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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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Let's face it: despite lucrative salaries, posh perks and high prestige, life in a law firm isn't for everybody.

"I remember sitting on my porch reading the Uniform Commercial Code and thinking, 'This is not for me,'" said Hillary Mantis, a career counselor at Fordham University School of Law. "People realize that what law firms really do is business, and defending businesses, and that doesn't go with why they went to law school."

But for law students determined to exercise their legal education outside of a firm, Mantis has strong words of advice: it doesn't matter if you are planning to use your law degree to run your family business or to run for Congress -- follow your classmates into the law firm universe. At least for a short while.

"I would seriously recommend practicing for a year or two after graduation," Mantis said. "And force yourself to take the bar exam. An attorney who is admitted and who has practiced for a year or two will have a stamp of credibility."

Mantis also cautioned against straying from a law firm job just because of the bad economy. Most large, high-prestige law firms around the country hire early in the school year, and this year they're taking fewer students than ever. But a law student shouldn't pass up firm life entirely just because he's been passed over by one of the legal behemoths.

"I wouldn't make the decision to go into a non-traditional legal career based on the fact that it's a bad job market," Mantis said. "It's better to work in a small firm." Small firms are usually more willing to hire later in the school year and even after a student graduates. And for a student who is sure he will be unhappy toiling inside a legal sweatshop, a small firm can offer the breadth of experiences and early responsibility that life in the big firms often lack.

Practicing for a few years before launching into a non-legal career has other advantages. Re-entering the traditional legal field after a few years in the non-legal world is much simpler for someone who has already proven he can handle the routine rigors of firm life.

"If you just graduated from law school and do something besides law, and then decide you want to practice, it's very tough," Mantis said.

Steve Ross (not his real name), graduated from Fordham in 2000, but turned down the full-time job offer from the firm where he worked as a 2L summer associate to pursue his dream of becoming a talent agent. But now after two years spent mostly filling out boilerplate contracts for actors performing contracts, Ross wonders if he'd be more fulfilled in a law firm.

~"I don't get challenged anymore," Ross said. "It's the same contracts over and over. I think my friends who didn't do the transition right away [to a non-traditional legal career] find it a little easier to get back into a traditional job."

But if you think you're going to leave the law for something less traditional, don't wait too long. Law firm jobs pay better than most any other occupation, and leaving a firm after five or 10 years for a non-legal job can mean a considerable drop in income.

Barbara Schaeder, a Rutgers Law School graduate, left a firm after more than a decade as a practicing lawyer. Today, she's a legal recruiter at the prestigious Major, Hagen & Africa.

"I probably waited too long because, after 11 years, you're going to take a big pay cut," Schaeder said.

So join a firm first, but don't stay too long. How does a student who is sure he wants to leave the law as soon as possible manage that? Through effective planning.

"Do your traditional legal job search, send out resumes and at the same time start researching other fields you're interested in," Schaeder said.

About a third of the law firm refugees Mantis works with, disappointed that legal work doesn't give them enough hands-on deal-making and face-to-face wheeling and dealing, go into business. For these people, Mantis suggests playing up experience in contract negotiations, client counseling or taxation. Resources such as Vault, which bridge the worlds between law, business and consulting, can be helpful in getting started, Mantis said.

"The most important thing is to start thinking about your skills, what you like and how you can parlay that into another field," said Mantis.

Another group of lawyers typically leaves the law because it offers them no outlet for their creativity. For those interested in writing, legal magazines and newspapers are always on the hunt for lawyers with a facility for language.

Stress writing skills, editing ability and attention to detail when applying for alternative legal careers. Continuing education courses at local universities can help channel your creative joneses and establish paths for networking. The Non-Traditional Legal Careers Report, published by the Career Educational Institutes, 336-768-2999, contains about 50 pages worth of job listings. The Report is available at most law school career services offices.

And for students convinced that their domain includes academic, governmental or non-profit work, a plethora of resources exists.

Idealist.com and the Chronicle of Philanthropy are just two websites that list non-profit jobs, while USAjobs.opm.gov lists job openings in the federal government. The Chronicle of Higher Education lists educational jobs ranging from elementary school teachers to Ivy League presidents.

Job positions writing legislation for states are listed by the National Conference of State Legislatures, www.ncsl.org/public/joblegis.htm. And though Capitol Hill jobs are often filled through contacts, some positions are filled through formal channels (and those blessed with good networks still have to go through the formality of applying through HR). The House Office of Human Resources accepts resumes and cover letters stating your job interests and salary requirements via fax or by mail. The office will keep your resume for three months, after which your should send a new resume and cover letter to reactivate your file.

Write the House Office of Human Resources at Room 263, Cannon House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515-6610; fax: 202/226-0098 (the recorded information line is 202/226-6731).

The Senate accepts resumes and cover letters also, but applicant files will not be activated unless applicants fill out a lengthy application and submit to an in-person interview with a job counselor. So applicants should request an application to be mailed to them when they send in a resume and cover letter. The completed application should be brought to the Senate Placement Office where applicants can meet with a job counselor.

Write to the Senate Placement Office, Room 142, Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510. 202/224-9167.

"Anyone who I've met who wanted to get into an alternative career has been able to do so," Mantis said. "The bad news is that you have to do a lot more research."

Hans H. Chen, a former staff writer at Vault, attends Fordham Law School.

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