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What You Can Do with a Law Degree (Besides Practice Law)

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Vol. 40 No. 5
ByGary A. Munneke

Gary A. Munneke is a professor of law at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York, where he teaches courses in professional responsibility, law practice management, and the legal profession. He is author of more than 20 books, including Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers (Fifth Edition with William D. Henslee and Ellen Wayne).
As a graduating law student with a couple of law firm job offers in hand, I was walking down the hall past the dean’s office at my law school when the dean’s secretary called to me to say that the dean wanted to see me. Ushered into his office, I was surprised to hear the dean offer me a job on the spot—as assistant dean of the law school. Among my responsibilities, he wanted me to take over the struggling career services (in those days, placement) office. For reasons I cannot readily explain, I accepted the job immediately without discussing it with family, friends, or advisors. Thus, as a newly minted lawyer, I began my own personal exploration of what you can do with a law degree . . . besides practice law.
Having been thrust from the role of consumer of career services to provider of career services, I found myself learning on the job and making up my responsibilities on the fly.

I went to programs on the practice of law to learn about law firm economics. I visited law firms across the country to find out what the inside of a law firm looked like. I attended bar association meetings to get to know what practitioners were thinking. In order to learn from more experienced peers, I joined NALP, an association for legal career professionals, and in five years I went from newbie to president of the association. This led to an invitation to speak to the American Bar Association (ABA) Law Student Division at an ABA Annual Meeting in Atlanta, which spawned a life in the ABA that has spanned more than 30 years.

My early ABA activities included work with a group called the Standing Committee on Professional Utilization and Career Development, which was studying the problem of “too many law schools” spewing out “too many lawyers” (sound familiar?). The theory was that an oversupply of lawyers would create masses of unemployed and underemployed lawyers, who would either fill welfare lines or practice law marginally. These lawyers, it was surmised, would be tempted to cut corners ethically, provide inferior services, and drive down the income for “real” practitioners.

When the Standing Committee studied the oversupply problem, however, some amazing results came to light. Instead of hoards of bottom-feeding underemployed practitioners, lawyers who did not find legal jobs were taking positions in business and industry, supplanting applicants with degrees in business, economics, accounting, and liberal arts. The JD credential had caché in the business world, and if anyone ended up unemployed, it would not be the lawyers.

The Road Less Traveled
The purpose of recounting this history is not to highlight the role of serendipity in our lives, but to illustrate how a decision to follow, as Robert Frost said, the road less traveled, has made all the difference for me. Although the numbers are not clear, it is beyond challenge that a significant percentage of law graduates do not practice law. According to the latest American Bar Foundation’s Lawyer Statistical Report, just over 60 percent of the 1.2 million lawyers in America engage in the private practice of law. Another 10 to 20 percent work full-time as lawyers for organizations. Reports often do not distinguish in-house lawyers for the entity from lawyers who engage in management, administration, or other non-practice activities. A lawyer in private practice sells her time to a law firm, which in turn sells services to clients on the open market; or if she opens her own practice, she sells those services directly to consumers. An in-house practitioner sells all her time to the organization that employs her.

The universe of nonlegal careers includes positions that do not involve delivering legal services to clients—either on the open market or to a particular entity. It can be argued that almost every imaginable endeavor has legal implications, and that legal skills can enhance the effectiveness of a person in any field. Tony La Russa, a baseball manager who has a law degree, may use a variety of legal skills (persuasion, negotiation, analysis) to be a better manager, but it is his knowledge of baseball that defines his job. On the other hand, someone who leaves the practice of law to open a wine bar uses legal skills every day (choice of business entity, creating and interpreting contracts, overseeing human resources, licensing, and taxes, for example). There is no bright line that can define an official list of nonlegal careers, although the vast majority of lawyers who pursue nonlegal careers follow a number of identifiable paths.

People choose to pursue careers outside the practice of law at different points in time: Some come to law school with no intention of ever practicing law. While this was more common when employers routinely paid employees for pursuing graduate education, it is still true that a few first-year students in every class already know they do not want to practice law. A second group includes those who decide during the course of their law school years that law is not their calling. It may be that they do not care for law school itself or that they worked in a law firm during school and found the work stifling and unsatisfying. A third group may finish law school but choose a nonlegal job because the opportunities are better outside the legal profession. During the economic downturn of 2008–09, when many law firms cut back on hiring, many law students explored nonlegal options; conversely, during the boom years of the early 2000s, many law graduates eschewed private practice to pursue what they perceived as lucrative careers in investment banking. A final group of lawyers who pursue nonlegal careers includes those who start out in private practice, but leave because they are lured away to work for clients they represented as lawyers, because they discovered that practicing law was not all it was cracked up to be, or, more recently, because they were victims of law firm downsizing and layoffs.

Before embarking on a nonlegal job search, it is useful to reset your mental compass to accommodate a career that does not involve practicing law because much of what you think about a legal career points you in the direction of practicing law for a living. For anyone considering a nonlegal career, there are several impediments.

Occasional Roadblocks
Ladder mentality. If we perceive jobs for lawyers in a hierarchical way, we might imagine a clerkship with the US Supreme Court on the very top step, and then on the next rung a job as an associate with a large prestigious law firm, and then a fortune 100 legal department, and then a medium-sized firm, then a small firm, and then after hanging out your own shingle, on the very last rung, a nonlegal career. On some level, we know that this paradigm does not make sense; we are not fungible commodities who perform equally well in all work settings. We are unique individuals who need to find unique career opportunities that complement our personal skills, interests, and aspirations. In order to get to the point where we perceive career options as legitimate alternatives, we need to turn the ladder on its side, so that the Supreme Court clerkship, the nonlegal career, as well as the other possibilities, are different choices of relatively equal value.

Advice from loved ones. Although well-meaning, a second impediment can be the advice of loved ones. They may not understand why you would spend three years and a considerable sum of money to go to law school if you did not want to be a lawyer. The simple response is that when you graduate from law school you are a lawyer, even if you decide not to practice law. Some might quibble that you are only a law school graduate until you pass the bar. But assuming you take and pass the bar—which you will want to do if you think you might someday want to work in a setting where a law license is required—you will be a non-practicing lawyer. Family and friends need to know that you are making a choice that is right for you and that you will use your skills as a lawyer whether you work in a law firm or not.

The universe of nonlegal career opportunities. The term “universe” implies a vast expanse of space, galaxies, and black holes; it is more than we can wrap our minds around. The legal job market is miniscule compared to the macro-employment market worldwide. In order to find a nonlegal job in a nonlegal field, we need focus and direction. The decision to pursue a nonlegal career is only the tip of the iceberg. We need to identify fields where our skills give us an advantage. We must choose areas that interest us. We may have to rely on contacts or networking to break into another field because the law school career services office concentrates on jobs in law. Your decision to go to law school involved an assessment of what you wanted to do with your life, just as your decision to pursue a traditional legal career does; but if you decide to opt out of a legal career, you will need to engage in serious introspection and exploration of your options again.

The culture of the nonlegal field you choose. You can expect a different professional culture than law. Different fields have different educational and licensing requirements. They have their own language. They have their own hiring practices and calendars. They have their own publications and professional issues. If you want to succeed in a business outside of law, you must learn to fit into what is in many ways a foreign culture. One of the biggest hurdles may be the stereotypes that people in other professions have about lawyers. The burden will be on you to dispel their negative expectations and demonstrate that you will bring value to their organization. This may not be easy; for example, in the last sentence, is the reference to “burden” too legalistic? In any event, you may need to read professional journals in the area you want to work, gain additional credentials to be taken seriously, develop contacts and references from their world, and purge your vocabulary of legal jargon. You will also want to have answers to questions that employers might have about why a lawyer does not want to practice law.

Most Common Nonlegal Paths for Lawyers
As suggested above, the universe is infinite. However, some fields stand out because lawyers gravitate to particular fields where they can use their legal skills. Some of these positions can be found in organizations that perform work ancillary to the practice of law, such as legal technology consulting, jury selection, accounting, or compliance. Often referred to as law-related positions, these encompass the people who provide support to law firms, but do not actually deliver legal services. Jobs in fields unconnected to the practice of law, however, may still incorporate a variety of legal issues and require the application of legal training.

The largest nonlegal employment category is business and industry. Within a typical company, lawyers outside the law department may work in human resources, compliance, communications, contract administration, purchasing, taxation, licensing, transportation, and a variety of other departments. It is worth noting that holders of the JD are second only to MBAs in terms of the number of corporate CEOs in the United States. Even a general counsel who moves from the legal department to corporate management migrates from a legal to a nonlegal position. Financial institutions, insurance companies, securities and investment firms, and real estate brokerages are the largest employers of lawyers, but almost any large company in any industry is likely to employ lawyers.

