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Contributed by Nancy Carver, Volta Talent Strategies
Have you ever been told, “You can do anything with a law degree”? Did you believe it?
Most law graduates who take jobs find themselves starting their careers in private practice (55% of the class of 2018), with others starting in-house in business roles (13%) or taking legal positions within federal, state or local government (12%), pursuing judicial clerkships (11%), or working within the public interest field (7%). A minority work in education.
Of those lawyers who work at law firms—whether large or small—some inevitably find themselves hankering for something different. Some will decide that they simply no longer want to be a lawyer. The existential question for them becomes, “If not a lawyer, what do you want to be?” Others are not ready to give up being a lawyer and do not want to leave the law completely. Instead, they look to move into what we call law-adjacent positions.
For all of them, the practical issue becomes once you make a decision to pivot your career, how do you go about making it happen?
Throughout my own career as a legal career coach, I have not only helped lawyers navigate traditional career transitions but also supported them as they pivot into law-adjacent careers, with some going further and switching careers entirely. In terms of law-adjacent pivots, these include:
• Transitioning to a law school in a career services or alumni position
• Staying at a firm in a business services role such as recruiting, marketing, professional development, diversity & inclusion, practice support, or as an internal career coach
• Becoming a certified coach and using this to coach lawyers
• Teaching as an adjunct, e.g., legal research and writing
• Becoming a law firm consultant in areas such as diverse as business development, talent management and wellness
o A legal recruiter
o A mediator or arbitrator
o A political lobbyist
• Working in:
o E-discovery and data analytics
o Legal and regulatory technology (AI)
Less legal-specific roles I have helped people move into include teaching history, AP classes, and pre-law in a high school. But when it comes to career reinventions, I have seen lawyers move away completely from the legal space to run a business such as a restaurant or pursue a new career path, such as physical therapy, architecture, interior design, or acting.
All this means that when lawyers ask me if they can change careers, I respond with a qualified yes. For those with determination, moving beyond conventional legal roles is certainly possible. Here I share an eight-step process to get you started and ready for a focused job search:
1. Think About Who Can Help You: You will find it helpful to get some support during your job search to help you navigate the process and to keep you moving forward. A good starting point is your law school career or alumni office. If you want more individualized and ongoing support, you may want to hire a personal career coach.
2. Clarify Your Values and Interests: We tend to direct our energy most successfully to those things we like doing and that we think are worthwhile. In that context, start by reflecting on your motivators, in other words, your values and interests—as well as the kind of work environments you enjoy. To help you clarify your values and interests, I recommend that initially you undertake two self-assessments:
• A values sort—this is an exercise by which you determine which values are more and less important to you in the context of your career. For example, you may value autonomy and being recognized in your field more than you value leadership and wealth. There are various values sort exercises available online. The Personal Values Card Sort is free, well-regarded and widely used.
• An interests inventory is particularly helpful if you are unclear what you want to do with your career—it will help you to identify themes and possible types of jobs. The classic assessment in this context is the Strong Interest Inventory ® although you will need to work with a career coach who is certified to administer the Strong assessment. A simplified but free interests profile assessment is available from the U.S. Department of Labor.
3. Identify Transferable Skills: The good news is that for law-adjacent roles and many alternative careers, you can leverage many of the skills that you have developed through your legal education and practice. Begin your process by identifying these skills. Assess which of your skills are most relevant for the positions you think you may want to target. Also, if you have a dream role in mind, determine which skills you may need to acquire to increase your marketability in that context. There are many free examples of skills assessments available online such as this one from Kent State University. Alternatively, SkillScan offers an inexpensive commercial online assessment.
4. Be Realistic: Any kind of career pivot will take time and will likely impact your finances. A job search at the best of times can be time-consuming. In the current environment, this is especially true and, at times, it will probably feel overwhelming. You need to be emotionally, physically, and financially prepared for the process to take longer than you expect. Pulling off a career pivot may require you to return to school for a different degree, certificate, or credential. If you are planning to leave Big Law, a pivot or alternative career usually involves a reduction in income and possibly some investment in a new degree or certificate. Make sure that you understand your personal finances by using one of the many free online resources such as this budget worksheet from consumer.gov.
5. Look Back to Look Forward: Review your entire career—including college and law school—and reflect on what have you enjoyed doing. Consider all your jobs, volunteer and pro bono positions, college and law school jobs and activities, pre- and post-law school jobs, anything you might have done, whether paid or unpaid.
6. Identify Your Must Haves (and Your Kryptonite): Use the career review exercise to pinpoint what you like(d) doing, what you didn't/don't like doing and what you want to continue doing or learn to do in your new position. Note what you are good at doing but would be content never to do again. Think through what led you to apply to law school. What did you envision yourself doing post law school? What's missing? What are your career “must haves”? And, just as important, what do you not want in your next role?
Lawyers I have coached have identified must haves such as wanting to work in role that allows them to express their creativity, others want to do something meaningful that would allow them to make a difference, others want something entrepreneurial, some want leadership opportunities while others just want to get lost in research and others want a career that is flexible and allows control over their schedules.
At this point, there is no right or wrong answer. The goal is to understand what motivates you and what gets in the way of feeling fulfilled.
7. Consider the Practicalities: Having allowed yourself to think big, it is time to think practically. How much money do you need to earn in your new position or career? If you need additional education, what is the cost and how will you support yourself during your studies? What is your timing? If you decide to pivot to a career outside law, the process may take several years. If you decide on a career pivot within law, the process may take up to a year if not longer.
8. Do Your Research: Create a list of potential careers or pivot jobs and begin your market research, exploration, and analysis. Start with research about specific careers or jobs. Next, as you narrow your list, conduct some informational interviews with professionals already in the relevant fields or positions. Ask questions. Lots of them. What do they like about it? What don't they like? What do they find challenging? Ask them to describe their best day. What would they change? What is the likely salary range and what is it dependent on? Where do they see the field going?
Find job postings and job descriptions for the identified position(s) and evaluate how your background and experience align with the required and preferred skills, experience and education. What is missing? Does the detail of the job description align with what you expected and what you are interested in?
Use these questions to assess each of the options you are considering:
• What exactly does an individual who is employed in this field do?
• What are the skills, knowledge and training or education required?
• What is the typical working environment like, including factors such as travel, weekend work, hours and job security?
• What are the salary and benefits for someone at my level? What is the future salary potential?
• What potential for career growth and/or advancement exists for someone in this field?
• How well does this field fit with your interests, skills and preferences?
• If this is a good fit, what obstacles or challenges lay ahead for you?
You will find yourself adding and deleting possibilities from your list. And as you narrow your options you can finally begin to strategize your next career step.
So, can you do anything with a law degree? Not exactly—anything is, after all, a broad term—but you can do a lot. Working as a lawyer will certainly have given you a lot of transferable skills and useful experience and a job pivot is possible but it will likely take time. You will need to develop and refine your self-awareness through a lot of assessment, hours of research, and many informational interviews. The skills that got you through law school and to wherever you are in your career now will certainly help you whether or not you love using them. Skills such as critical thinking, research, interviewing, analyzing, organization, grit, a willingness to think outside the box, time management, and organization will all help you navigate your process.
In addition, you will need stamina, a growth mindset, and patience because this this is a journey. Expect ups and downs and understand that the process will take more time than you imagined. It is important to make sure your support system is in place to keep cheering you on along the way. Also expect some resistance and pushback if you decide to leave legal practice behind. You might discover after all that you don't want to leave traditional practice and that is okay. You might also find yourself energized and excited about some of the options and paths you discover along the way. It is worthwhile though to take the time to sort this out.