As some of you may know, I was interviewed for yesterday’s feature on Slate.com titled “You Can Do Anything With a Law Degree: That’s what everyone says. Turns out everyone’s wrong.” (read it here)
The article explores the misconceptions around the perceived broad usability of a law degree. Writer Jim Saksa (former-lawyer-turned-freelance-writer) encourages readers to critically assess as best they can if law school is the ideal path for each of them. He also explores the difficulties lawyers face in making a career shift and securing non-legal jobs. At press time, the article is one of the “Most Read” on Slate.com and has over 600 comments. I am excited to be included and I applaud Jim for bringing awareness around this topic.
I did a careful reading of the article and while a lot of points resonate with me, I also wanted to highlight some viewpoints that I feel are important for us to get our arms around to inform our progress as we explore leaving the law behind.
1. Hiring managers hate us. A hiring manager quoted in the article expresses a commonly held belief that lawyers are not ideal hires for non-legal positions. She says that going to law school is “lost time” and that “Whatever you learned in law school is not useful to what [companies] need. So every other candidate has three years on you.”
If we haven’t already, we must come to terms with the fact that this is the opinion of some hiring managers. But the imperative word here is “some”. Not all feel this way. And those that do subscribe to this notion do their companies a disservice: We lawyers have a phenomenal set of skills that is highly transferable to non-legal jobs. The know-how we learned in law school and have refined as lawyers (client management, upselling, issue spotting, public speaking, clear and precise writing, interpersonal skills, empathy, dedication, persuasive argument, leadership, objective reasoning, meeting deadlines, compliance) is very useful to companies, non profits and many other non-legal entities. While this hiring manager is entitled to her opinion, I really think she’s missing the boat on this one. And as we explore leaving the law, it is very important that we be informed, but not dissuaded, by naysaying hiring managers who have some issue with lawyers. Let’s not worry about them because …
2. In getting a non-legal job, we’re going to win over (or side step) the hiring manager altogether. An the article, a law school grad now working as a compliance analyst is quoted as saying “In my experience hunting for a nonlegal job, your J.D. hurts more than it helps.” He says that if he didn’t have a friend who worked at the company, “my résumé would have gone right into the garbage can.”
He’s absolutely right, the job likely would have been a long shot for him. But not necessarily because he has a JD, but because most really good jobs people find nowadays are not through sending a blind resume to a hiring manager, but through friends, contacts and other warm leads (what is also known as the informal job market, see it on CNN and NPR). That’s why one of the main goals of networking and job searching and Unique Genius exploring and resume repositioning is to not pigeon hole ourselves so the hiring manager is the sole gate keeper to any job, but rather to have done the up front leg work, to have done so much research about a non-legal job we like, to have made so many connections at a company we like through networking and informational interviews, to feel really good about the work we’ve done on our Unique Genius that our skill set is transferable to this particular (non legal) job, to be at such a confident and momentous point in our path to leave the law that our whole personal picture and professional narrative can easily withstand (or make moot) any objection from a hiring manager.
It’s a lot of work, but no disagreeable hiring manager is going to stand in our way.
3. It’s easy to answer the question “So tell me why don’t you want to practice the law?” This can be a tricky question. Many of us didn’t think critically about going to law school … we just did it (I was a Jewish kid who didn’t like blood … ergo … go to law school!) And then years later we end up unhappy in a job as a lawyer because we realized too late that we really aren’t that good at, nor enjoy doing, what a legal job description requires.
Ironically, the same goes with leaving the law. We know we’re unhappy, and we want to do something, we really, really want to do something, but we don’t know what to do, and more importantly, we may not know why. We know we’re unhappy, but since we often times haven’t thought that critically about it, it can be difficult for us to verbalize why we’re unhappy. So when we’re asked the question “So tell me why don’t you want to practice the law?” by a hiring manager, someone we’re networking with or our aunt at the family barbeque, we find ourselves somewhat stumped.
Here’s the response we can use and tailor as needed: “Ah yes, thank you for asking that question. It’s a real good one. And it’s one I’ve thought about a lot recently, and exploring the answer has really powered and energized my career search over the past few months, and I feel it has contributed to why I’m in front of you now, interviewing for this position. The reason why I don’t want to practice the law is because after three years of law school, after a number of years practicing as a lawyer, and after a thorough and patient and dedicated and fairly comprehensive exercise exploring my professional skills and strengths and identifying what I’m really good at, I feel very confident that my skill set is not in alignment with what is called for to practice law. To put it simply, being a lawyer is just not a fit for me.
