It’s true, what they say. You can do anything with a law degree. Here in D.C., one-time attorneys are opening grocery stores, founding dog-walking companies, running bakeries and launching tech startups.
This isn’t just a local trend — though in D.C., with more lawyers per capita than any other major metropolitan area, dropout attorneys may be more common. Nationwide, 24 percent of lawyers who passed the bar in 2000 weren’t practicing law in 2012, according to an American Bar Foundation survey.
What’s causing the exodus? CareerBliss, a company that tracks workplace satisfaction, reports that associate lawyers are less happy at work than people in any other profession.
“Being an attorney is reactive. You’re always dealing with problems and putting out fires,” says Casey Berman of the career consultancy Leave Law Behind. “A lot of attorneys change careers because they want to be creative.”
“It’s a nice contrast to practicing law,” says cake-pop purveyor Yael Krigman, 33. “We’re making people happy. There’s nothing adversarial about baking.”
As Krigman prepares to open her first store in November, she’s finding that her past life as a corporate lawyer comes in handy.
“I’m using my law degree literally every day, negotiating contracts and leases, reading health codes,” she says.
She’s prepared for brutal hours, too. “Even when customers call with a last-minute order, I think, ‘This is nothing. We had to write entire briefs in less time.’ ”
Victoria Lai, 34, who quit her job as a government lawyer to open Ice Cream Jubilee in Navy Yard, hasn’t found as much skill transfer.
When it comes to negotiating leases, “I know enough to know I need to hire a lawyer,” she says.
Ex-attorneys don’t just push sweets. They start buzzy tech companies, among them Silica Labs (Google Glass platform developers), Synapsify (text analysis software) and UberOffices (on-demand workspaces). All are based in the D.C. area.
One thing many of these entrepreneurs have in common is that they kept their well-compensated day jobs — at first.
“Lawyers tend to be a little risk-averse,” says Elise Whang, founder of the consignment shopping website Snobswap, which she founded with her sister.
Whang, 39, got the idea for Snobswap when she was putting in long hours as a corporate litigator, and unable to get out of the office to browse for clothes.
Snobswap opened for business in 2010, but it took two years for Whang to quit her day job. Now she spends her time visiting consignment stores around the country and curating the site’s high-end offerings instead of writing legal briefs.
“Part of me is kicking myself for not doing it sooner,” she says.
Former lawyers Ilene Miller and Lisa Friedlander, founders of Activity Rocket, also spent more than a year working on their business plan before committing to the business full-time, in 2011. Supportive spouses were key.
“Our husbands believe in the success of the company,” Friedlander says.
“We’re living off their paychecks now, but we’ll retire on ours,” Miller says.
Miller and Friedlander, both 45, have five children between them, and the difficulty of keeping up with their kids’ schedules inspired them to create Activity Rocket, a website that allows parents to efficiently search and sign up for after-school activities.
Long hours of data entry and Web design have paid off. The site now draws about 7,000 visitors a month. Even more exciting: “I’m proud to say, we’re cash-flow positive,” Miller says.
“It just goes to show,” she says. “Even lawyers can grow up to be anything they want.”
We rest our case
Which of these culinary institutions was not founded by a lawyer? The answer is below.
Baked by Yael (cake pops)
Tribes-a-Dozen (kosher challah mix)
Ice Cream Jubilee
Cork (wine bar)
Slate (wine bar)
Neat Meat (sloppy joe food truck)
GCDC (grilled cheese restaurant)
Answer: Neat Meat, which was founded by two lawyers.