Most displaced lawyers know the emotional reasons why career change is so difficult. Those range from the giving up the professional identity of being a lawyer to admitting failure. Regarding the latter, sure, celebrating failure has become a popular meme. But not everyone agrees it's all that great a learning experience.
What research is finding are the external reasons why it's so hard to get on another career track. In The Atlantic, Max Nissen reports that organizations hesitate to hire career-switchers. As the NBER study shows, this bias holds up even with new MBA graduates. That MBA is the common degree chosen for what is expected to be a smooth and efficient passage to another line of work.
Why employers are reluctant to hire a newbie to the field is the uncertainty involved. There is no solid track record for accomplishing anything. And there is no evidence of a cultural fit in similar organizations doing similar tasks. If the employers have the burden of a high cost of hiring or firing, they will even be more skittish about taking on those without a lot of experience.
Therefore, displaced lawyers planning a transition to non-legal jobs would be wise to get hard-core experience in those other fields.
That could be by applying for an internship. Even back in the late 1980s, career-changers were doing this. A middle-aged woman wanting to enter museum work interned with the General Foods (which became Kraft) archives staff.
Another option is starting on the ground floor. For example, physical and cyber security are both growing fields. By being hired as a security guard, they would have an easier time worming their way in. That includes asking for informational interviews with the higher-ups and knowing what degree or certificate courses to enroll in.
A third is partnering with the organization as a version of a freelancer. Under the pen name "Alex Rich," former BigLaw attorney, Kathryn Rubino, did just that. She contributed a series of articles on the dynamics of working in document review to Abovethelaw.com. A major focus was how to increase the odds of landing another assignment when a project was a wrap. For several years, after being laid off by a Manhattan law firm, she supported herself and kept current on student loans, by working full time in document review.
Eventually Abovethelaw.com hired her as a full-time employee. She dropped the pen name and goes by Rubino. That way of being hired is increasingly popular. The organization can check out the career-changer on everything from the ability to do the work to cultural fit.
The fourth is the oldest in the book: volunteering. The trick is to stick with it long enough for turnover to produce an opening. Let's face it, volunteers usually have little authority in organizations. Also, they have to be cautious about not stepping on anyone's toes. The head of volunteers at a hospital told me the major problem was the volunteer who "wanted to take over."
My first step out of the academic box - I couldn't get a tenure-track position - was volunteering at a research organization. Eventually I was hired. With that on my resume, it was easier to get my next and better non-academic job. However, overall it took about four years to get on solid professional ground.
In short, changing careers is hardly an adventure. It's a brutal experience, at least for most of us who have to start over.