Pursuing an Alternative Legal Career

If your vision of an alternative career is leaving private practice for a corporate job, your path will look like a traditional job search: revising documents, networking and information interviewing, lining up references, and a good supply of patience. You might find job postings, and you may be able to use a headhunter.

Searching for a job without the title “lawyer” and changing professional direction is different, and very, very personal.

From an applicant’s perspective, a traditional search is about the employer’s needs because the questions are “What do they need?” and “How do my traditional legal skills fit?” For an alternative career, the applicant takes center stage at the beginning, because he has to define himself and answer a host of questions, not the least of which is “What do I want to do?”

Unless you are willing to trust to luck, expect to work through five steps toward an alternative career, more fully described in my recent posts at Pass the Baton:

  • Self-assessment. You, and only you, can decide what you really want to do. If you are just beginning, connect to basic assessment tools through your law school or undergraduate career office. Be prepared to look at every part of your life including skills, interests, and financial position. If your family and friends are invested financially or psychologically in your legal career, how will you get their support for a major change? You new path may require embracing unfamiliar entrepreneurial skills. Are you prepared?
  • Research. What do other people do? Was the last time you thought about career paths during your sophomore year of college? Because the only lawyers who know the nuts and bolts of what non-lawyers do are in workers’ compensation practices, you may need to combine the broad perspective of an undergrad career office with the nuanced legal alternative career information in your law school career office to identify new paths.
  • Purposeful and serendipitous networking. Combining research and networking skills to learn about potential career paths can create powerful momentum. Best opening line: “I have read a lot about _____, and I have some questions for you.” Worst opening line: “Tell me everything you know about _____.”
  • Patience. Expect a barbecue-like long and slow process, not a “ramen noodles” quick-fix career shift. Expecting dramatic career change in the blink of an eye is magical thinking.
  • Value your transferable skills for the market. Having identified the job that you want, don’t be discouraged to find that other people have trained for it. You can explain and enhance your value by showing what you know about the job, the business, and the industry, and by putting your legal skills in that context.

Thousands of lawyers leave traditional practice every year. Your energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, and patience should get you on your way to a career path branded just for you.

(photo: rx_kamakshi)

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  • Jim Allen

    The key phrase here is “know thyself.” Of course, the hope is you’ve done some introspection before deciding to enter law school, but even if you’re one of those who “drifted” in for another reason, it’s never too late to self-assess and change course. Exhibit A: Gretchen Rubin, who graduated Yale Law School (where she was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal), and was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she really wanted to be a writer. Her book, The Happiness Project, is now at the top of the best-seller lists. And she’s happy.