Career change without starting at the bottom again?

I’ve been in the legal industry for 12 years and have hit a ceiling. I’m dissatisfied, bored and stressed. (You can’t know how hard it was to be a Pats fan and have to file the NFL’s appeal in federal court against Tom Brady.)

I’ve been coding privately for over 20 years as a sporadic hobby. Never took a class, never had a job doing it, which is why most of what I know are outdated languages like PHP and pre-dotNET VB. But I enjoy it. It’s my creative outlet. I lose track of time when I’m doing it. Obviously I’m now taking this class to get up to date and learn best practices, and I’m glad to be making strides in this direction.

The problem is that no matter how unfulfilling my job is, I can’t afford to start over again at the bottom. I have a family to support, a mortgage, lots of bills. I’ve paid my dues in my field and earned myself a decent income.

With what I’ll learn in this course, how can I parlay my law degree and decade of hard work into making some sort of lateral move? Is it possible? Is it wise? What types of positions could I qualify for? Will recruiters get turned off by my tech-free resume? (And will New England ever forgive me for my sins?)


Source: I spent almost six years at a tech startup, did a lot of interviewing and hiring (and even more rejecting), and hired at least one person for whom programming was a career change. My single most important piece of advice is to make it clear that you are passionate about programming. Not that it’s something you only did for school or work. That it’s something you do for free at 2am because you need to.

Turn your hobby into a resume. Put some of your side projects on github. Sure, you’re highly unlikely to jump into a salary that a programmer with 20 years’ experience would be able to get, but you don’t have to start at an entry-level salary either.

Try really hard to find a programming job with a law firm, or any other legal business, if you can. You can sell yourself as a developer that knows the industry, which could be extremely valuable. Plus, non-tech companies that hire coders are going to have a lot less experience with hiring coders and your coding experience will probably come under much less scrutiny than if you tried to get hired at a software company. This isn’t to say you can be crappy, but you’ll definitely have the opportunity to learn on the job and go from “adequate” to “great.”

Get some freelance experience. Your actual experience, plus your open-source “resume,” plus a track record (and references) from private clients should be more than enough to get you some interviews.


I can’t imagine the feelings you had filling that suit… If it makes you feel better a lot of us are in similar situations…
I’m pulling for you to find a good job! I’m sure after 20yrs you’ve got some decent exp


If feel your pain. I have been a project manager in the construction industry for 10+ years now. And worked on some really neat projects on the global stage.
I have been coding on the side off and on, but never persuaded anything in that direction. For me coding feels like making progress, being part of technological developments that happen around me. The reason I had an increased interest in coding recently is that I see so many ways to improve the construction industry by adopting and developing applications that make it so much more efficient. I had my own idea of an app that I wanted to develop, which is still in the back of my mind. I soon became aware that I lacked the coding skills to make it work. I did a bit of PHP, MySQL, it wasn’t enough. The I found FreeCodeCamp doing Javascript. And I love it. And like you, I simply can’t afford to switch careers. I support your case. Good luck!

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@danlitwin Don’t discount PHP out of hand. Over the last several years there has been a resurgence in the PHP community. There are a lot of modern development standards that are being adopted, especially since Composer simplified package management. Personally, I think Javascript is the language of the future, but there are still a LOT of jobs that involve PHP. It isn’t as outdated as some might suggest. :smile:


I couldn’t disagree more.

PHP is a fractal of bad design. If nothing else, read the “An Analogy” section.

I can’t imagine why anyone would use it.

I see a lot of PHP job postings. Many are for Wordpress sites, many are not. Lately I keep seeing Laravel everywhere. It’s a popular PHP framework. If I had some solid PHP skills I certainly wouldn’t discount these opportunities.

Of course I wouldn’t want to be limited to only PHP.

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@ShawnMilo I know that a lot of people feel that way. :slight_smile: Nevertheless, PHP runs ~ 82% of the web. If your concern is to find a career in software development, and not design purity, PHP isn’t a bad choice.

