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How to resist the allure of a traditional practice

Alternative Careers

The unique pressure of the recruiting process brings active job-hunting and relentless auditioning dropped right in the middle of studying for your degree. While you’re still trying to figure out what proximate cause is, you’re also told to apply for internships or clerkships that may well define your career path for years to come.

This is all part of the “traditional” legal career path often pressed upon law students by their schools and peers: Trying to line up a job with BigLaw, as in-house counsel at a corporation, or in the public sector.

While many students are happy going this “traditional route,” it’s only one type of the law school experience. It’s not everyone’s experience, and it doesn’t have to be yours. Whether it’s because you can’t imagine working in a giant law firm, you’re not in the top 20 percent of your class, or you dream of starting your own practice, going the “nontraditional” way can be lucrative and very gratifying.

Let those who’ve taken the road less traveled tell you how you might do the same and avoid the pressure to become a partner at BigLaw or an ADA for your local county.

Must you follow the crowd?

Kathy Morris is perhaps best described as living proof of her own advice. After beginning her legal career doing criminal defense work, Morris took the risk of starting her own business. Instead of practicing law, however, she decided to help students and attorneys figure out what they want to do with their J.D. degree.

“I think people in law school fear that they’ve got to do a traditional practice,” she said, “whether it’s BigLaw or a smaller firm or you work for the government.

“The thought is, ‘I should work as a traditional lawyer because other things won’t look good on my resume, won’t lead anywhere, and may not be as lucrative,’” added Morris. “The fact is that there’s money to be made, and there are career paths to engage in that are more individualized. It’s all in taking what you do, doing it well, and knowing how to narrate your career and how to advocate your skills.”

Morris founded Under Advisement Ltd. in 1988 and has become a go-to resource for lawyers and law students looking for help in changing their career paths. She said that while the standard path works well for some people, some wind up detesting it.

“There are happy people who go traditional, and there are unhappy people who go traditional,” she said. “By the numbers, the crowd will be going traditional, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you need to do that first, you need to do that for all time, or that you can’t get back to something traditional later.”

Vive la différence

The legal career advisor said she’s seen attorneys transition from practicing law into all types of non-traditional careers, everything from going into human resources all the way to professional wedding planning. Morris said law students shouldn’t look at doing non-traditional work as a negative.

“It’s not a stigma, it’s not uncommon, it’s not ‘wasting your degree,’ and it’s not sending mixed messages by way of your resume to do what you want to do,” she said. You should browse the job market, but don’t just look at what’s available from job postings or through your law school, Morris suggested.

Think about what it is you really want to do and consider creating your own opportunities. “It’s always important to figure out what you really want to do as an individual,” said Morris. “If you do what you really want, the likelihood is that you’ll do it well. You can be open— think in the alternative—you can spin out some options that you may not necessarily see on”

Morris suggests you use this basic premise: Consider what you want to do and then talk to alums from your law school. “Find out what they’ve done, what they chose, and how it’s worked out for them,” she advised.

“If people are candid about their experiences, that will probably break some assumptions you might have.” Also give yourself permission to differentiate yourself. “I think you have to take a longer-term view,” noted Morris. “But be brave in the short term to know you can mold a career that makes sense no matter what and, most importantly, one that’s satisfying to you.”

A career saved

Evan Walker was on the verge of burning out when he parlayed his experience in the traditional legal field into going solo, perhaps saving his legal career and his sanity. Walker had just begun his first semester of law school at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in a historically horrific fashion.

Despite the chaos, he graduated with an offer from a law firm doing insurance defense and found himself swamped with Katrina-related litigation. After working in New Orleans, Walker moved to Connecticut and took a job with a major insurance company.

While he was making a good living, he began to loathe doing insurance defense work. “It was so distasteful in the sense that you’re working for this huge company,” he recalled. “It was very corporate, and you were almost just like a cog in the machine. There really wasn’t a lot of upward mobility. I just got tired of it. It wasn’t very fulfilling.”

In 2014, Walker moved to San Diego, so tired of the work he’d been doing that he even considered quitting the practice of law all together. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he explained. “I was so burned out on doing insurance defense work, and I didn’t want to work for a huge company. To some extent I just didn’t even want to practice law anymore.”

But after taking a job at a small firm in California, Walker had an “ah-ha” moment. “I saw the way the attorney was running the practice and I thought to myself: ‘I can do that,’” he stated.

