Working for a traditional law firm is no longer considered the only career option for lawyers or for law students entering the professional arena. During an era abundant with new business models and options for work, lawyers and law students can look forward to robust possibilities for alternatives careers.
In today’s uncertain economic times, with budding lawyers facing a diminishing job market in traditional law practices, having alternative career options is necessary for aspiring lawyers. For practicing lawyers facing job loss, or who are burned out or dissatisfied with a traditional law practice, or for those just seeking new career adventures, navigating the wide terrain of alternative career opportunities can be exciting, but overwhelming.
Becoming knowledgeable and realistic about pursuing such options is necessary for success. This month’s roundtable discussion includes a notable team of leaders offering lawyers and law students valuable insights and practical ways to make an alternative career a reality.
Tad Borek (TB) is a registered investment advisor and attorney based in San Francisco. His advisory practice focuses on investment management for individuals, complemented by tax and financial planning.
Tonya Johnson-Fitzpatrick (TJF) is an attorney, broadcaster, and leader in socially responsible travel and lifestyle. As founder of World Footprints Network, she also co-hosts the award-winning World Footprints Radio Show.
NG: Did you ever practice law or consider practicing law, and if so what issues made you switch gears to pursue alternative options?
TB: Really it was the weak job market for lawyers when I graduated in the early 1990s that led to the career path I’ve had. At a different time I might have ended up a patent lawyer or in-house at a technology company (I have an engineering background). I had a couple of unrelated jobs, but my current business developed from what I was doing on the side: advising friends and family on money issues.
TJF: I began my legal career as an assistant prosecutor and then moved to public interest law. While I enjoyed those opportunities, I quickly realized that career opportunities were limited, earning opportunities were low, and pursuit of a partnership track would require me to sacrifice more time than I was willing to commit.
After moving to Washington, D.C., I looked at federal opportunities and worked on a defense contract at the Department of Homeland Security as a senior legal advisor. I also worked for a congressman and was appointed to a senior executive service post as a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Education under President George W. Bush. Those were stellar opportunities, but I knew I had another passion—travel. The passion for travel started with a successful travel agency and we’ve now evolved to an award-winning travel broadcast—World Footprints.
BR: Over 13 years, I experienced the trifecta of practice before I switched gears: law firms, in-house, and government. I started in the government working for the SEC, then I worked for two law firms, tried an entrepreneurial thing that flamed out quickly, and went back to the SEC. Then I went in-house at Lockheed Martin before I embarked on my alternative path.
NG: Can you comment on your alternative career pursuits after law school—did you face a significant learning curve by not pursuing a traditional path to become a lawyer?
TB: Absolutely. There was a lot to figure out, even just about licensing and business formation. Practicing law after school is usually straightforward—you’ll probably get a job at an established firm. If you say “I’d like to advise people about money and investments,” there are a lot of options. And you need to figure out the mundane things like office space, computers, etc.
TJF: I have had to learn the art of broadcast journalism, production, and marketing from the ground up. Luckily, I’m always looking for personal and professional development opportunities, and since I’m a natural communicator, the learning curve has not been that steep.
BR: There is always a learning curve to anything you do that’s new. If you attack it with passion, the curve can be overcome pretty quickly. For example, I launched a new site with just videos this year. I knew nothing about making videos. But I read several books and then reached out to folks who had such skills. My style has changed dramatically over the year and I now feel like I have a winning formula for making them.
NG: Can you recommend any valuable resources that helped significantly in pursuing an alternative career path? Is having a career plan necessary?
TB: I read a few good books about starting an investment advisory practice, and frequented the online discussion boards of several financial-industry publications. The same thing would apply to other careers—trade magazines and their websites can be very useful resources for learning about an industry and hearing from those in the business. LinkedIn wasn’t around then, but no doubt that would be useful today for networking with people in whatever business you want to break into. People love to talk about what they do—I’ve met with quite a few future-advisors over the years.
As for a career plan, maybe you have one for the next couple years, but most people will change paths multiple times. If you have a plan, be prepared to toss it when you figure out something better.
TJF: One of my favorite resources for finding a mentor is score.org. That organization has been invaluable.
I think one should have a sense of direction. A point-by-point plan is not necessary because a plan will (and should always) evolve—that’s part of the growth process.
