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By: Gwendolyn Ferrell, Associate Director of Career Services
To be or not to be an attorney? More and more, this is the dilemma facing many law school students and graduates. But after years of grueling academics and the accumulation of student loan debt, what do you do? Many law graduates are considering "alternative" careers. These positions come in many forms, and some careers do not require admission to the bar in any state.
Most of these jobs do not require a law degree but can be enhanced by the skills acquired in law school. There are two kinds of alternative careers: those where the benefit of legal skills is obvious and those where it is not. With the obvious, the employer is buying your legal skills and recognizes their transferability. Business affairs, investment banking, compliance, financial consulting, and many management employers consistently attract legal talent. In these and similar areas, you would sell the same skills you would sell to a legal employer. For many other positions such as marketing director, restaurant chef, corporate executive, sales, or just about any career opportunity, being a lawyer is not a prerequisite. However, identifying a position in this category requires a more aggressive strategy and, generally, a longer time frame. You will find that a law degree is a valuable credential, but it is not automatic entry to an alternative career. In fact, leveraging your legal background may be one of the toughest challenges you ever encounter. It is important to remember that many job opportunities do exist for law graduates outside of the legal field, most without the more stringent criteria of legal positions.
The first part of this article will address the beginning steps of your search for an alternative career and the specific tools required for your search. In the words of the late Deborah Arron, "You can do anything you want with your law degree. The choices are limited only by imagination and perseverance."
Step 1 - Self-Assessment: A major component of job satisfaction is to know yourself. Areas to consider are your personality characteristics, interest, values and skills. This section although seemingly obvious and unimportant, can provide you with valuable information regarding job satisfaction. If interested, formal assessments are available to law students through LSU's Main Campus Career Services Office for a nominal fee.
Step 2 - Explore Career Options: The Dictionary of Occupational Titles, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, lists more than 12,000 different jobs -- considerably more than the average person has time to research. Realistically, you should select five or six to explore. Study the traits you have identified in your Self-Assessment and then consider the following factors in narrowing your list of possible opportunities:
Step 3 - Research Identified Career Options: This step will be a test of your dedication to securing an alternative career basically because it will require some legwork and time. Thoroughly research the industries, individual companies, professional associations and people involved in the kind of work you are interested in. Request informational interviews with potential employers. This will provide you with an opportunity to learn about the specific job duties and work environment. Networking, although sometimes difficult, will help you establish contacts within your chosen profession.
There are several keys to success in finding a job in a non-legal career. Taking the road less traveled and embarking on an alternative career takes persistence, enthusiasm and drive, and the rewards can be substantial. Be creative. Explore areas that aren't within saturated industries and geographic areas. Think of careers outside of law practice as those with limitless boundaries, and not as second choices. Most importantly, remember that your legal training will prove valuable in whatever you decide is the right career for you.
Part II, Selling Yourself
By now, you have identified several alternative career options. It is now time to sell yourself. Questions you may ask include: 1) How do I restructure my resume to reflect the responsibilities of the position? and 2) How do I assure the employer of my sincere interest and desire to work in this particular area? This article will address these concerns and provide information on the necessary tools to sell yourself in the non-legal arena.
Regardless of the industry you have chosen, there are certain obstacles that all job seekers with JD's will have to overcome. Most of these are related to society's preconceptions about lawyers and the legal field. The most frequently asked question is why someone with a law degree would not want to practice law. It is important that you personally know and communicate the answer to this question in every aspect of the process. Hesitation and uncertainty are viewed as insincere.
The most important tools of the non-legal job search are the resume and cover letter. This is your introduction to potential employers and your sales pitch. It is important that your resume convey what background and abilities you have that can be an asset to the employer. It should answer the typical question posed by every employer -- what can you do for my business and why should I interview you or even hire you? In the non-legal arena, the way to respond to the question is to focus more on the employer's needs and how your credentials meet those needs. Standard resumes may vary for each occupation. If you know what field you want to pursue, try to locate resumes that have been used to find jobs in that field and model your resume after those.
