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Exploring Alternate Careers for Lawyers

October 2006

What is your dream job? Don't let your qualifications, talents or skills get in the way of your answer. Kathleen Brady explores this topic while alleviating the fear of explaining that you are not "wasting" your legal education.

The good news is that the options both inside and outside of traditional law practice are unlimited. The bad news is the alternatives both inside and outside of traditional law practice are unlimited. That reality paralyzes people. With unlimited options, attorneys do not know where to begin. They wonder:

  1. Is there some way to combine my legal training with my other, equally important interests?
  2. Are there jobs available at my level and salary expectations or will I have to settle for less?
  3. How will I explain to peers and loved ones that I have “wasted” my legal education?

These questions can be overwhelming because there are no immediate answers. Many get stymied and opt to stay stuck in an unhappy situation or simply avoid the questions altogether. Yet, career counselors know that people tend to end up happier after a transition; the hard part is living through the unavoidable discomfort and uncertainties.

To help answer the first question, advise your clients that the best strategy to direct the course of their careers is to identify their skills, talents and passions. Attorneys must be able to articulate what they can do and what they know in a way that is relevant to potential employers. Help them to recognize that “non-traditional” careers for lawyers are very “traditional” careers for other types of professionals. The job market, which is conservative and myopic by nature, wants people to keep doing what they have been doing. Candidates are most understandable to potential employers in terms of past career choices and tenure in prior settings. The mere fact of change can raise questions about motives. Self-assessment enables attorneys to articulate the progression of their career choices in a coherent manner. Also, do not underestimate the power of passion. The world is filled with examples of people who achieved their goals—against all odds—because of their passion.

Lawyers automatically assume they will be forced to take a pay cut if they seek an alternative to a legal career. However, there are a substantial number of legally-related and non-legal positions that pay very acceptable salaries. Use the following resources to explore pay scales in different industries.

  • Abbott, Langer & Associates’ Compensation of Legal and Related Jobs (Non-Law Firm) provides information on in-house counsel positions sorted by geographic location, type of employer, size of organization and field of specialization. They also publish Compensation in Nonprofit Organizations.
  • The American Almanac of Jobs and Salaries provides salary information for a range of careers annually.
  • The Office of Personnel Management provides information on government salaries at http://www.opm.gov/oca/05tables/index.asp
  • Also check out www.payscale.com; www.vault.com; www.salary.com and www.law360.com.

Question 3 often poses the greatest challenge to lawyers. Finding the courage to forge one’s own path and construct a personal definition of success in the face of external obligations and pressures isn’t easy. In fact, it is downright scary.

To help your clients face this challenge, ask them to t hink about success. What does it look like? Odds are, every person will have a different answer. However, there are four common elements in every vision of success. They are:

  • being content about your life;
  • achieving measurable accomplishments that compare favorably to others with similar goals;
  • believing that you have a positive impact on people you care about most;
  • leaving a legacy in order to help others experience future success.

Each element contributes to the way success is experienced right now. Success is NOT a future event or something to aspire towards. It as a current state of being: the ability to pay full and undivided attention to what matters most in life at any given moment. Once people focus on what matters, the rest falls into place.

Of course, the difficult part is helping them figure out what matters most.

Pose the question: What is your dream job? Don’t worry, for the moment, if the job makes sense or if your client is overqualified, underqualified, too young, too old, etc. Don’t worry about pay scales or additional training needed. For the moment, just have clients think about what they would like to do. Once you identify the dream, the practicalities will come into play to shape the direction of the job search. The trick is to not let those practicalities stifle the dream prematurely. There may be ancillary careers that can put clients in the arena of their dream job.

For example, let’s suppose the dream job is to be a pitcher for the New York Yankees. Rather than simply dismiss that as an impractical dream, brainstorm what other positions might be available that incorporate a passion for baseball with current skill sets. Are there legal or management positions at organizations such as Major League Baseball, Tops Baseball Cards, Spalding, Nike, the players’ union, etc.? What firms represent the owners, players or specific teams? Have any of the players established youth baseball camps, restaurants or clothing lines? What role could a lawyer play in those ventures? Think creatively. Think big. Once you have a general direction, it will be easier to strategize how to get there.

Seeking an alternative career requires planning and strategizing based on information about the candidate and the world of work, the match between them and the actions they take. There will always be some perfectly logical reason why someone’s qualifications are insufficient for a specific position. Anticipate what those reasons might be and consider if they are, indeed, insurmountable, or merely a hurdle to clear. Investigate what the conventional wisdom tells us about specific positions and then plan a strategy to deal with it.

The greatest benefit of defining your own, personal definition of success is that you realize the only things being sacrificed are things YOU have been identified as lower priority items. Seems like a small price to pay to achieve career/life fulfillment.

About the Author

is the founder of Brady & Associates Career Planners, LLC and the author of Navigating Detours on the Road to Success: A Lawyer's Guide to Career Management (Inkwater Press, 2005).