Nearly six years ago, I wrote an article in the Huffington Post about how I used my law degree to get out of law. It became one of my most-read articles to date, as I transparently discussed my feelings about practicing law (the things I resented versus the things that I loved about it), the emotions I felt about staying versus leaving, and how I made a successful exit.
One thing I emphasized in the article was the notion that your law degree is invaluable to the business world and there is life after law. Each week, I receive multiple emails from readers of my column about how they can make the leap while leveraging the power of their law degree.
As I’ve written in numerous publications, my Above the Law column, and taught across CLE courses, you can find happiness within and outside of law. A law degree and the practice of law equip you with an enormous set of highly coveted and transferable skills, including research and writing, public speaking, analyzing and thinking creatively, problem-solving, and strategically negotiating. Lawyers are trained to think differently, and that difference is looked upon favorably across the outside world.
In the beginning years of my business, my J.D. and 12 years of experience in diverse legal environments (including Biglaw and in-house) became instant credibility when I walked into a business meeting or spoke at an event. Quite often, when I consulted with an executive or high-level professional in outside industry sectors (healthcare, tech, finance, etc.), they wanted to work with me because they loved the fact that I was a lawyer (and a former college writing professor). They saw it as powerful leverage, something we all have — and as I’ve always stressed, it’s just about how you market it.
How To Leave Law With Your Plan In Mind
Before I dive into some alternative careers for lawyers, know that this is not an exhaustive list (and I will be writing a follow-up article with additional alternative careers for lawyers). This list stems from examples of lawyer-clients I’ve personally worked with on their career portfolio (resume, LinkedIn, bio, and coaching). I’ve delved into their background, understanding their full career trajectory, their growth, their challenges, as well as their accolades and achievements. These lawyers found fulfillment and success in their alternative careers while still leveraging their law degrees. Some of them practiced for extensive periods or opted to get licensed but not practice at all.
What you’ll gather from this is two-fold: first, you’ll see there are many different directions you can go. Second, your law degree does not limit you, but rather expands career and business opportunities for you.
It’s easy for someone to say, look at your transferable skills and just match your resume with those skills. However, you must first figure out which skills are your best-selling assets and how to market them. I always recommend making a list of things you’re good at, highlighting the things you enjoy doing on that list, and comparing that highlighted list to the skills needed in the alternative career. Be prepared to give examples of how and why you shine across those skills.
Next, conduct deep research into the alternative legal career and consider it from all angles — a pros and cons list, salary ranges, financial planning, and additional training and education needed. Then, seek out informational interviews from people who left law and are successfully immersed in those alternative careers (speak with people who have been at it for five-, 10-, 15-, and 20-plus years). This will allow you to see the different steppingstones of that alternative career. Before you make your grand exit from law, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into and if this is truly the right alternative legal career.
Alternative Legal Careers For Lawyers To Consider
- Executive Management And Advisory
A lawyer on the executive team is well-suited for blending their legal acumen with their business acumen. More than 70% of my clients are lawyers with a long-standing legal career and upward trajectory into management-level legal roles (think: executive vice president and assistant general counsel or managing partner), and ultimately left to be a COO (chief operating officer), CRO (chief risk officer), CSO (chief strategy officer), or CEO (chief executive officer) and lead a company.
Another consideration for a C-suite role is a chief of staff role or an executive advisor to a CEO. While a chief of staff is not a common role, they serve as direct advisors to CEOs and handle high-level negotiations, deal negotiations, investor meetings, and other strategic planning and execution. This is a terrific pivot for in-house lawyers who are already on the executive team. Board advisory is another alternative career path that is typically seen in more advanced executives and as an end-of-career exit strategy.
I’ve worked with numerous high-level marketers (director-level through chief marketing officer) who hold a J.D. (some decided to take the bar exam, but not practice). Marketing executives leverage their writing acumen and creative intuition to develop powerful message strategy for clients across websites and other digital-based marketing collateral. If you have a passion for social media and the digital advertising world, transitioning to a marketing role can be ideal for you. It can also encompass advertising, communications, and public relations roles. On the sales side, the drive to build client relationships and grow revenue can be a great fit, especially if you’ve been a rainmaker at a firm. You can leverage your business and client development, billing, and revenue generation skill sets.
- Employee Relations (HR Or Recruiting)
Lawyers are well-suited to move into employee relations work and leverage their knowledge of workforce planning, compliance, labor and employment laws, related statutory knowledge, as well as conflict resolution skill sets. HR leaders are the partners to the business and work in tandem with the legal department. If you’re interested in moving into more of an HR-focused role, consider getting certifications from organizations such as SHRM and HRCI. Both of those organizations have a wealth of learning, training, resources, and networking opportunities. You can also explore HR-focused certificates and online courses to boost the value of your knowledge and your resume. Recruiting is another option for lawyers who don’t want to practice but want to stay closely connected to the industry and profession. If you’re interested in legal recruiting, reach out to legal recruiters who left practicing law and who have been doing recruiting for more than 10 years. They will have deep insights into the transition on the long-term side.
- Journalism, Writing, And Academia
Journalism and writing-focused careers are highly coveted and make for a smooth transition for lawyers who love and excel at the research and writing aspects of lawyering. I spent seven years teaching college writing classes as a hobby when I began practicing law. It was also a fallback option for me, or as one would term, my “Plan B” if law didn’t work out.
When I initially began my descent into my writing and coaching business, my goal was to build up my writing portfolio and break into major publications and content writing for large companies. I also took a writing course online with NYU’s School of Professional Studies as part of my avid interest in blog writing and commentary. If you’re leaning toward a leap into writing or journalism, I highly recommend taking additional courses to expand your writing horizons and skill sets. Legal writing is a great foundation, but journalism, editing, and professional writing for digital publications require a different style of writing. Academia is also another option for lawyers opting to get out, especially if you love teaching and research.
I saved coaching for last in this initial list of alternative legal careers because it’s a popular transition for many unhappy lawyers these days. Online coaching businesses are the new fad in the digital age, but also highly competitive because there’s an overabundance of them. Coaching is an unregulated industry, and thus, makes it easy for anyone to use the label and create a business.
Want to build a successful coaching practice? Get certified and trained in coaching modalities, methodologies, and strategies first. Immerse yourself in the work you’ll be doing. Attend ongoing training and professional development with coaching associations and career organizations. Think about your target audience and focus on a niche. Connect your own career trajectory to your coaching audience. There are various directions you can go with coaching (business, life, career) as well as coaching systems and services. Explore them all and learn what works for you.
There are multiple other alternative legal careers I want to delve into, so stay tuned for my follow-up article. If you have questions about alternative careers for lawyers, or you’re struggling with making the leap, please do connect with me on LinkedIn, and I will be glad to provide you with additional resources.
Wendi Weiner is an attorney, career expert, and founder of The Writing Guru, an award-winning executive resume writing services company. Wendi creates powerful career and personal brands for attorneys, executives, and C-suite/Board leaders for their job search and digital footprint. She also writes for major publications about alternative careers for lawyers, personal branding, LinkedIn storytelling, career strategy, and the job search process. You can reach her by email at [email protected], connect with her on LinkedIn, and follow her on Twitter @thewritingguru.