Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

A Law Degree and Nowhere to Go

Lawyers face unique challenges in the job market.

legalWhen the recession first hit, we heard that there were certain "safe" career fields like health care, higher education, etc. But as the recession drones on, so-called safe industries are belt-tightening and finding themselves subject to the same economics stresses facing other industries. Even the practice of law.

The public perception about legal careers is generally inaccurate. People assume that a law degree guarantees a permanent job, a great income and an exciting, high-powered life fighting for justice. Not to mention a great career for those who like to argue. And the portrayal of lawyers in the media tends to support that image. When warned about this, college students planning to attend law school often say, "well I know the law isn't exactly like "Law & Order," but...." - and that's where the line between myth and reality starts to blur. Sally Kane, writing for About.com identifies some of the prevalent myths about the practice of law.

The Wall Street Journal's legal blog recently wrote about the increasing isolation in the practice of law and its relationship to depression and suicide. But the legal profession was struggling prior to the recession.

A survey in Legal Careers Blog pointed out growing dissatisfaction with the practice of law. Almost half of all lawyers expressed dissatisfaction with their careers and only 4 in 10 lawyers would recommend a legal career to others. People were looking to leave the practice of law and do anything else.

That was 2008. And then the recession really hit. Law firms have gone bankrupt. Thousands of lawyers have been laid off. New law school graduates are finding the offers less attractive and less plentiful. A legal blog, Above The Law, tracks the legal employment situation, noting weekly layoffs. Another blog, Law Shucks, runs both a "bonus tracker" and a "layoff tracker" simultaneously pointing out the appeal and the risk of the field. Both blogs point to the challenging job market for new graduates and for mid-career lawyers laid off from what were once guaranteed-for-life jobs.

All this leads to more lawyers in the general job market who, as a group, face particularly unique challenges. Employers will assume that you went to law school to be a lawyer so any other career path must be a second choice and the minute the market for lawyers returns, you'll be gone. They may also assume that you'll want a higher salary than other workers.

So I'm going to be blunt here: You WERE a lawyer. Get over it-- if you want to get a job elsewhere. Let me explain. A law degree provides a great learning experience. You learned to create compelling arguments, develop writing skills, conduct legal analysis, solve problems creatively, etc. As a lawyer, you handled deadlines, dealt with crises, worked long hours, etc. All things employers might want.  But you also know that the word "lawyer" comes with a lot of baggage. People can view lawyers as money-oriented, manipulative, and at worst-- litigious and always looking for the next lawsuit. No employer wants to live in fear that their employee will sue them, and hiring a lawyer for a non-legal job seems to invite that.

So how do you make the transition from lawyer/law student to "working anywhere but the law"?

Here are a few tips:

1. Start by analyzing your strengths and interests. What other career fields have you considered? Where would you like to apply your talents? Some career fields lend themselves more naturally to a background in law, including: academic administration, banking/finance, consulting, environmental, government, human resources, intellectual property, journalism, immigration, labor relations, publishing, real estate, and tax preparation. How would your legal background make you a better employee in your newly-chosen field?

2. Focus on the field you're going into-- not where you've been. Research the career fields you're considering. Talk to people in the field. Join professional organizations related to your new field to demonstrate a sincere interest. Develop an understanding of what they do on a day-to-day basis. Determine if/where/how your legal background could contribute to the field. Remove legal jargon from your resume-- make sure it speaks to the new field you're moving into, not the old one you're leaving.

3. Determine what percentage of time your legal education/background would come into play at the job and then tailor your cover letter, resume, and interview responses accordingly. Obviously, if the position/employer would greatly benefit from your legal degree, then go to town and tell them everything about your legal background. BUT---

4. If people can be hired for the position without a law degree-- that's a clue that your law degree isn't the be-all and end-all and should not be the first thing you bring up. So don't have your identity bound up in being a lawyer. Your resume will indicate your legal training and background. You need to come up with other more compelling reasons for the employer to hire you in your cover letter. For instance, don't start your cover letter with, "As an attorney..." or waste a paragraph detailing your legal acumen when the employer doesn't care.

5. Know why an employer might have concerns about hiring a lawyer. Don't waste energy bemoaning the lawyer jokes and complaining that it's not "fair." Since you know the problem ahead of time, be ready to address concerns which might not even be voiced. Make sure employers know your skill set is greater than practicing law. And find a way to answer the unasked questions: Can you get along with people? Are you too argumentative? Are you overly competitive? Intense? Do you have hidden agendas?  Here's a particularly unique challenge for lawyers: they think differently. Let's put that another way: they are pessimists-- it's what makes them successful lawyers. Unfortunately, the law is one of the only career fields that rewards pessimistic thinking: optimists do better in virtually every other career field. Read the link to learn more about this.

The job market is tough for everyone.  Don't make it harder for yourself by making the mistakes other lawyers make when they try to move out of their fields. I met a floral arranger recently whose business card had "JD" after her name.  I asked her why she put the degree on her card.  She said, "Well I earned it-- I might as well flaunt it." She has a point, but she also confessed that she went into business for herself because employers weren't "open-minded enough" to hire a former lawyer. And it made me wonder: was it the employers who weren't open-minded or was she just too attached to her degree?

Here are some resources to check out about transitioning out of the law:

"Running from the Law: Why Good Lawyers Are Getting Out of the Legal Profession" by Deborah Arron

"The Unhappy Lawyer" by Monica Parker

"What Can You Do with a Law Degree" by Deborah Arron

Finally, If you're thinking of going to law school but already know that you don't want to practice as a lawyer, think long and hard and make sure you know your reasons. The law school's career center may not have as many opportunities for you-- and you may find pressure to pursue a traditional path. Many law students discover they have to take a higher-paying corporate or legal job just to pay off their student debt. Search out alumni who are not practicing law for possible networking or mentorships. Read the legal blogs mentioned above so you are well-informed and not unduly influenced by the media.

 

 

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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