September 17, 2014

Advice on tackling search for alternative career

Just because you have a law degree, does not obligate you to practice law. Some lawyers seek alternative career paths for personal fulfillment while others branch out for economic reasons related to the difficult job market. 

Career experts gave advice to lawyers on the steps to take in an alternative career search and how to approach the task during the American Bar Association webinar “Alternative Careers: One Degree, Plenty of Latitude,” sponsored by the ABA Center for Professional Development.

When beginning an alternative career search, you must first complete a self-assessment, said Cheryl Heisler, president and founder of Lawternatives, which provides career counseling for lawyers. Heisler herself transitioned from practicing law to the alternative role of brand manager in a major corporation.

“You have to look inward and hold a mirror up to who you are, what you like, what’s important to you,” she said.

Your next step is to do a market assessment to “drill deeper” into the areas that interest you, Heisler said. She recommended educating yourself about the field by reading industry publications, adding that if the topics can’t hold your attention, then that field is probably not the best fit for you.

After doing your homework on the industry, you need to talk to people in the field. Marc Luber, founder of JD Careers Out There, an online video resource helping lawyers find fulfilling career paths, described informational interviews as “essential” for lawyers looking to transfer to a different field. “When you are out exploring what to do with your law degree beyond practicing law, talking with other people will help you discover the many ways that a law background can be applied, and it will help you envision yourself in one of those roles,” he said.

Luber suggested meeting with lots of people in their actual workplaces, which can provide you a “sneak peek” into the environment. He also recommended asking for referrals of other people who have transitioned out of law.

Finally, it’s time to get out there and sell yourself to land your desired job. When discussing your work experience, Heisler suggested finding ways to present your technical legal skills as transferable skills. For example, if you do legal research and writing, you can highlight how a good legal writer has to be able to organize and analyze content, write persuasively and make deadlines, which are all valuable skills in other industries.

“Remember the burden is on you to explain how your background is an asset,” Luber said.

He advised to avoid playing into the stereotypes of lawyers. “Listen more than you speak. Don’t perpetuate the stereotype that no one can get a word in when a lawyer’s around,” he explained. “Drop all the legalese. Speak like a human with warmth and creativity.”

Also, be sensitive to your audience, Luber said. “Too many lawyers think it’s persuasive to say that just because you’re a lawyer, you’re therefore smarter and able to learn any job,” he said. That’s not persuasive and could be taken as condescending by someone from a different background who has worked hard in their field, he explained.

For more information on alternative careers, panelists recommended checking out “The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention: Essential Survival Skills for Any Economy” by Pamela Mitchell, the “Thrillable Hours” interview series about alternative careers for lawyers on the blog Legal Nomads and Brazen Life, a lifestyle and career blog for young professionals.

Kathy Morris, who founded Under Advisement Ltd. in 1988 to assist lawyers in their job searches and to help them manage their careers, moderated the webinar, part of the CareerAdvice LIVE! series of free monthly webinars for ABA members. Past programs are available on demand for free to ABA members and cost $95 per program for non-members.