How I learned about the alternative career opportunities that legal education provides in Canada

As the president of a group aiming to widen the conversation, I can see there is no ‘typical’ path

Simon Rollat

It has been said that law is the only profession with an industry dedicated to helping you leave it. Nobody knows this better than Randi Bean, founder and president of Life After Law, a recruiting firm that places lawyers of all levels into non-traditional roles by finding alternate ways to apply their legal skills.

“There are so many things that lawyers could be doing that are so different from traditional practice,” Bean recently told me. “I don’t think there was enough focus in law school on careers; on how to prepare yourself for the real world, once you’re out of school and transitioning into the work world.”

Yet, this is slowly being addressed by Canadian law faculties. As a law student at McGill University, I run a group called “DALA” which aims to empower law students and legal professionals by widening the conversation about where a legal education can take them. I spoke to Bean on behalf of DALA to gain more insight about opportunities for law students.

DALA was founded in 2015 with the support of McGill’s Law Faculty administration and continues to thrive.

When I asked Robert Leckey, dean of the McGill Faculty of Law, about his perception of DALA’s work, he said: “The traditional downtown firms that recruit on campus represent just a fraction of the career paths pursued by our graduates. Our graduates take the valuable knowledge and skills they gain at McGill into a vast range of careers, in many cases doing jobs they never heard of while they were students (or that didn’t exist then). We support DALA to help our students grasp the rich spectrum of possibilities.”

DALA features interviews with professionals who have pursued alternative legal careers, such as lawyers-turned-authors, -bakers, -policy advisors and even -chocolate entrepreneurs!

People do leave the legal field. Canadian statistics are not readily available, but in the United States, an estimated 40,000 lawyers walk away from their jobs each year.

Even when a lawyer chooses to pursue a non-traditional career path, they continue to benefit from legal skills applicable in various settings.

“The skills we gain in law school are transferable — be it the power of persuasion or the ability to think critically, to write succinctly, or to solve problems,” Larry Markowitz told me. Markowitz is a senior advisor at NATIONAL, an independent public relations firm, and a former securities and corporate law practitioner.

“When I’m advising a client on how to navigate a public relations crisis, my focus on the precise choice of words in our messaging and my strategic planning—what to say, to whom to say it and when to say it—are not unlike the strategic counsel I used to provide my law firm clients,” Markowitz said. “In fact, in a crisis, we public relations professionals typically find ourselves working alongside legal counsel.”

A survey of DALA’s online profiles reveals that a fair share of the lawyers we interviewed who switched careers were burned out from their law jobs. Some lacked a sense of purpose. Others hated their jobs. Many simply came to the realization that it was time to change.

Another DALA interviewee, Joshua Fireman, founder and president of Fireman & Company, a leading legal industry-focused management consulting firm, shared his perspective: “As in-house counsel at Canadian Pacific, I was working on technology, negotiation and internet — all the fun stuff. When you realize your favourite parts of your job are the parts where you don’t practise law, you know you won’t follow a traditional lawyer’s career path.

“That doesn’t mean I regret my legal education,” added Mr. Fireman. “The law touches every form of human interaction. It is the set of rules that govern all of our human interactions, relationships and contacts, including those in the business world.”

Of course, not every lawyer possesses the boldness to make the big jump and embark on a less-travelled path to an uncertain destination.

“Making a career change requires a certain entrepreneurial mindset,” said Markowitz. “While lawyers do gain transferable skills through their education and work experience, they are also trained to be risk-averse and to contemplate worst case scenarios, meaning they are not always comfortable with change.”

During our discussion, Markowitz suggested several areas of focus to set the stage for a potential transition away from the traditional lawyer’s role:

  • Network — A supportive network of friends and acquaintances can be a referral source for finding new opportunities and can advocate on your behalf with potential employers or clients.
  • Reputation management — Developing and maintaining a good reputation is essential in any field. Your personal brand will follow you, regardless of your career path.
  • Live below your means — If you grow accustomed to a standard of living that is only sustainable by working in “Big Law,” you might feel trapped and unable to make a career change.

I was reminded of Fireman’s words: “Get called to the Bar, but don’t take out a mortgage before you decide what you want to do with your life.”

By now, it should be clear that there is no “typical” career path in law. As Steve Jobs famously said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

My position at DALA has given me great insight on this: the transferable skills you gain from attending law school and practising law are “dots” that will surely connect with your future, because regardless of your professional path, there will always be problems to solve, people to persuade and sentences to craft.

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