Dream-Following Marshall or Post-Severance Randy?: Law vs. Non-Law Careers

law careers

A few of us at LearnLeo are big fans of the show How I Met Your Mother. Aside from being funny and poignant, the show also offers a few life lessons.
[Warning: Spoiler Alert if you’ve not seen the show/are not caught up.]

In season one, we are introduced to Marshall Erikson as an idealistic young law student who wants to save the planet by becoming an environmental lawyer. By season four, we find that Marshall has lost his way and is practicing in the legal department of the giant, soulless Goliath National Bank. He is unhappy because he doesn’t feel he is making a positive impact in the world. But even more miserable than Marshall is his younger associate Randy Wharmpess. Unlike Marshall, who is still performing his duties competently, Randy is a disaster. After he makes several major mistakes, Marshall reluctantly fires him.

Marshall then feels terrible, so he decides to unfire Randy. Yet when Randy learns that he has been unfired, he is devastated; as it turns out, all Randy ever wanted to do is brew and sell his own beer. The severance money Randy would have received was going to help him start his brewing business. Naturally, Marshall then re-fires Randy so that he can fulfill his dream. By season 6, Marshall pursues his own dream and joins a law firm that practices environmental law. He starts loving his career. In season 8, the show pans ahead into the future, and we learn that Marshall Erikson becomes a judge.

The story of Marshall and Randy is a good reminder that some people with law degrees are happy and fulfilled practicing law, while others find happiness in careers outside the legal field. That’s why we put together some thoughts to help you decide whether you want to use your law degree to practice law or pursue a career in another field.

Should I Stick with It?

So you’re a 1L who is not digging law school, but you decide to stick with it anyway. One of the following is likely to occur:

  • You discover that it gets better after 1L. Your second and third years aren’t nearly as brutal for a few reasons. You have a lot of freedom to choose your courses. You’re not a petrified 1L anymore. You know how to manage your life to make law school livable. You’ve probably also made a few friends. You also get the chance to get involved in clinics, so you can get a better sense of what practicing law is really like. While it’s a rare breed that likes 1L, many graduates reflect fondly on their law school years (with a selective memory bias toward the last two years).
  • You hate law school start to finish, but you love practicing law. Yes, the two are really that different. In fact, legal employers are famous for complaining that students graduate from law school without knowing anything about how to practice. In other words, hating your Civ Pro class doesn’t mean you’ll hate joining an associate class or even hanging your own shingle as a solo practitioner.
  • You suffer through law school hating every second, but then you work hard to pay off your loans so that you can do whatever you want. Although this option is tougher given the legal employment market, thousands of law grads every year choose precisely this path. Those gleefully debt-free ex-lawyers who open their own cupcake cafes or microbreweries (or cupcake microbrewery cafes)? Not a bad way to go, we reckon.
  • You have gone through enough law school and have done an internship or two and you know, in your heart of hearts, that you don’t want anything to do with law.  Well, read on.

Got Skills?

When deciding if you should practice law or do something else, give some serious thought to your skill set. Chances are that you have many marketable skills. It’s important not only to identify what those skills are, but also to think hard about which ones you like to use. Once you’ve done that, consider whether the skills you like to use match those that a lawyer uses on a regular basis.

A lawyer is likely to use writing, problem solving, and logical reasoning skills daily. If you abhor writing, then you may want to consider careers outside of the law. Conversely, a lawyer is less likely to use creative, management, or technical skills. If you cannot tear yourself away from drawing detailed blueprints of the dream house you plan to build upon becoming partner, then a legal career may not be your cup of tea.

Choosing a Non-legal Career Doesn’t Mean You Failed

It’s easy to think that attending law school means that you have to go practice law. Family and friends can make it feel this way, too. Try explaining to your friends, your family, your law school cohorts, or even your career services office that you think that practicing law isn’t really for you, and see what sort of reactions you get.

There are a couple of reasons why you shouldn’t listen too closely to the haters. First, the truth is that law school teaches tons of marketable skills, such as analytical thinking, persuasive writing, and being quick on your feet. What CEO doesn’t want to hire someone with these skills, no matter the sector? For that matter, how many CEOs have law degrees? Plenty of law students never intend to practice law, but instead focus on the benefits of earning a rigorous, respected, and versatile degree. (This is a lot easier if you are at a top tier law school.)

Second, sometimes it takes actually GOING to law school to figure out that you don’t like law. Listen: that’s okay, too. So you had to learn the hard (expensive) way that you don’t want to be a lawyer. Obviously you’ll want to consider your debt burden and your law school’s ranking before you make any decisions, but if you combine the skill set you’re learning with the current economic climate, you’ll be surprised at how many opportunities exist out there that you’ve never even considered. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself for choosing the wrong advanced degree, start figuring out what you do want and then go after it. Now. (You’d be surprised at how many resources are out there, including your career center.)

Explore Other Options

If your program allows you to take classes outside the law school, say at the business school, the school of government, or the school of arts and sciences, take advantage of those opportunities as well. If after investigating several specific areas in law, you find that you don’t enjoy them or that you enjoy the courses outside the law school better, then you may consider looking at careers outside the law.

Don’t just rely on us…

Find five people who have a career practicing law and who like their jobs. And then find five people who have law degrees but have chosen to do something other than practice law. Interview them informally. Ask them as many questions as you can about what they do, what their typical day is like, why they like their job, how they got into the field they are in, and what they think are the ideal skills and temperaments for their job. These informal interviews can give you insight into the opportunities out there for careers in both the legal and non-legal fields. They can also help you start thinking about the career that is most ideal for you.

2012 Law School Survey of Student Engagement

Also, some parting thoughts courtesy of the 2012 Law School Survey of Student Engagement. The LSSSE surveyed over 25,000 current students at 81 schools. The stat that stood out to us? About 75% of students said that if they could get a do-over, then they would either definitely or probably attend their law school again. As you can see, this level of satisfaction has been pretty consistent (despite a lousy economy and shrinking associate classes) since the LSSSE started asking this question in 2004.


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