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April 16, 2009 4:30 PM

The Job Hunt: Putting a J.D. to Use Outside the Law

Posted by Rachel Breitman

It's no wonder, given the hits the legal profession has taken, that lawyers (and law students) are considering alternative careers. But what can you do with a law degree if you don't want to be a lawyer? And, more importantly, how do you put that J.D. to use to land a non-legal job?

Those were the questions addressed by a panel of former lawyers at a Tuesday event, Non-Traditional Careers for Attorneys, organized by the New York City Bar association. About 150 law students, junior associates, and recently unemployed lawyers attended to hear the advice dispensed by a Cravath associate-turned school founder and a litigator-turned legal recruiter, among others.

A few key points emerged from the event's four featured speakers. For example, even in a tough economy, a law degree opens doors to careers in a variety of industries.

"It's an entry pass into places you wouldn't be able to get access to, and [the] skills set [is one] you can repeat across job fields," said Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II, a former corporate associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Id-Din left the firm after three years and later launched a nonprofit that develops inner city charter schools. "My corporate law practice gave me the foundation to start my own school," he said. The analytical and decision-making skills he developed as an associate have proven very useful in running his business. 

Also, the panelists emphasized, a re-worked resume is in order if you're sure you want to leave the law behind--the document must highlight non-legal experiences. "Make sure you have things on your resume other than a law degree, like hobbies, summer jobs, interests, and club memberships," said Jeff Googel, an agent at the William Morris Agency. (Googel went directly into William Morris's trainee program after receiving a dual law/business degree from the University of Connecticut in 1998.) He recalled one former lawyer who landed a job at William Morris because her resume included a college job she'd held working in movie theaters--to those reviewing the resume, the job demonstrated the candidate's interest in film.

If you're not sure what a resume for a non-legal job should include, career consultant Hillary Mantis suggests getting your hands on a few resumes from people who work in the field you're interested in. Mantis, a Boston College Law School grad and the author of Alternative Careers for Lawyers, noted that using industry buzzwords in a cover letter and on the C.V. will help. And, she said, don't forget about networking; it can be more important than filling out job applications.

"Keep in mind that networking can be even more successful for opening doors," she said. Some of the ways to build and expand a professional network: attend trade shows; join professional networking groups; and reach out to friends, family, classmates, college and graduate school alumni, and acquaintances. 

Many questions were raised. A couple of attendees asked about the need for additional training and education in switching careers. That probably can't hurt, the panelists agreed, but it's an investment of time and money that might not be necessary for certain jobs. And, especially for jobs related to law--legal recruiters, legal writers, or educators--there's no need to go back to school.

Some optimistic notes were raised, like the suggestion by the panelists to consider careers in fields that are growing and resilient, like healthcare and education. Still, many in the audience expressed the fear that the economy has severely limited their choices, whether inside or outside the law.

"I tried to volunteer at the Brooklyn D.A.'s office, but they already ha[ve] a long waiting list of people who want to work for free," said Zil Huma, who recently was laid off from a legal position at a hedge fund (she started the job out of law school in 2007). Huma will consider doing transactional work at a law firm, inhouse, or at a nonprofit, but that hasn't made her search any easier. "There are just too many lawyers and too few jobs right now," she said.

Louisa Chan, a 2008 of St. John's Law School, voiced frustration at being unable to find any job. "I am open to anything," she said. Still, despite her mounting debt, she was heartened by the panelists' views on the marketability of her law degree. "I still don't regret going to law school," she said.

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be sure to tell the former marketing major interviewing you that you had a number of slow friends in college who were business majors too

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