Charting Your Nontraditional Legal Career: Practical StepsAndrew Chapin in Pass It On (ABA Newsletter), July 12, 2011
By Andrew Chapin
Some people obtain a law degree knowing they’ll never practice law. Others try practicing law but realize after a few years that it’s not for them. A law degree provides skills and knowledge necessary for a variety of interesting positions other than traditional “lawyering” and some JDs prefer that route.
The nontraditional route may not only be more appealing; it may also be a prudent choice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011, the employment of lawyers is expected to grow 13 percent in the next eight years, about as fast as average for all occupations. However, employment opportunities are expected to rise in less traditional areas such as administrative, managerial, and business positions in banks, insurance firms, real estate companies, government agencies, and other organizations at a faster rate.1
This article features JDs who have atypical law-related positions and offers some suggestions to develop your own non-traditional path.
Focus on Your Target
Write a description of your dream job. Ask yourself what you truly desire in a career. Conduct research by reviewing job descriptions within categories that are similar to the job you’re seeking. Visit the NALP website at www.nalp.org or www.idealist.org. Assess your aptitude. Think of your JD from a different angle—focus on all the different types of skills, knowledge and experience you gained during law school, including the following:
- problem solving
- legal analysis and reasoning
- legal research
- litigation and alternative dispute resolution
- factual investigation
- organization and management of legal work
- recognizing and resolving ethical dilemmas2
Include talents you obtained in previous experiences. Match the skills you possess with the job tasks that you desire. Determine where you want to live and work. Are you free to move to a new location? Be realistic about your minimum salary requirements; for many, taking a different route requires a step back before your income matches or exceeds current or recent income. This ideal position description is your target.
Networking is critical for accurate information gathering. Talk with colleagues, professors, professional association members and friends for any information about the realities of the marketplace. Share your target and your résumé and ask for their thoughts. Ask for a candid assessment about the market and your potential, and what you might do to enhance your marketability. Re-double your effort to participate in bar associations, volunteer and pro bono work, article writing, CLE programs and public speaking—this activity will enhance your network of contacts and your credentials.
Your network of friends and colleagues may also have reliable knowledge about how to package your experience and skills. Your résumé should emphasize how your expertise matches the demands of the position—the fact that you possess a JD will not be enough. Highlight additional experience obtained prior to law school or through volunteering. The recruiter may not have considered the skill-set obtained by law school graduates, so be sure to emphasize the particular skills you possess that are needed for the position. For example, your ability to communicate, problem solve, and investigate would be ideal for managing the public affairs office of a government entity.
Consider the following categories:
- Government—trainer, manager, ethics officer, public affairs officer, administrative law judge, support in executive branch agencies (law enforcement, diplomatic, intelligence, regulatory, military) at the state and federal levels
- Judicial—clerical support and administrative positions for state and federal courts
- Legislative—legislative staff, research positions, committee staff for Congress or state legislatures, or city/county boards
- Education—law school career planning or public interest office staff, admissions, alumni association, dean of students
Review the following profiles for some ideas about non-traditional positions. Use the resources noted in the sidebar (see p. 4). There is a world of opportunity open to you because of the skills and knowledge you obtained during law school. Choosing an atypical job may take more time and effort than a traditional one, but the satisfaction gained will be worth the effort.
Andrew Chapin is the director of Public Interest Counseling & Scholars at Fordham Law School. He serves as the NALP liaison for the Division’s council.
1. See www.bls.gov/oco/ocos053.htm.
2. G. Munneke, W. Henslee, Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers, 31-32, (ABA, 5th ed. 2006).