Law schools like to tell students they can do anything with a law degree, but can they? Many head to law school and think that it’s still a valuable education for all sorts of future career opportunities, but is it? Facing sky-high tuition and a tight job market, it’s never too early to think about the type of career you’re planning and whether a law degree really fits your career goals. We talk to law grads with diverse careers, who aren’t practicing law, about whether and how they use their legal training in their work. A lead admissions consultant shares school selection strategies that will help you answer these questions.
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- Janice Johnston, Coordinating Producer, ABC News Magazines and Specials
- Raquiba LaBrie, Director, The Equality and Opportunity Fund, The Open Society Foundations
- Bernard Fulton, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations, Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Andrea Kilpatrick, Founder/President, Cool Kids Learn & Director of Law Admissions, Admit Advantage
- Wendy Siegel, Director of Recruitment and Marketing, Office of Career Services, NYU School of Law
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi. Not everyone who goes to law school wants to practice law. But what are the benefits of a legal education for those who hold a JD, and pursue nontraditional careers? How do they succeed at parlaying their skills into alternative careers? What are the challenges and advantages? Given the sky-high tuition and the tight job market, it’s never too early to think about the career you’re planning, and whether a law degree really fits your career goals.
In this segment we speak with law grads with diverse occupations, but who are not practicing law, to get their insight. Janice Johnston is the Coordinating Producer for ABC News Magazines and Specials. Raquiba LaBrie is the Director of The Equality and Opportunity Fund at the Open Society Foundations. Bernard Fulton is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And Andrea Kilpatrick is Admit Advantage’s Director of Law Admissions, and the Founder and President of Cool Kids Learn. We also talk to Wendy Siegel, Director of Recruitment and Marketing in the Office of Career Services at NYU School of Law. Together, they share how they pursued somewhat different paths with their law degree, and impart advice to those who are considering alternate careers.
“We always have a small contingent of students who come here knowing that they do not want to enter the traditional practice of law. They want to do something different, and they know that the law degree will help boost their career and provide them with the necessary tools to succeed in another arena. So there are a few who know that they want to do that, either for the short term or the long term. Most of our students do enter the practice of law, but there are a few sort of ‘renegades’ who come here and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to network like crazy, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to not practice law, upon graduation. But I know that the JD will be incredibly valuable to me, whatever I do.’”
That’s Wendy Siegel, Director of Recruitment and Marketing in the Office of Career Services at NYU School of Law. So, if there are students who already know they don’t want a traditional law career, why choose law school? For Andrea Kilpatrick, Admit Advantage’s Director of Law Admissions, and the Founder and President of Cool Kids Learn, she had a clear vision for wanting to work in education. “I decided to go to law school after thinking about it for a long time, because I actually applied to law schools and grad schools. I was interested in education, and actually, my dream when I was in college was to start a school in an inner-city community. And I had to decide what further education I was going to take that would best prepare me to meet that goal. And I decided on law school because I realized that my motivation and my interest in education was really about fairness, and fairness in educational opportunity, which had this very strong legal component. So that’s what I thought, that law school would be the best fit for me.”
Janice Johnston, the Coordinating Producer for ABC News Magazines and Specials, did not plan to practice law, though she was open to it. “I decided to go to law school to either work in television or work on the Hill. And I never intended to practice. I actually thought having a law degree would help differentiate me, either in television or in government – both places where people have law degrees. And so that was really why I decided to go to law school.”
But not everyone who chooses law school has a clear vision of where they’re headed career-wise. Bernard Fulton, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was unsure. “The short answer is I didn’t have anything better to do. Now, I have to preface that by saying that I grew up as a kid always realizing, always understanding, that I wanted to be a lawyer, but not really understanding what being a lawyer entails. As I got older, I got a better sense of that, including working as a claims administrator in an insurance company. And it did not thrill me at all. Unfortunately, my preparation for life after college didn’t keep up with my understanding of what a law career would be. And so, by the time I got to the end of my undergrad career, I applied for law school largely because I really didn’t have any other options that were nearly as exciting as a potential law career.”