BR: The most valuable resources for me have been the help of others. Don’t be afraid to approach complete strangers who seem to have done what you think you want to do. More often than not, they are more than happy to help—and can help you avoid pitfalls that can really trip you up.
I don’t believe in a career plan really. Often, you embark on a road and it takes you places you didn’t know existed. If you’re trying to get to a particular destination, you likely will have blinders on—and miss more valuable opportunities that pop up out of nowhere.
NG: Do you find lawyers these days want more ‘creative’ careers? If so, what are some ways they might translate their skills toward more typically creative fields of work?
TB: It’s always been the case that many law-school graduates end up doing something other than practicing law, in part because a law firm doesn’t suit them. For those who truly crave creativity, I think you should do something completely different. A classmate of mine writes for daytime TV. That’s an extreme example though. Legal skill comprises reading, writing, and reasoning, and there are plenty of places to go with that.
TFJ: A lot of lawyers I work with and have met over the years have pursued careers in writing, speaking, screenwriting, acting, etc. In Washington, D.C. there is a growing population of lawyers looking for more creative outlets. Another acquaintance actually turned his passion for baking into a successful cupcake shop and subsequently landed a Food Network show.
BR: Maybe lawyers want more creative careers—but they don’t seem to act on them. For example, social media offers so many fresh opportunities for lawyers to express their creative side. Yet, so many of the legal blogs read like law firm memos. They’re unbearable.
But on a positive note, that means there’s ample opportunity for a lawyer willing to be creative on a blog or Twitter to quickly stand out. All they need to do is be themselves and not a zombie. Be human and your readers will connect with you. That’s the purpose of marketing. Not hard to do!
NG: What about lawyers who love law, but want alternative careers—what are some viable options for them?
TB: That sounds like someone who should hang a shingle and practice law in whatever version of an alternative career they find appealing. If you love the law, be a lawyer—just do it on your own terms.
TFJ: I would suggest looking at opportunities within the areas they’re passionate about. For example, one friend loves travel and she found a way to marry the law and travel by creating an adventure travel law firm. That is a highly niche practice but she is gaining broad recognition among adventure travelers and travel associations. In fact, she’ll become a regular guest on my radio show, World Footprints. Other lawyers I know who love entertainment are working as entertainment lawyers and/or casting agents.
BR: The practice of law is quickly changing before our eyes. These alternative careers are not as alternative as one may think. But we are still in the early innings of a nine inning game. So there still is ample opportunity to get in on the ground floor.
Much of what I do requires my knowledge of corporate and securities law as I apply it in a nontraditional way. I wear many hats in running a bevy of web sites for the corporate law community. For example, I wear a journalism hat—writing blogs, conducting podcasts, and more. I have no journalism background at all. Never even took a course in college.
NG: In what ways does your legal training benefit your current work, if any?
TB: It wasn’t my plan going in, but law school was an excellent preparation for doing what I do now, in part because of the electives I’d taken. You can cover a wide range of financial-planning topics at a depth you won’t get elsewhere: tax, estate planning, securities and corporate finance, contracts, insurance, small business planning. I draw on this expertise regularly and focus on these areas with my CLE.
TFJ: The wonderful thing about being a lawyer is that my training is transferable. My husband is also a lawyer and we’ve used our skills to review contracts.
BR: For me, I couldn’t do what I am doing without the corporate and securities law background that I have. In running this corporate law community, my ability to “talk the talk” is vitally important.
Many of our competitors hire “real” journalists—but they don’t have a corporate and securities law background. The quality of our work is superior because we know the field intimately. And we are able to offer our customers many more features because we talk the same language.
NG: What advice would you give to fresh law graduates who are considering an alternative career path?
TB: If you are at all interested in personal finance, consider it as a career. I think it’s an “undiscovered practice area” just waiting to be tapped.
TFJ: Do your research and develop a road map that will get you to the first step. That could be as simple as arranging an informational interview with a leader in the field you’re interested in. Also, network, network, network, and don’t be afraid to ask—if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
BR: Try your hand at social media starting right now. It takes a while to find your “voice” and better to do that while blogging about sports or cats before you do so in your field. Social media continues to be a main way to distinguish yourself from others seeking jobs. When I look at a resume that has no social media indicia, I feel like I’m back in the ’80s. That’s not a good thing.