Some lawyers drop out because they have to. A Scottish husband and wife team, Gordon and Maria Thompson, took up coffee selling and hypnotism respectively after they were struck off in 1995 for making £30,000 worth of legal aid claims which they could not justify.
But experts claim an increasing number of lawyers are dropping out of the legal profession because they want to.
“There have been a lot of lawyers coming through our doors recently, wanting to leave the law. It's something we have noticed an upward trend in,” says Maria Symeon, marketing co-ordinator at Career Analysts, a consultancy which advises professionals on their career paths.
She says many lawyers – from trainees right up to partner level – are disillusioned with both the law and the legal lifestyle.
“Lawyers' hours are very long and intensive – particularly for those working in City firms – and there are so many changes going on that they are finding it difficult to keep up,” she says.
Her view is echoed by Sue Iveson from Professional Career Management (PCM), a careers consultancy often brought in by law firms worried about unsettled lawyers.
“There are a lot of pressures on lawyers and I think we particularly see that in the City, where there are huge issues arising regarding the quality of life. There are a lot of changes going on in the profession and a profession that's changing can be uncomfortable.
“There are a lot of different pressures in different parts – for high street lawyers it might be the difficulty presented by the changes in legal aid, while for City people it could be the long working hours.”
According to former Clifford Chance solicitor, Matthew Conrad (pictured), some individuals become lawyers because they love the law, while others do it because they can't think of anything else to do. He fell into the latter category.
“I always saw it as a stepping stone to something else,” he says.
After spending nearly six years in a career with Clifford Chance and Rouse & Co (now Willoughby & Partners), he left the legal profession and embarked on a new career – cleaning tables as a bus boy at top London restaurant, The Ivy.
“I got to the point when I decided I didn't want to be a lawyer any more. I wanted to put my own neck on the line. No one there could understand why I did it, but I knew what I was doing,” he says.
Conrad had a plan. He wanted his own catering business and felt he needed his two-month stint at The Ivy to give him an insight into the industry. Three years on, he is managing director of catering firm Things You Like Best, and employs 18 staff to run his two London eateries, called Lunch.
“Every profession is full of people who wish they could leave. Everyone has dreams, some people are mad enough to follow them,” he proclaims.
Conrad, aged 33, says he will never return to the law, but like many other ex-lawyers, he has not completely broken his links with the legal industry – his latest venture is run from a tent in the middle of Lincoln's Inn Fields and caters mainly for lawyers.
“Lots of lawyers come in and we even deliver lunches to Rouse & Co,” he says.
Iveson says it is common for lawyers to keep ties with their former profession, shifting gear in their working lives while retaining a link with the law.
One such individual is personal injury lawyer turned legal recruiter Catherine French, who left Leeds commercial firm Ford & Warren to join Cavendish Boyle recruitment consultancy last summer.
She says: “I wanted to keep a connection with the legal profession because I enjoy working with lawyers.
“Once I did my law degree, I felt I was on a treadmill to being a solicitor or a barrister. I never looked at anything else and nobody suggested I should. Once on the treadmill, I found it wasn't everything it was cracked up to be. Suddenly this thing I had always wanted to be wasn't right.”
She says she found actual practice a “faceless job”, with too much routine paperwork and not enough contact with people.
Although her new job has an element of stress, she says, it is nothing compared with the constant pressure which is put on lawyers to reach daily chargeable hour targets and work longer hours than their peers.
“Lawyers' hours are very long, particularly when you're starting out. There are a lot of people working late at junior level, even though it's unnecessary.”
Iveson believes that many lawyers who report a desire to change their careers completely may just be in the wrong part of the legal profession.
“A lot of people go into the law not being aware of how much it can vary between high street practices, City firms or in-house and they find themselves stuck in one of these sectors, or perhaps a particular practice area, early on when they are not suited to it,” she says.
Burton Copeland partner Harry Travers is one City lawyer who nearly made the break, but was lured back into the fold with a change of direction.
Finding his specialist area of tax law at Berwin Leighton too limiting, Travers decided to leave the law – or at least take a career break – and head off to sunny Spain to become a language teacher.
“Other lawyers looked at me as if I was completely mad,” he recalls.
In 1991 he resigned, but during his notice period, society fraudster Darius Guppy walked into his life, accused of a gold smuggling fraud and an insurance fraud involving an alleged staged robbery of gemstones.
Travers was intrigued and, having cleared the position with Berwin Leighton, he upped sticks to Burton Copeland's newly formed London office, which Guppy agreed to instruct.
“It was exactly the sort of case I wanted to do. I found doing tax fraud as opposed to commercial fraud was too limiting and Berwin Leighton was a City firm which did not seek to practise in that area.”
He says he agonised about leaving Berwin Leighton for months, not least because it was the start of a recession.
“Many people said I was foolish. They said I was giving up security, but I felt there was no security in doing something which I wasn't committed to. Even if a firm is small, you're more secure because you're more dynamic.”
He says his decision to stay in the profession was also “really hard”, realising that once he got into commercial fraud, he was unlikely to have the opportunity to work abroad.
“I haven't regretted it at all. The strange thing is, the first time that I really knew I wanted to be a lawyer was in 1991.
“Before that, I felt I was on a conveyor belt from school to university to a leading City practice. When I joined Burton Copeland I made a positive decision to be a lawyer and when someone makes a positive decision, they are more driven and more dynamic and ultimately more successful.”
Iveson says that lawyers often find a change in career – or even simply a change of direction – hard.
“It's difficult to start again. You may find it difficult to step back to junior level, because of both the financial implications and the reluctance of the outside world to take you on.”
But not everyone makes the right move first time.
After six years as a litigation lawyer at Freshfields, Andrew Napier realised that the high-flying City lawyer lifestyle was not for him. He disliked working on big cases, the “relentless chargeable hour machine” and being a “small cog”.
Feeling that he might be happier at a smaller firm, he took a massive drop in pay from the £45,000-plus he was on at Freshfields to go to Cripps Harries Hall in Tunbridge Wells, where he dealt predominantly with SIF cases.
“It was a complete disaster. I nearly gave up being a lawyer altogether, I hated it so much,” he says.
He resigned in the summer of 1996 with no job to go to, but wanting to enter the charity sector.
“I was making loads of applications, but getting nowhere. People thought I would get bored, that I wasn't genuine. They looked at my background, decided I was over-qualified and wouldn't give me the chance to explain myself.”
He says coming from an Oxbridge background and sailing straight into a top City firm had left him ill-prepared for the experience: “I had never been turned down for a job in my life. When I received my first rejection, I was gob-smacked.”
He finally secured voluntary work in the British Red Cross in-house legal department. Eventually, he was offered a full-time position there and claims he has never looked back – despite being paid nowhere near as much as he was at Freshfields.
“The salary here isn't bad, but I'm not really motivated by money anyway and the quality of life is so much better. There's just no comparison. There's more variety and more professional respect in this sector.”
There are lessons to be learned from stories such as these for the firms themselves, experts argue.
“If someone isn't happy at work, it affects their motivation and they won't perform at their best. They may still perform well, because lawyers are often bright people, but not as well as they are capable of. Stress will take its toll on the individual or on their results,” Iveson points out.
She says firms are increasingly striving to keep their people happy and more are sending lawyers to her consultancy for advice.
“Firms are realising they have to look after people's careers and look at what motivates them and gives them some job satisfaction. A lot of firms are concerned and have loyalties to their people and are happy to help them make that decision, even if it means a move.”
She says before making a change, the key is to think it through carefully – look at your skills, motivations and objectives – and then come up with a job search strategy.
“You need to do both to make it work effectively. We try to work through what their needs are. Otherwise, they will carry on forcing themselves into a round hole when they might be a square peg,” she says.
'Everyone has dreams, some people are mad enough to follow them'
Of course the process can go the other way. Inevitably, some people have given up successful careers in other professions in order to take up law.
Osborne Clarke's managing partner Leslie Perrin, for instance spent the first eight years of his working life as an actor, doing repertory all over the country, as well as TV and film work.
He secured a small part in The Wicker Man – “one of the greatest bad movies of all time” – starring Edward Woodward and Britt Eckland who, he says, “suffered from a complete inability to keep her clothes on”.
He also appeared alongside Alan Rickman in a production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – “a desperate show” in which he had to “sing, dance and look cheerful”.
“I decided then that showing off was not a good enough basis for a career so at the age of 30, I packed it all in.”
He moved into the law after a short and unsuccessful stint in the antiques business: “I bought too expensive and sold too cheap, I would have been better off on the dole.”
Having made partner at Lawrence Tucketts, Perrin moved to Osborne Clarke as associate in 1989 and made managing partner in 1994.
He says it is good for lawyers to do something different before they come into the law, otherwise their perspective is too narrow. It certainly gave him the edge at law school.
“I was sitting with 21-year-olds whose only idea of adultery was through the Matrimonial Causes Act,” he says.
Not every senior lawyer is happy to discuss their past on the record. One such individual describes his previous career as that of a “professional sleaze merchant” – a journalist specialising in sordid sex scandal stories for the tabloids. He gave this up to become a crime barrister.
“It got to the point where I decided I did not want to be sitting on people's doorsteps when I was 40. And frankly, I got fed up of hearing about people's sex lives – they all started blurring into one.
“It was great at first. The thrill of the chase was really exciting and the adrenaline rush when you actually got the story was great, but it all started to wear thin after a while.
“I used to cover a lot of courts as a reporter and I was always interested in the barristers' role, so eventually I decided to go for it.
“Contrary to popular belief, barristers do not make that much money, although I suppose I'm earning more than I did as a journalist. I certainly have no regrets.”