Career Corner: March-April 2004

March 31, 2004

I'm a lawyer who's never "taken" to the legal profession. Can I look forward to other career options?

A quick survey of the lawyers who returned for Duke's first Career Week last year demonstrates that Duke graduates do many things other than working for law firms. Just from this sampling, there was a senior attorney for the Pennsylvania Coalition against Domestic Violence, a vice president of Northrop Grumman, an interim executive director of the North Carolina Human Relations Commission, the assistant legal counsel for the North Carolina School Boards Association, a workers' compensation judge--and our own Sue Wasiolek, the assistant vice president for student affairs.

What your question does not tell me is whether you've "gone off" the law entirely, or simply don't want to work in a law firm, where you have to bill in excess of 2,000 hours a year and never see your family. A couple of our Career Week sample decided to compromise by founding their own firms!

Let's assume, however, that simply thinking about having the word "lawyer" or "attorney" in your title (or, for that matter, partner or judge) makes you break out in hives. Are there other options? Absolutely. By definition, you're smart, you know how to think and reason, and you can write well. The trick now is to persuade someone to hire you and pay you enough to satisfy the student-loan collectors or mortgage company.

Lawyers who are looking for jobs outside the law often believe that they can do anything, if only given a chance. They also tend to look for salaries equivalent to those they would have made in private practice. Here's where you may have to eat some humble pie. To get your foot in the door, you must plead your case to an employer that you can do the job they need to have done. Sometimes, that means you'll be promoting skills, such as your marketing ability, that require far fewer brain cells than your legal studies.

You may also have to consider a salary substantially lower than your peers in the legal world. Ultimately, your educational background may help you do your work better or more efficiently--and many law-trained graduates reach the pinnacles of industry--but there's no guarantee that you'll move ahead more quickly than your peers with bachelor's degrees or M.B.A.s. The good news is that if you really don't want to be a lawyer, you'll be much happier in your chosen profession.