The resume for an alternative career is completely different from a legal resume and should highlight your transferable skills and experience over education. The order of this type of resume might be relevant work experience, a summary of qualifications and expertise, industry-specific memberships, and training and coursework. The education section should actually be at the bottom unless the position announcement specifically states "JD preferred." As with all resumes, it should be one that is easily read, well-organized, visually attractive and without mistakes. The more professional the resume, the more attractive your candidacy will be to a potential employer.
The cover letter may be the single most important tool in obtaining an alternative position. It must convey enthusiasm and true interest in the position. This is the place to emphasize the skills acquired from legal training that are transferable to the position desired. Emphasize your communication skills, work ethic, analytical thinkiing, and the ability to grasp complicated subjects. Any relevant coursework, either undergraduate or graduate, should also be referenced. Customize your letter for your audience. Address every need of the employer mentioned in the company information or position advertisement, using no more than three or four paragraphs. Always address your cover letter to a specific individual using the industry buzz words you have learned, which takes research. Cover letters take time and effort, but once the framework is in place, cover letters can be easily customized for a specific industry and position.
The final section of this article will address the interview and follow-up process for the non-legal job search.
Part III, Sealing the Deal
It's show time! You have been granted an interview for the non-legal job of your dreams. Questions that may come to mind are 1) How do I prepare? and 2) How will this interview be different from a legal job interview?
The basics of the non-legal job interview are not any different from any other interview. Preparation is the universal key to interview success. Hiring representatives from several industries suggest that, while interviewing, candidates with legal backgrounds should refer to their law degrees simply as graduate degrees. In preparation, you need to know about the product and the market of your future employer and be familiar with any "buzz" words specific to the type of work you will be doing. Research the company/organization by reviewing busienss publications, national directories, annual reports, newspaper articles, online resources and company brochures available to the public. Build your enthusiasm and interest for the position you are seeking. It is imperative that your sincerity is conveyed to the potential employer. Remember that you are selling yourself. Develop a sales pitch to convince the interviewer that the skills you have are exactly the job skills needed by the employer.
The interview will most likely be conducted by a representative of the human resources department. Very rarely will the first interview be with the actual managers of the area you are seeking employment. The skilled non-legal interviewer will conduct the interview differently from the law office employer. In a relatively short interview, the interviewer is seeking to get to know you as a person, to identify what skills you have that would enhance your job performance and also your potential for advancement within the organization. The most effective interview will feel as if you are involved in a conversation, therefore you must be able to relax. No one appears at their best when they are nervous. The more you know about an organization, and the better you have analyzed your abilities, interest and future plans, the easier the interview process becomes for you. The following tips should be applied to any interview you are granted, legal or non-legal.
As an attorney interviewing for non-legal employment, there are several questions you may be asked that can be characterized as hurdles. For example:
For each of these questions, as with any difficult question you anticipate facing, it helps to develop a good answer in advance. This eliminates the need to come up with an explanation on the spot, and conveys the impression that you are either thoughtful, a quick study, or both. There are certainly no easy answers to these questions but with thought, you should be able to come up with good answers that are neither overly simplistic nor over-explanatory. In a sense, these questions should be viewed as invitations for you to further sell yourself. It is now time to allow one of your acquired legal skills and greater assets work for you -- oral advocacy.
Here are some of the more common "alternative" legal careers:
Alternative Dispute Resolution
Contracts, Procurement & Grants:
Court Administration / Criminal Justice:
Human Resources & Employment
Insurance & Risk Management:
Legislative & Regulatory Affairs:
Management / Administration / Marketing:
Media / Entertainment:
Real Estate / Housing:
What Can You Do With A Law Degree? A Lawyer's Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law, Deborah Arron
Running From The Law, Deborah Arron
Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers (5th Edition), Gary A. Munneke, William D. Henslee, Ellen Wayne
What Color Is Your Parachute? (2013 Edition), Richard N. Bolles
Bloomberg Law's Video Series: Stealth Lawyers Profiling People Trained as Lawyers, but Have Succeeded in Alternative Careers!