Second-career lawyers: your experience can give you the edge

  • October 16, 2008
  • Michelle Mann

Allyson Jeffs, a civil litigation lawyer with Ackroyd LLP in Edmonton, used to be a reporter for both the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, covering the courts and the legislature. “I had more of a baseline legal knowledge as a lay person than a lot of colleagues,” she recalls. “As a journalist, you meet people from all walks of life, and you can absorb and summarize a lot of information in a deadline situation.” Being a writer, too, “really helped.”

Clayton Bangsund, a lawyer with Layh & Associates in Langenburg, Saskatchewan, didn’t anticipate that his experience as a high school math teacher would benefit him much in law – but it did. “Teaching is about simplifying complicated matters and communicating to students in an accessible way, which is very transferable for explaining complicated issues to clients, and for oral advocacy,” he says.

Alhough statistics are difficult to come by, it’s clear that the legal profession is welcoming increasing numbers of second-career lawyers – from journalists to businesspeople, from teachers to health professionals.

And for those starting anew in law, a number of questions demand reflection: is my early experience attractive to prospective law firms. How do my skills set me apart, and what would employers value most about my pre-law experience? Ultimately, the success of those who adapt quickly to law comes, in part, from their ability to recognize and tap into their pre-law experience and skills.

Carol Fitzwilliam, founder of Fitzwilliam Legal Recruitment in Montreal, says some second-career lawyers impress employers with their maturity and work ethic. Others gain an edge by being able to demonstrate that their first career gave them industry smarts or working knowledge that relate directly to the practice area that interests them. “We represented a qualified pharmacist who, within minutes of being qualified as a lawyer, was snapped up by pharmaceutical company,” Fitzwilliam says.

And when the hoped-for practice area has no obvious tie-in with the candidate’s work experience? In those cases, says Christian Petersen, a partner responsible for student recruitment at Vancouver’s Bull, Housser & Tupper LLP, “it is important to emphasize some of the experiences that would be useful to a legal career, such as a business or deadline-intensive environment.” The nature of the candidate’s work history also merits consideration. “Frankly, if a candidate spent less than six months at five different jobs, they would be evaluated differently than someone who had a successful career with one respected employer.”

Most important of all, pre-law career experience should reveal some of the personal attributes prized by the legal profession. “Whether you were a professional cellist or geological engineer, we are looking for the qualities required to excel. We look for something that shows a strong work ethic, dedication and commitment,” says Peterson.

“Ultimately, prior work experience is evaluated the same as any other previous experience – do these characteristics make a good lawyer for the firm?”

Bangsund taught math at an Edmonton high school for one year before entering law school, attracted by the “intellectual rigours” it promised. He’s now a specialist in debtor/creditor law with Layh & Associates. “I was most gifted in math growing up, and the area of law that I ended up going into is sequential, logical, and codified,” he explains. “Math is about applying principles, and secured transactions are very analytical in this sense. I found that my skill set from before has shaped the type of law I am interested in.

“I stressed my desire to learn something more, that I was not running away from another profession,” Bangsund recalls. “I haven’t turned the page on teaching. I haven’t said, ‘that's in the past’ – I have included it in my skill set.”

Having the confidence to leverage that first career as an asset in law is paramount, says Jeffs. When she wrote the LSAT a few years ago, it was the first exam she’d taken in 15 years. “Some journalism colleagues thought it was risky to leave journalism for law, but it was a manageable risk – and rewards really pay off,” she says.

“For me, it was a matter of not being afraid of being older, of stressing experience and confidence – and bringing that to the table. Law is a career that you can age in. Clients draw confidence from a bit of age and experience.”

Bangsund believes an increasing number of young lawyers entering the profession today bring significant experience from other fields, and law firms are reaping the benefits. “Many law students come out now with previous careers, and firms appreciate the maturity built up.”

Fitzwilliam concurs. “In the current business environment, we are going to see fewer and fewer people with linear careers. So those who have a career path uniquely their own will not in fact be prejudiced, but enhanced, if they learn how to present the skills and knowledge that is acquired and transferable from one career to another,” she says.

But how exactly to leverage one’s pre-law skills and experience is a skill no law school can really teach. “It is incumbent on the candidate to spend some time reflecting on their past experience on what is transferable.”

Michelle Mann is a freelance writer.