10 Ways to Use a Law Degree
November 21, 2018
10 Ways to Use a Law Degree
Many students set off toward their legal education thinking of it as a “default” next step in life. They have heard for decades from their parents, television, and society at large that they should become a doctor, lawyer, or banker. For an ambitious person who has progressed past the laudable “I want to be a superhero” dream, reality sets. Many talented individuals end up either working in finance/consulting, getting a law degree, or going to medical school.
While a law degree is incredibly versatile because of the skills it helps you develop, I still caution people not to jump into law school without really wanting to practice law (unless they have a very specific reason to do so).
Because there are many different legal careers, we’re going to split this blog into five “traditional” uses and five “non-traditional” uses of a law degree after graduation.
1. In-House Counsel
Often, this career path is not available until you have spent some time practicing law either at a law firm or as a solo practitioner. These types of “lateral” opportunities usually present themselves as a result of relationships you build with clients or through a headhunter.
Law firms have all sorts of programs to encourage this because it helps cement their bonds with a particular company. For instance, you might do a “secondment” at Goldman Sachs’ legal department (in which you are still paid by the firm, but do your day-to-day work at Goldman Sachs). In-house counsel roles usually involve risk management and compliance, advising senior management, and sometimes pitching in on business strategy.
2. Government Lawyer
There are tons of different roles for government lawyers on the international, federal, state, and local level. There are the more visible jobs like district attorneys, state attorneys, and public defenders, but also positions that revolve around handling agency work, dealing with real estate transactions, and re-writing or drafting agency rules that serve as quasi-laws. Many law schools offer loan forgiveness and other incentives for students who go into public service!
3. Nonprofit Work
Public interest organizations and nonprofits are some of the biggest employers of lawyers. In these roles, law graduates can perform a variety of functions, with fundraising, lobbying, writing and filing amicus briefs, and intervening in litigation as just a few of the potential responsibilities. These lawyers can be architects of strategies for activism and promoting the organization’s goals.
4. Working at a Law Firm
Often, the most common and coveted route out of law school is working at a large firm. Many want to try to grind it out and gun for a partner position, while others strive to gain some top-level professional experience before moving to one of the other positions on this list. For a lot of law school graduates, experience at a big firm can serve as a jumping off point for future endeavors.
Many people go to law school because they appreciate the flexibility of the degree and have at some point imagined themselves in a political career. While many prominent politicians have attended law school, there are a lot of other roles that aren’t in the limelight for a politically-bent individual. For example, you can work in drafting legislation, agency rules, and dozens of other areas. Maybe you’re a West Wing fan and see yourself as a Josh Lyman style political operative!
You will need to have a good grasp of the underlying skills you’ve acquired over the course of your legal education. It is likely that you will learn how to digest large volumes of material, think and write analytically, and develop strategies to achieve a desired outcome. These abilities are widely applicable to a variety of career trajectories, so you should reflect on why you need a law degree for your goals. Here are some non-traditional uses of a law degree to keep in mind as you consider applying for law school:
6. Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
There are various methods of Alternative Dispute Resolution that have been popularized over the past decade. You can become a mediator, arbitrator, conflict resolution specialist, and a whole host of jobs that help parties work toward less litigious resolutions to their problems.
7. Finance and Consulting
While this category is broad, it’s clear that many law graduates go on to work in some field of finance or consulting. Firms in these areas are attracted to law students because of their sharp analytical skills. Certain groups within a bank, such as Bankruptcy and Restructuring, might particularly benefit from hiring someone with some legal training.
The problem is that there are very few entry level jobs for someone with a legal education at these firms. Some companies split the difference by paying a law graduate the same amount they would have paid an analyst who had been working at the firm for a few years post-college. But for many of these positions, you’d be taking a job with compensation and responsibilities similar to those of a fresh college graduate. In that case, it can be tough to justify spending upwards of $200,000 on law school to end up in the same position you would have if you had just taken a job like that to begin with. But in the long run, being in the finance realm with a law degree might the combination for you!
Students who are attracted to law school often have book-wormish characteristics, so academia can be a natural fit. Many of the topics you encounter in law school span so many disciplines that you couldn’t possibly hope to replicate that level of breadth and depth in practice. I’ve seen plenty of law school graduates go for combined degrees (JD/PhDs), SJDs, LLMs, and/or go on to conduct research in another teaching role. There are also tons of private research positions at various foundations and schools that law graduates could pursue as well. For those who want to keep studying—academia could be the perfect fit.
Tight deadlines, weird hours? Check those boxes off! The skills you learn in law school to research and digest complex volumes of information are directly applicable to a career in journalism. As someone with a legal education, you’ll have better insight into the legislative process, politics, and many other aspects of hot topics you might end up writing about. There are some terrific legal journalists out there like Jeffrey Toobin—you could be the next star reporter!
Often, the study of law requires analyzing things that business and individuals got wrong. While that’s not quite a glass-half-full view of things, you’ll have a much better idea of not only the pitfalls that business owners face along the way, but also have insight into business entity creation, tax strategy, hiring practice, and other elements of business strategy.
Many law schools partner with business schools and other graduate programs at their universities to encourage entrepreneurship. In fact, Harvard Law School’s former Dean—Martha Minow—chaired the board of the Harvard Innovation Lab at one point. Your work ethic will certainly serve you well in an entrepreneurial setting, but you’ll need to get over the characteristic risk-aversion that many lawyers have if you’re to succeed as an entrepreneur!
This list is by no means exhaustive, as there are dozens and dozens more careers that law graduates pursue. I hope this blog gives you ideas about where a law degree could take you next.