Above the Law

2009 is well known within the legal industry as the year there were more attorneys laid off than in all of the previous years combined. It is also the year that the number of people who took the LSAT exam reached a record high. Though law school applications have since dropped precipitously, that dichotomy remains a problem. There continue to be more licensed attorneys than there are legal jobs available in the current economy.

Exacerbating the problem, in contrast to other periods of sluggish hiring of attorneys, many observers consider recent developments in the industry, e.g. clients unwilling to pay for first years’ work or GC’s sending their doc review work directly to India, to be structural changes in the market, signaling that the anemic number of legal jobs available is unlikely to improve.

Whether as a result of market forces or by personal choice–(since even in the strongest hiring markets, a substantial number of lawyers have wanted to leave the law)–an increasing number of attorneys are saying to themselves…

• I have a law degree but am not sure I want to practice law.
• I can’t/don’t want to go back to grad school.
• I know what I don’t want to do, but am not sure what I want to do.
• I don’t know what types of positions it makes sense for me to consider at this point.
• I see postings for jobs I know I could do, but I have submitted hundreds of resumes and gotten no responses.

Well aware that the numbers make clear it is in their interest to avoid being relegated to the growing pile of resumes submitted for traditional “law” jobs, the question of many law school graduates remains: How?

Expanding Your Options v. “Alternative Careers”
The disconnect between the record number of lawyers being laid off while a record number of people applied to law school in the same year was partly a result of the mainstream media being slow to cover the crisis in the legal market. As the economic downturn worsened, several general media outlets began to cover the industry and point to “alternative careers for attorneys.”

For attorneys—many of whom are by nature risk averse and for the most part are hard workers who have played by the rules–even using the word “alternative” can be problematic. Some regard any discussion of alternative careers to be reminiscent of “alternative lifestyles” or Eastern medicine, or to imply that one could not succeed on the “regular” path. Many attorneys—including those who are unhappy in their work—consider being a lawyer to be part of their identity. Being called a “recovering lawyer” is most often meant in jest but frequently taken as an insult, as it sounds like some sort of AA program.

In their coverage of “alternative careers for attorneys,” the media didn’t necessarily get their terms right, including under the “alternative career” umbrella attorneys who:

• go in-house,
• work for the government,
• hang out their own shingle, and/or
• do non-profit or public interest law.
(In Tough Job Market, Law Grads Use J.D.s for Nonlegal Work, U.S. News & World Report, 2011).

Those are, of course, not alternative careers for lawyers but in fact are legal careers outside of law firms.

Other articles defined “alternative careers” correctly but provided zero information on how attorneys can move from one field to the other and very vague ideas of what those alternatives might look like. For example, another 2011 article in U.S. News & World Report, entitled Alternative Career Options for Burned-Out Lawyers: Experience in Law Can Serve As A Springboard To Other Careers, provided a list that included:

• therapist,
• teaching,
• coaching,
• public speaking,
• advocacy work, and
• entrepreneurship.

A number of attorneys provided online comments to this article, and the following are representative of their tone.

I agree that this article is stupid, and so is every article out there like it. People in the alternative fields mentioned want to hire someone with experience in that field, not a lawyer who is only there because there are no legal jobs.

Suggesting that a lawyer can get hired in another profession for having “great people or negotiating skills” is ridiculous. Suggesting that someone just go “start a business” is also idiotic.

People out of law school with massive amounts of debt and just coming to the realization that they wasted 3 years of their life in an investment that’s never going to pan out have zero interest in starting it all over for a profession that makes a fraction of the salary.


I have some exceptional communication, analytical, and writing skills. I have a great deal of passion, compassion, and people skills…I am from a very good law school and undergraduate school. YET, THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE WORK FOR ME IS A GAS STATION. I agree. This article was stupid…I cannot start a business. Yes, I can teach but neither the job nor the money is adequate as unless I was teaching at university level (and that ain’t real), I ain’t interested. I could be a salesman, like I want to do that…GIVE ME A BREAK. Bus driver or gas station. ONLY options for me.

These sentiments are harsh, but definitely not uncommon and totally understandable. Who wouldn’t be frustrated and disgruntled–having invested the time, money, and effort to become a licensed professional and to build an expertise–at the difficulty of finding a job in their field in the current market?

Universities generally do not do a good job of helping people who are good at school figure out how to leverage that in getting a job. That is why a significant number of people went to law school in the first place. Now, several years older and with much larger financial obligations, many attorneys are furious.

No doubt, there are many legitimate reasons for attorneys to be bitter. But, it is important to understand that being bitter is NOT going to help you find a job. You need to find a way to vent BEFORE you start talking to people who could be helpful to you. It’s absolutely easier said than done, but the only way to move forward is to get it out of your system, breathe, and then pivot.

OK, Pivot…. Then What?

The difficulty attorneys face in figuring out what to do in such a terrible legal market is exacerbated by the lack of practical guidance on how to:
• Identify the full range of professional options for an individual with a law degree without having to go back to school,
• Determine which of those options make sense to pursue, and
• Figure out how to get from Point A to Point B.

Whether or not a job is considered “alternative,” attorneys who want to make a career move to find work that is a good fit for them have no choice but to take initiative and be proactive in figuring out what type of work that is and to market themselves accordingly.

The good news is that, while it can take significant time and energy, lawyers–whether “recovering” or not—are in fact trained to do what is necessary to broaden their search and successfully pursue other types of positions:

1. Conduct research,
2. Solicit information,
3. Translate concepts and terms,
4. Make analogies,
5. Build an argument, and
6. Present a persuasive case.

In my experience, attorneys are often more comfortable representing a client’s interests rather than their own. Finding a job you like requires using your skills to make the case for yourself. This is the first in a series of articles on how to do just that.

Kate Neville provides direction to attorneys interested in making a career move, whether within the practice of law or to another field. A graduate of Harvard Law School and Princeton University, Kate practiced law as an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and served as a Special Counsel in the public sector before shifting to do management consulting work for both public and private sector entities. She founded Neville Career Consulting in 2007 to advise attorneys how to identify the full range of their professional options and how to pursue them successfully, providing tailored and practical guidance in all phases of a job search.