Editor’s note: After posting my most recent blog post You Can Do Anything With a Law Degree. Sort of. to Twitter, Anusia Gillespie (of search firm BANAVA) disagreed with my stance, arguing, inter alia, that a J.D. gets you in the door and, more importantly, once law graduates are in business “they shoot to the top.” After a brief (and polite) Twitter beef, I offered Anusia an opportunity to respond in a longer format here. This is her response.
In a Twitter debate sparked by the article, You Can Do Anything With a Law Degree. Sort of., @VaultLaw defended his position and asked: what non-legal doors is the J.D. opening that experience wouldn’t?
I don’t quite understand the point of the question. It is correct that, aside from being able to become a licensed real estate broker, there are not many non-legal doors that fly open because you possess a J.D. But, that makes sense, right? A single data point on a resume is not going to open all doors. It’s the wrong question. And, I’m annoyed by the question. Why should law graduates expect that their J.D. would allow them to immediately do anything? Of course doors aren’t flying open, welcoming you into any field simply because you have an advanced degree. The business market is not educated as to the value of your degree and I would guess that career services has advised you to wipe clean any personal information from your resume. So, you are marketing yourself to people who don’t fully understand your education as a “J.D.” with no prior life or business history. You are essentially marketing yourself as a commodity in a world that doesn’t typically deal with such commodities. In doing so then, yes, your J.D. degree probably isn’t breaking you into industries other than law.
So, let’s rephrase the question: what non-legal doors can you open by marketing the tools and skills accumulated from your professional legal education? Now, anything makes a bit more sense. The skills you developed in earning your J.D. represent more than a tiebreaker for positions in business. You just have to know how to sell your skills. This is an US issue, not a THEM issue. It is your job to educate a potential employer with respect to the value of the skills that you have cultivated. Most hiring managers in business are not lawyers, they have not been to law school and they don’t understand the value of your professional training in their business. It is your job to tell them.
And, you should have SO MUCH to tell them! It is more than reading comprehension, writing, and problem-solving skills. Seriously, we are a highly educated community; I think we can go farther than that.
What about the fact that you are both a generalist and a specialist? You are taught to recognize patterns and frameworks, pick them up, and place them on alternative scenarios to see if they still hold true or produce alternate outcomes. You are a big picture person. And yet, you also have a strong specialty in law. You can get into the weeds and focus on technical details. What a powerful combination.
What about the fact that your brain was re-wired and trained to think logically? John Kerry mentioned this the other week in paying tribute to Boston College Law School, stating, “I don’t think I fully learned how to think until I finished law school.” You are a strategic thinker—big picture—and also know logistically, operationally, how to get from A to B—details. You bring organization to the chaos. You get things done.
What about the fact that you can teach yourself an entire subject in a very short period of time? Theoretically, one is able to graduate from law school and hang their own shingle. How is this justified? Because law school teaches students how to research and become competent in subject matters through self-learning, and competency is the requirement for representation. This is incredibly valuable in business. When the company needs to quickly understand a new market for its product, you are the go-to person. When your boss needs the cliff-notes with respect to a new industry development for a client meeting in three hours, you are the go-to person.
What about the fact that you are now a professional athlete? No, no, not in the NFL, but in the business world. Law school made you brutally efficient and instilled a big law work ethic. You are a machine.
Absolutely, there are obstacles in graduating from law school and pursuing a non-firm job. Hiring managers are leery—why did you go to law school and are you going to change careers again in a year? But, come on, you have been taught in the art of persuasion: use it!
And note that this is not a fool’s errand. Prospects for new law grads are not “dwindling,” if anything, there are more opportunities now than ever before. There used to be a stigma associated with lawyers pursuing non-legal positions, and now lawyers who “get out” of law are congratulated. (I was, by senior partners no less.) Businesses are accustomed to hiring in-house attorneys, but are now expanding their thinking to compliance roles and beyond. Healthcare companies are hiring attorneys for non-legal positions as regulations increase. Startups are hiring attorneys in non-legal positions for operations and strategy roles. (Perhaps DraftKings should have jumped on this bandwagon in its early stages; imagine how differently things would have gone if they had someone early on who could craft their strategy and their language given potential legal implications?) Venture Capitalists are hiring attorneys in non-legal positions given their good judgment, strong networks, and keen ability to come to successful conclusions given limited information.
So, you can get in. But, the best part? Once you are there, you ascend quickly. All of the skills you have and the ones I touched on above—it isn’t fluff. It is real. Elizabeth Martin, Esq. had eight positions in eight years in business roles at OptumHealth because she was promoted every year. She attributes her success to her legal background. Lawyer-CEOs, it’s a thing for a reason.
I say: if you want to go to law school, then go. Don’t let other people tell you what your options are once you’ve graduated. Law school is empowering. Law firms are not. But, as a lawyer, you join a community of very powerful, smart, hard-working people. Doors may not fly open for you in the business community solely because of your J.D. degree, but isn’t that expected? It’s not the degree that will open non-legal doors, it is you using the skills you learned in law school and marketing them to educate potential employers of your value. We make our careers, so start yours out with a powerful tool and go to law school if that’s what you want to do. As a highly educated machine with a specialty in law, you’ll always have something to bring to the table.
Anusia (ä-new-shä) Gillespie is a prior practicing real estate finance attorney and Boston College JD/MBA graduate who has been researching where and how JDs thrive for seven years. She is the founder of BANAVA, a search firm specializing in recruiting attorneys for business positions. Anusia can be contacted at Anusia@banavaday.com, at www.banavaday.com, or on twitter at @banavaday.
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