Small companies and entrepreneurial ventures are also attractive to lawyers.  A legally trained investor can offer a variety of help to a new business entity. Although the lawyer may have to decide whether her role is one of counsel or participant, for some lawyers creating the business is more exciting than advising the business. A lawyer who is employed by a small company may find that she has to wear many hats. The company may not be large enough to have an in-house general counsel, yet may want to avoid the expense of outside counsel, leaving the lawyer manager to serve as informal counsel to the company.

Education is the nonlegal career field that has experienced the most growth over the course of the last quarter century. In addition to positions in law school teaching and administration, many lawyers work in college and university teaching and administration. Some of these individuals may move laterally from law school to university positions, but many others begin their careers outside the law school. Among the administrative areas where lawyers find jobs are the following: career services, financial aid, admissions, development, public relations, lobbying, library administration, and student services. Additionally, the number of lawyers working in primary and secondary education is also increasing.

A third nonlegal area that attracts large numbers of lawyers is government. At all levels—federal, state, and local—lawyers work in virtually all agencies and departments. Lawyers who begin their careers doing legal work in government agencies often find that as they move up the ladder in an agency, they do more and more administrative work and less and less law. You might start out as an assistant DA who tries cases, but by the time you are elected DA, you are more of a manager than a trial lawyer. In addition, thousands of lawyers at every level of government work in positions that are not technically legal positions. It may be the case that lawyers “legalize” their work by addressing legal aspects of their responsibilities or discovering that legal questions gravitate to them, but in the end they are managers with legal skills rather than lawyers with management skills. Within government, the largest number of lawyers can be found in the military, and many of these work in a military occupational specialty outside of the JAG Corps.

The political process has been a magnet for lawyers from time immemorial. Politics and political action are the siren song to lawyers’ ears. Statistics show that more lawyers have served as presidents, governors, senators, and representatives than any other occupation. Lawyers are also well-represented on the staffs of elected officials. Take a look at any political campaign and you will find lawyers involved in every aspect of the election process.

Another growth area for JDs is communications. Some of the most obvious examples are writers like John Grisham, or television personalities like Geraldo Rivera, but less prominent figures like producer David E. Kelley (The Practice) fall into this category as well. Many on-air newscasters and reporters, screenwriters, actors, and studio executives are lawyers as well. Lawyers work in public relations as media consultants and marketing professionals. Sometimes writers or bloggers focus on legal subjects, but very often their legal backgrounds are unknown to their audiences.

Technology is an attractive option for lawyers, especially tech-savvy lawyers who understand both law and technology. From Internet-based application businesses, to law firm IT support, to website design, many lawyers have chosen the technology path. One area in particular deserves mention: online legal information sites. These sites, often created and managed jointly by nonlawyer professionals and lawyers, provide online services to clients who wish to represent themselves or obtain low-cost generic services that do not require the expertise or high price of a practicing lawyer. These legal sites often compete directly with bricks-and-mortar law firms and may walk perilously close to unauthorized practice, but they are an entrenched element of the legal services landscape in today’s world, and an alternative path for at least some lawyers.

A final nonlegal career worth mentioning is public accounting. Because both lawyers and CPAs deal with taxation issues, it should not be surprising that legal and accounting services sometimes overlap. In a CPA firm, lawyers may be more involved with the consulting and compliance side, as opposed to the bookkeeping and auditing side, but it is a demonstrable fact that CPA firms regularly hire law school graduates as well as practitioners. Because partners in CPA firms must possess a CPA certification, many lawyers who go to work for accounting firms eventually become CPAs themselves.

The point should be clear: If you choose not to practice law, you will not want for opportunities. Before you decide to follow the same path that most of your classmates take, give some serious thought to what you can really do with a law degree. This advice is doubly true if you have reservations about whether practicing law is the right career for you. If you think that you might find happiness outside the legal field, take some time to look in the mirror; think about your personal and professional skills, what you like to do, what contacts and experience you have in other fields, and where you want your career to lead you. Take a chance, expand your horizons, and be ready to seize the opportunity to do something different.

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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