The AltLegal Career Path

 I wrote a piece for the May issue of Law Practice Today that was titled “The Changing Legal Industry and the Birth of AltLegal.” It described an alternate legal career type, termed AltLegal, emerging between what was traditional legal practice and jobs formerly referred to as non-practicing or “JD Preferred.” That article defined AltLegal professionals as follows: “ AltLegal professionals may not be “practicing law” as “practice” has been traditionally defined, but they retain a commitment to the legal profession’s underlying ethical principles, as well as a more general desire to use the law to improve people’s lives.”

That article provided an overview of a few existing AltLegal practitioners. But how might a newly graduated or young lawyer pursue the AltLegal career path and find an AltLegal job? To find out, I sought the opinions of those closest to the issues: those counseling or advising young lawyers looking for these kinds of opportunities, and the young lawyers who effectively navigated the post-law school terrain and landed an AltLegal job.

My research began when I heard through the grapevine that David Cowen, a New York-based executive coach and legal recruiter, was telling his recently graduated and young lawyer clients to look not to law firms but to legal technology and legal services vendors for that all-important first job out of law school.

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David clarified to me that, for newly graduated or young lawyers, employment opportunities with legal technology or service vendors are limited to those who have prior business experience or, better yet, prior technology experience that make them as valuable to those vendors in business or product roles as they might be as lawyers in the broader legal market. While David acknowledged that the overall numbers of entry-level opportunities for newly graduated and young lawyers seems to have declined in the last few years, he believes that traditional practice remains the most immediately economically viable option for most law grads and young lawyers without that prior experience. In short, David’s opinion was that if the AltLegal career path exists, it might only be available to a few.

Next I spoke with Jonathan Kerry-Tyerman. Jon is vice president of business development at Everlaw, an eDiscovery startup based in the San Francisco Bay Area. While Jon graduated from law school in 2005, almost 10 years ago, he has made/successfully pursued an AltLegal career. Starting out in legal content at LexisNexis, Jon ultimately ran an incubation division that developed, prototyped, and market-tested innovative legal technology products for the legal tech behemoth. From there he moved to Everlaw. Jon also teaches law and technology courses at the University of San Francisco Law School and advises law students on pursuing AltLegal career opportunities at the intersection of law and technology.

Given Jon’s career and his experience advising young lawyers, he knows of what he speaks. And, unsurprisingly, his recommendations were consistent with what you hear from the best career coaches and career development resources: law students and lawyers seeking opportunities in AltLegal need to do the hard work of networking. Jon presses these students and young lawyers: Who are the people you want to work with? Work for? Where are those people? What are the conversations they’re engaged in? Who are they listening to? What are you doing to meet or connect with those people?

Jon added a great final point: law students and young lawyers seeking AltLegal opportunities will benefit by building networks of other similarly driven law students and lawyers. For now, the AltLegal path is not formally established. Doing something non-traditional, like cutting a new career path, is hard. So, those seeking AltLegal opportunities need to identify and support each other through that process.

Finally, I spoke with Amani Smathers, legal solutions architect at Seyfarth Shaw LLP. Those familiar with the Dan Katz’ and Renee Knake’s ReInvent Law program have probably heard Amani’s name. Previously, she was ReInvent Law conference coordinator and innovation counsel for the ReInvent Law laboratory. She also spoke at and organized three ReInvent Law conferences. In May 2014, Amani began her job at Seyfarth Shaw. While Seyfarth Shaw is a large law firm, Amani’s job doesn’t sound anything like a first-year associate gig. In her few months on the job she’s: (1) worked on document automation projects, (2) built apps with Neota Logic for use within Seyfarth Shaw, (3) worked on the firm’s client portal, (4) completed a data regression analysis on some of the firm’s data, and (5) worked with the firm’s internal application development team and coached them on development.

Unlike Jon or David, Amani isn’t as involved in advising young lawyers about how to find AltLegal jobs. She’s a young lawyer living it. Among her great suggestions were three insights on AltLegal recruiting practices, preparation for AltLegal roles, and seeking training outside of the traditional bounds.

Regarding recruiting, innovative firms like Seyfarth Shaw know the law schools that provide training for roles such as hers. And, when these firms recruit for AltLegal roles, they look almost exclusively to those schools. Solicitations for candidates for a recent job opening for a legal solutions architect at Seyfarth Shaw went only to Chicago-Kent College of Law, Georgetown, Michigan State University, Indiana University, and Suffolk University Law School. Prospective law students interested in an AltLegal career may want to consider attending these specific schools or affiliating themselves with them in any way they can.

Amani provided insight on training law students should pursue. Students interested in AltLegal roles (1) should take classes related to any of the topics listed above that are offered at their law school; (2) should take the bar; while you’re not necessarily practicing in the same way that a first-year associate is, Amani stated that a license to practice was a “base requirement;” (3) must develop and be prepared to demonstrate their skills with technology; and (4) should possess or acquire a background in statistics.

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Amani also shared that learning the skills needed for her AltLegal role at Seyfarth Shaw required her to look beyond the walls of the law school and bounds of traditional legal education. While at Michigan State Law School, Amani wanted training in project management but the law school offered no such class. Instead she enrolled and completed the course through the business school.

Ultimately, Amani’s suggestions mimic David’s in some ways. Like the legal technology and legal services vendors seeking lawyers with specific business and technology experience, Seyfarth Shaw, Amani’s law firm employer, is looking for not just any law school graduate or young lawyer but for an individual with specific skill set. And, while Jon Kerry-Tyerman didn’t speak as much to specific skills, his comments serve as a great reminder that even with the right skills finding the right opportunity is driven by whom you know.

Just as AltLegal itself is an emerging professional category, still somewhat fuzzy and undefined, the AltLegal career path is similarly developing. David Cowen is suggesting that certain lawyers explore it, Jon Kerry-Tyerman continues to flesh it out and help young lawyers to find it, and Amani Smathers is living it. However, the exact path for a young lawyer or recent law school grad who has “a commitment to the legal profession’s underlying ethical principles, as well as a more general desire to use the law to improve people’s lives” but does not want to “practice law” as “practice” has been traditionally defined, remains lightly marked.

About the Author

lear-editDan Lear (@rightbrainlaw) is an attorney at Ragen Swan PLLC and is a co-founder of the Seattle Legal Technology and Innovation MeetUp Group.  He blogs at www.right-brain-law.blogspot.com.

 

 

 

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