Transitioning to a Non-Traditional Legal Career

Transitioning to a Non-traditional Legal Career

Please welcome guest writer Kathryn Blair, law school tutor and PhD student, to discuss the transition from a traditional law career to something different.

It has been about two years since I left a successful career as an attorney and turned back to academia for the start of what I hope will be my third and final career. This was a difficult transition for me. The joke about law school being an escalator — seamlessly delivering you to a career in Big Law — is funny because it is true. But jumping off that escalator was a big and hard decision, and, despite the support of family and friends, it still felt a bit lonely. But it shouldn’t feel that way. Many attorneys face and make these decisions, and the shared experiences of others can be helpful as you think about these questions.

My Story

I went to law school, not because I wanted to be a lawyer, but because I wanted to study the law. When the economic collapse happened in the midst of my law school career, there weren’t a lot of employment options for those of us graduating, certainly not many that would allow me to use my law degree in non-traditional ways, and I was very happy to have any options at all. However, after three years with a large firm, and almost two years as in-house counsel, I felt that I’d drifted off course. Even though I was working with wonderful people and my work was intellectually stimulating, I didn’t feel like I recognized myself in the path that I was on, and I wasn’t headed towards any of the things that I always wanted from life. A death in the family during this time also helped to bring some of these realizations home. And so I made a big change, leaving my job, moving to be closer to family, and ultimately pursuing a PhD in legal history.

Not all of us have the death of a relative to spark a paradigmatic shift in our lives, but many of us do make these big decisions.

To help me write this post and process my own experience after the fact, I reached out to two friends who kindly shared their experiences with me. I’ll call them Nathan and Jeremy (although one asked for the pseudonym “Zaltor the Magnificent,” I gently declined his request). Nathan is currently working in consulting in a major U.S. metropolitan area, while Jeremy is currently working for the U.S. State Department.

Nathan’s Story

Nathan went to a top three law school, not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he was interested in policy work. He graduated just before me, as the economic collapse was causing law firms to defer start dates indefinitely. When he had an ambiguous amount of time to fill, he reached out to a few of his close friends who were starting a consulting business in Africa.

Going to work with them in their early days ended up being exciting, successful, and rewarding. And it was harder to return to the United States to take his position as an associate at a law firm than he’d thought it would be. But, he decided, if he was ever going to take advantage of this legal training he’d dedicated so much time and attention to, he needed to make the move.

His transition to a law firm was difficult – he was moving from a very dynamic environment, where he felt in charge of his own destiny, to an environment that felt regimented and to work that felt abstract. It wasn’t until he was reading over old emails from his friends and former co-workers in Africa that he realized he needed to leave the law. It wasn’t offering him the environment or the work that he wanted. So he returned to Africa for a few years, and then transitioned to a position in the United States.

When I asked Nathan about whether he regretted going to law school, he said he didn’t. The name recognition and social network of his law school alma mater has helped him. But it has also qualified him for positions he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get. For him, it substituted for an MA, MBA, or an MPA as he applied for jobs, and in some ways gave him a leg up over other candidates. He was, in his own words, a “two-fer.” They got someone for the position who also had other valuable skills.

Jeremy’s Story

Jeremy, just like Nathan and me, didn’t go to law school because he wanted to be a lawyer. He went to law school because it seemed to open up a lot of options for him (and because the other intern at his summer job took the LSAT!). But when working for the local DA’s office one summer, he realized that most people there had spent their entire careers there, and that scared him. He visited a friend who was taking the foreign service exam, and that sounded much more appealing. By the time he took and passed the exam, and received his clearance for the State Department, he’d also spent some time working for a law firm but felt no passion for the work. And that seemed to seal the deal – a traditional career in law was just not for him.

After several years in the State Department, Jeremy has had postings all over the world and a number of very interesting positions. When asked about his law degree, he reflected that it helped him significantly early on in his career. People took him more seriously as a young professional with a law degree. At one point he was given responsibility for working with local law enforcement and at another he was responsible for dealing with election laws and officials in a new democracy – jobs he thinks he never would have gotten without his law degree.

Reflecting on Our Experiences

Nathan’s and Jeremy’s were stories I knew through our friendships, but reflecting on their paths, independent of my own need to make a major life decision, gave me a different perspective.

There are interesting similarities in our experiences: we all felt out of place with the work and the environment in traditional legal jobs. We bucked against the narrow specialization that is common in the profession. We also had never pursued law school because we wanted to be lawyers, so maybe our transitions out of traditional legal jobs were inevitable. But none of us regretted the experience. Law school gave us all the foundation we needed, even if we weren’t practicing lawyers any longer.

Law school and the legal profession are unusual environments. They, more than any other profession or school I’ve been in, thrive on comparison and competition. And like Jeremy said, it is easy to see everyone around you striving for something and decide that you need to achieve that too. It’s important, especially for those of us that didn’t always dream of being a lawyer, to take a step back and decide if that is something that we really want, or if we are being driven by the desires of those around us. But, as Nathan said, it’s really hard to break out of that mold since we’re given all of these tools to advance if we are willing to do it in a narrow and specific way. But there aren’t that many resources for embarking on non-traditional career paths unless you deliberately cultivate them.

So, my advice, to anyone thinking about pursuing a non-traditional career path in the legal profession? Figure out what drives you and start building bridges. It is hard work, but you’re not alone.


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About Kathryn Blair

Kathryn is a tutor for the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox. She earned her MA and BA from Stanford University and her JD from Stanford Law School. After several years as a attorney with a large DC firm and then as corporate counsel for a Fortune 500 company, where she focused on international trade and investment law, she realized that she missed studying and teaching law and history. She is currently pursuing a Phd in legal history.

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