Considering an Alternative Legal Career? Tips From a Professional Development Expert

ListToday’s interview is with Serena Claire Josephs, the firm-wide attorney professional development specialist at an Am Law 100 firm. She’s lectured on alternative careers for lawyers, and is herself pursuing an alternative career, making her well-qualified to discuss the matter.

If you’re thinking maybe this law thing isn’t for you, read on!

Alison: Some people say, “Don’t go to law school unless you know you want to be a lawyer.” Others argue, “A law degree is flexible and opens lots of doors.” You spend time with lawyers helping them advance their careers. Which statement do you think is more accurate, and why?

Serena: Go to law school only if you want to be a lawyer. The reason for this is because law school is a big investment of time and money and focuses on teaching you the skills to become a lawyer.

That said, if, during law school, you realize that you don’t want to practice as a lawyer, then there are other options.

Applying your law degree to a different field is definitely possible!

During the transition to an alternative career, you may need to demonstrate how your interests and skills that you learned in law school will be an asset to your prospective employer.

I’m a 3L who summered at a firm and don’t want to go back. In fact, I’m not even sure that I want to be a lawyer any more. How can I start figuring out what I really want to do, and reposition myself to do it?

First, pat yourself on the back for being self-aware of your career goals. Also, apply to take the bar exam. It is important for you to take and pass the bar exam in case you change your mind about your career path, to have a fall back plan and to demonstrate the value of your law degree and skills to a prospective employer who might question your desire to switch careers.

Second, you will want to assess your alternative career path options. To do so, take a couple of weeks to make lists of your:

  • business interests, which are the work experiences that you most enjoy (i.e. quantitative analysis, counseling or mentoring, theory development/conceptual thinking)
  • work reward goals (i.e. salary, paying down loans, autonomy, intellectual challenge, work-life balance)
  • skills

Third, chat with your peers, professors, and former employers with whom you still have a good rapport. Ask them the following questions:

  • “What would be the best work for me?”
  • “What aspects of me do I need to work on to meet my goals?”
  • “What parts of me are already my strengths?”

Fourth, go back to your lists. Incorporate what the people with whom you chatted said into the lists.

Finally, assess which of your potential business interest opportunities are aligned with your work reward goals and are within the parameters of your current skills or a skill set that you can easily obtain.

Can you talk a bit about what you do in a typical day at work, and how it’s different from (or similar to) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

My role as firm-wide attorney professional development specialist at an Am Law 100 firm is to:

  • organize the firm-wide associate evaluation process in our thirty-three offices
  • manage the associate mentoring program
  • create training plans for the local offices’ associates based on the feedback received in the evaluation forms
  • plan and develop ethics and corporate training
  • organize the local women’s initiative, programming for the female lawyers in our Bay Area offices

There is no typical day, but one thing that may surprise you is that I rarely have in-person meetings. Ninety percent of my meetings are via phone, webinar and videoconference.

I regularly meet with partners in the local offices in charge of the associate mentoring program, HR managers, the General Counsel, corporate partners, and team members in the attorney professional development department and other departments.

I did not anticipate playing a business role in global law firm when in law school, but I feel very lucky to have found it!

E-mail me with any questions on more details for shaping your alternative career path at

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Thanks, Serena!

Have questions about alternative legal careers? Leave them in the comments!

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  1. I just wanted to comment that I’m actually a 1L who entered law school with the express intention to not be a traditional lawyer. I got my background in finance and after talking with various mentors and career counselors about my options for graduate work, a few of them suggested law school. One of them, a VP of a major financial analyst firm, said that her work involves more and more legal work everyday.
    Also, a variety of lawyers I have met talk about their wish for an MBA or a background in business because of their lack of familiarity with basic business financial statements or inner workings of large businesses.
    This is not to say that the majority of the feedback I have received isn’t always positive. Most people in my class are usually pretty stunned when I am so open to alternative careers. I’ve been told I wouldn’t get a job but have actually gotten some great summer offers and options ahead of me because I kept my mind open.
    I don’t necessarily believe that you have to want to be a lawyer to go to law school. Rather I believe you do need to be interested in the field, but you can start off the bat and decide to pursue a new opportunity. And who knows, I may change my mind in the end after all and decide to have a traditional career path. However, I’m glad to say that I’m willing to keep my mind open right from the beginning.

    • It sounds like you’re finding a good fit for you, which is awesome! I definitely agree that keeping an open mind (particularly in this economy) is critical. When traditional legal employers are hiring less than they used to, having other options can only be a good thing for your career!

      Best of luck, and I hope you find the perfect, unique fit for YOU.

  2. So I am in a similar boat as AK, sort of. I know that law school is for me but I am more interested in working for the government, specifically the FBI. I think that going to law school and then the FBI is the best way to use my leadership skills. Law school will help prep me for a life working in the government. Even if it’s not the FBI but another government agency that will use what I’ve learned in law school. Many people don’t understand why I would go through law school to not be a lawyer but I know that law school teaches you more than how to succeed at trial. I’m also very interested in alternative dispute resolution which would also help me in a government career. I think that in this economy and culture that law school doesn’t absolutely mean working for big law or being a lawyer at all.

    • It definitely does not mean that these days! Frankly, it’s really hard to predict in advance who’s going to be happy being a lawyer, so half the people who think they’re definitely going to practice won’t do it for long. And you might find you love being a lawyer. Or not! As long as you have some reasonable idea of what you want to do, go for it, I say.

  3. Hi there

    Really likes this article. I’m from the UK and some people here also think that by embarking on a law degree you have to be a lawyer, but in reality that isn’t always the case. There are so many other careers to go onto after a law degree, like local government or police etc. I started law and then went into IT! My wife did law qualified as a lawyer and then went into Risk Management.
    Good to know that you guys have similar problems across the globe!

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