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Up until asbestos and lead were banned from new construction, they were used quite a bit as well. And many of us (unfortunately) have one or both in our homes to this day. Just because it isn’t going to disappear overnight when the world moves in a new direction doesn’t justify training as a lead-pipe maker.

I’d bet that over 99% of vehicles on the road are powered by gasoline. If I were giving advice to a student going into engineering, I’d be a horrible person if I suggested they go into internal combustion instead of hydrogen cells or battery technology. Yes, by the time that student retires there will still be plenty of gasoline-powered cars running, and plenty of mechanics making a living off of maintaining them. But I’d rather look back on a career where I was in demand for being ahead of the curve, compensated accordingly, be an expert by the time it was the standard, and enjoy the pleasure of working with the finest tools my profession has produced. It’s fun to write calligraphy, but you don’t see many authors using quills.


Philosophically @ShawnMilo I agree that PHP is not the best of languages to use, at least in a new project, but from a simply practical point of view PHP has a HUGE codebase out there that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. There are good jobs to be had learning PHP, at least the basics. So I suppose the thing to do is “Hold your Nose” and learn PHP…

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@ShawnMilo I get it. You really don’t like PHP. That’s ok. :slight_smile: Some people don’t like oatmeal.

Regarding programming language religious wars:


@ZackWard @rickstewart @ShawnMilo @bnoden
You all have valid points, but how does this help the original poster.

Sorry, but I think you all need to tighten up, create a new thread on this topic and discuss it there.


@danlitwin I’ve been worried about the same thing. I am a Business Analyst working in IT and the breadwinner for my family. There appear to be a lot of hybrid positions(Analyst Programmer type situations) so I hope I can transition into that type of position without having to start over. I think your strong domain experience will give you an upper-hand. You will probably have to be flexible with the types of jobs you consider. A hybrid role in the law domain could be a way into the field for you. Have you looked at the job boards to see what opportunities currently exist for a law/IT background? Not sure what your time frame is to move but I’d start setting up alerts for the jobs that meet your criteria (IT/law/right salary)- see who’s hiring people like you and start making connections with those employers. Also basic networking locally (you’ve got to have a ton of contacts right?) will probably go a long way.

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Hi Shawn,

For someone interested in freelancing, what type of industries and customers would you recommend targeting?


Anything you can get. The hardest part of freelancing is making connections with potential clients. Most people who could use people with our skills don’t know where to look or advertise. My best clients have all come from word-of-mouth.

You can try the usual places (all those freelance sites, Craigslist), but most of the “gigs” are rubbish. Either you’re bidding against people willing to do it for pennies an hour or it’s a scam. Still, read the descriptions and see if you can find a couple that are legit.

The best possible option is to ask around among people you know – even non-tech people. Maybe you have a relative that works for a company that needs something done and they can pass your name along. Those are the best gigs, because you have no competition and generally the people awarding the gig don’t know anything and will think your work is great no matter how amateur it is, as long as it works. That can lead to repeat business or other recommendations.

All good thoughts, and thanks for the productive feedback. But I need to steer clear of tipping off my current employer that I’m looking elsewhere. DC is a small town, everyone knows everything. And then there’s the non-compete thing, which is frustrating when my job covers a wide breadth of tasks. I think this is just going to end up being a hobby instead of a career. Oh, well. Thanks for the input, everyone.

Why does freelancing as a programmer mean you have to be “looking elsewhere”? Lots of people do other professions as hobbies. There are plenty of lawyers who do magic performances on weekends, for example. I bet the majority of musicians have day jobs as well. Just because you’re a bass player looking for a band to do gigs doesn’t mean you’re going to quit your day job.


For folks looking to change jobs (or even careers) I highly recommend reading Liz Ryan’s articles. She posts frequenly on and LinkedIn. For example, here’s one on this very topic (and the subject in the example is a lawyer, too!)

In general I really like her approach to recruiting a job-hunting. Well worth an afternoon skimming through her posts.


Similar situation. Been in Construction for 8 years, Trade and in the Office. Have a mountain of ideas that would make work on site and in the office more efficient. I resigned from my Estimating role yesterday, going to do FCC full time :slight_smile:

I’ll just leave this here…