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To be, or not to be? Tradition isn’t the only answer

As you work to become a lawyer, remember that tradition isn’t the only answer to the question.

Tradition, especially in the law, means a lot. Traditions connect us to people and ideas that came before. They can add meaning to the things we say and do. But tradition can also hold us back from addressing choices that need rethinking. It’s OK to start fresh every now and then.

Define “traditional lawyer”

Most people start law school planning to end up as a “traditional lawyer.” Whether they envision themselves going to court, drafting contracts, or otherwise serving the needs of the underrepresented, they imagine reading, writing, and advocating for their future clients.

Most law schools also plan for you to end up as a “traditional lawyer.” Training traditional future lawyers is what law schools are charged with doing, and they’re obligated to provide you with that experience.

But even if you have generations of lawyers in your family demanding that you carry on their legacy, going the “traditional lawyer” route isn’t something any one of us has to do.

Understanding all the options available to you is a smart way to assess whether you want to start some new career traditions of your own.

The emphasis on tradition

Only trained and licensed lawyers can practice law. Under our current system, with just a very few exceptions, only accredited law schools provide the legal education necessary to prepare for and pass the bar exam.

It therefore makes sense for law schools to turn out graduates who can (and likely will) practice law. The schools have a mission, as well as relationships with law firms that need to hire licensed lawyers; there’s a natural tendency to funnel students toward those jobs.

To be fair, law firm jobs also make up the largest proportion of job opportunities for new law grads, and the schools need to keep their placement stats strong to encourage future enrollment. Additionally, there’s a good argument to be made that the time to at least try traditional law practice is when the legal education you received is freshest in your mind.

But there are more than enough lawyers in practice these days. Arguably, we have too many practicing lawyers chasing too few clients. Paraprofessionals, temporary legal help, and the outsourcing of many legal jobs overseas are making traditional positions scarcer at both the entry and lateral levels. And not everyone who attends law school is really cut out for or interested in the practice of law.

Rethinking tradition

For all those reasons, I’d argue that we need to expand the thinking around what constitutes “traditional” law and why we have to broaden the range of culturally acceptable jobs for lawyers. Yes, certain jobs will offer bigger salaries than others. Yes, certain jobs will carry more prestige.

But why should working anywhere besides a law firm, corporate law department, or government position be viewed as a legal stepchild? If a position requires you to think critically, communicate artfully, and strategize logically, your law school education helped prepare you to succeed in it.

I know and have helped many lawyers who’ve transitioned outside the legal “box” and who excel in their field because of, not in spite of, holding a J.D. But each one of them had to craft their career independently. There were no on-campus recruiters coming to claim them. There were no wine-and-cheese networking events for alternative careerists. But there should be.

Getting the help you need

While a number of forward-thinking law schools offer assistance with career counseling in nontraditional arenas, many don’t. Career services offices have limited resources that are allocated first to the “traditional.” But from speaking and consulting with law school administrators over the years, I know there’s a real need and deep desire on the part of students to obtain this kind of help.

We all need options. We all need to understand how and where our legal training can best combine with our intuitive talents, interests, and values to produce a career match. Ultimately, I believe lawyers and their alma maters would benefit from presenting a fuller range of options and actively assisting students in the type of coaching and network-building that will help more of them land in more nontraditional roles.

The students will benefit. The law schools will benefit. And the organizations that hire smart, thoughtful, strategic legal minds into non-J.D. roles will benefit as well.

The beauty of new traditions

Starting a new tradition can be scary. You’re traveling unpaved paths. But you’re also laying fresh tracks for someone else to follow.

The more lawyers who successfully translate their legal skill sets into new roles, the more empowered other lawyers will be to follow. The more positions that benefit from having lawyers fill their ranks, the more “J.D.-advantage” job postings will start to pop up.

And the more we, as lawyers and future lawyers, see nontraditional choices as fun, attractive, and of comparable status, the more the population at large will embrace the value in hiring lawyers into those roles.

Cheryl Rich Heisler Cheryl Rich Heisler, President/Founder of LAWTERNATIVES, offers individualized career consulting to lawyers and law students on exploring careers inside, outside & around traditional legal options. Her own career paths include big law, brand management, professional speaking/writing and mixology! Heisler currently sits on the ABA Career Center Board and writes for both Student Lawyer and Experience Magazine.