Alternative Careers for Lawyers

Most solos are all-to-familiar with the “feast or famine” roller coas

Alternative careers — doing something other than practicing law — are looking more attractive to both new and experienced lawyers as the job market gets more dismal. Of course, the notion of lawyers using their legal degrees to do something other than practice law is nothing new. After all, the U.S. President and his challenger both have J.D.’s.

I’m sure that many of you thought along these lines when making the decision to attend law school: “I may not ultimately practice law, but a legal degree is something that can always be put to use.” Implied in that logic is the notion that a J.D. enhances one’s value in the overall job market and that an alternative career is very possible. Indeed, that seems to be the conventional wisdom.

Why Alternative Careers for Lawyers are Easier Said than Done

Well, call me a contrarian, but I think I don’t think a law degree is always such a great thing to have on a resume.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are situations where having a legal degree, along with the superior analytical skills that one associates with most attorneys, can be very useful and marketable for certain alternative careers. But for some alternative careers, lawyers have to do a lot more explaining to get serious consideration when they compete against other non-lawyer candidates. Here are three reasons for my opinion.

First, many employers associate all lawyers with a specific skill set or personality type that (in their minds) disqualifies lawyers for the position. An alternative career might require creativity, for example. How many lawyers do you know who can truly think outside the box? Or a career might require extraordinary people skills. How many lawyers have high emotional intelligence? Some do, for sure, but not many. I don’t associate these traits with lawyers and neither do many employers.

Second, many alternative career for lawyers positions pay less on average than legal positions. Because of this, many employers unfortunately assume: 1) the candidate will be taking a pay cut if employed; 2) the candidate will leave the position if and when the legal job market improves for a higher paying job in the legal sector; and 3) that while employed, the candidate will inevitably be dissatisfied because of the lower pay.

These assumptions, while reasonable under many circumstances, are obviously not true in all cases. But that doesn’t really matter much since perception often becomes reality and provides a rationale for rejection.

Finally, many people in our society, including employers, have a strong prejudice against lawyers. They don’t like us. Why do you think there are so many lawyer jokes? Having a J.D. or legal experience is a conscious or unconscious strike against you in the mind of the person skimming resumes or conducting job interviews for a non-legal position.

Overcoming Obstacles for Alternative Career

Can these obstacles be overcome? Sure they can. But it never feels good hitting the job market for alternative careers knowing you have to counter these assumptions.

Successfully Pursuing Alternative Careers

The roadmap to overcome the obstacles is not terribly complex. A good story can help job-seekers contradict these anti-lawyer assumptions head on.

Here’s one from a past lawyer-coaching client of mine. She was a former general counsel of a medium-sized company, where she supervised a staff of seven lawyers and five administrative assistants. She wanted to shift gears and become executive director of a non-profit. She told this story to the board of directors:

For the past 15 years, I’ve practiced law for corporateAmerica, first in private practice and more recently as general counsel. I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done but, when all is said and done, the goal for pretty much everything I did was to preserve the financial assets of a company. I now want my full-time job to have more meaning.

The mission of this non-profit is very similar to the missions of non-profit boards that I’ve previously served on. I’ve also always demonstrated a passion for helping the less fortunate in the pro bonowork that I have done since becoming a lawyer.

I am very qualified for both components of the executive director position. First, you want a person with good managerial skills. As general counsel for the past seven years, I’ve successfully managed a staff of a dozen people. The staff here is similarly sized. Second, you need someone who knows how to raise money. You can see that I’ve been on numerous non-profit boards and have successfully raised money for all of them. In fact, I am presently the chair of the development committee for a non-profit board.

I am well aware that this job pays a good deal less than what I currently earn. I hope you don’t hold that against me. My spouse works and our two salaries combined will be more than sufficient for my family’s needs. In addition, my children have graduated from college. With that major expense now out of the equation, it’s unlikely that I’ll even notice the difference in salary.

This lawyer ultimately got the job she was seeking. I can’t say that I was terribly surprised. She was able to tell a very good story that answered the two most important questions one faces in any job interview.

