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Finding Your Nonlegal Niche

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Sometimes, you just know. And for some in law school, what you know is that practicing law through a typical legal employer would never make your heart sing. At the same time, you know the value of a legal education, which is why you chose law school in the first place.

The good news is that if you’re looking for a career that takes advantage of your legal education but doesn’t pigeonhole you into the legal field, the range of career choices is vast—and there are probably options you haven’t even considered yet. Here, four law school-educated professionals talk about their nonlegal careers and offer advice for students in search of their own niche.

The Deal Maker
Robert Soniker has been in the commercial real estate business for the entire 10 years since he graduated from law school—and that’s exactly how he planned it.

“I went to law school always with the focus of having a career in real estate,” said the vice president of JLJ Management, a real estate management company in Westchester, New York. “My intent was to get as much transactional experience as possible from professors.”

Today, Soniker uses what he learned in law school daily as he leases retail space to tenants like CVS, Dunkin Donuts, and Subway. “Law school is still very helpful for me,” Soniker said. “It focuses you and really teaches you critical thinking [skills]. In business, a lot of people suffer because you want what you want in a transaction, and both sides want everything. When you’re going through transactional classes in law school, it’s a great thing to really bang into your head early on that maybe what you need to do is an analysis of what each side wants so there’s a way to make a deal.”

It’s also “an unbelievable advantage” for Soniker to quickly lock up agreements by drafting his own leases and other contracts. “National tenants are typically searching many available retail spaces in the area, and time is of the essence,” he added. “I’ve benefited from the ability to make a deal with a prospective tenant and then quickly mobilizing to complete a lease. There’s no negotiating a lease deal and then waiting on a law firm to prepare the lease.”

Soniker also views his law degree as a foundation to invest in other businesses. “Two years ago, my brother and I acquired a marketing firm called MSCO,” he said. “We viewed it as acquiring an asset. Similar to what we’ve been doing on the real estate side, our hope is to over the years appreciate the value of the asset. Having a JD has also been extremely helpful there. It’s a business, and every day we’re negotiating deals with clients. We’re also saving a tremendous amount of money in third-party expenses because I can draft and consummate all internal documents.”

Though Soniker says he doesn’t have any additional business ventures in the works, he plans to in the future, and his JD is key to that mission. “I can look way more broadly at my portfolio than if I didn’t have this business and legal background,” Soniker said.

The PR Pro
Nicholas Gaffney is a public relations (PR) professional whose law degree and one-time career in journalism offer his law firm clients insights other PR pros can’t provide.

But Gaffney had no idea PR would ultimately be the field in which he’d apply his legal education. “When I was in law school, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do,” said Gaffney, now a partner at Infinite Public Relations in San Francisco. “When I started, I was open to the possibilities, and when I graduated, I migrated to a business I’d been involved in—insurance and reinsurance. I thought I could combine a business and legal career into a more traditional business career. As it turned out, I wasn’t really cut out for a traditional, corporate-type job.”

One of Gaffney’s brothers launched a free weekly newspaper, and Gaffney worked there for three years. But there was no money or happiness in that gig, so Gaffney headed west. “I really liked media and ended up working for American Lawyer Media where I stumbled on this business of law firm marketing,” he recalled.

Today, Gaffney specializes primarily in litigation communications. “I do work for plaintiffs and defendants helping them create and execute strategies around litigation,” Gaffney explained. “Let’s say you’re a plaintiff, and you want to influence the behavior of individuals or make them aware of a lawsuit. I’ll create a strategy to communicate that to the largest and widest audience. Litigation communications is close to crisis communications, and we do some of that, too.”

A JD isn’t necessary for a legal marketing career, Gaffney said. But it’s a big plus, as evidenced by the fact that he recently participated in a round table discussion with three other JDs who now head law firm marketing departments. If you’re interested in Gaffney’s particular niche, litigation experience is also an advantage, though it’s not necessary. “If you maybe want a career in my particular business, I’d suggest doing clinics that allow you to be involved in litigation,” he said. “Negotiation is also always practical. But learn as much about litigation as you can.”

In fact, as dead set as Gaffney was against practicing law when he graduated, he says that might have been wise given what he knows now. “It absolutely would have been helpful for me to have done litigation for a few years,” he said. “I was just talking to someone working for the federal government who wants to do a career change to litigation communications. I said, ‘Do what you can to get to the litigation side, if it’s only for six months.’ Even if you have to take a job that doesn’t seem the most lucrative or prestigious, if you have that experience, you make yourself a lot more marketable because you have the practical and the litigation experience clients respect. It’s a significant skill set that can be monetized.”