Likewise, Raquiba LaBrie, the Director of The Equality and Opportunity Fund at the Open Society Foundations, chose law school by default. “Oh, I went to law school by default. Before law school, I actually was interested in becoming a filmmaker, and I had an internship between my junior and senior years in college, and I worked with this husband and wife team that produced afterschool television specials. And they persuaded me that the television and film production business was a hard business to break into; and I should go to law school because a lot of producers have JDs and I would at least have a profession to fall back on. So, over the summer before my senior year, I began to study for the LSAT, and then went ahead and applied.”
While it’s best to have some career goals in mind for a focused path before, during, and post-law school, the reality is not everyone is steadfast in the direction they want their careers to take. LaBrie, who went to Harvard, admits she didn’t have a clear vision of her career path, though her law career did lead to where she is today. “I got into law school, and I was ambivalent. And so I deferred my admission for a year and decided to explore teaching. And I was a public school teacher at what they called an ‘intermediate school’ in Oakland, California; it was grades four through six. And I thought I’d use that year to see whether teaching spoke to me, or some other pursuit spoke to me, and I must confess I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a grade school teacher, and nothing else spoke to me.
“So I went to law school and I began to think, Well, maybe I could be a children’s rights advocate. And I must say, I got a little deflated because I had never studied so hard as I did in my first semester of law school, and I got pretty much straight B’s, and I was despondent for a bit. And then I began to wander through my law school experience. I didn’t… I took a lot of different classes that didn’t really relate to each other, and I also became acutely aware of the debt I was amassing. So, like many, I decided to go to a corporate law firm, and summered at one bigger firm, and ended up at a more of a midsized law firm in New York that had a practice, and continues to have a practice, devoted to representing tax-exempt organizations. So I represented the full range of 501(c)(3) nonprofits, from public charities to private foundations and social welfare organizations.”
Similarly, Fulton, who went to UCLA, realized while in law school that he did not want to practice law. “I immediately started thinking of alternative things I could get into. But law school is such a grind in and of itself, but the pressure to be a lawyer is so intense, you don’t really get an opportunity to pursue those other things. And so I found myself going through law school and not really seriously thinking about what I would do next until after I finished my degree.”
For those who are unsure what they want to focus on while in law school, NYU’s Siegel has these suggestions: “We might try to narrow the field a little bit, and try to find out what the student does not like, so that we could focus on a few things that they do like. We maintain a whole, you know, binder and spreadsheets on our alumni, the alumni who are doing alternative careers. So we have hundreds of alumni who are doing things in every different arena, and many at the top of their game in Hollywood, in the sports world, in healthcare, in consulting, and in technology. So we have people doing everything under the sun. We have journalists… So what we try to do is throw out some ideas, you know, ‘Here’s what some of our graduates are doing…does that sound interesting?’ And then we would try to connect them with those alumni, and have them talk to each other and share information about, you know, how this alum got to where they are today, what steps they took, what kind of career strategy they had, to get to this place, and what they might advise a young law student to do – in terms of coursework, in involvement, in internships, and all that kind of good stuff. So that’s… that’s a starting point.
“And then we continue that conversation, and before you know it, the students have to make a decision as to where they want to work their 1L summer, so you’re already ruling things out, and trying to find your place. So we advise students to look to that 1L summer as a time where you can gain some experience and exposure to an area that you’re interested in, but maybe not a hundred percent sure about. So a lot of our students will do that and, you know, work in-house, let’s say, at a financial company or at one of the… in one of the industries that I mentioned earlier, and gain some exposure to that field and find out, again, if the interest really is there.
“And then, you know, you just continue the conversation, continue the networking, go to one… you know, every night there’s multiple events going on, on the NYU campus. We urge those students to attend those events, attend a symposium, or a panel, or a program, become part of mentor networks, and just get out there and talk to people and have those conversations. And we find that to be the most useful thing of all, in terms of identifying your niche, and your area of interest, and where your talent might lie.”
Kilpatrick went to Harvard, and because she had an interest in education, she explored those interests while in law school. “During law school, I was able to actually cross-register for a number of classes at the School of Education, because I went to Harvard Law School, and there’s a Graduate School of Education there, and you can take quite a number of elective courses in the Ed. School. So while I was in law school I was definitely still pursuing my interest in education at the same time. But having been in law school for a few years, I developed additional interests in criminal law, criminal defense law, as well as civil rights law, and you know, corporate law. So, things that I never particularly thought I would be interested in, but yeah, it was a great experience that exposed me to various different types of legal study and practice. And I’d say that my interests just expanded, from what I’d originally come to the school with.”
