Career Alternatives for Lawyers
By Janice Mucalov, LL.B., September 2009
If you’ve been thinking about quitting the practice of law, you’re not alone. Canadian statistics are hard to come by, but in the US, up to 40 per cent of lawyers want to leave the profession, and an estimated 40,000 lawyers walk away from their jobs each year.
Take heart – there are options. And you don’t have to throw your legal training out the window either. In fact, lawyers are well suited to a surprising number of alternative careers that utilize or draw upon a legal background. Of course, you already know about in-house counsel positions, contract lawyering and legal research jobs. But did you also know you could become a paralegal course instructor, compliance officer, policy analyst or corporate privacy advisor? Or how about a speech writer, immigration consultant or employee benefits manager?
In recent years, a whole mini-industry has sprung up to assist lawyers seeking non-traditional jobs. Legal career coaches, niche job posting websites, courses, specialized recruiters and several textbooks are all available to help you find a rewarding alternative career.
Consider simple changes first
But before firing off any resignation letter, think small. You might not need to actually split from the profession to be happy. A successful change could be as simple as getting more comfortable where you are, advises Monica Parker, a lawyer-turned-career coach for lawyers seeking alternative vocations and author of The Unhappy Lawyer.
Perhaps develop more outside interests – this may be enough to add the joy you’re missing in your life. If you want more personal and family time, change your relationships with the people you work with, so you can say “no” and set boundaries. Or shift from working with one partner to another if it’s a personality issue. If the firm culture is the culprit, switch to another firm.
Possible changes fall along a spectrum, says Parker:
- Stay put and initiate simple changes
- Change practice groups or law firms
- Move into a law-related field
- Make a total career change outside of law
Consider whether less drastic changes will suffice before embarking on a whole new career as a chef or physiotherapist.
Valuable legal skills
Don’t take for granted all that you’ve learned in law school and private practice. You are armed with a number of skills that make you highly marketable in many fields within, touching on or outside the law.
Your problem solving, analytical, presentation, negotiation and conflict resolution skills all translate well to business, notes Randi Bean, the president of Life After Law.com, a Toronto-based recruitment and counselling firm that places lawyers in careers outside the traditional practice of law.
Likewise, your marketing and client/business development skills are handy for shifting into a career selling products like legal software to lawyers, adds Bean. And estate planning knowledge and experience is useful for moving to a bank or insurance company.
Your research skills, writing talents and critical thinking abilities are also highly prized in many other careers, observes Parker.
Need more examples? See the List of transferable legal skills at the end of this article.
Alternative career fields
So what can you usefully do with a law degree (besides practice law)? The options are many and varied. Lawyers have successfully found positions in all sorts of related fields. Here are a few of the most common:
Education and academic administration
How about a career in legal education or academic administration? Opportunities exist to teach in paralegal colleges and continuing legal education societies, without requiring a Masters degree in law. Legal knowledge is also useful in non-teaching positions at universities, such as a student complaints officer, disability services coordinator or student affairs director. Law schools, in particular, welcome legally-trained individuals to work in admissions, alumni relations, career services and law libraries.
Banking and finance
If you have experience in securities, trusts and estates, tax or banking law, you can parlay that into a career in the banking and finance industry. Positions include: risk manager, estate planning advisor, trust officer, financial planner, commercial loans officer and mutual fund administrator.
Arbitration, mediation and negotiation are growing fields employing individuals with legal backgrounds as arbitrators and mediators. Labour unions, hospitals, school associations, universities and government agencies all hire professionals with strong communication and dispute resolution skills. Note that mediation positions may not be full-time – mediators tend to be retained on a contract basis to assist with a specific dispute. Former practitioners also participate in the training of alternative dispute resolution services.
Government and politics
The federal and provincial governments often hire lawyers as policy analysts to gather and research information, analyze issues in written reports and coordinate the development of strategic policy. Matters involving policy related issues range from health and transportation to education and the environment. Politics is another popular field for lawyers. Positions include speech writer, political fundraiser, campaign manager, lobbyist or even political candidate.
Companies need talented professionals to recruit new people and oversee their staff. You can work as a hiring coordinator, human resources administrator or training manager. And don’t forget working within the legal profession as a non-lawyer – inside knowledge of the legal industry makes you well suited for a job as a law firm administrator, head of associate recruiting, marketing director or professional development manager.
Some lawyers consult to law firms in law office management, marketing and client development. If you’re tech-savvy, you can put your knowledge about legal software to work as an information technology consultant. With a nursing background, you can work as a legal nurse consultant, reviewing medical records in medical malpractice and personal injury cases, providing advice to the lawyers involved and acting as an expert witness.
