Why this lawyer ditched a 6-figure paycheck to become a Lego artist

Nathan Sawaya worked for years as a high-powered attorney in New York before ditching that job to pursue his passion: creating art with Legos.

Yes, those Legos. And it's been paying off. Sawaya's creations sell for five and six figure sums and his client/collector list includes such diverse and notable names as pop star Lady Gaga, tennis great Andre Agassi, former President Bill Clinton and skateboarding icon Tony Hawk. Hundreds of his pieces are on display around the world as part of his global touring exhibition, The Art of the Brick, with about five occurring simultaneously at any given time.

"The whole reason I do these exhibitions is to inspire folks to go home and explore their own creativity," Sawaya told CNBC during a 2013 interview.

"Being happy as an artist pays better than being unhappy as a lawyer." -Nathan Sawaya, Lego artist

After all, that's what set him on the path to a dramatic career change. In the late 1990s, Sawaya was enjoying a fast-paced New York City corporate lawyer lifestyle. "Very exciting stuff," he said. "I was working on billion dollar deals."

But five years in, he grew weary of the daily grind and searched for a way to unwind after work. He started sculpting in clay and wire. Then, he decided to toy around with Lego bricks. Friends and family members were interested in buying them. So he constructed a website and began building up his art business at night while continuing to clock in at his law firm during the day.

Nathan Sawaya, lawyer turned Lego artist in his studio
Source: Nathan Sawaya
Nathan Sawaya, lawyer turned Lego artist in his studio

"When my website crashed from too many hits," he explained, "I realized it was time to make a change."

More than a decade later, he's a well-respected artist.

His work has been critically acclaimed and exhibited at spaces like The Kennedy Center and the New York Public Library. In 2015, The Art of the Brick, became the Franklin Institute's third-most successful traveling exhibit in its history. That same year, he signed a deal with Warner Bros. to exclusively create a touring exhibition of DC Comics characters.

For others looking to make a career change, Sawaya suggests:

-Transition out of the life you don't want into the life you do want. It doesn't have to be overnight. Make a plan for how you want to make the change.

-Cut out the negativity in your life. Cut out those people, colleagues, maybe even friends and family, who are telling you that you cannot make a change, or are taking too big of a risk.

-Don't give yourself a safety net. You would be surprised what you can do if you don't have a way to go backwards.

Sawaya says he keeps more than five million Legos on hand since demand for his art continues to increase and human forms usually require about 15,000-25,000 bricks while larger pieces like his Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton can use more than 500,000 Legos.

And even though Sawaya is an official Lego Master Builder, he says he buys his Legos just like the rest of us — but in much larger quantities — spending more than $100,000 a year on the colorful bricks.

Nathan Sawaya, lawyer turned Lego artist with one of his creations
Source: Nathan Sawaya
Nathan Sawaya, lawyer turned Lego artist with one of his creations

"I have been fortunate to have had tremendous success as a Lego artist," Sawaya recently told CNBC. "With exhibitions, commissions and a new book, I have been able to diversify my brand."