The following is an except from a Student Lawyer magazine article posted January 1, 2017, on “How to resist the allure of a traditional practice” where deputy student editor, Erik Badia, interviewed Kathy Morris, Founder of Under Advisement Ltd. and Advisor to ABA Legal Career Central, on her path into a successful and satisfying alternative career path as well as a few others on their path into starting a solo practice.
The unique pressure of the recruiting process brings active job-hunting and relentless auditioning dropped right in the middle of studying for your degree. While you’re still trying to figure out what proximate cause is, you’re also told to apply for internships or clerkships that may well define your career path for years to come.
This is all part of the “traditional” legal career path often pressed upon law students by their schools and peers: Trying to line up a job with BigLaw, as in-house counsel at a corporation, or in the public sector.
While many students are happy going this “traditional route,” it’s only one type of the law school experience. It’s not everyone’s experience, and it doesn’t have to be yours. Whether it’s because you can’t imagine working in a giant law firm, you’re not in the top 20 percent of your class, or you dream of starting your own practice, going the “nontraditional” way can be lucrative and very gratifying.
Let those who’ve taken the road less traveled tell you how you might do the same and avoid the pressure to become a partner at BigLaw or an ADA for your local county.
Must you follow the crowd?
Kathy Morris is perhaps best described as living proof of her own advice. After beginning her legal career doing criminal defense work, Morris took the risk of starting her own business. Instead of practicing law, however, she decided to help students and attorneys figure out what they want to do with their J.D. degree.
“I think people in law school fear that they’ve got to do a traditional practice,” she said, “whether it’s BigLaw or a smaller firm or you work for the government.
“The thought is, ‘I should work as a traditional lawyer because other things won’t look good on my resume, won’t lead anywhere, and may not be as lucrative,’” added Morris. “The fact is that there’s money to be made, and there are career paths to engage in that are more individualized. It’s all in taking what you do, doing it well, and knowing how to narrate your career and how to advocate your skills.”
Morris founded Under Advisement Ltd. in 1988 and has become a go-to resource for lawyers and law students looking for help in changing their career paths. She said that while the standard path works well for some people, some wind up detesting it.
“There are happy people who go traditional, and there are unhappy people who go traditional,” she said. “By the numbers, the crowd will be going traditional, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you need to do that first, you need to do that for all time, or that you can’t get back to something traditional later.”
Vive la différence
The legal career advisor said she’s seen attorneys transition from practicing law into all types of non-traditional careers, everything from going into human resources all the way to professional wedding planning. Morris said law students shouldn’t look at doing non-traditional work as a negative.
“It’s not a stigma, it’s not uncommon, it’s not ‘wasting your degree,’ and it’s not sending mixed messages by way of your resume to do what you want to do,” she said. You should browse the job market, but don’t just look at what’s available from job postings or through your law school, Morris suggested.
Think about what it is you really want to do and consider creating your own opportunities. “It’s always important to figure out what you really want to do as an individual,” said Morris. “If you do what you really want, the likelihood is that you’ll do it well. You can be open— think in the alternative—you can spin out some options that you may not necessarily see on Indeed.com.”
Morris suggests you use this basic premise: Consider what you want to do and then talk to alums from your law school. “Find out what they’ve done, what they chose, and how it’s worked out for them,” she advised.
“If people are candid about their experiences, that will probably break some assumptions you might have.” Also give yourself permission to differentiate yourself. “I think you have to take a longer-term view,” noted Morris. “But be brave in the short term to know you can mold a career that makes sense no matter what and, most importantly, one that’s satisfying to you.”