Through the Looking Glass: Your Options in the Law

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.

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.

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.

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; let's go!"