By Shauna C. Bryce, Esq.
There was a time long ago when going to law school, performing well, and passing the bar were near guarantees of a long career (including eventual partnership) in a law firm with reasonable pay and work hours. Those days are gone. In boom times, that expectation was replaced, for some, with the possibility of increasingly high wages and correspondingly long hours at Big Law. Now, because of deep contraction in the legal hiring market, that expectation is being reset again.
There are numerous articles and studies showing how tough it can be for law school students and recent graduates to find permanent, full-time attorney work in law firms, so that’s not going to be the focus here. Instead, I’d like you to consider how and why quasi-legal work (meaning jobs that don’t require a law degree, but for which a law degree is an asset) outside the law firm setting doesn’t have to be a consolation prize for those who are unable to secure law firm employment. Nor does accepting a quasi-legal job necessarily mean the end of the dream of a legal career. Rather, quasi-legal work can actually increase your future marketability to law firms, increase your likelihood of obtaining work as an attorney (in some instances, in just a year or two), and even open up entire alternative career paths for you.
Although the legal sector’s job growth is erratic, there are still job opportunities for lawyers outside of law firms. That means law students and recent graduates need to expand their job searches beyond the offerings of law firms that participate in on-campus interviewing, and even beyond attorney positions. I don’t mean the discovery attorney or contract attorney work that so many are steered toward. For most, contract work is a stopgap to pay their bills (including student loans) while they await admission to the bar or continue their job searches. It’s a position that—whether fairly or not—is not looked upon favorably by many law firms and so, over time, can be very difficult to escape from. Simply put, the longer you are a contract attorney, the harder it can be to get any other type of lawyer-work. And very few lawyers successfully turn contract work into e-discovery project management, litigation management, or similar careers where time served as a contract attorney can be a major asset.
A much better alternative is securing a job for which a law degree is a benefit, but not a requirement. These jobs are often called law-related or quasi-legal jobs, and they’re found in many types of employers such as: federal, state, and local government; nonprofits; corporations of all sizes; regulated businesses, and more. They include positions in a wide variety of areas such as: financial services and planning; human resources; real estate; sales and contracts (including RFPs and RFQs); labor and employment; investigations; project management; data security and privacy; information technology (IT); intellectual property (IP) applications and portfolio management; public and media relations; compliance and audits; Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Sunshine Act responses; mediation; policy and legislation; and small business formation.
For every legal practice area, there are many types of quasi-legal positions in both the private and public sectors. There are many benefits to quasi-legal jobs, especially for new lawyers, because they give real world experience. They let you see different sides to transactions and deals. They help you understand the macro and micro context of laws, policies, and theories you studied in school. They help you understand how businesses and other organizations work, and the challenges they face everyday—from growing and staying relevant in their respective marketplaces, to keeping their employees motivated and on-task. They help you understand business practices and procedures, as well as the reasons behind those practices and procedures. Of course, another benefit to a quasi-legal job is that you might find a new and unexpected career path.
When considering a quasi-legal job, one of the most important considerations is how the job will affect your future marketability when (or if) you want to pursue law firm, in-house, or other attorney careers. Remember, you will be responsible for helping a law firm see how and why your quasi-legal experience makes you a better lawyer. Take the time to consider questions like:
Let’s see how this works using the example of an aspiring patent attorney who gets a job as a patent examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A law degree is not required for a patent examiner position, but the U.S.P.T.O. offers an intensive training program. Entry-level patent examiners receive detailed training on agency interpretations and applications of statutes, regulations, policies, and procedures. Additionally, patent examiners are taught to handle all steps of initial patent approvals, beginning with receipt of a filed application. They also confer with applicants’ patent attorneys on status of claims, flaws in applications, and corrections.
A junior attorney can increase her potential value to a law firm or a corporation by training and working as a patent examiner, even for just one year. Having been trained on someone else’s time and dime, she can return to the private sector ready to work as a patent attorney because she now understands the patent application process from the inside. She can leverage her quasi-legal experience as a patent examiner to help a private employer avoid pitfalls that doom claim applications, identify patentable inventions, build patent portfolios to ensure inventions obtain and maintain maximum protection, advise on design-arounds, and avoid infringement on competitors’ intellectual property rights.