Legal writing, editing and publishing
A lawyer’s research and writing skills are particularly useful. Several lawyers work as freelance legal writers and editors – contributing articles for legal publications, writing do-it-yourself law books and researching/writing booklets on legal topics like divorce and landlord/tenancy matters for poverty law groups and government-funded organizations. Other one-time lawyers are now legal or business columnists for newspapers and magazines. Still others write content for law firm websites or are full-time editors for bar association newsletters and law, business or accounting publications.
Informational interviews are very important before making a jump. “This is where you get into other people’s brains and find out if what you think is a really sexy job is in fact great,” says Bean. “As a general rule, people are happy to talk about themselves, especially if someone has referred you.” Studies show that the most successful job-hunters interview many individuals just for information before they ever go out on a job interview.
You must make it clear, however, that your purpose in talking to the person is simply to learn more about their job or field, not actual employment (although an informational interview sometimes does lead to work).
What do you say in your initial phone call?
- I saw your name in a recent newspaper article. I’ve been thinking about changing careers and would like to learn as much as I can about XX.
- XX gave me your name and told me you are also a lawyer who has made a career switch into XX. I’m thinking of doing something similar and I’d love to know how your job has worked for you.
Be direct and ask if you can meet the person for a 15-minute coffee to talk about their work.
Here are some sample questions to ask when you meet:
- How did you get involved in this type of work?
- What’s the best way to get started in a career in this field?
- Is this a growing field?
- Are specific qualifications required or can a person learn “on the job”?
- What are some of your tasks and duties?
- What is your typical day at work like?
- What do you like most about what you do? What do you like the least?
- What range of compensation could a person in this field expect?
- Do you have any suggestions to help me break into this field?
- Can you suggest someone else I should talk to for more information?
At the end, follow up with a short thank-you e-mail or note.
Searching for a position
So you know what field you want to pursue and you’re ready to start your job search. Now you need a roadmap or plan, says Bean. It’s not useful to haphazardly send out general resumes. Who are you going to apply to? What are you “selling”? Why should people hire you? (This will mean editing your resume to highlight strengths such as project management or conflict resolution.)
The career sections of newspapers and certain job websites are an obvious starting point for any career change. Recognize, however, that many positions aren’t advertised. “Any advertised job is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Bean. “There is a hidden job market.” Still, check out the following websites. Recent searches for this article yielded the job postings below.
Total Legal Jobs
This website is the source of Canadian legal jobs backed by LexisNexis Canada. Recent job postings:
- clinic director of Toronto’s Parkdale Community Legal Services
- manager of municipal prosecutions for the City of Calgary
- legal recruiter with Advocate Placement (Toronto)
- assistant general manager (trading documentation) at CIBC in downtown Toronto
Check your city for location-based positions. Recent job postings under the “legal” category include:
- CEO for the non-profit Canadian Nurses Protective Society (Ottawa)
- student judicial affairs officer for Kwantlen Polytechnic University (Greater Vancouver)
- senior compliance consultant with Standard Life Canada (Montreal)
- student abuse investigation advisor for the Toronto District School Board
- commercial director of infrastructure projects for the Vancouver Transportation Division of SNC-Lavalin Inc.
- legal and finance product writer/editor for Carswell in Toronto
- intellectual property advisor for Cirque du Soleil (Montreal)
Recent job postings:
- paralegal instructor at Algonquin Careers Academy (Ottawa)
- assistant vice-president (taxation) at HSBC in Vancouver
- human resources consultant with Everest College of Business (Toronto)
Positions for lawyers are even posted on CraigsList. Check under “Legal/Paralegal” in the Jobs section.
Recent job postings:
- business development specialist in the marketing department of a large Vancouver law firm
- intellectual asset manager for a Waterloo-based company
Government Job websites
Some provincial government sites:
Also check out your local municipality’s website.
Legal and General Recruiters
The following recruitment firms specialize in placing lawyers in the Canadian marketplace.
Life After Law
Headed by a former practising lawyer, Randi Bean, Life After Law.com is a recruitment firm devoted to placing lawyers in careers outside the traditional practice of law.
Recent job postings:
- director of procurement for a health-related governmental agency (Toronto)
- legal retirement consultant (pensions) for a global financial management consulting firm (Montreal)
- legal specialist in export compliance with a global information services company (Vancouver)
Recent job posting:
- policy analyst with WorkSafeBC (Richmond, BC)
Recent job posting:
- claims manager for the Law Society of BC’s Lawyer’s Insurance Fund (Vancouver)
Recent job posting:
- director of legal and business affairs for Score Media (Toronto)
Robert Half Legal
NagataConnex Executive Legal Search
It may sound trite, but talking to people and networking is the most likely way to find a position, say both Bean and Parker. For example, if you’re interested in working in organizational development at a company or institution, you could join your local OD association and have coffee with someone there to find out more about careers in the field, suggests Parker.
