GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2005
So What Else Can You Do with Your Law Degree?
Networking and informational interviewing for a job may not be as exciting as an evening at the theater, but an experienced business lawyer was so effective doing the former that she now gets paid to spend time attending the latter as publications director for a major performing arts theater.
Many lawyers envy her transition into a creative and non-confrontational field, doing work she loves. This is because the legal community is finally acknowledging a fact that many lawyers have known for some time—that we do not all want to be like Perry Mason. Although there are many lawyers quite satisfied with their choice of profession, not all law school graduates want to appear in court, work for a big firm, handle large or complex cases, spend the majority of their waking hours in their offices, or even earn top dollar. Instead, many want the opportunity to explore and pursue alternative options, both in and outside of the law. They want to further examine quality-of-life and work-style issues. They want to have work that they love, or at least work that they feel good about.
Previously it was presumed that a law graduate would go to work as an associate for a firm, work hard for six or seven years, make partner, then ease up a bit and enjoy the fruits of past labor and continued good work. That presumption has died with the downsizing, restructuring, and merging of law firms. Not only are many law students and licensed practitioners unable to find jobs, but associates and partners wait for the knock on the office door announcing their forced departure. And perhaps most troubling, many practitioners fortunate enough to have stable employment seem less happy than ever.
Although the maxim “no job is perfect, that’s why you get paid” may be particularly appropriate today, growing numbers of lawyers are questioning their career choice. There have always been many individuals dissatisfied with their work; however, in earlier decades, people repressed discontent because loyalty and continuity were prized. Today, job hopping and lateral transfers are the norm, and many law firms now have no more loyalty to their employees than their employees have to them.
The options available after years of dedicated practice at a firm also are changing. For example, firms have invented new categories for associates—such as permanent associate, of counsel, or special counsel—who will not be offered a piece of the partnership pie. For some associates these are promising developments, alleviating the stress caused by partnership track competition and rainmaking requirements. But for others it is an insult to their efforts and the countless hours billed for the firm at the expense of their private lives.
Remaking Your Legal Career
Many dissatisfied practitioners initially believe that they need to quit the practice of law. However, simply obtaining information on how to stay in law and develop career satisfaction, with only minor adjustments to a current working situation, may suffice to remedy the frustrations. Adjustments could include a move to an office with a different culture, a different area of law, or a different type of client.
Individuals who have worked only at one or two law offices often are surprised at the varied dynamics of other offices. It is often the intra-office relations that either make work enjoyable or contribute to its aggravations. Look around and talk to attorneys in other offices about their office culture and relationships; perhaps you should consider a move.
If it isn’t a change of colleagues that is needed, some lawyers find that a move to a different type of practice, one that removes some of the stress, is enough. For example, if discomfort is caused by the confrontation necessary in a litigation practice, consider switching to a more transactional practice. Or, as one of my counseling clients discovered, all that was necessary for him to avoid the anxiety created by contentiousness and confrontation was to develop an appellate practice at his firm.
Attorneys who love the law in its theoretical rather than its practical application often can find contentment working in research and writing positions with the courts, legal book publishers, research services, or even in a law firm’s appellate department.
If you are investigating law practice options, bar associations have sections in an assortment of practice areas and interests. Professional publications, including those produced by bar association sections, provide insights into new practice areas or new fields and also may have job listings. Attending specialty association (for example, the Lawyer-Pilots Bar Association or the Computer Law Association) or bar section meetings and conventions creates excellent opportunities to meet people who work in one of your targeted fields and can provide a reality check for you.
Perhaps it is time to leave the world of private practice. Some practitioners leave law firms to work as corporate in-house counsel, using their legal skills as part of a team to further the business of their employers. Similarly, lawyering in a nonprofit organization, one that promotes values and issues prized by the lawyer, can reinvigorate interest. And sometimes there are opportunities within the parameters of these jobs to exercise other skills, such as legislative analysis and drafting, policy planning, or lobbying. Lawyers also are teaching legal subjects in law, business, real estate, paralegal, and court reporting schools. Additionally, many practitioners work within bar associations, universities, and colleges, handling the legal business of these entities. And, of course, legions of lawyers work within almost every department of the local, state, and federal governments.
Creating Alternative Work Arrangements
In lieu of changing jobs, some practitioners are staying put in their practice areas but are seeking alternative work schedules to allow time for cultivating interests both in and outside of law. As this phenomenon grows, the demand to accommodate part-time lawyering and alternative work arrangements will escalate. This bodes well for those who desire quality time in and out of the law office.
For those seeking to use their legal background in a less intensive, all-consuming style, the part-time and contract practice of law have become hot topics both for individual lawyers and for law firms. With the downsizing of some firms and influx of work in others, there is a growing demand for both contract lawyers, who work on a temporary, hourly basis, and part-time lawyers, who work as permanent employees on a reduced work schedule.
Lawyers also are exploring alter-native work arrangements such as telecommuting (where the lawyer works with a phone and computer from a location other than the law office, hooked up to the office by modem and fax) and job sharing (where two lawyers each work a reduced schedule, either sharing cases or maintaining their own caseload, and share office space and support staff). In a job-sharing arrangement, the two attorneys often prorate benefits so that the firm is paying only benefits, such as health insurance, vacation, and sick leave, as if for one full-time lawyer.
Slowly, firms are revamping their attitudes and policies about less-than-full-time lawyers. No longer are these lawyers thought to be less worthy. In fact a good part-time or contract lawyer often is envied for the ability to organize and handle complicated legal matters in a short time frame, thereby creating the benefit of financial economy for the firm. Contract lawyers often market them- selves to a potential hiring firm on their ability to pick up a file, review only the important information, handle the matter efficiently, and produce a finished product for the firm, all without the need to pay for anything except the time the contract lawyer spent on the specified project.
