Alternatives to Traditional Practice
The Bencher—July/August 2019
By Kerry L. Shipman, MPA, JD
If you ask many law students what their plans are, it is to start at a firm, work hard—or often very hard—and make partner. This is a good plan and a well-worn path. But it is rarely how things play out in practice. In a February 2019 article, The American Lawyer stated, “Since 2015, the total number of partner promotions among Am Law 200 law firms has fallen 28.8 percent,” and 2018 was the smallest AmLaw partnership class yet. Many young practitioners will find themselves abandoning this path at some point relatively soon after graduation. And a small but substantial number will never head down that path at all.
Options abound for those who want to use their legal careers in non-traditional venues. After law school, I started several businesses in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors to defray the costs of law school and the bar. Frankly, my legal education opened more doors than I could have imagined. My experience is shared by many attorneys.
From software coding to accounting, there are a myriad of ways that a newly minted (or even not so newly minted) attorney can leverage his or her law degree into a fulfilling career. For example, David Lat of abovethelaw.com was a former Wachtell Lipton associate who was working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey when he started a satire blog called Underneath Their Robes that dedicated itself to the coverage of the Article III judiciary. He leveraged this into a position as one of the preeminent legal bloggers in the United States By the same token, Emily Bazelon left the practice very early on to write for Slate, a policy and current events online magazine. She is now a New York Times contributor. Peter Theil started Paypal and authored Zero to One, a best-selling book on entrepreneurship. This is not new; in the early 20th century, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky supported himself as an attorney while embarking on his artistic career. Other attorneys have started companies, nonprofits, and charter schools, while some attorneys have become teachers or worked in a variety of other industries, including insurance, health care and tech.
It makes sense because what makes a good attorney—attention to detail, prodigious effort, and clarity of thought—are the recipes for success in any number of ventures. Attorneys learn to filter information through the lens of a specific problem or with an eye to a desired outcome. They also learn to formulate solutions based on the facts and data they have, rather than on what they wish they had. This is invaluable. For example, real estate brokers are often well-served by having a law degree. I am a broker, and my legal education has given me insights regarding title and zoning issues, and accordingly, a better sense of what deals are right for which clients. Nonprofits also benefit from having attorneys as directors and staff members due to the myriad of regulations they operate under. I can attest to this too; my legal training has helped my nonprofit ventures immensely.
That said, the best route for many new JDs is that of an entrepreneur. Law school teaches its attendees to be enterprising. Law students learn how to analyze the current state of affairs and bend precedent to account for future and unforeseen events. They also know the value of hard work and the benefits it brings. In fact, law students are trained to review facts ranging far and wide and apply the same law to all. In other words, they are taught to see the forest from the trees and have the analytical skills to provide an analysis under uncertain circumstances. Finally, most law students have a fairly sophisticated grasp of corporate law, which will serve them well in starting and maintaining their business ventures.
This pairs well with the startup world, which is concerned with expanding the horizons of what technology can do to improve humanity and yet also often pushes the boundaries of what is currently being accomplished. Handling this intersection requires someone with a specific skill set—a lawyer’s skill set. Specifically, all startups require founders and investors to apportion risks, something that is going to depend on complex loan, warrant, and equity documents and the facts on the ground; it depends on applying the law to the facts, in other words.
Software is also ripe for lawyers to work on. First, discovery has been affected by technology. New and different ways to handle massive document reviews have prompted attorneys and non-attorneys alike to create systems that stretch the conventional document review process. For example, in 2004, former Monster General Counsel David Perla and former OfficeTiger Chief Financial Officer and General Counsel Sanjay Kamlani founded the offshore document review firm Pangea3. Pangea3 was acquired by the financial news and business information provider Thomson Reuters for $100 million in 2010. In fact, legal work is actually being handled by software. Upsolve Legal, Bankruptcy Anywhere, and Shake by LegalShield all make basic legal processes accessible to consumers without an attorney. Obviously, attorneys are needed for coding and creation.
The best part is that lawyers can try them all. Plenty of attorneys have one or more of these ventures going on at once. They run a practice while coding, for example. Or, like Howard Bashman at How Appealing, work on client appeals while blogging about legal developments. Some even recruit other attorneys, like Harrison Barnes at BCG Legal Search. Truly, attorneys can run an almost Walmart-like practice, putting many irons in the fire, backing the winners, and reworking those that have not yet found success. I know because I do.
There are many, many doors open to new JDs. But that does not mean that new graduates should stray too far afield. Getting through law school is expensive; the goal is to be a member of the bar, and I’m not going to lie, it’s easier to pass the exam and get started when all those legal concepts are fresh in the mind. Otherwise, there is a real risk that the bar exam will never get taken, and then the JD loses the best fallback position of all: practicing law.
In sum, a law degree is still one of the most versatile degrees offered. For those about to embark on a legal career, the future is bright and the opportunities are wide.
Kerry L. Shipman, MPA, J.D., is a serial entrepreneur and public speaker, also serving as the executive director for a non-profit organization. Kerry is a pupil member of the James L. Petigru American Inn of Court in Charleston, South Carolina.