A Rise in Alternative Careers Is Changing Legal Education

By Jill Backer Contact All Articles
New York Law Journal
October 28, 2013

In April of this year, Kaplan Test Prep did a survey of 200 pre-law students. Fifty percent of those students stated that they do not intend to use their future law degree in a traditional legal field. If this statistic extrapolates out to the larger law student population, we have a generation of law students of which only half will ever be practicing lawyers. So if half of law students do not intend on ever practicing law in a traditional way at a traditional firm—what is their intention? The answer is as varied and individualized as our law student population. The answer is also forcing a revitalization of legal education and at no time has legal education ever been accused of changing too quickly.

I often hear the term “alternative legal careers” being thrown around but I am not sure that this has ever been readily defined. Does it mean people who have not passed the bar? Or those in compliance positions, entry-level solo practitioners, or even legal educators? Or those who don’t work at a law firm? The answer to these questions and other questions is yes.

There is a lot of chatter about the definition and assessment of the jobs law students obtain after graduation. Back in 2011, the ABA, in conjunction with NALP, came up with the category of “J.D. advantage” to describe jobs that specifically do not require bar passage but do utilize skills learned in law school. The employers might have preferred candidates with a J.D. (or even required a J.D.), and the job is one in which the J.D. provided a demonstrable advantage to obtaining and/or performing the job. Interest in these jobs skyrocketed as the market fell, with more and more students seeking the J.D.-preferred positions when there were many less traditional positions available. In fact, in 2011, one in every seven jobs taken by new law graduates fell into the J.D. advantage category. (NALP Bulletin, May 2013).

In my opinion, the category and even the term “J.D. advantage” is a bunch of rubbish. Graduates in J.D. advantage jobs are sometimes every bit of lawyers as their brethren at firms and other traditional jobs. Today, lots of associate work and especially first-year associate work can rarely be achieved only by a barred attorney. I believe the legal community and its governing body the ABA are finally just coming to the recognition of what we already know—the J.D. is an agile and flexible tool that can be utilized in many forums.

Let’s face it, the opportunities on the traditional path for new law graduates are shrinking. Therefore, all professional opportunities can and should be defined under “working” and not put under some other nomenclature of J.D. advantage. There are few professional pursuits that would not value the analytical thinking and knowledge of the law and ethics that law school offers. This new category describing any deviation from the traditional path is not required and seems to paint in broad strokes a picture of these jobs as “lesser.” Jobs outside law firm associate positions are in no way less, and in some cases can offer much more.

Here in Brooklyn, there is a hub of a new technology age guided by entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. If a new graduate were to join a start-up business at a local incubator, is that a J.D.-preferred job? After all, while the graduate may not be doing legal work day-to-day, you can be sure that their legal education will be of huge use and influence in the new venture. In fact, you can bet that contracts and other issues involving the law would find their way to the law graduate’s desk rather than another employee. How do we say this is not a law job but a J.D. advantage, or perhaps because the employer did not specify—not even J.D. advantage.

Compliance is another area where the J.D. advantage term is overused. As recently as 10 years ago compliance positions were considered quasi-legal jobs. However, as regulation became more intricate, more and more J.D.s were hired into these roles at all levels. Today, most new hires in the compliance world are J.D.s. In fact, this is a huge and lucrative area of growth for the law profession. However, under the ABA rules, these are J.D. advantage jobs rather than legal jobs.

So here is what we know—there are fewer jobs in traditional legal roles for entry-level attorneys. New graduates are seeking out different opportunities due to fewer traditional positions and a real desire to practice/work in non-traditional forums. The ABA has decided to define any job without a traditional title—associate, staff attorney, assistant D.A., etc.—as something other than a lawyer. So where do we go from here? We need to change legal education and the ABA to fit the new reality.

Law schools have already begun a huge era of revitalization of legal education—some might say an overhaul. Some of these changes are meant to streamline legal education, others to provide more practical training. However, there is another factor that is changing law school: teaching to and preparing the ever-growing population of graduates that do not wish to practice in a traditional forum. Brooklyn Law School teaches a business boot camp and has a clinic that incubates new businesses in all facets, not just legal. There are other law schools that have language classes and compliance courses that are not rooted in the law.

These types of endeavors will help entering law students navigate the business world while utilizing their legal education. This string of classes shows a new multidisciplinary approach in legal education. The more well-rounded student is coveted by traditional and alternative employers alike. The old yard-stick used to measure future success was academic prowess. That is slowly changing as employers of all ilks realize that they need to incorporate softer skills and business skills as well as legal skills to keep their organizations afloat. Being a knowledgeable and ethical attorney is no longer enough to satisfy today’s legal market.

We are facing a turning point in the legal market. Law students are not focused on the same goals as a generation ago, as evidenced by the Kaplan survey cited at the beginning of this article. They are seeking out a new type of legal career that is not rooted in the traditional ways and definitions of law practice. The institutions of the legal market need to accept and understand that one way of using a law degree is no less than another. Law schools have to prepare these students as well as they do those engaged in the more traditional practices. Thankfully, law schools seem to be rising to that challenge.

Jill Backer is associate director for employer relations at Brooklyn Law School.

2 Responses

  1. I’ve long been struck by the way that many law students will say “I don’t want to be a lawyer” when what they mean is “I don’t want to work for a firm” or “I don’t want to be a lawyer who goes to court” or “I don’t want to be a lawyer who provides direct representation to clients”. In my first law teaching job decades ago, I worked with students on an Alternative Careers job fair. The issue isn’t new.

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