Taking the Indirect Path

Are you thinking about taking a non-traditional route in law? Not interested in Big Law—or maybe Big Law is not interested in you? Dreading those “associate hours?” Maybe you are unemployed or underemployed, and looking for a way to break into your dream job.

I can sympathize. Working in a law firm is great, I’m sure. However, it is not for everyone and if you are still trying to find your way, this article may help give you a little insight into taking a different path. It is becoming more and more common to see people with legal degrees in various positions within organizations.

Depending on your own particular skill-set and background, you may be surprised to find your unique circumstances make you a great fit for either a certain type of organization or position. Startups are a great way to get in at the ground floor with a wide array of positions available in such a company (think CEO, General Counsel, COO or you can always make up a title… it is a startup, right?). All organizations need legal assistance, and if you have something more to offer, (i.e business management, human resources, computer sciences, finance, marketing, engineering, music, the list goes on) you can become quite the asset and be well on your way to the career of your dreams.

For some attorneys, in-house positions are the dream job they have always wanted. Working a nine-to-five schedule more often, it is easy to see why some find having free nights and weekends (no I am not talking about old cell phone plans) appealing.

I have noticed that even career placement agencies that cater to those in the legal profession have in-house positions available.  The catch is many are long-term temporary (this is the part that scares perspective applicants away), mostly because the corporate budget may not allow for hiring another permanent employee right now or because they are not sure they truly have the need (i.e. afraid of commitment) for another full-time employee on the roster. But you will find many attorneys in corporate legal departments who started as a temp, and were able to build a relationship and become regular full-time employees of the corporation. If in-house is the way you want to go don’t be afraid to take the indirect path!

As in-house counsel I handled a variety of matters: pre/post employment matters; contract review/drafting/negotiation; client concerns; settlement negotiations/agreement; demand letters; regulatory compliance review; website audits; product development/review and more.  As a young lawyer, I enjoy the exposure to so many different areas and I am sure that it would be hard for me to get this on-the-job training as a new associate with a law firm.

How do you feel about compliance? I personally think it is a very loaded term, which means a diverse area where J.D.s have made themselves at home. Compliance careers can range from regulatory, financial, technical, corporate, operational, environmental—the list of compliance issues goes on and on.  If you can dream it, it probably needs compliance advice. While compliance positions in general do not require a law degree, having a legal background can be advantageous as well as put you in a position to earn more compensation.

Depending on the type of compliance position you seek, you can enjoy a wide array of job related tasks. As a compliance officer, on a daily basis I could expect to: review new regulatory requirements and determine how they effect our products; product development and product reviews of new offerings or enhancements; give compliance opinions to clients regarding various intricacies of our products and processes; and conduct compliance-related webinars and trainings for both clients and employees. Again as a young lawyer, I do not believe I would be able to get this kind exposure to so many different areas and it’s something I truly enjoyed about this position.

One of the great advantages of the positions previously mentioned is that you may get more playing time (by “playing,” I mean more hands-on action at work) by working on a wide array of projects and issues.  Working on different projects may allow you to gain experience with different industries; which in turn will assist you in determining what career path is right for you.

When I was in law school and asked about where I saw myself in five years, my response was: “The job I want has not been created yet.” While this may be true, I have found many challenges and enjoyment as I continue down this undefined non-traditional legal road. I came to law school with a degree in business administration and a background in real estate, ranging from property management, title insurance, and real estate sales.

When I took a position (not as an attorney) at a tech company, my goal was to get in the door and hope they would create the position I wanted. I was hired because of my legal background and because an insightful director saw a overwhelming need for someone with specialized skills to take a bigger role in pre-litigation matters and constantly growing compliance concerns.

Most recently I have found a home within the law and policy department of a real estate trade association. As you can imagine, with my background, this position was a match made in heaven. The majority of my time I spend answering real estate-related questions for a specific group of people with a Florida real estate license. I love all things real estate, and enjoy the variations of legal issues that can arise for those in the real estate profession.

I believe the number of jobs in non-traditional legal career paths will increase. I also believe timing can be crucial, so do not allow rejection from a place you believe is for you to stop you from continuing to pursue a position with them. The possibilities for individuals who have a diverse background and legal degree are endless. Once you have started down one of these journeys, you will see that there are many other organizations looking for the same thing. Having a year or two under your belt will definitely open more doors in your future endeavors, if you decide to stay the course.

Keep in the forefront of your mind that you need to show these different organizations how you are an asset to them. Many times, this will mean showing your benefit beyond the law degree (surely you have realized that many will meet this threshold criteria).  As I mentioned earlier, your own particular skill set and background (both professional and personal) may be the secret ingredient your future employer is looking for.

Note also that many employers (if you are not coming from another non-traditional position) want to make sure that you are okay with not working at a law firm (at least in the traditional sense) and going to court on a day-to-day basis. For me the answer was easy, but you should consider this as your pursue some of these non-traditional routes.

Thinking outside the box will lead to endless possibilities that I cannot even begin to cover here. There is more than one way to pursue the job of your dreams. While the job market may still be challenging, do not be discouraged; the opportunities are there, you just have to think creatively, expand your search, and consider taking the road less traveled!

About the Author

Allison Cochran is an attorney in the Law and Policy Department of Florida Realtors, the largest trade association in Florida, located in Orlando. She can be reached at allisonc@floridarealtors.org or 407.438.1400, ext. 2432.

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