Law Practice Today | August 2013 | Young Lawyers Survival Guide (Part II)
August 2013 | Young Lawyers Survival Guide (Part II)
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FEATURE

Young Lawyers' Examine the Benefits of Non-Traditional Work Experience (Roundtable)

Moderated by Nicholas Gaffney

For decades, the path to a successful law career has remained largely unchanged. However, the days of being able to rely on the traditional career framework may be ending. A weak economy and growing interest in the field mean competition for entry-level law firm positions is fierce.

Seeking to set themselves apart, today’s young attorneys are discovering that unique backstories and non-traditional experiences, rather than diligent adherence to the tried-and-true career track, can make them stand out.

To help the next generation of attorneys get ahead of an ever-growing crowd, we called on young lawyers who have bucked the traditional path and draw on their non-legal backgrounds to enhance their legal practices. We would like to thank the following participants for sharing their secrets and hard-earned lessons:

Kimela R. West, Associate at Husch Blackwell, LLP

T.R. Bynum III, Associate at Husch Blackwell, LLP

Athena Hou, Partner at Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason LLP

Jeffrey M. Chemerinsky, Attorney at Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC

Kelly Perigoe, Attorney at Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC

Peter Maris, Associate at SmithAmundsen LLC

Unique Experiences Benefit Lawyers

The traditional road to success in law is well-established: aspiring attorneys major in liberal arts, enter law school, join a firm, and work their way up the ladder. An uncertain economic climate may make hopeful lawyers even more hesitant to deviate from the well-worn path, but breaking from the mold has its advantages.

“Individuals who take the nontraditional route to law bring unique experiences to the profession,” says Kimela R. West, an associate at Husch Blackwell in St. Louis. “These attorneys often bring diverse and valuable perspectives from their work and life experiences.”

Kelly Perigoe, an attorney at Los Angeles-based Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, agrees. “Lawyers are taught to ‘think like lawyers,’ but it can be advantageous to think like a non-lawyer as well—particularly when interacting with and serving clients who are not lawyers. It gives a lawyer a bigger picture of the constraints and motivations of her client, which can help shape a legal strategy that best serves the client.”

Postponing law school means a longer path toward becoming an attorney, but entering the workforce before law school can be invaluable. “The best preparation for being a lawyer is not necessarily a set pre-law curriculum,” notes Jeffrey M. Chemerinsky, also an attorney at Caldwell Leslie & Proctor. “Much of being a lawyer is about interacting with people—colleagues, clients, judges or juries—and having a variety of experiences can really help with this.”

Following a nontraditional avenue to law school yields a professional savvy that is not only beneficial, but necessary. Athena Hou, a partner at Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason practicing in San Francisco, says that it is important to learn the “practical” skills—“communication, leadership, management, networking, and presentation”—that make a successful legal career possible, yet are not covered in law school.

This knowledge is central to practicing law, but students must actively pursue learning it outside the classroom. Hou notes that a “non-traditional route to law often gives a rich life experience that she can bank on later in legal practice.”

Different Paths

The flexibility available in pursuing a career allows young people to experiment with working in different industries. Even if they do not intend to be a lawyer from the beginning, they can later realize this is the career for them—and, most importantly, it will still be a possibility.

Peter Maris, an associate in SmithAmundsen’s Chicago office, initially lived in New York City, pursuing a career in theater and “waiting tables and working in restaurants to pay the bills in between jobs.” He says that “several of the acting jobs I’ve had were some of the most gratifying work I’ve done.” When he entered law school, Maris found that his performance experience was great preparation for a legal career. “Learning and pursuing the arts taught me to think creatively, and I learned a lot about examining and interpreting words and speaking publicly.”

 “My pre-law experience is perhaps not a model of a ‘reasoned’ approach to joining the bar,” says T.R. Bynum III, an associate at St. Louis’ Husch Blackwell LLP who dropped out of college before working in construction and then joining the police force. He was an officer and detective for eight years before applying to law school. “In the end, quality work experience is the achievement for which formal schooling can only demonstrate an aptitude. My employment conclusively demonstrated to the litigators with whom I interviewed that I knew what evidence was and that I was not afraid of appearing in court.”

Our panelists agreed that having a variety of experiences is extremely beneficial when interacting with clients. Life experience provides lawyers with a greater background to draw from, which helps them connect with clients.

Adds Chemerinsky, “There is no way to know how different experiences will shape and help a lawyer on his or her way.  For example, I have a colleague who worked in the music industry for a number of years.  I'm convinced the experience helped shape his understanding of how to work collaboratively with others and the group effort that is often required to successfully litigate a case.”

West credits her experience as a deputy probation officer for Los Angeles County as training in building and maintaining client relationships. “I was able to be an advocate for my clients, which allowed me to view the legal profession from a different perspective,” she says. “I think this has helped me because I’m a better advocate for the clients that I assist today.”

Turning Unique Experiences into Career Success

The standard formula for a legal career is evolving. Rather than setting attorneys back, different experiences and preparation methods expand lawyers’ opportunities once they begin to practice.

