The other night, a commenter with insomnia wrote:
Is there someone living in Flint, Michigan who will exchange their $18,000 house for my worthless JD? I will even take over the payments from your inflated mortgage. My piece of paper does not even provide shelter for my skinny ass. In exchange you could be a practicing attorney doing work that a trained chimpanzee could perform.
As Biglaw continues its painful unwinding, and as even contract attorney work becomes hard to obtain, holders of J.D. degrees have been asking: What else can I do with my legal education? Hence our occasional series on career alternatives for attorneys.
This was the subject of a panel discussion entitled Exploring the Range of Options With Your JD. It was the third panel at Tuesday’s conference, co-sponsored by the New York City Bar and Vault, on Getting Back in the Game: How to Restart Your Career in a Down Economy.
Read about the panelists and their perspectives, after the jump.
MAUREEN REID (moderator), founder, Maureen M. Reid, LLC;
TANYA GILL, Litigation Management, DLA Piper;
HILLARY MANTIS, Author, Alternative Careers for Lawyers and Jobs For Lawyers: Effective Techniques for Getting Hired in Today’s Legal Marketplace; and
Hillary Mantis kicked off the discussion with this observation: “The good news is, you can do anything with a law degree. The bad news is, you can do anything with a law degree.” A legal education is broadly applicable to many fields. Lawyers have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs, award-winning journalists, and television celebrities (or the talent agents who represent them). But this sheer breadth of choice also makes the process of settling upon an alternate career path that much harder.
According to Mantis, the process of figuring out an alternative career can take months, maybe even half a year. Before deciding to move on from law, think about whether there is something else you might want to do within the legal profession. It could be that one legal job that isn’t a good fit is tainting your view of the entire field. Don’t jump too quickly; take the time to think through all your options.
This is exactly what Tanya Gill did when searching for a new career. She knew she liked working in a law firm environment, but she wanted to find a position that would provide her with greater satisfaction on a day-to-day, process-oriented level. She engaged in a careful self-assessment and due diligence process, during which she spoke to approximately 200 people and took various personality tests. All indicators pointed in the same direction: a career in management, where she’d be able to work more with people and less with abstractions. Gill now works in the field of law firm management, for DLA Piper in New York.
Like Gill, Lisa Solomon also still works in the legal field. In fact, her “alternative” career may be the least alternative of the group: she runs a legal research and writing practice, assisting other attorneys with their research and writing needs.
Solomon’s path to career satisfaction could serve as a comforting tale for today’s young lawyers. She came out of law school during the last major recession, without an offer from a large law firm. She worked as a litigator for a small firm for a few years. When she and her husband, also a lawyer, decided to start a family, they concluded that it didn’t make sense for both of them to work as lawyers for others.
Solomon left her firm. She worked as a trainer for Lexis-Nexis for a time, before deciding it wasn’t a good fit for her. But she was open to opportunity, which soon came knocking. A law firm she had previously worked at as a paralegal wanted someone to write coverage opinions for them, which could be done remotely. She started doing this work, just as the technology facilitating outsourcing and telecommuting was starting to come into its own. Eventually she picked up other clients and made the transition to running her own business.
According to Solomon, the most important skill for someone in her situation is business development and marketing. Fortunately, this is all about persuasion — which lawyers are trained to do. If you’re going to work as a freelancer or small business owner, you need to learn how to market yourself. When marketing yourself, speak in terms of the benefits that your prospective employer would gain from bringing you on board; the focus shouldn’t be on you, but on how you can help your employer or client.
If you’re a freelance lawyer who is looking for clients, you should focus not on large or even medium-sized firms, but on small firms or solo practitioners. These are the lawyers who need extra research and writing help — but not all of the time. The Biglaw shops aren’t going to be your clients; they already have armies of associates. Because you can work all over the country, you can develop business through online networking. Incorporation is not necessary, but you should have malpractice insurance.
During the question-and-answer session, the panelists offered concrete tips to lawyers exploring alternative careers:
Earlier: Breaking Back into Biglaw
Casting a Wider Net: Small to Mid-Sized Law Firms