The Time-Traveling Sleuth
Gordon’s his name. Investigations are his game. As he proclaims in his email address, Charles-Eric Gordon is a sleuth. For more than 30 years, he has worked in New York City as an investigative counsel to the legal, real estate, and business communities. He has been profiled in both the New York Timesand the Wall Street Journal, in part for his collection of decades worth of phone books that aid in his investigations.

“It has helped me solve many, many cases,” Gordon said. “I’m working on one now by going through the Queens and Brooklyn phone books from 1968 and 1969. It’s time travel, which I love. It’s a lot more interesting than writing a memorandum of law and motion papers.”

Gordon’s area of expertise is tracing hard-to-find or long-gone people. “Most will be inheriting money, or they won’t but they have to be notified there’s a will and they’re not mentioned in it,” he said. “In another case, someone had defrauded a major bank for a lot of money, where he was a personal guarantor, and I located him overseas.”

Tracking down people even before he went to law school by working for a bank as a debt collector and skip tracer, Gordon believed law school was his path to becoming a police detective. Instead, investigations became his life. “Everywhere I went, I was getting approached by people—even my fellow Brooklyn Law School grads—who said, ‘We know you find people . . . ’” he said. “One day, I thought, ‘I could make a living doing this.’”

After practicing law for three years, Gordon turned to full-time sleuthing. The legal training proved useful. “I learned to draft motions, bills of particular, and interrogatories,” he said. “That’s why I can earn more than a private investigator. I know how to write as an attorney, and it’s an added value to my clients.”

The perks of having a JD in his line of work are many. “Having a law degree enhances everything,” Gordon said. “I say I’m a practicing attorney because in all states and every Canadian province I’m aware of, if you’re an attorney, you’re exempt from having to get a PI’s license. Could I be a PI without a law degree? Yes. But I’d have to take tests and be beholden to the secretary of state in a way I’m not as a lawyer—and I wouldn’t have the education I have. Knowledge of laws, especially regarding evidence, civil and criminal procedure, and substantive and administrative law, is a tremendous asset for any investigative professional. Being a lawyer lets me rise to the top of my profession.”

The Music Aficionado Turned Entrepreneur
Could law school be the path to success in the music industry? It was for Marc Luber, though he eventually left the music business to launch a website, JD Careers Out There, that helps people explore what to do with a law degree.

“I chose to go to law school because I was told it was the best background for the music industry, and I knew that’s where I wanted to work,” said Luber, who’s based in Los Angeles. “I had no connections in the industry, so I had to do my own research. Two major contacts said, ‘Get a law degree.’ Their reasoning was that contracts are a major part of the business, and everything around music is either employment or intellectual property related.”

Were they right? “I don’t think for music, a law degree was necessary,” he reflected. “That advice is right if you want to be a music lawyer. But I was following what these people I respected were telling me. And I’m still happy I got the degree.”

Whatever your dream, Luber suggests hunting for summer jobs that’ll help you get where you want to go. “Each summer, I made sure to have music-related work lined up,” he said. “Rather than working at a law firm, I did a summer associate job in the legal department at a big record company in New York City. At that time I thought I might want to be an entertainment lawyer. But I decided I couldn’t see myself doing that work every day. The next summer, I went to Los Angeles and interned for the manager of Crosby, Stills & Nash.”

After graduation, his law degree helped him land jobs doing music-related licensing and representation. “I wasn’t practicing law; I wasn’t an in-house lawyer,” Luber said. “But those employers wanted someone with the JD skill set. Then I became a legal recruiter, and that’s a JD-preferred position, too. Your law degree is going to help you. Maybe not in job number one after law school, but as you get a little more seasoned, there will be more opportunities because you have that background.”

There’s no question Luber has met people who’ve regretted getting their JD—at first. “I think it’s pretty common for most people who end up using their degree for something other than law to feel they’ve benefited as a result of having that degree,” he said. “They often don’t feel that way for the first 10 years after graduating, but I think they do start to feel that way. In those 10 years, I’d have said law school was a joke and a waste of my time, and a lot of my friends would have said the same thing. None of us would say that today.”

***For more profiles of JDs thriving in alternative careers, check out our monthly Secret Lawyer department.

Vol. 43 No. 1

G.M. Filisko G.M. Filisko is the editor of Student Lawyer Magazine. She earned her law degree in 1998 from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She practiced civil litigation at two large Chicago firms until 2005, when she became a freelance writer and editor.