Alternative Careers Conversations: Law Schools’ Moral Imperative

Even if there were a JD-required job for every law student and tuition were free, law schools would still have a moral imperative to introduce students to alternative uses for their JDs.

Law grads make choices

Law school career professionals know that each student is different, and that they all don’t want to be securities litigators. These professionals counsel students and alumni, and present programs and panels about traditional and alternative careers. Sadly, unless the focus is on a superstar non-traditional grad with high-donor-level potential, there is often deadening silence instead of institutional support for alternative paths.

When NALP helpfully introduced  its JD Advantage portal, even the idea was challenged in a particularly snarky Law School Cafe blog post. Regardless of the economy, imagining that every law grad would or should want to be a JD-required-lifer is deeply disrespectful to individual choice.

The Threshold Question: Why did you decide to come to law school?

How can a student who has never practiced law know what he or she wants to do as a lawyer? In six years as a headhunter and 17 years in career services, I observed (anecdotally) that:

  • 10% of students came with mathematical and moral certainty about what they were going to do. Half did something else.
  • 40% of students came with five eloquent minutes about wanting to do a particular thing. Having never practiced law, much of that eloquence failed to measure up to experience, and they changed their minds.
  • 50% of students admitted that they didn’t know much about law practice, and that their minds were open.

While I had hoped that transparency discussions and high tuition costs might have moved these numbers, conversations with career services professionals indicate that not much has changed.

 No JD-required-lifer guarantee

Law School Admissions professionals do not have magic powers and the LSAT is not a career-predictor. Until staff can be equipped with breath, blood or genetic tests to identify JD-required-lifers, failure to discuss alternative careers with students demonstrates an institution’s delusional view of real career paths.

Even if the JD-required-lifer path could be made immune from changes in the economy, failure to equip students with tools for flexibility is irresponsible and mean-spirited.

 Life happens: things change

What excites a 24 year-old may not compel a 35-year-old whose life experience, skill development, children, mortgages, elderly parents, and/or new business opportunities seem to be leading to another path. Without having offered even a hint of guidance or direction, when alumni get tired, bored, or frustrated, they can (and do) feel alone, and believe that getting to the next place is impossible.

Had alternative career paths been introduced – not as required or desired but as potential – some of the career-change panic might be tamped down.

All litigation, all the time: A law school option?

Scheduled to open in September 2013, the new California Desert Trial Academy College of Law has as its goal “Educating, training and developing extraordinary legal advocates,” which sounds as if the school is meant to be an exclusive ground for training trial lawyers and litigators. I look forward to following this school and its graduates to see whether they become JD-required-litigator lifers.


Susan Gainen will serve as Co-Vice Chair of the 2013-2014 NALP Career Services Professionals Course for Mid-Career Professionals, and she will present “Alternative Careers for Career Services Professionals Without Secret Job Drawers” at the 2013 NALP National Education Conference in Tampa.

About susangainen

Whimsical Wildlife Documentarian. Abstract Painter. Writer. Teacher. Explorer.
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