Ask friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, business associates and former law school professors for leads. Consider sending out a standard email inquiry to select individuals about your interest in making a career change. (You may have to swear some people to secrecy, but you can’t make a shift without talking to others.) When you get a lead, ask them who to contact at their firm or company to find out about open jobs. Also ask if they’d be willing to help set up an interview for you.
Law schools and bar associations sometimes offer seminars on career changes for lawyers or law grads. For example, the Women’s Law Association of Ontario recently partnered with the Law Society of Upper Canada in hosting the third annual evening panel presentation on “Alternative Careers for Women in Law” in Toronto on May 6, 2009.
How long will it take to find another position?
That depends. Although some lawyers will be able to shift quickly, others will find that it does take time. Allow yourself six to nine months to secure another position, suggests Parker.
Certain practice areas lend themselves to a more seamless transition than others, notes Bean. If you’re a patent lawyer, it should be fairly easy to find work as an intellectual property manager. Similiarly, an employment lawyer could probably land a position in human resources or industrial relations without too much trouble.
Don’t despair if your first job isn’t the right one. “For a lot of lawyers, it’s a common occurrence to test the waters outside the profession, then step back in, before finally deciding to make a break,” says Parker. After teaching a semester at Harvard Law School, she returned to practising law for another four years before taking coaching classes and embarking on her new career.
Straddling two jobs
Searching for a new position will be time consuming. And it can be challenging to find something else while still working as a lawyer. “If you’re really serious about making a change, you may need to quit your current job,” says Bean.
Still, it’s possible to explore some ideas without scrapping the safety net of your day job. Says Parker: “You can read books, conduct informational interviews, take classes in the field you’re interested in and ask to do paid or unpaid internships at nights or on weekends in the other job.” She started preparing a business plan, saving money and coaching clients over a 10-month period before finally abandoning private practice. “I left when I had the sense of certainty that I could do this.”
Older vs. younger lawyers
Senior lawyers tend to be more demanding in their expectations; it will likely take longer for them to find a suitable position than a young associate.
Compensation may also be an issue, especially if a senior lawyer is hoping to match existing earnings. Dollar for dollar, many alternative careers won’t be as lucrative as private practice. On the other hand, an older lawyer whose finances are in good shape may be in a better position to take a pay cut than a younger person with a mortgage.
Many organizations welcome the expertise of senior lawyers, says Bean. Older practitioners often have the business skills to go along with the legal skills. If you sport a grey hair or two, you shouldn’t have to justify why you are considering a career change, she says, and you should be talking to senior management when looking for a position (not the junior HR person).
Case studies: Three lawyers with non-traditional careers
Karen Yip, Paralegal instructor
After articling, Karen Yip practised corporate law and commercial real estate for five years with Davis, a large Vancouver firm, then worked on a contract basis for an individual lawyer for two or so more years.
Yip has a full-time tenured position as an instructor at Vancouver’s Capilano College (recently accredited as a university), teaching mainly in the paralegal and legal assistant departments. She puts in 20 hours a week at the college plus additional time at home on course preparation and marking.
Reason for career change
“I was searching for more work/life balance.” As a contractor, the hours were sometimes gruelling, the work was sporadic and Yip was the responsible lawyer on certain files. “It was very difficult with a five-month old baby at the time.”
Finding a new position
An acquaintance at the Lion’s Club introduced Yip to a coordinator at Capilano College, who asked her to do a guest lecture. That was popular enough to create a mini-course, which eventually led to teaching part-time and then full-time.
Most valued legal skills
Being able to impart real life stories and legal cases, together with an understanding of everyone’s role in a law firm, has been very helpful in teaching, says Yip.
“I’m earning less than a practising lawyer, but then again, I’m not working 14-hour days, seven days a week.” A lawyer-cum-paralegal instructor could expect between $60,000 to $85,000 for full-time work plus benefits. Tenured instructors may also receive a pension.
“I love doing what I’m doing. The students are wonderful – I get group hugs from them.”
“Persevere. You will find what you want to do.” Yip adds that teaching opportunities are always available.
Martin Perelmuter, Entrepreneur
Martin Perelmuter articled with and then worked at Goodmans in Toronto for six months as a corporate commercial and securities lawyer.
Perelmuter is president and co-founder of Speakers’ Spotlight. The agency represents over 600 speakers (including Justin Trudeau, Pamela Wallin and Adrienne Clarkson) and has snagged speaking engagements for clients around the world.
Reason for career change
“I’m an entrepreneur by nature, and I felt that I wanted more control over my life. I also wanted to deal with people, not paper.”
