If you want to go to law school, but don't really want practice law for your entire career, there are unique lawyer careers and non-law career options available. You can work for a regulatory company or agency, work for a legal services provider company (companies who provide services to lawyers), or work in research. However, the best options for making the move out of the legal industry generally require obtaining some actual legal experience, so let’s first talk about the standard legal pathways after law school.
All attorneys must attend law school and pass the bar examination in their state in order to be able to practice in a law firm and in court. From a global view, there are two main types of lawyers litigation lawyers and transactional lawyers. Litigation lawyers or litigators go to court and file lawsuits while transactional lawyers handle business matters. Legal work can be conducted as a solo practitioner at your own law firm, in small, mid-sized or large law firms or work as public defenders, prosecutors, or work for a charity or the government.
Most attorneys spend their days working in law offices, in the law library, and in the courtroom. The typical job of an attorney can involve gathering evidence for trials, attending business meetings, making court appearances, testifying before legislative agencies, and closing business deals. Young lawyers usually get started in wither a litigation focus or a transactional focus (the majority go towards litigation because there is more demand for the work).
After a young lawyer starts out they will then tend to narrow their focus of work (either due to the fact that a type of work are the only clients they can obtain or because that is the work assigned to them by their employers.) Some examples of more specific unique lawyer careers and focus are as follows:
Elder Law Practice. Attorneys who work in the area of elder law and who have many senior citizens for clients often have to conduct client visits to their client’s homes or in nursing homes.
Criminal Law Practice. Public defenders who represent criminal defendants often have to conduct client visits at county jails or at mental institutions. Most criminal defense attorneys have the opportunity to work with judges, probation officers, bailiffs, and court clerks on a daily basis. Much of the job of a criminal defense attorney involves making deals with prosecuting attorneys to get lighter sentences for their clients. As a criminal defense attorney becomes more experienced, they learn what types of options are available to defendants in criminal cases, which prosecutors are more likely to offer the best deals, and how different judges are likely to respond to agreed-upon terms for their clients.
Civil commercial litigation. Generally handle lawsuits, court appearances that are related to civil actions (or non-criminal actions). Just like you see on television in criminal trials civil trials are similar in terms of proceedings. But what is at stake is not jail time or punishment, but is in fact money or the rights of what a person or company can or cannot do.
Transactional Law Practice. Transactional lawyers on the other hand, generally do not appear in court and also work on matters such as buying and selling businesses, buying and selling buildings or real estate, and drafting business agreements or advising companies how to operate. Lawyers who focus on these matters such as commercial real estate, corporate law, banking law, generally have an easier time shifting to a non legal career compared to litigators.
It is very important to note there is no actual distinction under the law between transactional and litigation attorneys. Transactional lawyer is permitted to appear in court and argue for a client in civil litigation matter and vice versa. However, because law is so complicated mastery of either civil litigation or transactional work demands practice and experience and thus lawyers generally will form more or less into one of these two categories as their main type of work.
There are many other more specialized types of lawyers, and please review our “Types of Lawyers” web page for more information on lawyer careers.
After lawyers get some experience they can start branching out into more unique lawyer careers.
Judges are responsible for managing courtrooms during trials and making decisions about how cases are decided according to current laws. Judges preside over many types of cases, including traffic cases, personal injury cases and child custody cases. The job of a judge in the courtroom is to make sure that the law is applied correctly and that people’s rights are protected during trials.
When a judge presides over a trial, they must listen carefully to the arguments of the attorneys involved and rule on the admissibility of evidence. Judges are also required to make sure that the rules of procedure are followed correctly during a trial. In cases involving criminal law, the judge may decide whether a criminal defendant must be put in jail before a trial. In cases involving civil law, a judge may decide whether an injured person is allowed to collect damages to pay for medical bills. A judge is also required to interact with the jury in some legal cases. A judge is required to instruct the jury about applicable laws in a case, direct the jury to make a decision based on the facts in a case, and charge the jury with deciding a verdict in the case. When there is no jury in a case, the judge’s job is to hand down a verdict. The general role of a judge is to follow the law and administer justice in the courtroom.
