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Time to Take That Unsexy Job?

Vivia Chen

July 7, 2010

Fotolia_4074857_XS Last week, legal headhunter Katherine Frink-Hamlett wrote an article about alternative careers for out-of-work lawyers that stuck a nerve in the legal community. Her article in the New York Law Journal wasn't revolutionary--she suggested that the jobless consider careers in procurement, compliance, and law firm administration--but it was practical and awfully sobering.

Implicit in Frink-Hamlett's piece was a message that many didn't want to hear: Stop dreaming about that associate or junior lawyer position and get a job--any job--where your law degree might be an asset, so that you can start paying off those law school loans. "No one wants to say that some jobs just aren't coming back," she said in our phone conversation. 

Why did Frink-Hamlett focus on those three fields for lawyers to consider? She explained that procurement (managing the way a corporation purchases service and goods) and compliance (overseeing a company's compliance with local and federal rules and regulations) keeps aspiring lawyers in the legal waters--though you don't need a legal background to do those jobs. "Procurement is essentially contract work," she says. "Compliance used to be the bottom of the legal food chain, but in recent years, it's a necessity [for advancement in a corporation]."

Of the three fields, administrative work in a law firm, such as human resources, recruiting, or marketing, might not help your legal career. "But if you have an employment law background, it will help you get a human resources job," says Frink-Hamlett.

I asked why Frink-Hamlett omitted another obvious alternative: paralegal. But she says firms have no interest in people with law degrees for those positions. "We've been told by big firms, 'No attorneys [for paralegal spots].'" The reason, she adds, is that it's awkward to have someone who just spent over $100,000 on their legal education working in the same pit with a recent college grad.

The careers that Frink-Hamlett suggested are pretty dull, I hate to say. Stamping procurement contracts, sorting out tedious compliance rules, and working in human resources in a law firm all sound somewhat mind-numbing. Of course, being a junior associate at a law firm can be dreary too. The difference is that dreariness at $160,000 a year is more palatable than at $42,000-$50,000 a year, the starting pay for each of the three jobs.

Still, there's no question that Frink-Hamlett is onto something--that recent law grads have to be flexible and realistic. And, I wondered, shouldn't law school career placement offices use more imagination in what they propose as career options? 

The conflict, says Frink-Hamlett, is that law schools have a brand to protect, and the brand becomes compromised when graduates can't land legal jobs: "Law schools have to be careful not to dilute the value of their law degree." 

But what's the brand worth when law students aren't getting jobs anyway?

Are law schools now advising students about nontraditional legal careers? Should they be? We'll try to find out. Let us know if you hear anything in the meantime.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Renee Jansoa / Fotolia


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Your assessment is spot on. When I graduated from law school 5 years
ago, I was under the impression that all my career uncertainties would
suddenly come to an abrupt halt - FALSE! Instead, I am now saddled with
an insane amount of debt without the salary to afford reasonable
repayment terms. While this is likely partially due to my failure to
pass the bar exam (three times) even when I was searching for law jobs,
the market was oversaturated and interviews were often a huge waste of
time. The biggest waste was dealing with recruiters (specifically Robert
Half) who are typically disinterested in the bottom rung attorney as
opposed to the big fish who magically have 5 years experience and a
traveling book of business.

I suggest another possibility for alternative employment that you did
not mention in your article - litigation support. Electronic discovery
is booming right now and a career in project management/litigation
consulting could offer another avenue to employment for the technically
savvy law school grad. More people need to be made aware that a
law school diploma doesn't guarantee legal employment - it only
guarantees a mountain of debt.

I can't speak for corporate America, but procurement and compliance in the public sector can be extremely challenging despite the low pay. An entire branch of consulting exists to help companies bid for government contracts. There are pay-to-play lobbying restrictions, campaign finance laws, open bidding laws, freedom of information laws, affirmative action incentives, buy-American/local sourcing regulations, plus whatever pet politics some local official wants to toss around. I would say that if you can get government contracting work, either on the government or contractor side, that leads to upper management or consulting, your law degree isn't a total waste and you might actually end up practicing law at some point.

Great post Vivia. Time for discussion. The schools always worry about brand dilution--now's a time to truly panic.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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