Finding a new position
After Perelmuter and his wife helped promote her uncle’s seminars in 1995, they decided to quit their jobs and launch their own agency. “We took an entrepreneurial leap of faith,” Perelmuter recalls. “We were 25, young, and had no kids and no mortgage. We didn’t have a lot to lose.” It also helped that their business wasn’t capital-intensive. The first year, they operated in “survival mode,” making 75 to 100 calls a day from home to meeting planners and conference organizers and living partially on savings. The business took off in their second year, and they hired an employee to help them. By their fourth year, they had moved into a small office in downtown Toronto. Speakers’ Spotlight now has 23 full-time staff, and Perelmuter was a finalist in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards for 2008 and 2009.
Most valued legal skills
Several skills gained while practising have proved very useful, says Perelmuter – handling volumes of work; understanding the importance of client service and the value of getting back to clients promptly; a disciplined work ethic; and attention to detail (“We’re sending out booking contracts every day here.”). He has also had to “unlearn” some lawyering traits like risk management. “In business, a lot of things are based on trust and you rely on your gut more, whereas in law, you have to plan for every possible contingency.”
“When I made the decision to leave, I thought I’d never earn as much as I would at the firm. But I’m as well off or better financially now than if I had stayed in law.”
“I’m fortunate that I’m doing something I really love to do. I have a chance to work with some pretty amazing people.”
“You’ve got one life – and one chance – so you have to take a good look at your priorities and values and find something enjoyable, where you also feel that you’re making a positive impact. If you’re not looking forward to going to work every day, you owe it to yourself to try something else.”
Valerie Mutton, Writer
Valerie Mutton practised family and criminal law for 15 years with a partner in Bowmanville, near Toronto.
A full-time freelance writer for six years now, Mutton has an eclectic mix of writing work. She contributes women’s pieces for MORE, Oxygen and Today’s Parent magazines; writes about legal issues for the National and The Lawyers Weekly; has written story lines for CSI board games; and is working on her second murder mystery (her first is currently out with an agent).
Reason for career change
“I started feeling like I wanted something different in my life. Practicing law wasn’t fun anymore.” Mutton still keeps a hand in the law, however, with occasional shifts giving advice at family law information centres (funded by legal aid).
Finding a new position
Mutton has always enjoyed writing – she once wrote and delivered a farewell address for a judge’s retirement party in poetry. While still practicing, she took writing courses at her local community college on magazine and fiction writing and also penned a few articles. As a result, she says that transferring her focus from private practice to writing wasn’t too difficult, especially as her finances were in order. After deciding to change careers, it only took a month to shut the door on her law office. She joined a couple of writers’ associations that meet monthly for support, professional development and networking. Writing assignments from The Lawyers Weekly (she knew a contact there) and the National (she emailed the editor explaining that she was an available lawyer-turned-writer) soon followed.
Most valued legal skills
“The interviewing skills I gained as a lawyer have been really helpful. I can usually get the quotes I need within 15 minutes of being on the phone.”
Writers with legal backgrounds may earn anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000 a year. Government or corporate writing contracts tend to pay more than articles for non-legal publications. There’s usually little overhead, and freelancers can write off their home office expenses.
“I’m very happy, but I do miss the bar. We have a very collegial bar here, so I still go to law association meetings and arrange lunches with former colleagues.”
“Don’t romanticize your second career. Do your research and know what you’re getting into.”
There are several useful books dealing with career changes for lawyers:
- What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law by Deborah Arron.
- The Unhappy Lawyer by Monica Parker.
- Judgment Reversed: Alternative Careers for Lawyers by Jeffrey Strausser.
- The Lawyer’s Career Change Handbook: More than 300 Things You Can Do With a Law Degree by Hindi Greenberg.
- JD Preferred: 400+ Things You Can do With a Law Degree (Other Than Practice Law), published by Federal Reports, Inc.
- Alternative Careers for Lawyers by Hillary Mantis.
Also check out the following online articles:
List of non-traditional jobs for lawyers
Arbitrator or mediator
Buyer or procurement analyst
Commercial loan administrator
Continuing legal education instructor
Director of career services at a university or college
Employee benefits manager
Estate planning specialist
Executive director of a non-profit organization
Financial aid administrator
Immigration officer or consultant
Legal correspondent for a newspaper or
Legal technology consultant
Marketing or sales representative
Privacy law consultant
Property developer or manager
Special events or meeting/conference planner
Writer or journalist
List of transferable legal skills
The following legal skills identified on Life After Law are valued in non-traditional jobs for lawyers:
Ability to work independently
Attention to detail
Awareness of risk or liability
Dissemination of information
Identification of issues
Interpretation of documents
Synthesis of information