Through the Looking Glass: Your Options in the Law

"Does that mean his life lacked any 'Es muss sein!' (It must be!), any overriding necessity? In my opinion, it did have one. But it was not love, it was his profession. He had come to medicine not by coincidence or calculation but by a deep inner desire. Insofar as it is possible to divide people into categories, the surest criterion is the deep-seated desires that orient them to one or another lifelong activity."
--------The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera

Ruth, our hypothetical client, wanted to emulate her father and her fictional hero, Atticus Finch, both them dedicated small town lawyers. Why did you go to law school? Clients' responses to this question include; "to be a teacher"; "to combine interests in theology with the real world"; "to protect and preserve the environment"; "to learn the law to use in the business world"; "to be involved in women's issues"; "my parents convinced me I couldn't make a living with a Ph.D. in literature"; "to be involved in international issues" and, so often, "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do." These are such varied, complex motivations. Is it possible to see them fulfilled in the range of careers available to the profession? In this column we take a look at the possibilities and offer you a Career Options Exercise to expand your horizons.

Stop for a moment and compare the job preferences students express upon entering law school with the distribution of lawyers by type of practice. There are nearly 800,000 lawyers in the country, of whom 70% work in private law firm practice. While that is an impressive number, it also means that 30% do not work in private law firms. Nearly 24,000 are government prosecutors; 40,000 work for government agencies; 80,000 are in for-profit business; 16,000 work for non-profits; 8,000 are in academia; 23,000 are judges and 45,000 are inactive. By comparison, about 45% of first year students express a preference for entry level jobs in large or mid-size firms, or for the clerkships which often precede large firm practice, and in fact 40% of young lawyers do find their way into large and mid-size firms. This is a higher percentage than the 28% of all lawyers so situated. Although large firm practice captures the attention of lawyers and laymen alike, nearly half of all lawyers in private practice are sole practitioners, and approximately two thirds are in firms of five or less lawyers. The lawyer who defines a small firm as one with 15 lawyers has eliminated from consideration in his or her search more than two thirds of the market, not to mention the 30% of positions mentioned above.

Why should one's outlook become so narrow? It is uncertain how much these figures are the outcome of student preferences, a reflection of their professional education, or a reaction to law practice economics. We do know that for many law students, the day they enter law school is the last time they take seriously the cliche "go to law school because there are so many things you can do with a law degree." Students with diverse interests often feel as if they are plummeting down a funnel into large law firms. At the law schools often referred to as the "top", "the highest ranked", "the first tier" or as "national" law schools, the funnel is even more narrow.

Whence that funnel feeling? Legal education emphasizes thinking like a lawyer over training to practice in various settings. With the exception of clinical programs, students will not consistently hear a teacher talking about his or her experiences representing a woman in a divorce case, incorporating a business, or advising a juvenile in a care and protection hearing. Exposure to varied practice areas through cases and war stories is haphazard. Also, students anxious about their fundamental legal skills will not have the confidence to entertain positions in small firms or other settings where there is unlikely to be close supervision or training. In addition, the reliance of large firms on on-campus interviewing distorts the image of credible, desirable positions in the profession. At the same time, students are not always aware of the range and variety of practice even within the big firms. Finally, the emphasis on litigated cases and transactional issues encourages law students to think that the only "real" work of a lawyer is in the law firm setting.

Although career services offices struggle to acquaint students with their options, it is doubtful that many law school faculty give much thought to the McCrate Report's assertion that law schools should show students how to find employment consistent with their professional goals and personal values, and that they should be informed of "the range of traditional and non-traditional employment opportunities for lawyers." No wonder that after a law school education which places little emphasis on what graduates can do with their law degrees, many practitioners begin the job search convinced that they are trapped, that they are nothing but "a litigator", "a bankruptcy lawyer", "an M&A lawyer".

In our previous article, Ruth, having recognized the incompatibility of her beliefs with her work, decided to leave her law firm. That is simply the first step of her journey. She must now learn about her options. Everyone who has been stuck in one position begins to feel like the proverbial frog in the bottom of a well. It is time to expand one's horizons.

Career Options Exercise

Take the following exercise. Circle or highlight every organization and topic which appeals to you. We don't intend the activities listed under each setting to be comprehensive, merely suggestive. Do not try at this point to focus your search. Remember, you're in an expansive mood. If it appeals to you, circle or highlight it. You will notice that many of these options are links, or have links attached. Despite the temptation, do not follow these links until you have filled out the whole exercise. If you find them tempting, like the little "drink me" labels on the bottles in Alice in Wonderland, you know where to return for your explorations.