“Up to that point, it had never dawned on me. I had never even considered hanging up my own shingle.” Walker decided to give it a go, and in late 2015, he opened The Law Office of Evan W. Walker. He contends it’s the best decision he’s ever made. “I’ve had my own firm for more than a year now and, honestly, I’ve never been happier,” he asserted.

“The best part is being my own boss. It allows me to practice law the way I want to practice. I can write the way I want to write. I have a paperless office. I’m very responsive to clients—they all have my cell number.”

Advice for the solos

If you’re thinking about a non-traditional route or starting your own practice, Walker has some advice. “First, avoid student debt, or try to pay it off as fast as possible,” he recommended. “Next, get as much practical experience as you can, as quickly as you can, even if it’s at a clinic or a small firm. “Find a niche practice you enjoy or think you’d enjoy,” Walker added.

“If you want to start your own firm, learn about running a business, like how to do your taxes and market yourself. And understand that the law and technology is changing, and learn to work mobile.”

But, Walker said, avoiding the temptation to “follow the crowd” is the first step. “Don’t believe the law school career hype that the only way to make it is to get hired by a large law firm,” he insisted. “Career services will often try to push this ‘coveted’ summer internship at a big law firm. Don’t necessarily think that’s the only way to go.”

If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em

Sonia Lakhany was like scores of other students at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, unsure of what type of law she wanted to practice. She joked that she went to law school mostly to appease her parents and quickly found that much of the subject matter didn’t interest her.

“I didn’t actually enjoy a lot of the material,” she said with a laugh. “The only subject area I took that didn’t bore me to tears was trademarks. I realized pretty quickly that I was going to have one long, unfulfilling, miserable life if I didn’t go into the practice area that I wanted,” she said.

Lakhany found that not being at the very top of her class shrunk the job market.

Making matters worse, it was 2010, so the Great Recession was in full swing, and the opportunities in intellectual property law were almost non-existent. “Emory is typically the theater for BigLaw jobs, and it definitely felt like that was the route I should take,” Lakhany recounted. “So I applied for a lot of those jobs thinking that’s what I wanted to do. Being that I wanted to focus on trademark law, BigLaw felt like it was really the only path I could take. But I kept getting rejection letters.”

When Lakhany found the mahogany doors of the white-shoe firms weren’t opening for her, she came up with a different plan. She decided she’d begin marketing herself and get involved with trademark law in any way she could. “My first job was at a small medical malpractice firm,” she stated. “But while I was at that first job, I started going out and building a trademark brand.

I started branding myself as ‘Lady Lanham,’ after the federal trademark act, the Lanham act. I networked heavily in the field. I attended continuing legal education events, and I began to get mentors. I started taking some trademark matters for free. I wrote articles— basically anything I could do to stay involved with it.

“Even though I wasn’t at a firm that did IP,” stated Lakhany, “I think the fact that I was really trying and really committed to IP resonated with people.”

After gaining traction in the IP world while practicing at a few different firms, Lakhany decided it was time to branch out on her own. “By year five, I realized that the only way I’m going to really be in control of the type of work I want to do is if I have my own practice,” she stated. “By that time, I actually had a brand, I was blogging, and people knew who I was.”

Now, Lakhany is one of the bestknown trademark attorneys in Atlanta and recently opened a second office in Los Angeles. She stressed that the way to ignore the pressure of the traditional path is to make connections and be personally invested in what you want to do.

“If you’re interested in something, you have to go after it, and you don’t necessarily have a guarantee it will work out,” she said. “Try to gather as much information as you can to make an educated choice, and learn from other people’s experiences.”

Let others guide you

Lakhany credits her success in large part to learning from others’ experiences. “If you’re not sure about opening your own firm or what subject area you’re most interested in, the only thing you can really do is find people who are in those practices and reach out to them. Get to know them so you understand what they do and what their life is like.”

After contemplating a life of tedious, boring work, Lakhany’s story has now come full circle: Those same firms that wouldn’t give her the time of day during on-campus interviews are now inviting her to work with them.

“This is something I feel really strongly about,” she said. “My path was very non-traditional, and I had a lot of people along the way doubting my ability to make it work. But now some of those same people are my peers and competitors.” She wouldn’t change a thing. “In the end, I’m so glad it went this way because now I love what I do,” Lakhany said. “I’m happiest now because it’s a job I created. I never thought my favorite job would be one I made.”

ERIK BADIA is the deputy student editor at Student Lawyer and a second-year student at Georgia State University College of Law. He was previously a journalist, most recently for The New York Daily News.

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.