Beyond the Practice of Law: Exploring Alternative Career Options
Being a practicing attorney does not necessarily guarantee career satisfaction. While most practicing attorneys are satisfied with the practice of law, there are an increasing number of lawyers who are unhappy with their profession. Dissatisfaction results when reality clashes with the expectations of working attorneys. While many lawyers will find legal jobs that will fulfill their expectations and needs, other attorneys will look for a change. A law degree can be the stepping-stone to a multitude of careers.
The first step in successfully marketing yourself to any employer is knowing what you want professionally and what you have to offer an employer. Rigorous self-assessment is even more critical when targeting non-law or law-related employers who will question: Why you are “leaving” the law? Why they shouldn’t hire someone trained in their field? How can they know that you won’t go back to the law? You will need to have coherent and articulate responses to each of these questions. The first step in crafting your answers is to ask yourself about your skills, interests, values, people preferences and work setting preferences.
STEP ONE: What Can You Do? What Do You Want To Do?
To pursue an alternative career, you must assess the skills you’ve developed in law school. Your legal training has given you very specific capabilities. Use the following list to assess your skill level in each area. Of course, the skill list provided is not an all-inclusive one. You should also evaluate the areas of law school in which you were successful (or unsuccessful), the areas of law school you most enjoyed (or did not enjoy) and why. The “why” is the most important part. A careful study of your experiences will enable you to understand your strongest skills and assets.
_____Problem solving skills
_____Read and analyze vast amounts of information
_____Ability to remain objective
_____Ability to think on your feet
_____Reading and understanding complex material, including statutes and legislation
Organizational and administrative skills
_____Effective oral communication with individuals and in group settings
_____Empathy for clients
Research and writing skills
While an evaluation of your skills is critical, you should not overlook an evaluation of your desires. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What exactly do you want to achieve in your career?
- What is it about the traditional practice of law that does not appeal to you, personally?
- What kind of job specifications will satisfy your personality characteristics, your professional goals and why?
A thorough examination of what you want from a position, in combination with a solid understanding of your skills and capabilities, will give you the foundation from which to base your search for an alternative career.
Remember that the decision to forego a traditional law practice will be shocking to friends and family. Be ready to field many questions regarding the merits of such a career move. Defend your position without being defensive about it. It’s only natural that friends and family who “suffered” through law school with you will be concerned that you are not taking advantage of your law school education.
STEP TWO: Identify Alternative Career Possibilities
Once you have completed several assessment exercises, you might find that you are already beginning to develop a clearer sense of your career path. Now is the time to move on to considering the various career options open to you and to conduct a market assessment. The options to consider are astonishingly wide. The following are a few of the more popular options. However, this listing is by no means all-inclusive. Ideally, these career paths will prompt you to think of additional related options.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
Most professionals who pursue careers in ADR become either mediators or arbitrators. Mediators help opposing parties in a dispute arrive at a settlement by presiding over negotiations, moderating discussions, calming interpersonal conflicts and often facilitating a settlement process. In contrast, arbitrators preside over a more formal proceeding that functions as a mini-trial with discovery, witnesses and evidence. Unlike mediators, arbitrators render a final decision in the dispute. ADR professionals must possess strong skills in the following areas: active listening, problem solving, diplomacy, persuasion and communication. Most ADR professionals have significant litigation experience or expertise in specialized fields such as environmental, construction, family, or personal injury law.
Individuals attracted to consulting as a career are often described as creative problem solvers with a service orientation. They also tend to possess the following characteristics: intellectual curiosity, quantitative analytical skills, good writing and presentation skills, and strong interpersonal skills. Consultants are found in almost every industry sector, conceptualizing approaches to financial, management, technological and organizational problems.
There are many options in finance for JDs. Individuals attracted to finance are generally attracted to issues involving the business world, such as banking and the issuance of securities and bonds. Most finance positions require some degree of quantitative and analytical ability, in addition to skills in sales and marketing, relating to people, and management. For example, investment bankers help companies and governments issue securities and other instruments, manage portfolios and provide financial advice. Stockbrokers sell stocks, bonds, insurance and other investments to individuals. Venture capitalists finance new and rapidly growing companies, manage funds of such investments and purchase equity securities.