While at UVA, Johnston’s focus on television and wanting to work on the Hill remained. “My focus of either being on the Hill or being on television didn’t really change while I was in law school. The first summer of law school I worked for Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, to sort of test out working on the Hill. And the second summer, I ended up working at a firm in New York, mostly because I realized, well, I’m saying I don’t want to work in a firm, and I really have never done that, so I should really try it out and test it before I make up my mind. So I didn’t really change from my original open pattern of which… what I was going to do. But I did let myself be open to working at a firm, which is, in the end, what I did immediately after.”
Johnston, Kilpatrick, and LaBrie all practiced law, either during or after law school. However, Fulton did not. He says he knew two weeks into law school that he wanted to find an alternative career, but that his search for that began in earnest after graduation. So, was it worth it? Could he have become a lobbyist without a JD? “Yes, I probably could have done it, had my career without a legal education. There are a lot of lawyers in my field, but there are a lot of non-lawyers in my field, which is kind of odd, since we’re basically in the business of writing law; you would think lawyers are the only ones qualified, but that’s not true.
“I don’t know if I would have gone to law school knowing what I know now. I met a lot of good people; I got to see a part of the country I really wanted to see, and don’t know if I would have been able to see otherwise. But it’s a time-suck. It’s a money-suck. I was miserable in law school. I was afraid I was headed in the direction… my life was headed in a direction I absolutely didn’t think would be fulfilling enough, for the effort I was putting into it.
“That being said, I did get a lot of other things out of law school than just, you know, socially and life experiences. Legal writing requires a conciseness and a… that other academic writing just doesn’t require. You know, I feel like, you’re in college; you’re in grad school… You want to fill out that 10-page report, you want to fill out that 20-page report, you’re looking for as many different words as you can – where in the law it’s a lot different. Clients, judges, elected officials, they have very short attention spans. [Ronald Thomas] and Charlie Rangel of Harlem once remarked, ‘If it takes more than 10 seconds to say its argument, then you’ve already lost.’ And a legal career really… a legal training really helps you master that art.
“And then there’re legal processes. I said that it’s organic, how laws are made in Congress, in the state, and the city. To a certain extent, that’s true, but it’s still based on the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S.… how government has to work, what the law… Making law is one thing – what the law tells government to do is another. And in terms of the latter argument, a legal training is very good training for understanding that.”
As Siegel says, most law school graduates who pursue alternative careers do practice law first. But is that advisable? “You know, there are mixed feelings on that. If you ask 10 people, you might get 10 different opinions. And you know, I’ve heard… I’ve heard and I’ve spoken with a lot of alumni who have different opinions on this subject. I think the answer is, ‘It depends.’ It depends what you want to do, and it depends on you as a person, how much drive you have, how much you’re willing to go that extra mile and do that networking, and go on ‘the road less travelled’, let’s say. So when you want to embark on an alternative career, there aren’t a lot of people chasing you down, like a lot of the law firms that come here to NYU and recruit heavily on campus. They are looking for… for you, as a 2L, to hire you into their summer classes – lots of people looking for you.
“In the alternative arena, quite the opposite. There are not a lot of people who recruit for alternative careers at our… at our law school, and at other law schools. So it really depends on how creative you are, how outgoing you are, how personable; how willing you are to approach people who might have your dream job, and say to them, ‘Hey, how did you get this job? What are things I can be doing? How can I best position myself to find a position in this arena?’ And a lot of the advice that they get includes, you know, ‘the 1L summer is a great time to experiment and to try something different, and to see how you like it’. So a lot of people, let’s say, considering the financial world or hedge funds or investment banking, will aim to do that for their 1L summer. Not easy to get those jobs, but it has been done. Consulting can be an option, at a large place, a large global firm, or maybe a smaller place. We have students who worked their 1L summer in music and entertainment; or, you know, tech companies like Meetup and Facebook; a sports arena like the NFL and the NHL; and those places, you know, always seem to have an NYU student there, in their 1L summer. So you might want to aim for a term-time internship, as well, in the area of most interest, again, to continue that networking.