Leaving the Law
Many lawyers who contact me do not simply want to reduce their work hours; they want to change their focus and stop practicing law entirely. If these former practitioners enjoy working with lawyers, they can explore the industries that serve law firms or produce products for use by lawyers, or even set up their own businesses providing consultations to other lawyers in areas of self-developed expertise. Businesses that provide services and products to lawyers are expanding rapidly—computer consulting, legal product development and design, law book sales, practice management, office design, jury consulting, and legal software development, to name just a few. Look at the display ads in various legal publications to get an idea about the varied businesses that cater to law firms, many of which hire former lawyers to service those firms.
In my experience, most lawyers who initially express a desire to leave the practice of law remain in law or a law-related field. I am not aware of any study documenting where lawyers go who change jobs or careers, but an overview of my past clients indicates that less than 20 percent divorce themselves completely from law. Even those who do totally leave the law continue to draw on the skills they developed in law practice, because those skills are broad-based and valuable. Legal training is very beneficial in the development of useful, transferable skills that are much in demand in the workplace. Both legal education and legal work provide excellent training in analytical thinking, communication, writing, and persuasiveness—skills that can be used in many endeavors.
The previously mentioned former lawyer who now has a job as publications director at the performing arts theater parlayed her legal training and practice abilities in writing, editing, interviewing, organizing information, researching, and giving attention to detail into a half-time job as a publications consultant with the theater group. She eventually moved into a full-time position as the publications director, with responsibilities for reading upcoming plays, writing about them for the program books, interviewing the actors and directors, and attending the plays.
Another lawyer used the persuasion, organization, and communication skills she developed in law practice to move into the fund-raising arena with a law school alumni office, a medical center, and a nonprofit organization as its public relations and development director. She then became an independent consultant on fund-raising and grant writing.
The skills developed as a trial lawyer can be parlayed into related fields. Some litigators, tired of the confrontation and posturing necessary when advocating on a client’s behalf, have investigated mediation or the developing field of ombudsman. These former advocates may continue to engage in client contact, counseling, and analytical thinking but are freed from the pressure to prevail.
Moving even further from traditional legal training, but using the same client contact and counseling skills, increasing numbers of lawyers have decided to return to school to train to become psychologists or therapists.
If you are considering a move out of the practice of law, you must honestly examine your skills and knowledge, then determine how they might segue into an alternative work arena. For example, if you are an employment lawyer with experience in discrimination issues and enjoy counseling and teaching people rather than sparring with opposition counsel, you might look into a position in either a human resources department or with a human resources consulting company doing diversity training. If you have worked in real estate law, perhaps you could find a niche working with a real estate development company or managing a real estate portfolio for a bank or insurance company.
Some former lawyers travel even farther afield, with careers as varied as humor consultant, retail storeowner, and land-use planner. There are former lawyers who are art professors, journalists, humane society presidents, career counselors, gardeners, chefs, screenwriters, stockbrokers, and literary agents. Many lawyers say that, although they no longer practice law, their legal training was extremely helpful to their transition and gave them credibility they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Lawyers contemplating change are in good company. Consider the following one-time attorneys: Mahatma Gandhi (Inner Temple, London, 1891); Sir Thomas More ( Lincoln’s Inn, London, 1501); Peter Tchaikovsky (School of Jurisprudence, St. Petersburg, 1859); Studs Terkel (University of Chicago, 1934); Fidel Castro (University of Havana, 1950); and Howard Cosell (New York University, 1940). Other former lawyers include the two founders of the California Pizza Kitchen restaurant chain; the founders of Nolo Press, a self-help legal book publisher; and Mortimer Zuckerman, a real estate tycoon and the owner of the magazine U.S. News & World Report.
To increase your chances of creating a more satisfying work life, spend time identifying your preferred skills, values, and interests. For most individuals, this requires time spent with a good career counselor, or at the very least time spent alone in honest and in-depth self-assessment. With knowledge of the skills and interests you possess and desire to use, and the values that motivate you, you can more easily focus on those jobs or fields that will permit the full use of your skills, integration of values important to you, and satisfaction of your interests.
After self-assessment, the next step is researching the options that arouse your interest, fit your self-assessment profile, and encompass other mandatory criteria, such as location, status, and income. Be open to various options—they may be within, related to, or outside of law. Jobs can be identified by reading articles about people, talking to others and asking them what they do for a living, and reading the employment want ads in both legal and lay publications.
Once you identify several interesting options, you should obtain information about your new industry or field via trade associations and newsletters. Consult the Encyclopedia of Associations, published by Gale Research Inc. and available at most public libraries, for the names of relevant associations and their locations, focus, and publications. Join associations that are in your area of interest in order to meet people working in your prospective field. These people will be useful to you for inside information on the realities of working in that field as well as leads to potential job openings.
It is very important to pursue the contacts and information gleaned at these meetings and from the publications. These contacts are much more likely to result in concrete job leads and personalized attention than would sending an unsolicited résumé, especially for a lawyer who is dramatically changing legal focus or careers.
Job change, and career change even more so, takes focus, energy, and time. The choices are limited only by your preference, imagination, and ambition. Career re-evaluation and change often are stressful and discomforting and can cause great insecurity, but they can also have extremely positive results. As a former-lawyer turned nonprofit administrator emphatically told a career counseling audience, “I have misgivings sometimes when I look at my paycheck, but never when I look at my life.”
Hindi Greenberg, JD, is the president of Lawyers in Transition. She presents programs to bar associations and law schools across North America and consults with individual lawyers nationwide on career satisfaction and options in and out of law and with law firms on retaining or outplacing their attorneys. She is the author of The Lawyer’s Career Change Handbook, now in a second edition. She may be reached at 530/274-7955 or via the website www.lawyersintransition.com.