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The Covid-19 economic downturn will have a tremendous impact on the legal industry, similar to the Great Recession in 2008. There has been an unprecedented shake-up in the legal industry itself, leaving many attorneys to wonder if there is indeed a place for them outside the law. The effect of the downturn will be particularly dramatic for a wave of new law school graduates, who are entering the legal field for the first time in the midst of this crisis.
Historically, lawyers have had trouble envisioning how they might use their JD outside the active practice of law. Unlike an MBA, most people view a JD as a degree that only helps individuals practice at a law firm. And rightly so, as law schools have historically encouraged their graduates to enter law firms en masse. The ABA criteria for evaluating law schools for rankings includes an assessment of how many graduates each law school places in JD-required and JD-preferred positions. For this reason, law schools place an inordinate emphasis on preparing their graduates to take jobs at law firms—the bigger the better—which are indisputably JD-required positions.
New lawyers, then, may ask themselves whether they can find satisfying, challenging work outside of law firms, which are slashing their incoming classes due to the economic pressures caused by the pandemic. They can.
Unhappy or new lawyers can capitalize upon the versatility of their JDs and legal training. It won't be intuitive to think differently after law school. But this crisis presents an opportunity for law school graduates to analyze their talents and how to market those skills effectively to non-legal employers.
Any lawyer considering potential alternative careers should use this three-step strategy. The benefits are that it leverages skills most law school graduates already have and, if done carefully, results in a unique range of new career opportunities that are tailored to the individual and not just to the general JD degree holder.
The first step is to determine what skills you most enjoy. Do you get a lot of personal satisfaction out of helping people? Organizing materials? Making effective arguments? Considering what you like being good at is a critical step.
One mistake to avoid is focusing too much on the skills you have been rewarded for in college, law school, or your career without considering whether you derive happiness from using those skills. Changing careers to do something you do well, but don't enjoy, is not likely to result in long-term happiness.
For example, a lawyer who is consistently praised for being a gifted writer may focus on finding other careers in which to use her writing talent, like marketing or academia. That's a great idea if she enjoys writing. If she finds writing to be a grind, however, she may head into another career that she will dislike just as much (and possibly with a step back in salary to boot). The goal in this step is to develop a short list of the skills you love honing, regardless of how often you have used those skills in your paid work so far.
It is important to separate these skills from the specific legal contexts in which you may have used them. If you like figuring out litigation strategy, for example, you might enjoy the more general skill of being good at complex problem solving. If you are great at making oral arguments, you might enjoy the more widely applicable skill of being good at public speaking. Many lawyers’ skills can be useful outside of the practice of law. Unfortunately, many lawyers don't think of those skills as separable from legal practice. That is an unnecessarily limiting belief that makes the next step toward successful career change harder.
Once you have identified your preferred skills, the next step is to find alternative ways to put those skills to use. Many law school graduates excel at oral and written communication, analysis, problem-solving, persuasion, and getting buy-in from senior decision-makers, which are all widely marketable skills outside the contexts of motions, depositions and contract review. The second step is to figure out specific non-legal ways to use those skills that you find appealing.
But identifying promising fields outside of law can be overwhelming. Turning immediately to “law-adjacent” careers is not especially helpful because it is so generic. Instead, develop an informal practice of meeting with people whose careers interest you, and asking them targeted questions about what they do.
This is a form of informational interviewing with a narrow focus. The purpose of these conversations is to help match the unique configuration of preferred skills you identified in Step 1 to the career that your interviewee describes. For this reason, it is better to ask questions that are designed to elicit hard-to-get information than to ask about more general things that you could learn from online sources. For example, you might ask questions such as:
• “What kinds of skills do you consider to be most important in your role [or in this field]?”
• “What do you wish you had known about your job before you started?”
• “What do most people misunderstand about your work?”
• “What does an average work day [or week] look like for you?”
It is also helpful to end each meeting by expanding your potential network. You might ask, “Is there anyone else you would recommend that I talk with?” and ask for permission to use their name in following up with that person.
The final step brings together the introspective work of Step 1 with the external research of Step 2. In this step, rewrite your resume to focus on your preferred skills rather than your formal experience. Because nonlegal employers often have little understanding of what discovery, brief-writing or expert witness preparation entail, revise your resume to minimize those terms.
Instead, your focus should be on demonstrating in clear language geared towards a non-lawyer how you have used your preferred skills and the benefits that have resulted. Having friends who are not lawyers review your resume can be helpful. You might also consider asking the career services officers at your college for their input.
This strategy can help any lawyer, especially those who are newly minted, find a more satisfying career outside of law. Although Covid-19 may have accelerated the pace of many lawyers’ career changes, that may be a good thing in the long run. With a little specialized guidance, there is no limit to the range of professional opportunities for these soon-to-be former lawyers. There is an enormous upside to this: a much broader range of career possibilities than most lawyers could have seen before the pandemic.
At a time when the legal industry will need to pivot significantly, who better to help that pivot happen intelligently than a new wave of law school graduates, not yet jaded by law firm life, and ready to use their new skills, including intensive research capabilities, problem-solving, analytical reasoning, and negotiation? As they enter the world with their newly-earned JDs, law school graduates have much greater career potential outside of the practice of law than most of them realize.