The Importance of Alternative Legal Careers
Attorneys who don’t want to practice law in the traditional law firm setting are in luck: Alternative legal careers are on the rise, and they’re here to stay. The legal profession is beginning to shed the entrenched belief that non-traditional legal careers are a “Plan B” reserved for law firm pariahs. Rather, innovative lawyers are now pursuing a compelling “Plan A” in fields ranging from legal technology to legal operations, marketing to nonprofit fundraising, and more.
This paradigm shift in the legal field is overdue. With adequate legal training, there are few jobs attorneys cannot do. Attorneys understand risk, know how to negotiate, draft agreements, and communicate coherently and persuasively. Not to mention, there are countless reasons why it’s prudent for attorneys to track alternative careers, from innovating in a way that ensures career longevity, to understanding how each piece of the legal profession works in tandem to expand access to justice.
Automation and Differentiation
As technology advances enough to automate traditional legal tasks, lawyers will need to find ways to differentiate in order to thrive. Tasks for which lawyers traditionally charged clients, such as case research, can now be easily automated with platforms like UniCourt’s, which allows for bulk court data downloads via Legal Data APIs and provides automated case notification updates.
In verticals where lawyers thrive on the billable hour model, most especially in Big Law, firms are experiencing an adaptation and innovation crisis. In Harvard Law’s journal The Practice, Dr. Ron Dolin and Thomas Buley’s insightful piece Adaptive Innovation: The Innovator’s Dilemma in Big Law outlines the concerns undergirding this crisis. Dolin and Buley note that: “Big Law has been described as being in the throes of a painful transformation brought about by factors such as the increased use of technology, globalization, and a transition from a supply-driven market to a demand-driven one.”
In light of this adaptation crisis, lawyers across practice areas are being challenged to find creative, innovative ways to deliver their services. In many small law firms, lawyers are leading the charge by moving to flat-fee models. Still others are finding ways to automate rote tasks in favor of focusing their energies on more complex cases, leaving many of the high-volume, consumer cases to alternative legal service providers, who can deliver those services in bulk, inexpensively, and efficiently.
Rising New Fields
Beyond forcing lawyers to innovate, legal tech is carving out new career paths entirely, and as technology continues to evolve, so will the legal employment landscape. Notably, “legal services” now stands alone as a distinct field, taking the services monopoly out of the hands of traditional law firms.
Recently, I was invited to participate as a panelist on an Alternative J.D. Careers Panel at my alma mater, Campbell Law School. The panel featured five professionals representing fields ranging from marketing to nonprofit management with experiences varying widely, from philanthropy and fundraising, to managing business development for a large regional law firm, to working with the North Carolina Governor to manage public-facing activities and advise on policy matters.
It was a privilege to share my incredible experience working for UniCourt, as well as my experiences within Citigroup’s legal operations team as an Operations Analyst and Assistant Vice President, and my brief stint as an in-house counsel. Being able to tell a room full of eager law students that they can create their own path was also a full-circle moment for me, as just five years ago I attended a similar panel discussion at Campbell that solidified my decision to choose a non-traditional career path.
What the panel – and the diverse backgrounds of its participants – made abundantly clear is that there are countless career opportunities tailor-made for those with legal training. For attorneys who don’t want to work within traditional law firms, or who simply seek to diversify their menu of professional experiences, there are innumerable ways to translate your legal skillsets into a unique, interesting, and dynamic career path.
Understanding the Evolving Legal Landscape
Even for lawyers who pursue traditional legal careers, it is critical to understand how technology and changes to the legal services delivery model will inevitably impact their jobs. Lawyers in high-volume practices like bankruptcy, debt collection, and landlord-tenant disputes may over time be largely supplanted by alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) capable of delivering these services for substantially reduced costs. Others might find that the failure to find ways to automate rote tasks will result in losing clients, as legal consumers find alternatives in firms that maximize billable time on creative case planning and client face-time, rather than administrative tasks that inflate the cost of legal services and keep attorneys from interacting with clients.
Fear mongering aside, it is important for lawyers across practice areas and industries to understand how all the pieces of the legal profession work together, from the ways that ALSPs are converging on the legal market, to the reality that increasing demand is forcing attorneys to find ways to differentiate and innovate to keep their clients happy. By understanding these realities, rather than fearing them, attorneys can better comprehend how they fit within the vast mosaic of legal service providers and how their particular, unique skill sets can make an impact on their clients and the profession at large.
The Future of Alternative Legal Careers
As Above the Law Editor David Lat opined in a 2017 article on the future of the legal profession, “[t]here’s no sense in fighting or trying to hide from the inevitable; instead, attorneys should embrace the future.” Rather than fear the trajectory of their careers in light of new technologies, lawyers can and should embrace them not only to improve and innovate within their practices, but also to explore other ways to use their legal training. In departing from the security of tradition, lawyers will likely find that they can go beyond mere survival to truly thrive in the midst of structural changes to the legal profession.