Hang On! Legal Careers Can Take Wonderful Twists and Turns

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Vol. 40 No. 5
ByErin Binns

Erin Binns is director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
I have a Peanuts© comic sitting on my desk where Charlie Brown asks Linus if he knows what he wants to be when he grows up. Linus responds quite simply: “Outrageously happy!” Worrying about class rank, student loans, and job searches makes it easy to forget that the goal of your legal education is a professional position that you enjoy. It’s equally challenging—absent the vantage point of experience—to trust that you don’t have to have your career figured out today or even by graduation. Graduation is simply one destination in the journey of your professional development.
Embrace the idea that you can’t really get it wrong with law clerk jobs and your first positions after law school. Your legal career isn’t a one-way road where if you jump on Bankruptcy Highway, you’ll never be able to navigate over to Mergers & Acquisitions Lane. The legal profession is better likened to a roundabout where you can enter and exit at different points after taking one or several turns in the middle.

As such, your goals upon graduation should include: accepting a position that fosters professional development and learning, building genuine relationships with as many members of the profession as possible, and earning a reputation for being ethical and hardworking. Doing so will serve as a strong foundation to future opportunities—including those you can’t yet imagine.

A quick glance at Adie’s résumé affirms that legal careers can be more circular than linear. Her experiences are diverse and not obvious next steps in a career trajectory. Adie’s accompanying narrative is what permits the observer of her résumé to understand its cohesion. Her story spotlights the value of building and nurturing professional relationships at every stage of a legal education and career.

After working as a social worker for an urban school district, Adie joined a large corporate law firm as a commercial litigator. This position was obtained through fall on-campus interviews and is the first and last legal job Adie got through traditional means.

A relationship cultivated over a printer led Adie to her next job. Adie shared a printer with an associate in the firm’s intellectual property group. Regular sightings at the printer led to a friendship where they shared stories of their children’s earaches and spouses’ jobs. Thus, when an in-house corporate attorney position became available, Adie mentioned her interest to her printer buddy because she knew his wife worked for the organization. The attorney’s wife was in charge of recruiting for the position, and that’s how Adie jumped from complex commercial litigation to an in-house position reviewing and negotiating contracts.

Throughout Adie’s career at the firm and while with the company, she kept her roots in social justice and welfare and designed and facilitated pro bono projects. Thus, when the law school where I worked received a grant to add a pro bono coordinator, I immediately thought of Adie. Adie was a summer associate when I practiced, and we maintained a professional friendship in the years after our exits from the firm. I knew firsthand of Adie’s commitment to service and her capacity to build programs, so I was quick to champion her candidacy.

Social worker, corporate litigator, corporate legal team, and pro bono coordinator—the obvious next step would be . . . back to the original law firm to practice in government affairs? Okay, maybe not obvious. Adie was recruited for her present position from the head of the government affairs practice. He contacted Adie because they had maintained a professional connection and he remained impressed with her from years prior when he taught her as an adjunct professor at her law school. The timing was perfect because Adie was in a temporary grant-based position at the law school.

Adie’s career in and out of practice and back and forth from for-profit to nonprofit isn’t exceptional. Start asking experienced lawyers where they’ve been and few will tell tales of a predictable career path.

Marti went from large law firm, to legal research and writing instructor, to general counsel for a major league baseball franchise. Dan began his career not practicing law but instead as deputy director for a national law student organization and stepped next into the chambers of a federal circuit court judge as a law clerk. Vinita began as an associate at a law firm, moved into the general counsel’s office, back to her first law firm, and finally over to another company as general counsel (and that was just the first five years of her practice). Linda began her career in a small civil litigation firm, transferred to a large corporate law firm as a litigator, hopped over to the firm’s transactional group, and landed as general counsel in the fashion industry. Beth practiced as a civil litigator in a small firm, spent a decade out of practice focused on her family, reentered the profession in family law, and now sits as a circuit court judge. Mary went from large law firm, to nonprofit lawyer, to director of a legal service provider, to judge. Sabrina jumped from summer law clerk in a general counsel’s office to its attorney in charge of national and international nuclear regulation. Nathan spent over a decade as a government lawyer and then joined a civil litigation firm.

These lawyers aren’t exceptions for whom I had to go searching. They’re simply representatives of legions of lawyers who have been open-minded about career opportunities and committed to developing genuine relationships along the way. Commonly threaded through their stories are professional connections and positive impressions. Dan got a federal clerkship even though he wasn’t in the upper echelons of class rank or on law review but rather because he impressed the judge during a student internship. Marti’s offer from a professional sports team came because she stood out as one of many lawyers who serviced the team as a client at her firm and the client missed her work and expertise when she left to teach. Beth made a successful return to practice because she was deliberate in maintaining connections to the legal community during her years at home with children. She sat on bar association committees, maintained an active law license, and contributed to legal publications.

Immediate and long-term career goals are important when developing a job search strategy and making career decisions, but don’t be too anxious about having clairvoyance about the next 5, 10, or 20 years. You’re not cementing your future in a corner of the profession based on the work you do as a summer law clerk or young associate.

You can start your career in a non-legal position and later join a traditional practice. You can leave practice and return to it. You can return to work for employers whom you previously worked for and left. You can move from small firm to large firm, from a firm to a nonprofit organization, and all around.

“Outrageously happy” is often a moving target depending on life’s circumstances. What’s predictable and unfailing is the fact that building genuine professional relationships and leaving trails of good work and good will make for the shortest path to the next best thing in your career.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.

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