The practice of law is shrouded in tradition. Most of those outside the profession have had their minds shaped by popular culture that all individuals who attend law school transform into the attorneys that they love and hate. But what about those who choose the “non-traditional” path?
I am a recent law school graduate who chose the “non-traditional J.D.” path. I had never heard that term before law school. It was a buzzword thrown around on the first orientation days, when most of us are just happy to be there and not wanting to embarrass ourselves.
I had no idea what area of the legal field I wanted to pursue in law school. There was no area that jumped out at me and I did not pick a favorite between prosecution and defense. All I really understood was that I loved learning about the law. Any subject taught by a passionate professor got me hooked. I loved the deep dives into statutes and the legal arguments to be made. I told myself in my first year, that surely by the end I would know where I wanted to be.
It did not happen. I graduated law school with uncertainty in my career. I knew what I did not want to do. I had a vague inclination of the areas I enjoyed. While I signed up for bar prep and slogged through a summer of studying, in the back of my mind I knew there was a good chance that I would be pursuing a career where a bar license would likely not be necessary.
I was hesitant to embrace the career path that my heart had already chosen. While I loved my law school, they like many others focused heavily on the traditional careers and employers. Every spring for on-campus interviews, the tried and true law firms from around the state would appear, as well as the major county public defender and prosecution offices. For a long time during law school, I felt that this was the only path out there.
However, during my second year, I was blessed to have a “non-traditional” like myself as a professor. She worked in politics and on campaigns, at one of the local news stations, and served as the public policy practicum professor. This one professor specialized in students like myself. It was immensely helpful to hear form someone who had walked down the path that I was leaning towards and came out successful.
However, while she provided me some confidence, the stigma remains and still does to a point. Firs, is the challenge of telling you family that while you love law school, you are not going to practice law. Second, is also the self-doubt. All your friends from law school are picking those traditional careers or were able to get the job offer after being the summer associate for two years (or it seems like that). While this may seem like a self-confidence issue, many of us straight out of law school still feel the constant need to appraise ourselves against our peers. Law school breeds this mentality. I would arguably say that traditional legal careers in firms can also breed this mentality. We were taught to compare ourselves to others on the first day we heard about class rank. It is hard to shake off that mindset even after graduating.
Next is the practical aspect. Going into a non-traditional J.D. career straight out of law school may prevent you from entering the traditional legal field later on in life. Most likely a traditional civil litigation firm is not going to hire a policy staffer who graduated law school five years ago.
The stigma is there. It is bred in law schools where many do not present a different legal path than the traditional one. It is found on the legal Reddit sites that say working in compliance is a cop-out and for those who just scrapped by in law school. It’s there when a legal employer sees that while you are only two years out of law school, they pass over you because you have been working at a policy center, compliance department, or government office.
The ABA’s most recent statistics shows that 11.8% of the class of 2017 entered into non-traditional jobs. That’s 4,108 graduates. It’s a sizable population. It’s an underserved population. Law schools must do better to prepare students who choose this path. Educate them on the prospects out there. Employers should also understand the valuable skills that can be learned outside the traditional legal field. The landscape of the legal world is changing. Don’t encourage the stigma.