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Best Legal Career Path? Attorneys Argue the Case

April Runft

Editor's Note: Originally published in May 2016, this article's examination of the abundance of legal career paths still rings true today. Let's give it another look.

There’s much discussion lately about what today’s “ideal” legal career path looks like and the myriad options for applying a law degree outside the traditional route to partner at a big law firm. It’s not just a consideration for law grads but any attorney. A global and highly technological landscape requires J.D.s vying for jobs to differentiate themselves with broader skillsets like project management and business development—in addition to technological sophistication.

Today, what’s the professional value of spending time in a law firm setting? Moving in-house? Representing a nonprofit organization? We decided to explore, heeding Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Build a Firm Foundation

At many law firms, client work is concentrated on one area of law—like commercial real estate, patent, employment, or family law. A narrower scope offers firm attorneys the opportunity to build in-depth expertise, along with the experience of actually practicing law—drafting documents, researching, preparing for a case, and representing clients in the courtroom or in negotiations.

“Working in a firm setting taught me how to methodically approach and solve complex issues I hadn’t seen before,” said Tianne Bataille, a senior attorney at Axiom Global, Inc. who worked at law firms for the first eight years of her career. 

“It also taught me how to advocate effectively on behalf of my clients on a wide variety of matters—I’d often get assignments I knew nothing about until after they hit my desk,” said Tianne. Because of this, she gained a broader skill base and the confidence to take on projects outside her wheelhouse. “I’m a more effective in-house lawyer because of the training I received under the firm structure,” she said.

Because firms are at the cutting edge of the practice of law, they offer broad resources to their attorneys. That means an associate is readily available to assist on a project, and technology like e-discovery software is prioritized to support the evolving, complex needs of each case. “We always had ample resources to get a pressing job done,” Tianne noted.

Client development lies at the heart of firm life. Successful firms keep true client needs front and center. Interacting with clients—anticipating and meeting their needs and attracting new prospects—is a learned skill, and not always one introduced in law school. A law firm setting lends itself well to apprentice-style learning.

“I view every interaction with partners as a mentoring opportunity,” said Jennifer Schumann, a commercial real estate attorney at Levenfeld Pearlstein in Chicago. “Whether I’m in a partner’s office during a client call or at a networking event with partners, I’m always watching and learning. How do they handle a difficult conversation or make a pitch? I’m picking up on best practices, then figuring out how to incorporate my own style.”

And speaking of mentorship, Tianne had a suggestion. “Seek and maintain relationships with great mentors—they can highlight both opportunities and blind spots,” she said. “Mentors within your organization can help you navigate internal politics and champion your work. Outside mentors can keep you thinking strategically and offer an objective perspective. Both are vital.”

Make In-house a Home

An in-house position means an attorney whittles her client list down to one—yet one with a wide variety of potential legal needs. In house, the legal team is one of many that protect a company’s interests and preserve its success—whether they’re issuing legal holds or assisting with internal investigations, their work directly impacts the smooth operations of any business.

“Going corporate meant my world widened to include different departments, like human resources and corporate communications,” said Jane Downey, compliance manager at CME Group. “Gaining that exposure to the bigger picture helped me understand where my work fit into it. I jumped on the opportunity to network cross-departmentally.”

After law school, Jane had spent a few years at two boutique Chicago law firms. Though the work was challenging and ultimately rewarding, Jane said that for her, the pace was not sustainable. She transitioned to the in-house setting with a role in a legal function at JPMorgan before moving into her current role at CME Group. She said she loves the compliance area of legal: “The idea is straightforward: ‘Here are all the rules. Follow them.’”

Many in-house attorneys report more flexible hours, though the steadier pace may not be for everyone. “At a firm, someone was relying on me for legal protection—if I lost, they lost their trademark; their livelihood was on the line,” Jane said. “That risk can be thrilling. You do lose some of that edginess moving in-house. But in compliance, I’m part of a team consistently protecting the company. Every day is different—some days I’m reviewing documents, and others I’m running around like crazy—but I know my work adds value.”

Working within the financial industry has also given Jane exposure to areas like IT, information security, and trading. “It’s rewarding to be challenged professionally, and I’m gaining highly transferrable skills,” she said. “I also feel a sense of security and support, with access to a pool of resources, like IT support, to help me get my job done.”

Jane’s advice for attorneys considering the in-house transition? “Be prepared to deal with a different type of hierarchy,” she said. “You become a small fish in a big pond—it can be humbling. But that’s easily outweighed by the pros of working in-house, like growing your areas of expertise, building your network across other disciplines, being free of the burden of billable hours, and enjoying a more flexible schedule.”

Advocate by Association

Though we may automatically associate law with the for-profit sector, nonprofit organizations need legal talent, too—though not typically for litigation and e-discovery. Attorneys apply their skills to help nonprofits monitor legislation, lobby government officials on the organization’s behalf, and protect the group’s cause and its constituents’ interests.

Jennifer Rudisill studied political science in college before earning a law degree; her role as manager of federal affairs at Children’s Hospital Association in Washington, D.C. has been a rewarding and challenging combination of two passions. “I’ve had the opportunity to work on legislation that has positively impacted our clients’ operations, and, in turn, their patients’ lives,” she said.

Jennifer graduated law school during a recession. After weeks of searching, she took an administrative role at a government affairs firm that was thrilled she had a law degree. She worked hard and within six weeks, she was lobbying for the firm. She spent a few years building her government relationships and lobbying skills before taking her role with the Association of Children’s Hospitals, where she said the incentive is about outcomes, rather than volume of work.

“Our leadership recognizes that sometimes advising against action is more valuable than generating more activity,” said Jennifer. “But I have noticed that in this environment, there’s more red tape. Behaving in a fiscally responsible way is very important for us as a membership-based nonprofit, so we are conservative with our spend.”

Jennifer said that at her previous organization, the goal for client relations was to impress them and keep them happy. “Interaction with clients felt a bit like speed dating. Here, I’m still aiming to keep 200 hospitals happy, but my clients—hospital executives—are partners in a different sense. They have a finger on the pulse of the industry; I can call them up and leverage their perspective.”

As in life, regardless of the setting, your job will be largely what you make of it, Jennifer said. “Being interested, enthusiastic, and willing to do work will take you far,” Jennifer said. “If you want to do certain work, ask. Make sure people know. Show up at their door and ask to help.”

April Runft is a member of the marketing communications team at Relativity, specializing in content development.