Human resources professionals address issues related to the recruiting, interviewing and hiring of employees and other personnel issues. They often advise on hiring decisions, personnel programs and policies, and collective bargaining subjects. Sometimes human resources professionals will specialize in employment, compensation/benefits, training and development or employee/employer relations. Because people are the subject of this business, strong interpersonal and negotiation skills are important. Quantitative skills and attention to detail can be of great use in the compensation and benefits arena.
Legal Higher Education
Law Librarians: Law librarians maintain and develop an institution’s collection of hard copy, online and other miscellaneous legal resources. They also provide research training and assistance. In addition, librarians are increasingly expected to be computer experts since so many resources are now on-line or computer-based.
Law Faculty: Law professors need strong oral presentation skills as well as the ability to break down complicated concepts to an audience or to individuals. They are comfortable with and generally drawn to theoretical constructs.
Law School Administrators: There are many types of academic administrators. Administrators can work in student services, student records, financial aid, career services and admissions. Administration professionals are generally drawn to work that involves organizational and programming skills and significant student contact.
Publishers solicit, screen, edit and arrange for the printing and marketing of books. Professionals in this field generally demonstrate an affinity for research and writing as well as an attention to detail. Major legal publishing houses, such as West and CCH, hire lawyers to serve a variety of writing, editing and marketing functions.
Individuals are generally drawn to the nonprofit world because of a strong commitment to a particular cause and/or concern for the community. Because of limited staffing resources, people working in nonprofits often use a broader range of skills than those in the for-profit sector. The following are a few areas you might wish to explore further: consumer advocacy, planned giving, community relations, event coordination, fundraising, grant writing, and marketing.
Politics and Government Affairs
Individuals attracted to this type of career are generally powerful communicators and marketers with strong people skills. Whether they attach themselves to a particular individual in a campaign or whether they seek to influence legislators on behalf of a particular client, political professionals rely on their ability to influence people. Their target audiences include constituents, government officials, congressional staffers and Congresspersons. They often require strong oral presentation and clear writing skills for drafting talking points, congressional testimony or proposed legislation.
Real Estate Sales and Development
Real Estate Agents and Brokers: Agents and brokers generally function as independent sales workers. They must be comfortable organizing complex financial transactions and mastering local zoning and tax laws.
Real Estate Developers: Development companies acquire, develop, build and often manage real estate properties. Developers often must locate investors and funding for projects. Professionals who work in this field need many of the same skills as real estate agents and brokers. Development companies hire a broad range of professionals, including legal analysts, land use planners, and real estate agents.
STEP THREE: Prepare to Address Employer Concerns
A job search outside the traditional practice of law can often be frustrating due to a myriad of employer concerns. In order to ensure your success, you must be prepared to answer and address the following questions and concerns satisfactorily.
- Why would a JD want this job?
- Is a JD going to want too much money?
- What about non-JDs on the staff?
- JDs have a narrow skill set limited to legal research and court appearances.
- A JD will just get bored and quit.
- There is no advantage to hiring a JD.
So what can you do to address these concerns? Here are a few tips:
1) Research the potential employer extensively.
Gather as much information as possible about the organization through informational interviews. Learn about the problems facing the organization and be able to articulate your approach to the challenges faced by the organization.
2) Know your transferable skills cold.
While you have many skills that are readily transferable, this might not be obvious to potential employers. Be prepared to educate the employer about what you can do. A good way to do this is by telling stories that demonstrate your ability to use the skills necessary for the position you are seeking. Focus on the positive things that lawyers do and how this can enhance the employer’s bottom line. Always keep in mind that the burden of proof is on you!
3) Acknowledge the employer’s objections.
Share “your story” before the employer has a chance to ask. Talk about the practical experience you gained from your law school/ practice experience, but explain how your favorite part of that experience now leads you to pursue the type of work you are now seeking. You need to be able to state succinctly and positively why you are looking at an alternative career path.
Remember, it’s OK to explore other options if “the law” does not satisfy your individual goals. Some of the brightest and most talented people find law to be too formalistic and not intellectually stimulating. Making the decision to pursue an alternative career is a very difficult one. It requires a great deal of thought. You must carefully evaluate the pros and cons of a nontraditional legal career. What will the ramifications be on your long-term career goals, your family, financial situation, etc.? If you decide this is the road you really want to take, be committed to that decision.