“You’d want to go out and meet the professors who might specialize in that area, and get to know them, either at the law school, or at other schools within the university. If you’re at a large university, you’re bound to find people who can help you in that networking. So, you know, there are numerous unlimited options out there for using a law degree. But for many, it’s more of a longer-term option, after you practice law.”
The job market is challenging, to be sure, whether you’re pursuing a legal career, or an alternative one, with a JD. It takes serious tenacity to transition from practicing law into other areas, says Johnston. “Really making the transformation from practicing law to being in television was a process that took, you know, a couple of years. Part of it was I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how what I was doing at the time translated into television. In other words, what skills did I have that I could sort of spin as viable television skills? And also, just doing research. You know, the jobs that are out there aren’t necessarily written down somewhere, nor are descriptions readily available.
“So I spent a lot of time talking to people, networking, which is an understatement for what I did. And going to journalists’ conventions; even though I, you know, at the time, was still practicing at a firm, I would go down to Washington and attend a journalists’ convention on the weekend. I took night classes at NYU to… just really survey classes in television, to learn a little bit more, and mostly to meet more people to network. And really went over my alumni directory – which at the time was not online, it was actually a book you had to buy – and made a master list of everyone in television, and then proceeded one by one to go through that list and to reach out to those people.
“So, it was quite a long process, very much research-oriented, very much, you know, with a hint of marketing to try to figure out what my spin was, what I had to offer. But the jobs that I wanted, and the transition that I wanted to make, is not something that was written down anywhere, or really easy to do.”
LaBrie echoes that sentiment. It took a lot of work to move from a law firm to her Foundations career. “It was very hard transitioning from a law firm to a private foundation because, one, the fact that I was a lawyer representing nonprofits was not perceived as the obvious prerequisite for me then going inside a foundation and making grants to various policy advocacy groups. And I would do cold calls; I would write letters just to organizations I was interested in, even if there wasn’t a vacancy, and I got lots of rejections or no responses whatsoever. And so it was also hard because I was working law firm hours, and at the same time trying to manage my search. And so it would go in waves; at times I’d be very aggressive about it, and then times I’d fall off completely. So it took me over a year before I found this job. It was not an easy haul.”
While all of our guests maintain that a law degree was not necessary to obtain the careers they have, they all say the skills they learned are useful for their positions. Says LaBrie, “In the job I do currently, we support a wide range of civil rights causes, and deal with legal defense funds, public interest legal organizations, and the lawyers who are either bringing cases to challenge unjust policies, or using other legal strategies to remedy injustice. And so, having a legal background is an asset because I’m dealing with lawyers quite regularly.”
Kilpatrick says having a law degree has been helpful in a number of ways for her work at Cool Kids Learn. “The biggest advantages to going to law school were in addition to, there is something to be said for having an understanding of the legal system in which we operate. So I think once you graduate from law school, you kind of take it for granted that you understand sort of what the fundamental nature of a contract is, what you can and cannot agree to, what kind of activities, you know, won’t give rise to liability on you or your organization’s part. And I think those kind of things are sort of second nature, when you graduate from law school.
“And they’re very helpful in whatever industry you’re in. So, for example, now I operate a nonprofit organization and, you know, there’s often a time when people will say, ‘Well, I think that we should… I think that we should have a program where the kids are being mentored by people from around the globe.’ And I will say, ‘Well, that’s great, but how are you going to make sure that you run the program so that you’re not exposing kids to any sort of unwanted interaction with adults? Because you know that’s going to be a problem.’ Or you know, if they say, ‘Let’s do a program where they all go to the ice-skating rink,’ I’ll say, ‘Well, you know, that’s kind of a dangerous activity, and are you prepared for, you know, making sure you have the right kind of insurance, because if something happens to a child we’ll be responsible for that?’ So there are sort of basic things like that.
“Or doing contracts for hiring a bus company, or hiring employees, or any of those kind of things come much more easily to someone, I think, who has gone to law school. It’s just sort of basic legal content that you learned, and it really applies in so many areas of life.”
