Legal professionals faced extraordinary uncertainties in the pandemic lockdowns of early 2020. With courts closed, trials paused, and clients at literal (two) arms’ length, we hunkered down. Whether it was at a kitchen table with a screaming toddler nearby, or alone in an apartment for months on end, the lockdown and the new “normal” that followed, presented lawyers (and law students) with an opportunity to reconsider their professional quality of life. COVID allowed us to slow down a bit, breathe, and imagine what our life could evolve into, post-pandemic.
Before delving into the opportunities available to JDs, let’s define two terms: “traditional” and “non-traditional” lawyer. For our purposes, a traditional lawyer represents clients directly, and usually practices under the auspices of a firm. A non-traditional lawyer is a JD with an alternative legal career, i.e. one who has intentionally chosen not to pursue the role of litigator, trial attorney, or transactional attorney, with or without a license.
Regardless of where you are in your legal career, this article is meant to help you figure out what you want, so you can determine how to reach your goal. While many lawyers happily go the traditional route, some lawyers hesitate to pursue an alternative legal career for fear of being looked down upon or considered unorthodox, or that the career would not be “legitimate.”
It’s time to recognize that any career path a JD chooses is legitimate, and acknowledge and embrace the fact that alternative legal careers can be as fulfilling as traditional ones. Normalizing alternative legal careers as not “alternative,” but just another legal career is integral: if you have a JD (with or without a law license), you can be of great value in many settings without any (self) doubt or stigmatization.
Five reasons to choose an “alternative” legal career
Stepping toward the life you deserve starts with being truthful about what you want. If you believe you’re in too far or too deep in debt to turn back, admit that fear, and acknowledge you have a choice. Choosing the right route for yourself starts with remembering why you chose law school in the first place.
After you do that, explore these five reasons to choose an alternative legal career:
- You don’t need to be a traditional lawyer to use the skills you learned in law school.
- It’s not just traditional lawyers who can make six figures right out of law school (hint: you can make as much or more money in an alternative legal career, often with more autonomy and vacation days).
- Being happy in your work every day is more important than fulfilling someone’s expectations of you.
- You want more flexibility in your life than a traditional law practice would provide.
- You want to merge your love of law with another love, like science, music, art, nutrition, tech, data science, or coding.
Lawyers are generally risk-averse, so even if you’re considering an alternative route, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why risk losing it all?” The answer is simple: because you have literally nothing to lose (except a happy, healthy life).
“If I’m not a traditional lawyer, then what am I going to do?”
Great question! Your options are limited to your imagination. Search for “what to do with a law degree,” and you’ll find about 966,000,000 results. The better question is “What do I want to do with my law degree?” This search yields about five results. The focus of the latter search is inward, rather than looking for the answer externally.
The most traditional suggestions for alternative legal careers are teaching (the old adage of “those who can’t, teach” is defunct, by the way); alternative dispute resolution; government; in-house counsel; human resources; contract management; and C-Suite (CEO, COO, CFO).
While it’s true lawyers have a wealth of experience and knowledge transferable to virtually any career, we propose seven non-traditional, non-traditional options, and again, invite you to look inside yourself for what makes you happy.
1. Administrative and Regulatory Law
In law school, administrative law courses typically focus on a handful of categories: banking, health care, Social Security/disability, labor, workers compensation, zoning, etc. One lesser-known area of administrative law centers on regulatory compliance under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. If you have an interest in science and a love of advocating for a client, this area of regulatory law could be your calling.
2. Regulatory Compliance In-House
Regulatory compliance plays a critical role in various industries, and while there is no one definition, one lesser-known area is a good example. In the consumer product goods area, regulatory compliance includes reviewing a product’s formula, label, or ingredients for permissibility against national and international regulations. This work is often performed by non-attorney employees of large food, beverage, chemical, and consumer product companies, or is outsourced to consultants (hint, hint).
3. Staff Attorney to a Judge or Court
As a staff attorney, you’ll work as a professional legal researcher and legal writer, assisting judges in case reviews and at times, sitting in on trials and appellate arguments. This is not the same as being a law clerk. The role of professional staff attorney is more developed in some jurisdictions than others. If you love the excitement and challenge of litigation, but do not love the private practice/firm life, this alternative career could be for you.
4. Data Protection Officer
As a data protection officer, you’re responsible for ensuring a company’s compliance with all applicable data privacy and data security regulations and agreements. Consider this alternative career if you enjoy working with rapidly developing global regulations, and have an understanding and passion for data and the technology that drives data.
5. Legal Tech
A largely unknown and underestimated area of alternative legal careers is as a subject-matter expert helping companies build software for the legal and regulatory fields. Contract review software and legal or regulatory databases increasingly use artificial intelligence and machine learning, but humans with substantive knowledge are still needed to review and validate the machine’s output. An undergraduate degree in computer science or summers spent coding for fun could lead you to this option.
6. Servicing Attorneys & Law Firms
Consider your undergraduate experience as a starting point. If your first degree is in communications, marketing, business, public relations, illustration, art, music, graphic design, or something similar, then working in (or starting) a company that serves lawyers and law firms in that subject matter could be for you.
7. Community Development & Nonprofits
Think about the organizations and causes that you donate to regularly. Research leadership positions within those organizations and pitch yourself. Or, offer to serve on their board or as a volunteer; this will help you learn their internal workings and how nonprofits function. If volunteering is a good fit (structurally, logistically, and value-wise), take on more responsibility and advocate for yourself in leadership roles within the organization.
So, what’s next?
Most articles about choosing an alternative legal career end with a simple “good luck” and send you on your way. Instead, we’d like to end with a few calls to action to help you take the next steps in securing a fulfilling career with a JD.
The first step is to take an intentional look at what you want your daily work life to be. Don’t limit yourself to the traditional path, but do commit to exploring your options. If you’re hesitant to pursue a non-traditional legal career path, ask yourself why. Are you afraid to disappoint someone? Are you afraid you made a mistake and it’s too late?
- If you’re uncertain of your path, or wondering if there’s a better life out there, find a therapist who’ll hold your feet to the fire, and help you sort through emotional barriers preventing you from living the life you want.
- A good coach and mentor who focuses on legal careers can help you sort through the logistics of what you want, and can help you create and execute a plan.
- Find a professional in your field who knows all about alternative careers and reach out to them for guidance and resources.
- Don’t just look at the money, because money can’t buy happiness or sleep.
Alternative legal careers are empowering growth opportunities, not retreats or concessions. You can live the life you want, and while it may take some intentional self-exploration and planning, it is possible to have a happy, healthy life as a lawyer.
And, in case it wasn’t clear: It’s okay to change your mind. You’ve got this!
About the Authors
Kim L. Milone (left) is the founder of Intentional Legal, an online resource for ideas, inspiration and training for non-traditional alternative legal careers, and is COO and vice president of managed services for Decernis, which provides global regulatory consulting for food, consumer, and industrial products companies.
Sheila M. Wilkinson (right) is the founder of SMWPLC / Law & Social Work. She’s not a traditional lawyer by any stretch of the imagination, working as an attorney, social worker, teacher and empowerment coach, including helping lawyers figure out what they want in their personal and professional lives.