If you have any interest in being a judge be advised that you should start out as a litigator and not a transactional attorney, and that in most states judges are political appointed positions, so you will have to be comfortable networking.
Most federal government attorneys live and practice in Washington D.C. (State government attorneys generally work in or around the State capital city.) Government attorneys can build their career by working for the federal government, the military or state government. The internal Revenue service employs a large number of attorneys who have training in tax law and accounting. State governments have many branches that employ attorneys. Attorneys may work in the attorney general’s office, the department of revenue or the department of education. Many jobs that attorneys have in state government provide an excellent starting point for a future career as a politician.
The United States military also employs many attorneys. Many attorneys work in the Judge Advocate General’s Corp, which is called “JAG” for short. Attorneys who work for JAG are recruited directly from law school. JAG is responsible for providing legal advice that supports the operations of different military branches. JAG offers positions for attorneys in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Attorneys who work for JAG may be responsible for representing soldiers in court-martial proceedings, giving legal advice to military officers and their families, and giving legal advice to senior commanders. Attorneys who pursue careers in military law work on a daily basis with applying the rules in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The code prescribes rules of conduct that enlisted men and women must follow. Attorneys who choose a career path in military law may be required to advise service members in cases involving traditional crimes as well as cases involving military misconduct.
The great thing about being a government attorney is that you generally do not have to bill and keep track of your time. However, these jobs are highly competitive to obtain and generally do not pay very high salaries.
If an attorney is interested in the laws governing the relationships between nations, they may select a career in national security law. Attorneys who practice in the area of national security law generally work in Washington D.C. and may work for the U.S. Congress, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Military, the Department of Justice, or the Intelligence Community. Many attorneys who work in the area of national security law must get a security clearance. Getting a security clearance allows an attorney to have access to classified information. There are three levels of security clearances that an attorney who wants to pursue a career path in national security law may have to be considered for: National Security Clearance, Public Trust Security Clearance, and Non-Sensitive Security Clearance. An attorney must wait until they have been offered a job in national security law in order for their employer to begin the formal process that leads to getting a full security clearance.
Attorneys who want to pursue a career path in national security law may be involved with a variety of issues including the law’s ability to control transnational terrorism, economic threats, such as commercial cyber security, defining the role of the intelligence community in law enforcement and operational international law.
Traditionally, there are three main areas that are not really unique lawyer careers, but are closely related non-law careers that attract ex-lawyers. However, as previously mentioned these generally require at least a few years of experience practicing as a lawyer before the move can be made to these non-lawyer jobs.
The first is Real Estate Developer. Real estate development is very, very complicated both in terms of financing a business deal and also adhering to strict regulations regarding construction for state and city laws. That is why it is a relatively easy transition from law to become a real estate developer. If you are considering this avenue you should gain some experience practicing real estate law for a few years.
Another position to jump to after practicing law is Management Consulting. Basically management consulting is where you work for a consulting company that specializes in giving advice to other businesses and corporations in terms of what they need to do to improve their business or make things move more efficiently. Any kind of lawyer experience in business, tax, corporate, or mergers and acquisitions is beneficial here.
Investment Banking is another relatively easy switch from being a lawyer. Especially if you have any experience practicing law in banking law, mergers and acquisitions, tax law or corporate law.
After obtaining some experience many lawyers can make the move to working for a company or nonprofit corporation as an in house lawyer (or a lawyer who is directly employed by a company). The benefit to this type of work is that you no longer have to keep track of and bill your time and you essentially only have one client (your employer). The pay is slightly less compared to working for a firm, but the lifestyle is typically more relaxed. Further, this can be used a stepping stone to other non-law type of work within the company (many CEOs of corporations both big and small started out in the company’s legal department).
The long term, value of a law school diploma and legal experience can definitely be a springboard for any type of career in just about any type of industry. You will find lawyers (or ex-lawyers) as CEOs of major corporations, entrepreneurs, managers, restaurant owners, financial advisors, just about anything you can think of.
Lawyers can move to other types of unique lawyer careers or non-law careers. However, if you are planning on attending law school, do not assume that you can just jump straight into a non-law career right after graduation. (Though possible, it is rare.) You will need to actually obtain some legal experience before making the move to one of the unique lawyer careers or non-law careers discussed above.
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