Alternative careers — doing something other than practicing law — are looking more attractive to both new and experienced lawyers as the job market gets more dismal. Of course, the notion of lawyers using their legal degrees to do something other than practice law is nothing new. After all, the U.S. President and his challenger both have J.D.’s.
I’m sure that many of you thought along these lines when making the decision to attend law school: “I may not ultimately practice law, but a legal degree is something that can always be put to use.” Implied in that logic is the notion that a J.D. enhances one’s value in the overall job market and that an alternative career is very possible. Indeed, that seems to be the conventional wisdom.
Why Alternative Careers for Lawyers are Easier Said than Done
Well, call me a contrarian, but I think I don’t think a law degree is always such a great thing to have on a resume.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are situations where having a legal degree, along with the superior analytical skills that one associates with most attorneys, can be very useful and marketable for certain alternative careers. But for some alternative careers, lawyers have to do a lot more explaining to get serious consideration when they compete against other non-lawyer candidates. Here are three reasons for my opinion.
First, many employers associate all lawyers with a specific skill set or personality type that (in their minds) disqualifies lawyers for the position. An alternative career might require creativity,for example. How many lawyers do you know who can truly think outside the box? Or a career might require extraordinary people skills. How many lawyers have high emotional intelligence? Some do, for sure, but not many. I don’t associate these traits with lawyers and neither do many employers.
Second, many alternative career for lawyers positions pay less on average than legal positions. Because of this, many employers unfortunately assume: 1) the candidate will be taking a pay cut if employed; 2) the candidate will leave the position if and when the legal job market improves for a higher paying job in the legal sector; and 3) that while employed, the candidate will inevitably be dissatisfied because of the lower pay.
These assumptions, while reasonable under many circumstances, are obviously not true in all cases. But that doesn’t really matter much since perception often becomes reality and provides a rationale for rejection.
Finally, many people in our society, including employers, have a strong prejudice against lawyers. They don’t like us. Why do you think there are so many lawyer jokes? Having a J.D. or legal experience is a conscious or unconscious strike against you in the mind of the person skimming resumes or conducting job interviews for a non-legal position.
Overcoming Obstacles for Alternative Career
Can these obstacles be overcome? Sure they can. But it never feels good hitting the job market for alternative careers knowing you have to counter these assumptions.
Successfully Pursuing Alternative Careers
The roadmap to overcome the obstacles is not terribly complex. A good story can help job-seekers contradict these anti-lawyer assumptions head on.
Here’s one from a past lawyer-coaching client of mine. She was former general counsel of a medium-sized company, where she supervised a staff of seven lawyers and five administrative assistants. She wanted to shift gears and become executive director of a non-profit. She told this story to the board of directors:
For the past 15 years, I’ve practiced law for corporateAmerica, first in private practice and more recently as general counsel. I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done but, when all is said and done, the goal for pretty much everything I did was to preserve the financial assets of a company. I now want my full-time job to have more meaning.
The mission of this non-profit is very similar to the missions of non-profit boards that I’ve previously served on. I’ve also always demonstrated a passion for helping the less fortunate in the pro bono work that I have done since becoming a lawyer.
I am very qualified for both components of the executive director position. First, you want a person with good managerial skills. As general counsel for the past seven years, I’ve successfully managed a staff of a dozen people. The staff here is similarly sized. Second, you need someone who knows how to raise money. You can see that I’ve been on numerous non-profit boards and have successfully raised money for all of them. In fact, I am presently the chair of the development committee for a non-profit board.
I am well aware that this job pays a good deal less than what I currently earn. I hope you don’t hold that against me. My spouse works and our two salaries combined will be more than sufficient for my family’s needs. In addition, my children have graduated from college. With that major expense now out of the equation, it’s unlikely that I’ll even notice the difference in salary.
This lawyer ultimately got the job she was seeking. I can’t say that I was terribly surprised. She was able to tell a very good story that answered the two most important questions one faces in any job interview.
Why do you want this job?
What makes you the most qualified candidate?
Can a legal degree always be put to use if you don’t practice law? As we tell our clients, “It depends.” It depends on the particular alternative career a lawyer is pursuing. Sometimes it can help, but sometimes it can hurt. In short, that J.D. is a wash.
(photo: Career Opportunity, Just Ahead Road Sign from Shutterstock)