4 Tips for a Non-Traditional Legal Career
Hannah Samendinger | January 08, 2018
As General Counsel & Product Manager at Alt Legal, I really have an alternative legal career. I’m a lawyer. I review and draft all of our company’s legal work. I wear some variation of a Canadian tuxedo to work almost every day. I do customer support. I blog. I am the Product Manager, so I maintain the legal research to keep our platform running smoothly and find ways to use technology to solve legal problems. I host a podcast. I write a newsletter. I even order more Doritos when our office stash is low.
If you like rising to unique challenges, working on a wide variety of issues, and taking the lead on projects, I’d highly recommend the non-traditional path. But, law schools don’t do much to foster these kinds of careers, so I wanted to provide some guidance to students seeking careers outside of law firms and other traditional legal workplaces.
- Talk outside the box. Your network is the best way to get where you are trying to go, so you need to get out there and talk to people. I will admit that I hated hearing this advice as a law student. I have social anxiety and nothing can make me break out in a sweat faster than being thrown into a room full of strangers. But, eventually, I found that not only were a lot of the lawyers in the room feeling the same way but that they were happy to talk. This is especially true when you weren’t just desperately trying to ask them for their card. I also realized that networking over a glass of wine isn’t the only way to meet people. Twitter is a great resource for mingling with attorneys. Offering to write guest blog posts is also an effective way to connect while demonstrating your knowledge.
- Listen to the advice people give you (or don’t). Obviously, you should engage in active listening and ask meaningful questions when you meet new people. These questions should go beyond what their job title is and where they are from. Ask them for advice as well. But don’t let their advice define the boundaries of your opportunities. The great thing about advice is just that- it’s an insightful recommendation, not a rule. Even if you choose to ignore every piece of advice given to you, get a lot of it and from people who you may not initially think to ask. I spoke to some professors and staff at my law school but I also spoke to an 88-year-old man I worked for, my friends in other industries, and a fair number of people disillusioned with the legal field. In the end, I followed some of their advice and ignored others altogether, but those conversations help me carve out what I want from a career.
- Don’t take law school too seriously and make time for the things that interest you. Remember when I said to talk to people? You don’t just have to get dressed up in your business casual attire and go to lawyer meetups. You should go to the types of events and talk to the types of people who interest you. Chances are lawyers or people who know lawyers will be there too. Even if you don’t meet a lawyer at those events, you’ll likely start encountering issues facing the industry that you might not have known about. So what does this mean practically? You should skip a class to go the meet and greet at a film fest. You should start a public access tv show. You should buy a new video game and play it all day Saturday. You should talk to your tattoo artist about their work. You should read some articles about how the company that makes your edibles is able to rip off the name of a major brand.Being a person who cares about the industry they work for really stands out. Check out this interview I did with Ryan Morrison, the video game attorney. Ryan speaks the language of his clients. His clients know him, trust him, and don’t see him as a scary lawyer who is just trying to take their money for drafting unnecessary paperwork. Make time for the things that you love and that make you interesting. This will make you a better lawyer.
- Be flexible and be honest. As a person writing this from a desk covered in 7 sticky notes, each with different subsets of tasks and schedules, flexibility does not come naturally to me. I live for plans, lists, and reminders. But being flexible in your career trajectory can open all sorts of doors you might not have known existed. Look for jobs at companies you wouldn’t ordinary pursue. Apply for jobs that don’t have the exact title you want. Think about being a lawyer plus [insert non-legal interest here].
When you land a job, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know how to do something. Sometimes our competitive workplace culture pressures you to know everything and conflates lack of experience with lack of ability. There is no reason you, or anyone else, should know everything. There is certainly no reason that a law student should be any sort of expert. If you are, then my advice is to drop out and save yourself some money. Rather than claim that you know something you may not, use that opportunity to prove yourself. You may not know but demonstrating that you are willing to learn and can take that on independently is just as, if not more, impressive. At least it is to me and this is my advice, so my rules.
Hopefully at least some of this advice can be helpful to you, even if you ultimately ignore it. There is no one size fits all formula to succeeding at law school or after but, as corny as it sounds, staying true to yourself and what feels right for you, even when it isn’t what everyone else is doing, will pay off in big ways. Good luck out there!