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March 26, 2009

Alternative Careers - The Basics

Much of this information was taken from Susan Gainen's presentation at the NALP Newcomer's Conference in Denver (Feb. 2009). Thanks, Susan!


What is an alternative career?
An alternative career is any job that does not follow the “traditional” path of the law school graduate in practicing law (and not just as litigators).

Non-traditional paths are positions such as in human resources, contracts administration, and strategic policy analysis.

REMEMBER:  True “alternative careers” for lawyers are other candidates’ traditional jobs.
Meaning: If you apply for a job as Human Resources Manager, there is probably someone else that has gone to school specifically for that type of job.

How do I apply for a position in the alternative career category?
Your strategy: The J.D. enhances your qualifications, but you do not necessarily put your “legal foot” forward. Meaning: When applying for the job, read the job description carefully. What are they looking for? Your resume and cover letter should be written in response to that particular job posting.
What do resumes look like in your field of interest? A legal resume with education first may not be appropriate to your target sector. Resources: career centers and websites for your target sector.
Fix for cover letters:  A traditional legal cover letter may be completely inappropriate for your target employers. No one cares that you are a great litigator—they want to know what you know about them and what you can do for their problems.
Look at the job description: Jobs other than those for “law firm associate” generally have useful and complete job descriptions. Every word counts and every word should be reflected in the cover letter and resume.

Example: When I applied for position of Director of Career Services, I did not possess any experience in career services. But, I did have several of the qualities they were looking for in a candidate. Here are a few excerpts from the job posting:
Excellent communication and interpersonal skills, excellent computer skills, and experience in database and website management.
Among the person’s duties will be development of career services programs and materials, counseling students and graduates regarding career development, and representing the College of Law in relations with prospective employers and NALP (National Association in Law Placement).

The first thing I did was Google “NALP” – If you are not familiar with something in the job description, do as much research as possible because the employer will bring it up.

Second, in writing my cover letter, I gave examples of times when I had organized events and served as a representative of my employer or school.

Third, in writing my resume, I listed my places of employment, but I did not list every little thing that I did in a legal capacity—I did not “put my legal foot forward”—rather, I included items that were relevant to the job description and responsibilities. I listed out my experience with Excel, creating personal web pages, and other database experience. You should always address everything in the job posting.

Exercise humility: Do not automatically assume that having a J.D. entitles you to the job over other candidates.

Challenges of looking for an alternative career:
There is no OCI for alternative careers. Meaning, if a bank is looking for a trust officer, they are not going to go to the local law school to set up on-campus interviews. As far as looking for a job, OCI is the most visual, which means you see your classmates dressed up in suits going in for interviews. You see employers coming to campus. With an alternative career, that is not going to happen. You have to go to where the jobs are.

Where are the jobs?
Use purposeful and serendipitous networking.
Educate yourself. Learn the literature of the sector that interests you.
Not interested enough to do basic research? – You won’t be interesting to target employers.
Look at websites like Monster.com and look in your local newspaper. A recent graduate saw an ad in the paper for a position opening at a bank. She applied for it, and got it. It was not an attorney position, but her law school education enhanced her qualifications for the position. Go to career fairs.

Illuminating Questions:
When did you decide to go to law school? How did you make that decision?
When did you decide to be a lawyer? How did you make that decision?
What would you be doing if you did not come to law school?
The single worst reason to go to law school: “You should go to law school because you are good at arguing.”

Learn to Deflect.
“Why aren’t you practicing law?”
Whose permission do you need?

If you want a copy of this handout in Word, please contact Anetra Parks at [email protected].

Anetra Parks

Director, Legal Career Services

University of Wyoming College of Law

March 26, 2009 in Career Exploration, Alternative Careers | Permalink


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