Why do you want this job?

What makes you the most qualified candidate?

Can a legal degree always be put to use if you don’t practice law? As we tell our clients, “It depends.” It depends on the particular alternative career a lawyer is pursuing. Sometimes it can help, but sometimes it can hurt. In short, that J.D. is a wash.

Originally published on

ter. Either you have too much work to comfortably handle on your own, or you are wondering how you are going to pay the bills. Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about a number of ways to successfully deal with the “feast” option.

First of all, don’t panic. Too much work is a good problem to have. Put your situation into perspective. “Feast” is a much better problem for a solo to have than “famine.” You just need a plan.

One way to handle the problem of too much work is to turn some of it down. You now have the luxury of becoming more selective about the work that you do or the clients that you work with. There’s a reason why successful lawyers tend to be happier lawyers. They not only make more money, but they can also be pickier about the matters and the clients that they accept.

Look before you leap

What if you are lucky and all of your work is work that you want to do for clients you enjoy? Don’t automatically decide to hire your first employee – an administrative assistant, a paralegal or another lawyer. Do some research first. Do you have a clear picture of the work that you will be delegating to someone else? Do you really know if there is enough work to keep that person busy full time?

Take a step back and determine the exact tasks that could be delegated to someone else. Keep track of everything that you do over the course of a few days. I suspect you’ll be surprised to discover how you actually spend your time. The best use of your time is generally going to be practicing law, especially if you bill by the hour.

After taking this inventory, assign the tasks to one of two categories: tasks related to office administration and tasks related to your actual caseload.

Office administration can be easily delegated

When it comes to administrative tasks, there are lots of options. You can hire college students, law students, virtual assistants or a colleague’s administrative assistant who wants to work some extra hours. These people will usually work for a relatively low hourly rate, keeping your overhead low.

Caseload work requires more caution

When business is good, solos often make the mistake of pursuing one of two romanticized visions. The first is hiring a young associate who can be groomed into a future partner. The second is merging with another solo and adding an ampersand to the firm’s name. Both visions often lead to trouble.

Young associates can be fickle

On its face, the “young associate” option is very appealing. You can leverage the associate’s time and make more money. According to law firm economics, the easiest way to increase profits is by leverage. You bill out an associate’s time at a level where the total revenue exceeds the associate’s salary and overhead. Those extra dollars all go to the firm’s bottom line. In reality, it usually takes much more time and effort to train and mentor the associate than you anticipated.

But perhaps the biggest risk in this strategy is that the romantic dream of bequeathing the practice to your protégé can turn into a nightmare. How? When your so-called protégé decides that he or she wants to be the boss and opens his or her own law firm. To add insult to injury, you can bet that the protégé will attempt to steal some of your clients in the process.

Solos must be carefully vetted

While merging with another solo can minimize the training/mentoring problems, you can’t leverage this person as much because they’ll require a higher salary. And, do you really want to hire an experienced lawyer who has enough extra time to assist you with your caseload? I’d rather join forces with someone who has a robust book of business of their own. But that won’t solve your “busyness” problem.

Contract lawyers are a better solution

The solo attorney with too much work should consider hiring a part-time contract lawyer. With this alternative, you are not over-committed. If you don’t like the performance of one contract lawyer, you can easily try another.

A good paralegal is even better

Good paralegals or legal assistants can be worth their weight in gold. A well-trained and bright paralegal can do many of the tasks that a lawyer does. The beauty of this solution is two-fold. First, a paralegal’s time can be leveraged just as (or even more) profitably than another lawyer of any experience level. Second, a paralegal or legal assistant is less likely to jump ship and compete against you. A paralegal can go work for a competitor, but it’s unlikely that your clients would follow.

Carefully consider your options

When faced with a “feast” of too much work, don’t panic or rush into making a full-time hire. Take some time. Determine what you need, how often you need it, and which option of meeting that need will be most profitable.

Originally appeared on’s law firm hiring & staffing portal

Categories: Legal Careers
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