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Think carefully before joining recession rush to graduate school, lawyers say

Many opportunities for upskilling both in and outside the college campus

Think carefully before joining recession rush to graduate school, lawyers say
Paulette Pommells

Laid off or underemployed? If you’re thinking of going back to school, you’re probably not alone.

When work slows, many people choose to revisit their education and bolster their resumes: College, master and doctorate graduates represented larger shares of overall graduates in 2009-2010 compared with 2005, StatsCan found when profiling labour market outcomes and student debt of the class of 2009-2010. On the other hand, nearly any university webpage will tell you that some of the most prestigious positions in government and industry are held by graduates of LLM, MBA and PhD programs.

But lawyers and career coaches say that other opportunities — such as professional associations, business development, conferences, mentorship and Continuing Professional Development — can be a better use of time for some lawyers. 

Ottawa-based sole practitioner Amy Grubb says that she doesn’t often get asked about education from clients or from other lawyers — but the issue of expertise does come up.

“As long as you're a lawyer licensed to practice, clients aren't necessarily asking for more education. They're not looking to see if you have an LLM or something beyond. They're really looking for: Have you done this type of work in the past? Is this your area of expertise?” says Grubb, who also works as a career coach for lawyers interested in going out on their own or looking for mentorship groups.

Grubb says she urges people not to make decisions based on paying the bills in the current market — but to envision where they want to end up in five years and work towards that.

“I think sometimes lawyers get really caught up in the hustle, and competition, and they see other lawyers doing certain things. And then they think, ‘Oh, I need to do that as well. But it's not something that's going to get them closer to the goals,” she says. “You can look into ways that you can really stand out from the competition.  In terms of running your own business, perhaps you take that money, and you build a really great website. Or perhaps you start a podcast in your area of expertise. There are so many different ways you can use that money to build up your business, build up your thought leadership and your marketing, if you decide not to go the education route.”

Justin Nasseri, who co-founded a boutique firm, says that he is investing any downtime into networking — hoping to live off the dividends and keep referrals flowing in a slow market.

“I own a small boutique, I've had other lawyers reach out and say, ‘Workflow has flowed down. What should I be doing right now?’” he says. “There are opportunities to broaden your network and to improve your knowledge base. And that's a much more, I think, cost effective way to sort of prepare yourself for success on the other side of this thing. We used to have the luxury of saying, ‘Well, extra education never hurts, it'll be a tool, it will be an asset.’ But today, things like tuition and cost of living, have grown exponentially and the compensation for lawyers and people in the legal field has not caught up with that.”

Nasseri says he is also reading a lot of caselaw — since, as Grubb points out, clients don’t want to be paying lawyers to learn the law.

“Today, you have to really carefully consider whether it's a good investment to pursue further education. Beyond the innate benefit of increasing your knowledge, is it going to impact your marketability? Is it going to help you find work or more work or better paying work? is it relevant to what you want to do in the field? And I think that's the key question,” he says.

“I could foresee contexts in which having an LLM could be helpful if you're if you're a highly specialized lawyer, or if you want to pursue you know, teaching or maybe a non-practising career on the side. But if you're a practicing lawyer, I'm not sure that in today's market an LLM is necessarily going to get you ahead.”

Paulette Pommells, who runs the Toronto-based career coaching company Creative Choices for the 21st Century Lawyer Inc., says she has had clients in certain practice areas considering an LLM that would likely pay off.

“For him, it's less of a risk to even consider the decision, because it does make sense for the area that he's practicing and for the work that he wants to do. It's the financial burden. That's more of the risk that he's really trying to weigh now,” she says.

She also said that her clients have taken a variety of other pathways, including switching paths altogether and using their legal background as an asset in another field. Sometimes a lawyer may be wondering whether they should devote more time to learning their clients’ industry, or more time to learning on the legal side. In those cases, she says, she encourages people to think about personalities, skills, cognitive strengths, and what would make them happy. 

While adding another certification to one’s resume may seem to open up job opportunities, an experienced resume writer can also help candidates tailor their existing cover letter and resume to a job description, she notes.

“The concept of underemployment — how to make yourself marketable when things turn — it really depends on the individual. Because when I'm working with an individual, it's really tailored to what their goals are and what it is that they're trying to achieve,” she says.

“I think a lot of it has to do with people figuring out — as they are working — who they actually are. And I don't think, necessarily, school answers that for everyone. I think sometimes it's just gaining that maturity. You know, rolling up your sleeves, doing the work and figuring it out as you go along.”

 

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