A. Large law firm - over 50 lawyers

  • secured transactions
  • insurance defense
  • mergers and acquisitions
  • bankruptcy and work-outs


B. Medium large law firm - 6 to 49

  • real estate development
  • trusts and estates
  • taxation
  • patent and trademark
  • labor and employment
  • art, entertainment and the media


C. Small law firms - 1 to 5 (including solo practitioners associated with other lawyers)

  • family law and abuse
  • criminal defense
  • plaintiff litigation - toxic tort - employee discrimination
  • immigration
  • health care - guardianship - disability - right to die - elderly rights
  • public interest/human services


D. Public law firm - 4 - 10 lawyers

  • class action civil rights litigation
  • environmental protection litigation
  • criminal defense
  • social security, welfare rights and tenant representation


E. Government prosecutor

  • US Attorney
  • District Attorney
  • Attorney General


F. Government agency

  • legal counsel
  • commissioner
  • legislative and executive branch


G. Large corporations (over 100 employees)

  • legal counsel for a financial institution - bank, insurance, mutual fund
  • legal counsel/ regulatory division head for a pharmaceutical company
  • legal counsel/developer - real estate/construction company
  • public affairs/public relations director - retail electronics chain
  • affirmative action director - retail apparel store chain
  • sexual harassment prevention trainer - sport footwear manufacturer
  • employee relations director - hotel chain
  • reporter or editor for a media company (TV, radio, magazine, newspaper)
  • performing artist - entertainment


H. Small corporations

  • marketing and sales for management consultants to law firms
  • CEO of a family wholesale plumbing supply company
  • CFO - internet software development
  • legal counsel/director of research and development for a biotech start-up
  • scriptwriter for television or filmmaker
  • owner of a professional sports team
  • owner of print shop franchise


I. Non-profit organizations or associations (typical 501c3 with few or no lawyers and little litigation)

  • legal counsel - charitable foundation
  • legal counsel - university
  • executive director - civil rights policy and lobbying
  • research director - women's rights organization
  • public education and community relations director of a museum
  • program planner - physical and mental health disability advocacy organization
  • newsletter publisher - education reform group
  • legal counsel - children's rights advocacy group
  • counselor, adviser, coach, social worker in an employment related organization
  • administrator of a church or temple


J. Bar association

  • executive director
  • continuing legal education and meeting planner


K. Academia

  • dean of students for a law school
  • professor - law school
  • director of clinical education program at a law school
  • faculty - college
  • executive assistant to the president of a college
  • high school principal
  • private school teacher


This has been a stretching exercise. Checking or highlighting these settings and fields should have given you an inkling of the directions in which your interests need to expand. How many have you checked or circled? Five? Ten? Fifteen? Over fifteen? Every one represents a realistic option for a lawyer - a setting in which many lawyers can be found. Perhaps you noticed that the columns constitute a spectrum of settings ranging from those which offer only a traditional role in legal practice to those which afford the possibility of non-traditional roles for lawyers, e.g. from a practice in secured transactions in a large firm to business manager of a synagogue. (Keep in mind, however, that even the most traditional settings contain atypical options: some firms have given partners the chance to become directors of training or recruiting.) The pattern of fields, activities and industries you have checked should suggest the options you need to explore.

Some of you many be looking for new areas of the law, some for non-firm settings for lawyers, some for new ways to use your skills and experience in service of a cause, , and some may seek settings as far removed from the law as possible. You may have a relatively narrow interests in practice specialties, but be attracted to new kinds of legal settings. For instance, you may be very focused on litigation, but willing to consider government, non profits, advocacy groups or small firms as alternatives to large firm litigation. Conversely, you may have checked anything related to business or to health care, regardless of setting or legal specialty. Generally speaking, the more your responses are concentrated on the second half of the exercise, the more likely you are to be in need options outside of traditional legal practice - what we like to call the "hybrid positions."

Now that you have completed the exercise, follow up on the links you have highlighted. These are not necessarily the only or the best links for each option, but if you follow them all, you should feel a little bit like Alice after she fell down the well into Wonderland. Or like the poet E.E. Cummings: "There's a hell of a good universe next door; lets go!"