“There are a lot of opportunities before, during, or after law school to work in a law firm, at a public interest organization, or in a judicial chambers,” says Perigoe. “Because law school is generally not focused on practical skills, these types of experiences can be invaluable in preparing a young attorney for practice.  These experiences also expose law students or young attorneys to different practice areas and can inform an attorney's choice to specialize early on.”

Hou has a very different background. She grew up and worked in China before coming to the United States for school. She says that her experiences in China before going to law school “provided me with a unique opportunity to appreciate and understand the economic and social networks as well as legal practice in China, which is important to my practice today as I advise on cross-border legal issues and work with co-counsel in China.” 

Regardless of a person’s background before deciding to pursue law, all aspiring lawyers can take concrete steps to improve themselves as candidates for hire and promotion. And it’s no secret, that much of it is law-related.

Perigoe, who gained experience by working at a plaintiff-side personal injury firm and for federal judges and attorneys, said that experiencing legal work from different angles gave her a deeper understanding of the field. “Each of these experiences taught me skills that I use in practice, and each experience helped me determine which areas of the law most interested me.”

If you already have an idea of what you might want to specialize in, says West, one “way to prepare for the practice of law is to observe or ‘shadow’ an attorney to get a better feel for the profession.” This can also help you cross out potential specializations that are not for you.

Hou and her colleagues often meet with and offer advice to “prospective and current law students who are interested in knowing the daily routine of practicing law.” She also knows aspiring attorneys “who volunteer at non-profit organizations to gain experience working with people of different backgrounds, or to hone their communication and/or legal skills.” 

Using What You Know and Finding What You Love

Unique experiences gained before entering the legal field allow attorneys to carve their own niche in the industry. Especially in this time of emerging sectors, such as the tech and green spaces, lawyers with non-traditional backgrounds and uncommon areas of expertise are finding and filling needs that did not exist in previous generations.

“We live in the era of specialization—there is no disputing that,” says Bynum. “Our clients, like all of us, are twenty-first century thinkers, and they require expertise.”

That said, for young lawyers just entering the field, working on a variety of different matters can be critical to gaining the necessary experience for later on. Hou remembers that “many of my friends at law school knew what type of law they wanted to focus on when they were in school; they have passion for that field.  For other people, it takes a little bit of exploration to find where their heart is.”

Chemerinsky agrees. “Our firm expects all of its new lawyers to be ‘generalists.’ The idea is that by starting with a general practice, the attorneys can then determine what interests them and develop a specialty.  The skills, requiring analytic rigor and careful attention to detail, are of course transferrable between different areas of litigation (and the law in general).  It also builds confidence, knowing that you can quickly pick up and master a whole new area of the law.”

Working for a firm that supports new lawyers pursuing their interests is also important, according to Maris. He says, “SmithAmundsen, my current employer, is very proactive about encouraging young lawyers to determine and pursue the type of work they prefer doing,” which can lead them naturally to the specialization right for them. “As a second-year associate, I feel that I’m still learning about what kind of specialization I’d like to focus on.”

Bynum says that “the key for a ‘non-traditional’ law student [is] to find a workplace that values your pre-law experience and does not punish you for it. That said, times change and people change; I know several attorneys who, perhaps because of lack of exposure, did not find what they now believe to be their real callings until after entering practice.”

Chemerinsky enjoys watching his fellow lawyers change and find what they love to do. “Some of my law school classmates have the exact practice they wanted when they graduated, but many have branched out and found new areas.  It's fun watching my friends build different practices and find niches that suit them.”

Making a Difference at the Firm

Once hired, young lawyers can create value for their firm in many ways, by drawing on their personal experiences, working hard, and executing the skills they have learned over the years, regardless of where those years were spent.

“Added value comes when a lawyer can tap into a unique or diverse background and experience that he or she brings to the firm,” says Perigoe. “Whether it be in working the cases the firm has or in helping to develop the firm’s business.”

Bynum advises that lawyers should always be aware of the business side of the legal industry. “No one likes to think of his employer this way, [but] all firms are constant participants in the labor market,” he says. “One’s value inside of his firm (at least after having gained some level of legal proficiency) is a rough approximation of his value outside of the firm.  The same things, whether they be technical (brief writing/research) or ‘soft’ skills (managing relationships), which would be valuable if an attorney resorted to the market are the same things which should make that attorney’s current employer try to keep him.”

Hou also notes the value of business development, saying that “networking, networking and networking” is a great way to help one’s firm. “It takes time to build one’s network, which is a necessity in today’s legal market. Start early and learn the ropes by perhaps tagging along with someone who is savvy about it.”

In this regard, Bynum adds, lawyers with non-traditional backgrounds can use their experiences to their advantage. “This is also where attorneys with ‘real world’ experience can do very well, because having been employed previously, even in another profession, is an indicator of marketability.”

Gaining those work and life experiences continues to help lawyers throughout their careers, and their lives outside the office. As the latest generation of lawyers shifts away from the tried-and-true legal career track, perhaps the most important message is to not focus on reaching an end goal, but rather to keep going forward.

As Bynum says, “I still do not know what I want to be when I grow up.”

  

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About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is a lawyer and former journalist who directs the San Francisco office of Infinite Public Relations. He can be reached at 415-732-7801 or ngaffney@infinitepr.com.


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