Let’s look at another example. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also has different types of examiner positions. An Investment Adviser and Investment Company Examiner, for example, monitors advisers and pooled asset vehicles for compliance with federal securities laws and rules. As part of that task, he evaluates and compares investment objectives and business operations. He might also look at problems related to reporting, performance, valuation, custody of assets, conflicts of interest, diversification, due diligence, market trading, broker-dealer relationships, disclosures, execution of orders and trades, and other issues.
An attorney with this type of experience has increased value to a law firm or corporation dealing with securities products, federal securities laws, compliance requirements, and inspections, investigations, and audits. He can leverage his new knowledge of federal legal requirements, methods and criteria used by regulators to measure compliance with federal restrictions, and internal corporate policies. He’s also now able to analyze and evaluate complex financial and transactional data, public disclosures, federal and state filings, marketing materials, and more.
In both of these examples, these junior lawyers used quasi-legal jobs to gain valuable skills they can offer to law firms and in-house corporate departments. They’ve both learned more about their target practice areas while working at their quasi-legal jobs than they might have if they had been employed for that year as first-year associates in a law firm, performing contract discovery work, or working wholly outside the legal industry. Also, in both cases, they’ve opened up alternative careers—either staying in government or continuing in growing professional arenas in the private sector.
Even jobs many people might dismiss as less challenging or legal can involve quite a bit of substantive law and knowledge of business operations. For example, positions that utilize employment law include: hiring and recruiting, retention, training and talent development, benefits administration, and auditing. Some HR positions have to deal with employment contracts (containing non-compete, confidentiality, or other specialized clauses), employee and public complaints, disciplinary actions, firing, unemployment benefits, and severance packages. In fact, job descriptions for human resources personnel often include statements of preference for applications with knowledge of fair hiring practices, fair labor practices, employment law, labor law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, or other bodies of laws, regulations, and rules.
Because most quasi-legal jobs do not require a law degree, they are often not listed in the same places as job opportunities that do require a law degree. For example, most participants in the on-campus interviewing process are law firms hiring for their summer classes or first year associate classes; it is less likely for employers to participate in on-campus interviewing in order to hire for quasi-legal jobs. Likewise, most job opportunities listed in legal newspapers are for attorney positions, not quasi-legal positions.
Where, then, does a law school student or recent graduate look for these openings?
There are many online job boards out there that are very easily searchable for openings in your geographical area. They also allow you to search using keywords, salary, and other particulars. Online applications have become an increasingly popular tool for job seekers. For many, online applications are their primary job search tool. However, do not confuse online applications with a job search. They should only be one prong in a multi-pronged job search strategy.
Because of the low cost of applying, posted job ads attract huge numbers of applicants. Many (if not most) of those applicants do not meet the threshold requirements stated in the ad. Yet your resume has to fight through all this noise in order to be seen. The odds are stacked against you, no matter how qualified you are or how well written your resume is. Thus, it’s been widely reported that online job boards can be an easy way for employers to fill positions, but they can be an extremely difficult way for job candidates to get hired. So apply through online job boards, but don’t let them become your primary means of looking for a job, and don’t allow yourself to become frustrated, disappointed, or insecure if your efforts amount to nothing.
A more productive way to use job boards is as a research tool. They can show you what are growth industries and jobs in your area, give you a strong sense of salary ranges and benefits, and teach you what employers want to see from job candidates. You can also research jobs for more experienced professionals so that you will know what it takes to succeed on that career trajectory, should you decide to pursue it rather than a law firm career. For example, will you need an MBA? A Series 6 or 7? A realtor’s license? Should you join non-lawyer professional or industry associations? Get volunteer experience as a board member, officer, or committee chair for a related nonprofit? Researching requirements and preferences for high level positions in your desired field can help answer these questions.
