Shifting Sides – Advice for Those Considering Non-Practicing Roles at Law Firms (Part 1 of 2 Posts)

Each year I have the pleasure of speaking with many lawyers who are considering transitioning to a non-practicing role at a law firm.  I always encourage practicing lawyers to take the time to research these roles and do all they can to understand how they differ from legal practice.  This will be Part 1 of a two-part post on this topic.  This post will cover general information about how the work and experience can differ from practice. Part 2 will provide detail about the interviewing process, specific resources you can consult and sample questions to ask as you decide whether this move is right for you. In that spirit, outlined below are several factors to consider.

Survey the Landscape – The number of non-practicing roles at firms continues to grow, so the opportunities abound.  Some common areas include legal recruiting, professional development, diversity and inclusion, learning/training, business development and marketing, knowledge management, project management, and strategy.  Take the time to learn more about each discipline, what they do and how these departments are usually structured. 

Talk to People -  I am a big fan of informational interviews whether you’re considering a role like this or some other move.  When I was considering shifting full time to professional development, I spoke with at least 20 people across disciplines to learn more about how and why they made their shift.  The community of professionals in these roles is quite welcoming and willing to share their stories.

Talk with colleagues at your current firm.  If that is not viable or you feel uncomfortable, ask friends at other firms to connect you with colleagues there.  Network and consult resources like LinkedIn to determine other connections you may have.  Don’t forget to check out local bar association resources and your law school alumni resources as well (whether a database you have access to or the alumni counselor in the career services office). I can’t stress how vital and helpful this step is.

Status Shift - One of the more amorphous but real aspects of moving into a non-practicing role can be the status and perception shift that can come with the move.  Practicing lawyers are fee earners; they bring in money.  When you shift into a non-practicing role, you are joining the business services side of the Firm and thus a cost center.  You are also starting over, so, depending on the role, you may have to take a more junior position in order to make the move and signal that you are serious about this new career path.  You may have a steep learning curve with new systems, jargon, and ways of working.  Knowing this status shift can happen will go a long way in making your transition easier.  It’s also usually temporary, and once you get into the flow of your work, you likely won’t be focused on it. 

Dollars and Cents – The salaries and bonus structures for these roles vary depending both on your job title and daily responsibilities.  It is possible that your salary will decrease (in some circumstances materially so).  You will no longer receive lockstep annual salary increases, and your bonus scale and frequency may vary as well. Your benefits package may also differ from what you received as an associate. I strongly encourage you to conduct a personal financial audit before making this move so you can figure out your salary and benefits needs.

Job Titles– The titles associated with these roles vary depending on the function, but they tend to follow something along these lines (from junior to senior roles):  Assistant/Specialist, Coordinator, Manager, Director and Chief.  While you may think you have the skillset to start at a manager/director role, that may not be possible out of the gate.  The knowledge and skills you will need for these roles may be different from what you need as a practicing attorney.  Also, remember that the pool of candidates for these roles tends to be broader in scope and will include non-lawyers who will have degrees and substantive experience different than you.     

Administrative – You will very likely have more administrative tasks in these roles and, depending on the resourcing in your group, you may find yourself handling more things than you do as an attorney.  This can range from increased levels of paperwork, following structured processes and a higher level of repetitive/cyclical activity.  Once I got used to this change, I was able to view these new tasks differently and embrace them as an opportunity to learn more about the operations at the firm, get to know and partner with new colleagues, make processes more efficient and expand my substantive knowledge and skills.

A New Kind of Substance – People often asked me if I miss practicing.  I don’t, but I do share with them that at times I miss the substantive elements involved with the transactions I worked on.  In retrospect, working on fast-paced transactions, participating in intense negotiations and complex legal drafting really pushed me to grow, think creatively and expanded my knowledge about industries, business norms, and corporate strategy.  I also was regularly pushed out of my comfort zone and forged many lifelong friendships (and stories!) while in the trenches with my deal teams.  The good thing, I can now say, is that much of that remained the same in the professional development world.  Sure it was an adjustment, but I have learned so much about my area of focus, been mentored and challenged, connected with colleagues and professionals outside of the firm.  I also have enhanced my communication, writing, presentation and managerial skills as a result.  So the substance remains; it just looks different. 

Horizontal Growth – One of the most important things to realize is that your professional growth could be more horizontal than vertical at times.  With no more lockstep advancement, you may be in your current role, with your current title, for a number of years.  So it will be important to find ways to grow horizontally by taking on new projects and learning opportunities and doing all you can not to remain stagnant.

Your Next Thing –  One of the seminal take always from Stephen Covey's book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is, to begin with the end in mind. I believe this is particularly important with these roles given my earlier observation about horizontal vs. vertical growth. Keep your eyes and ears open, forge relationships with people in and outside of law firms.  Join trade organizations and become active.  Read and stay abreast of developments in the discipline and marketplace.  Knowing what you ideally want to get out of this role can have a meaningful impact on the options open to you if you decide to move on at some point. 

Taking on a non-practicing role at a law firm can be rewarding and will allow you to stay connected to legal practice in a unique and challenging way.  Before making the move, I encourage you to do your diligence and talk to as many people as you can so you can make a thoughtful decision.   Please check back for my next post where I’ll provide more detailed information about resources and interviewing for these roles. 

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