But in life, it is often times as valuable to find out what you don’t want as much as it is to find out what you do want. In that spirit, my assessment has empowered me to feel very confident that what is a fit for me is this potential opportunity at your company. Let me tell you why. While at first glance at my resume may not place me as the most conventional pick for this role, I have done a solid audit of my strengths, I have comprehensively detailed a large number of skills I posses that are transferable and a real good fit for this role, I have met over coffee with a large number of professionals in this space and picked their brain, learned about their day-to-day, understood their best practices and have gained a deep understanding of what this job requires. Through all os this personal auditing and industry research, I feel very confident in not continuing to practice the law and rather pursuing this role as a next step in my career.
Please let me know where I can elaborate any further.”
4. Money. One of the main reasons we don’t leave the law is due to money. As the article pointed out, hiring managers may think we’re too expensive and over qualified. Or we personally have fears about money: A fear of the unknown, a fear of a lack of financial literacy, a fear of facing our bad spending habits, a fear that we can’t make money in any way other than being an attorney, a fear that if we leave our job as an attorney we won’t be able to pay our bills.
By facing this fear from the outset, with detailed analysis and responsible planning, we can mitigate the anxiety that we’ll run out of money as we make this life change. We can gain the flexibility to take roles with a lower salary, or with a differ type of compensation model. We can gain the confidence that we can manage our expenses in a new role. We can find ways to create a safety net that we can call upon through our transition. We can begin to explore alternative careers and lifestyles without the extreme worry that we can’t pay our bills. And alternatively, if we do realize that our expenses are too high and our financial resources too low, we now have the information we need to recalibrate our financial situation in order to leave the law behind down the road.
5. You can do anything with a law degree. I still think we can do anything with a law degree. But that really isn’t what’s important. What’s important is doing those things that are in alignment with our Unique Genius, with those skills, and strengths and enjoyments that come naturally to you. Let your know-how inform your non-legal job search … and your return to a sense of self worth and confidence.
What do you think? Anything else about this article you like? Anything rub you the wrong way? Please share in the comments below.
The Slate piece is the type of article that I would recommend to a prospective law student with the hope that it would cause them to critically reassess the decision to attend law school. However, as an attorney who wants to “leave law behind” I believe the author’s conclusion, i.e. a JD limits career prospects, is incorrect. At least I hope it is incorrect.
It seems the question is not whether a candidate possesses a particular set of credentials, but, as Casey suggests, whether the candidate possesses the requisite skills. I would think that if the candidate has the skills the position demands then the fact that the candidate also has a JD is an added benefit. It is a plus instead of a scarlet letter.
I cannot see how three years learning and developing the skills taught in law school can be considered “lost time.” Yes, other candidates may have more directly relevant experience, but I would suspect that the JD candidate has, at the very least, vastly superior research, writing, persuasion, and presentation skills. Consequently, if the JD candidate has the qualifications the position requires the JD candidate should be the better choice. I believe the problem is that most hiring managers do not understand what is taught in law school or what attorneys actually do. Maybe they think all attorneys argue with Kevin Bacon and scream at Jack Nicholson and cannot see how those skills apply to a marketing position?
The problem I am struggling with is how to explain the skills I developed in law school and as an attorney in a way that will make it easy for non-attorneys to say, “Wow, we could use someone like that around here.” I know I have talents and abilities that businesses need, but I am not sure how to explain this to myself or my friends, let alone the gatekeepers at the company I want to work for? Yet, I hope at the very least that the “JD” conveys something positive and is not an easy excuse for rejection.
Thank you for the great comment, I agree whole heartedly. I really encourage prospective law students to critically think of whether law school is for them (as best they can at that juncture in their life).
And yes, you hit the nail on the head – I think we lawyers are extremely qualifies for non-legal jobs out there. You need to work hard to reposition your skills for non legal jobs. Managing a litigation and appearing for trial and be repositioned as showing your ability to project manage, meet deadlines, “herd cats”, work with stakeholders, do sales (persuade judges/opposing counsel) and so on. Just takes telling your story in a slightly different way.
Hope that helps, thanks again.