Above the Law

After law school, I took an unpaid internship. When I got my first music industry job in Los Angeles, I was severely underpaid. I sometimes wondered if the job required a high school degree, let alone a law degree. If you asked me then, I would have told you that a JD is a joke and that you should stay away from law school at all costs.

But now, I take issue with the idea that “’you can do anything with a law degree’ is a vicious lie.” Articles like these do nothing for unemployed law grads (except provoke righteous indignation) and discourage the many unhappy practicing lawyers from leaving law for paths that better fit their souls.

As a legal recruiter, I encountered well-paid, unhappy lawyers on a daily basis. Too often, they felt stuck. They had discovered that law didn’t fit them, but they didn’t know whether there was anything else they could do. Fear of perceived failure, fear of letting down their relatives, not knowing what they could do with a law degree or how to reinvent themselves, and negative, misleading articles like the one in Slate would keep them suffering in silence.

I get where the article’s author, Jim Saksa, is coming from. I feel his pain because I’ve been there. I went to law school because I was told it was a great background to have for the music business. During my summer associate position in the legal department at a record label in New York City, I concluded that there was no chance I wanted to practice law. I even considered dropping out of school at that point, but since I had never been a quitter, I stuck it out because I was sure it would help me get hired.

Little did I know that when I’d go to interview for non-law jobs in the music business, I’d be met with resistance. I was told I was overqualified, that I’d be too expensive, that I must be too much of a smarty-pants for these types of jobs and that I’m crazy to not just go practice law and make money.

But I was persistent. When I first reached out to a historic live music company about jobs, I was told they didn’t have a position for me. So I drove across the country, showed up at their office and asked again. I had to take a 3-month unpaid internship – but that led to a paid gig on a Rolling Stone’s tour, so I can’t complain!

These little successes had nothing to do with my law degree. My friends in similar situations agreed that rather than going to law school, we may as well have traveled the world for 3 years – it would have been a lot more fun and a hell of a lot cheaper.

But over time, as we saw how our career paths and our peers’ career paths developed, we all started singing a different tune. Let me tell you what we learned:

1. Rather than looking at your JD as a degree, look at it as an education. The building and honing of a skill set.

2. A career is more of a marathon than a sprint. Your background might not pay off in the first minute of the journey, but it can sure help you along the way.

Looking at a JD as a degree and wondering whether you can do “anything” with that degree puts you in the mindset of expecting that piece of paper to make magic happen. Like people will see “JD” attached to your name and doors will open, seas will part, and angelic choir sounds will announce your presence.

That’s basically an entitlement mindset. “I have a degree, so where’s my job?”

I remember thinking that way like it was yesterday. I see others do it all the time today in my interactions with recent law grads. Even in a great economy, it’s a dangerous way of thinking.

If you look at the JD as the building and honing of a skill set, you’re forced to look inward. And self-assessment is one of the most essential parts of both choosing the right career and getting hired. If you don’t know what you’re all about, how can you choose a path that fits you? Similarly, if you don’t know what you bring to the table, how are you going to convince an employer that you’ve got what they need?

When you go to law school, you build skills in research, writing, analytical thinking, advocacy, issue spotting, problem solving, discipline, and the list goes on. These are leadership skills that could benefit any organization. Combine these with your own special something – some might call this your calling – and you bring some great stuff to the table.

Once I figured out how to communicate what I brought to the table, my law background became an asset and was the reason I got hired for future jobs. But this can take time. You can’t necessarily skip the career path-foundation-building of entry-level positions and leapfrog over everybody else in non-legal careers. But thanks to the special skills you bring to the table, you eventually may be seen as an asset to an organization and considered for leadership roles.

Yes, the unemployment numbers for law grads are bleak right now. But I have interviewed accomplished law grads in all kinds of fields for my site, JD Careers Out There, and they all say that a law degree is an asset in their fields. For example, Human Resources Executive published a great piece on the value of a JD in the HR industry. A friend of mine who is a VP of HR at a giant, publicly traded company told me today that her team looks for JDs to hire into non-legal positions in their employee relations area. She also said they hire plenty of attorneys to work in non-legal capacities in other departments like finance and investments.

Here’s a tip: Find the JDs in the field you want to work in and find out how they got there. If you need a place to start, check out my leaving law videos.

Of course, the aim of Saksa’s article is to discourage people from going to law school in the first place.

Should you go to law school just because it might help you in certain paths? No. Should you go to law school because your dad says you can do anything with a law degree or because your Jewish mother will be impressed? Absolutely not. I talk to more unhappy lawyers who stay in law because of family pressures than almost any other reason.

But your decision to go to law school should not be driven by negative articles either. Instead, do some self-assessment and career research to figure out what paths fit you. Find out what these careers are really like and what you need to do to break in. Balance that with the costs of law school, your personal financial situation and goals, and what you see as the long-term benefits of building and honing this special skill set. You can work and get some professional experience while you figure this out – in fact, I recommend that. Then when you go to law school, you can be confident that it was the right decision for you.

If you didn’t do all of this before law school, don’t despair. It’s not too late to shake things up. When athletes go onto the field or court and a play fails to go their way, they rely on their training and coaching to try something different that uses their unique skills and plays into their strengths. Just like those athletes, you’ve gone through years of training and skills building. It’s time to craft your next play to put all that to use so your law degree can help you with a wide variety of career paths.

Marc Luber is the founder of JD Careers Out There, a day-in-the-life video website exploring what to do with a law degree and how to get there.