By Rachel Hsiao
“To be or not to be? That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them?” Who knew Hamlet’s words in Shakespeare’s work would be so applicable to the modern day military spouse attorney?
In other words, to be or not to be an attorney? Is it more noble/principled to fight against the obstacles of being a military spouse attorney and remain an attorney or “change careers” (and I use that term very loosely given the situation)? To put it bluntly – should one quit being an attorney?
The idea of changing careers is a familiar one for military spouse attorneys. The important point is that it is an option that has been considered and probably still is being considered by many MSJDN members. Hopefully, this article organizes some issues involved with transitioning and gives some new ideas and perspectives on the issue. This issue is so dominant and important that MSJDN’s recent Making the Right Moves conference had a panel devoted to this subject.
Perhaps the first question to answer is: has all the work to become an attorney become a sunk cost? Honestly? It is not easy to become an attorney. One has to take the LSAT exam and meet the requisite score of a law school to even be considered. There is the application process, which can be viewed as a more difficult and complicated process than the college application process. There is the tuition, which has most, if not all students, applying for financial aid. During the academic process, one has to maintain decent grades, study for and take exams, get experience through on campus interviews (OCIs), internships, other extracurricular actives, etc. Once one has actually graduated, there is the dreaded bar exam. Once one passes the bar exam, there is the process of finding and applying for a job. For military spouses, this last section is often repeated!
So is it a betrayal of all the hard work to become an attorney to therefore change careers? The answer is incredibly subjective, because it depends on each person’s situation. The point? In the process of deciding whether to remain an attorney, there may be a battle between whether to let all the work become a sunk cost.
To make this process even more delightful, many military spouse attorneys take more than one state’s bar exam, job hunt numerous times, and face unemployment multiple times for different lengths of time. Once one has gone through these additional experiences, the cost may be perceived as even greater.
But, what one has to remember is that those factors were often specifically geared towards being a practicing attorney and to remain within a certain geographical area. It is not a sunk cost if one chooses to no longer be an attorney. View it as an invaluable experience.One gains skills, knowledge, and experience that can be parlayed to the next career opportunity. Education and experience never go away. It becomes part of one’s foundation. Rather than viewing it as a waste, change your perspective and see it as having better foundation for the next opportunity that comes along.
Second – is quitting losing? American culture traditionally rarely embraces “quitting.” Quitting is the equivalent of being a loser. Whether one agrees or wants to admit it, that is the notion that is ingrained in American culture both consciously and subconsciously. This societal preconception may be evolving. However, as a result, there is a negative image that surrounds quitting. This affects one’s thought process and decision to actually quitting your job.
The truth is quitting is not losing. Josie Beets, MSJDN President-Elect and State Licensing Director, states that it is “choosing one path over another, as much as an evolution of what lawyers are trained to do.” It is possible the next opportunity is something you have thought about or considered before, but brushed it off. “Quitting” could be the opportunity to do something you want and are trained to do. Is it possible you could be happier with the next opportunity? Yes. Do not discount what could be!
When I was in law school, faculty and staff routinely said that it is more common for the generations after the baby boom generation to change careers. I was taught to be open to the possibilities and do not become ingrained in this one profession. Be open to change. Perhaps change is coming sooner than expected or wanted, but is that such a bad thing?
Attorneys are trained to be risk averse. That comes with the job. For some, this may cross over to one’s personal life. Being risk averse is not a bad thing. There are positives and negatives. The important point to remember is that taking a risk with one’s job is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be a risk, but it can also pay off in a spectacular way.
Third, it is difficult to specify and/or guarantee the next opportunity. If one could get a guarantee (particularly in writing, because attorneys generally prefer things in writing. Yes, I know. I’m trying to crack a joke!) to the next opportunity, it might be easier to quit. Unfortunately, the next career opportunity is rarely a guarantee.
As a military spouse, the next career opportunity is rarely guaranteed anyways. As an attorney military spouse, the choices are more limited. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, one has not failed, one has learned of numerous ways that do not work. One does not have to be a practicing attorney. There are numerous avenues one can use a law degree, education, training, etc. There is policy work – being devil’s advocate, understanding multiple view points, being an effective advocate, etc. There is working in human resources – understanding employment law, employment contracts, negotiating between parties, resolving labor disputes, etc. Non-profit work, contract management – there are many alternative careers paths to consider other than the “traditional” legal trajectory.
At the heart of it, attorneys are trained to be much more than attorneys. Attorneys are trained to play the devil’s advocate and always look at both sides of the coin. Attorneys are trained to be open and see multiple perspectives. Attorneys are trained to be advocates. Attorneys are trained to be determined. Attorneys are trained to be analytical and flexible and much more!
As Josie also said, “The common thread is the ability to communicate tough positions and concepts to others. That’s a skill that lawyers have that translate to many, many places and fields. I don’t see it as changing, choosing one path over another, as much as an evolution of what lawyers are trained to do.” Perhaps another way to look at it is not quitting, but using your skill set to find another position you are suited for. Whether that position is labeled “attorney” may not matter. Whether it truly matters is subjective to each of us, but at the end of the day, one is using the skills one has been trained to do even if it is for a position/job/career that one may not have planned or anticipated.
Does it really matter whether a position is labeled “attorney”? You are the best judge of that. You are the only one who can answer that question for yourself. Making the decision to quit, change careers, whatever you want or chose to label it, is not an easy one. However, it is a natural consideration in one’s thinking. If you are considering it, then go for it!