And for Johnston, there are similarities to how she approaches producing stories to how a lawyer approaches a case. “I think the biggest advantages in the day-to-day are really the ability to think of both sides of the story. I mean, it sounds cliché, but it really is classic. It’s just like you have to imagine what opposing counsel might be planning or writing, or what questions they might ask. You really have to be able to put yourself on both sides of the story mentally, and make sure that you’re being fair. And I think that’s probably when it comes into play.”
There are experiential law school opportunities you should explore when seeking out a nontraditional career, which Siegel relates. Some of the things that you need to consider, to pursue an alternative career is, you know, can start with the basics – student groups. You know, there’re probably 50 or more student groups at any law school, and you’d want to make sure that you are signed on to the group that can most help you. If it’s intellectual property, and you want to do a startup or work in the sports world, then you join the I.P. group. You know, it’s pretty basic, so it would start with that.
“You’d want to try to get a leadership position, so that you, yourself, can organize different panels and programs, and network yourself, leverage that, that student group contact that you can make, to help advance your own career. So you’re making these amazing contacts on behalf of the law school, but they can also work for you personally. So I think that’s… that’s number one, the basics, the building blocks.
“Then, again, you’d want to look at summer opportunities. The 1L summer is definitely the time that you can be a little more loose in terms of what you do; you don’t have to commit to anything. So you’d want to line up something during the 1L summer that would position you well for whatever arena you’re most interested in. Again, as I mentioned, you’d want to meet professors and faculty at your law school or beyond, within the university. Take advantage of everything at the university at large that you can, depending on what school you’re at.
“And then, of course, the alumni network is your most valuable tool. You’ll want to find out how you can reach out to alumni. You’ll want to… you yourself should set up a LinkedIn account, at the very least, to get yourself up and networked, and running. And you can meet alumni that way, really easily. You can also meet people with whom you might have other connections, like your undergrad institution. Don’t forget that as a great network, as well. And then, you know, you can randomly reach out to anyone who, again, has your dream job, and someone you want to talk to; and you can really push hard and ask for a meeting. And then if you ever do get a meeting, the golden rule is, of course, to ask for three more names or contacts that you don’t have already, from the person with whom you’re meeting.”
You should also choose a school that matches your goals. In addition to Kilpatrick’s nonprofit, Cool Kids Learn, she’s also Director of Law Admissions at Admit Advantage, which provides one-on-one guidance for students going through the [law school] admissions process. She has this advice for students considering law school that want to pursue nontraditional careers: “Law school provides time and opportunity for people to explore multiple careers. So, you know, kind of… people who are law school students have two summers in which to experiment with different careers. For some people, they actually split one or both of their summers so that they get four opportunities to experience different careers. And I would just encourage people to really think about what possibilities they might want to look into during those summertimes. And then to also reach out during the school year to really get involved in activities that you think might help you select what it is that you’re thinking about doing, once you graduate.
“Because it’s just a great sort of freebie time, when you get to test out a whole bunch of different waters, before you graduate and you have to sort of pick a path and start down it. That being said, I know lots of people who graduated from law school, went in one direction, and then changed paths. And it didn’t kill them. They could do it. You know, it takes a little perseverance, but they found out that their law degree was more flexible than some people had probably told them it was.”
Law school takes serious commitment, and the cost is not to be taken lightly. Molding a career in a nontraditional field requires just as much passion. With the right approach, pursuing a JD can play an important part in the process, says Siegel. “This is three long years, and you need to enjoy and embrace and, you know, dive in, and be part of the process. If you’re not willing to do that, and you just want the degree for the heck of it, then there’s no point. So, I think that you have to have some affinity with what goes on in a law school, and take part in that, even if you’re pursuing an alternative career. And we all know that law schools are expensive, and that a lot of students graduate with quite a bit of debt. And that’s something that, you know, a lot of very careful financial planning has to be part of the equation.”
Law school tuition is high, and graduating takes commitment and passion for the work. If you choose your school wisely, it can provide you with a base that can translate into myriad fields. Take advantage of networking and other experiential opportunities a law school provides, and it’s possible to parlay what you learn into a rewarding career, whether in the legal world, or outside of it. For more information, a transcript of this show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit LawSchoolPodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster; I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned next time, when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process, and beyond.