consider a career change. It’s not an easy step to walk away from a community, everything you have worked for up to now and, let’s face it, that pay packet.

Someone who has successfully made the change is Karol Corcoran, who shifted from corporate lawyer to become senior marketing manager at Amazon UK. “I left practice to get a more hands on business role,” he relates.

In hindsight, Corcoran acknowledges he should have gone straight into this role, which was more suited to his personality, but like everyone else, it was ultimately the status of the profession that drew him into reading law.

As he took the plunge into a change of career, Corcoran realised that coming from a legal background gave him a distinct advantage. Being a lawyer meant he was able to write great copy, ensure accuracy and high standards, engage in data-driven decision-making and deal with ambiguity.

This is bread and butter to someone who is legally trained,” said Corcoran. “It can feel daunting to leave the structure and safety of private practise, but it can be done. It’s a case of getting your narrative straight — the why and the what you bring — and just backing yourself.

That approach propelled him, like many others, to make the change for the better.

Arming yourself with the knowledge of what motivates you, what you want to gain from a career and what would bring you job satisfaction is massively advantageous. A background in law is a great stepping-stone to finding a job in which you value what you do. Jobs like banking, marketing, business development, journalism, teaching or starting your own business are just some of the options.

It might be a leap into the great unknown as it was for Peter, who moved from being a senior associate practising intellectual property law to setting up his own restaurant.

I hated timesheets with a passion,” he says, “and did not want to spend the rest of my career accounting for every six minutes of my days. I was aware that it would only get harder to leave the older I became, and the more responsibilities I had outside of work.

He continued:

When I left, it wasn’t a hard decision to make, but I was still clueless about how to make it happen.

As far as the money is concerned, don’t forget you were a student in the not-so-distant past and you managed. It is possible to survive on a lot less. Take some time out to try new things. Travel, learn a new skill, meet new people and have some fun.

Writer and social innovator Greg McKeown nearly became a lawyer. Upon reflecting on his ambitions in his final year of the Legal Practice Course, he realised joining the legal profession didn’t make the list. As he puts it:

If we don’t design our careers, someone else will.

Martin Underwood is a former criminal barrister and the course producer at Life Productions, a consultancy that helps lawyers find fulfilling work and take practical action through advice, courses and networking.