Some of the largest employers—like major financial services institutions—are nearly always accepting entry-level applications. You can submit your resume package for a variety of positions directly through their websites. Like online job boards, these websites can also attract large numbers of applicants, although generally fewer than online job boards because job hunters have to seek out each employer’s website individually and go through a separate application process each time. Applications through employer websites are, therefore, far more likely to result to result in a call for an interview.
Employer websites are also great research tools, so be sure to search their websites thoroughly. Sometimes, large employers also include detailed information about their recruiting, hiring, interviewing, and training processes, as well as information on the various career paths within the organization. Additionally, you may be able to find and read profiles of successful employees, so that, again, you can learn about what it takes to succeed in that arena and about what career paths and opportunities your quasi-legal job might open for you.
Many recruiters do not deal with entry-level candidates, for the simple reason that many employers will not pay recruiters’ fees (which historically have been up to 25% of the hire’s annual salary) to fill entry-level positions. Therefore, you could distribute your resume to recruiters (whether through a targeted email campaign or other means), but you shouldn’t hang your hopes on using a recruiter to find a job.
However, if you are fortunate enough to make contact with a legal recruiter, then stay in touch with that person, even if she doesn’t currently have a suitable job for you. Recruiters can give you information about what’s going on in the job market, what qualifications and skills employers are interested in, and other marketplace and hiring trends. Also, long-term opportunities (for jobs, career development, and other breaks) often come from building relationships, and so good relationships with a few good recruiters can only help you.
Although many people are intimidated or put off by the word, networking is still (and might always be) the best way to secure employment, as well as career growth and business development opportunities. First, some students and junior attorneys have misconceptions about what networking is—they think it’s calling someone and asking for a job, or for help getting a job. Not surprisingly, those people are not inclined to network. Second, they also undervalue the power of networking. People who don’t network successfully are literally unaware of all the opportunities they’ve missed. Third, they become frustrated if there is no immediate pay-off for their efforts.
Students and recent graduates need to understand that networking—building mutually beneficial professional and personal relationships—can and often will influence nearly every aspect of their success. Importantly, it doesn’t matter whether networking comes naturally; it can be a learned skill. And it’s never too early to start that process.
Quasi-legal jobs, therefore, are most reliably found the way legal jobs are found—by building and nurturing reciprocal relationships with both peers and with those higher on the seniority ladder. These relationships can allow you to learn about opportunities even before they’re publicly announced, have people influence or intercede in the hiring process on your behalf (by helping to get your resume in front of the decision-makers or by putting in a good work for you with the decision-makers), and get others invested in your success.
Always remember that resumes (and the rest of your career portfolio) are, at their essence, marketing documents targeted to a specific audience—employers hiring for the position you want. Just as you’ll need to show a law firm why your quasi-legal work makes you a better attorney, you’ll need to show employers why and how your law degree makes you a better candidate for whatever type of quasi-legal position you’re pursuing.
Do not assume it’s self-evident to employers that your law degree makes you a better candidate. Instead, you’ll need to demonstrate that in your resume, cover letter, branding, and all other parts of your application package. You’ll also need to be prepared to explain it in an interview. The key is demonstrating transferrable skills and experiences—first, applying your law degree and experiences to quasi-legal work and then, down the road, applying your quasi-legal work and experiences to law firm employers.
If you are very interested in staying marketable as an attorney, you should still work on building your legal skillset and your reputation as a lawyer even after you’ve obtained a quasi-legal job. Whenever you can, continue to network with lawyers, be active in bar associations, write articles (even co-authored with a more senior attorney) or give presentations, and build relationships that may result in jobs, career development, business development, or other opportunities down the line. A quasi-legal job doesn’t have to mean closing the door on a law firm or in-house future; it can in fact open that door, and many others.
Shauna C. Bryce, Esq. is a career coach and resume writer for lawyers, and the founder of Bryce Legal Career Counsel. She is also the author of, “How to Get a Legal Job: A Guide for New Attorneys and Law School Students,” an unprecedented project involving 3 years of research and interviews of more than 150 hiring lawyers across the country and across industries.
© 2012 Bryce Legal Career Counsel
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