In recent years, the term of art “J.D. advantage” was coined to describe careers that don’t require a license to practice law but for which applicants would be greatly advantaged in the job search process if they’ve earned a J.D. In 2014, a National Association for Law Placement survey showed that 15 percent of the class of 2014 accepted a J.D. advantage job.
These nontraditional law careers span across the public and private sectors and touch on almost all industries involved in the job search today. Read on to find out your range of options and insights from lawyers who’ve colored outside the traditional legal career boundaries.
The short list of options
So which include a J.D. advantage? Some popular jobs include:
• Mediator or arbitrator
• Business manager
• Law librarian • Professor
• Writer or editor
• Public affairs representative
• Risk manager
• Political campaign staffer
• Elected official
• Foreign service officer
• Career coach
From a traditional start
For many lawyers who work in non-traditional positions, traditional courtroom careers are the building blocks that helped them be successful later on. Wendi Weiner is a member of the Florida Bar and the founder and CEO of The Writing Guru, a professional career coaching and resume writing company. While attending Stetson University College of Law in Tampa, Fla., Weiner was always drawn to the litigation field.
She also was very passionate about writing and research. So she immersed herself academically with the intent of being an even stronger writer. At the end of her law school career, Weiner accepted a contract as an adjunct professor teaching college writing and continued to do that for more than six years while also working at a law firm. After leaving the teaching field, Weiner practiced at a few smaller firms and eventually went in-house for an insurance company as a trial attorney.
“I always felt like something was missing,” said Weiner. “Ultimately, what I was missing was that I always wanted to be a professional writer. For me, the law wasn’t even going to be the end result.”
Weiner has been running her business for the last six years, and it has become even more lucrative than she ever imagined.
A nontraditional firm role
PJ Hoffman also took a non-traditional route but flopped the order of his career choices. The associate at Pepper Hamilton LLP in Washington, D.C., never had plans to pursue a traditional law career. He instead spent the beginning of his career in the political realm.
“I made the decision to go the non-traditional route before I went to law school,” stated Hoffman. “I know a lot of new lawyers who believe they need to be a litigator because that’s what law school trains you to do. But that isn’t the end-all, be-all of the law profession.”
Even after leaving the political sphere for law firm employment, Hoffman stayed true to his desire to advise rather than litigate. “Regulatory jobs are growing in the legal field, and client advisory roles are abundant,” he noted. “I wanted to be an expert in what I was working on and to be surrounded by other people who were becoming experts, too. That’s why I started in the public sector, and that’s what brought me to my job today.”
From IP to CEO
Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation in Calabasas, Calif., thought traditional law was the path for her. But she always made sure to keep her resume diverse.
“I worked in different positions as internships, and those positions ranged from entertainment to private litigation to a public defender’s office,” she recalled. “I tried everything because I wanted to find out what made me happy.”
Sweeney also actively sought out new opportunities as a young lawyer and soon found herself focused on online intellectual property concerns. Through her IP work, she was offered an opportunity to become in-house counsel for one of her firm’s clients, MyCorporation.
She was excited to move away from the BigLaw environment and experience the business side of corporate work. MyCorporation was acquired by Intuit not long after Sweeney joined the company, and shortly after, she was promoted to run the IP division in a corporate, non-legal position.
“It turned out that the business world was the right fit for me,” expressed Sweeney. “In 2009, I ended up buying the company from Intuit and took it private once again.”
How to reach your ah-ha moment
Weiner decided to pursue being an entrepreneur when she realized how much demand there was for her services and the effect she could be making on professionals who were changing career paths.
“I remember driving to work and thinking, ‘How much longer do I want to work for someone else?’” she stated. “It seemed wrong because here I was helping my clients find new careers, yet I was trapped in my own job.”
Conversely, Sweeney’s firm experience was everything she’d imagined as a career. But she, too, was looking for something more. “Working for a firm was a huge time commitment, and I thought to myself, ‘This is it?’” she explained. “I saw my husband being an entrepreneur and realized I wanted that too.”
Finding out what makes you happy is the theme that Sweeney, Weiner, and Hoffman all agree on.
“For people who are interested in a non-traditional law career, take law school as an opportunity to learn some skills and change the way you think about things so that you can get what you want out of it,” suggested Hoffman. “Think about your skill set, what you’re successful at, and what makes you happy before you pick a career direction.”
Hoffman followed his own advice and was able to enter into a non-traditional career right out of law school.
Also be sure to explore your own personal definition of practicing law. “Law students often ask me, ‘How do you not practice law in the true sense?’” said Sweeney. Her response to that question is to encourage law students to take every opportunity that comes their way.
“It’s important to ebb and flow in your career as your life changes so you can continue to be happy,” she asserted. “I think being willing to uncover what makes you the best you is very important.”
Happiness is Weiner’s specialty because her clients come to her to find a more fulfilling career experience. “If you love your job, you’ll never feel you worked a day in your life,” contended Weiner. “In law, there’s so much pressure to make partner and make money and pay off student loans. But we forget to love our profession and to love the law. We need to start staying true to ourselves and finding our own happiness.”
Three ways to narrow your search Weiner
has three tips to help guide your decisions when choosing a career path.
1. Do a StrengthsFinder assessment—The assessment is meant to help you determine an action plan and find the jobs for which you’re suited. “Often times, students find what skills they have and how they stand out through the StrengthsFinder assessment,” said Weiner.
2. Seek out a certified career coach—Career coaches are trained to help job seekers discover job-search strategies and strengthen their chances of getting hired. They can also be a great resource to help students be successful in their job search, according to Weiner.
3. Think outside the box—“The job-search experience has changed so much with the introduction of LinkedIn,” said Weiner, who recommended using it for both professional connections and as a platform for your job search.
She also suggests considering such jobs as internships, research projects, and short-term contracts as beneficial entry level positions. “If there’s one thing I want law students to take away from my career advice, it’s that thinking outside the box is key when getting hired in today’s competitive job market,” argued Weiner.
LYNAE TUCKER is the student editor of Student Lawyer and a second-year student at University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion.