But after months of looking for a nonlawyer job that would put all that education to work and help pay off some of the nearly $85,000 in student loan debt, Allam began to think she’d made a mistake by going the law degree route.
“People don’t see the value in the joint degree. They think I’m confused,” she said.
In hindsight, Allam said she would have forgone the juris doctor degree and pursued just the MBA. But at the time she started law school, she was convinced that a J.D. diploma could open doors to a wide variety of job options.
“They made it sound like there were so many careers you could go into,” said Allam, now a client engagement manager with Wipro Technologies in Columbus, Ohio. “I definitely think all the interviews I had were because I was in business school and not because I had a law degree.”
Law schools and placement professionals frequently tout the versatility of a law degree as a path to alternative careers. But even in good economic times, the advantage of a juris doctor degree in landing a job in another field may well be overblown.
With student loan debt at an all-time high and law schools churning out about 44,000 degrees each year, graduates looking for nonlawyer jobs are finding that they often are priced out, overqualified and undervalued.
A specialized world
The upshot for many is that, while they appreciate the knowledge they gained, they find that they are no more marketable — and sometimes less — than if they’d avoided the law school ordeal altogether.
To be sure, current employment prospects for the vast majority of all graduates are bleak. In October alone, the legal sector unloaded 1,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In the past 12 months, some 14,700 lawyers, paralegals and staffers in the legal sector have lost their jobs, the BLS found.
And in a tight job market where all types of employers have reams of résumés from which to choose when filling an opening, a law degree can look like baggage they’d rather sidestep.
“The world is a much more specialized place now,” said Stephen Seckler, managing director in the Boston office of BCG Search, a placement firm. Seckler has written about the “myths” of going to law school, one of which is job flexibility that a law degree provides.
“Going to law school gives you a certain set of credentials that really aren’t valuable for anything other than practicing law,” he said.
The percentage of law graduates obtaining jobs in professions other than the practice of law has declined slightly in the past five years. Last year, 5.1% of law graduates took jobs in other professions, compared with 5.8% in 2002, according to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).
But precise information about the number of law graduates who take nonlegal jobs is difficult to come by, said James Leipold, executive director of NALP. Graduates who enter alternative careers are harder to track, he said.
“They’re much less likely to self-report to their [law school] career services office that they’re working at Woolworth’s,” he said.
For those law grads looking for nontraditional work, dozens of books and videos and countless articles are out there proclaiming the relevance of a law degree to entrepreneurship, public relations, human resources, teaching, writing, sales and more.
But having a law degree from Texas Tech University School of Law put Teye Kutasi in an “in-between position,” she said.
“People didn’t know what to do with me,” said Kutasi, a lobbyist with management consultancy Floridian Partners in Miami.
She said that the law degree she received last spring has been “hugely beneficial” in her state-level lobby work, but that her job is highly specialized to fit closely with a law degree.
As an intern during her third year of law school for the Florida House of Representatives, Kutasi knew that working in the legislative process was the direction she wanted her career to go. It wasn’t until she started looking for full-time work, however, that she discovered the odd spot that she was in.
“I had a really difficult time finding the niche that I was capable of filling for people,” she said.
She was overqualified for most associate-level lobbying positions, she said, but for higher-level positions, such as director of legal affairs, she didn’t have enough experience. Having a law degree gives her added credibility in her job, Kutasi said, but she said that law schools and job-finding guides exaggerate the benefits.
“It’s a huge financial investment, and that’s not considered enough,” she said.
In 2007, law students attending private law schools borrowed an average of $87,906, according to the American Bar Association. Students in public law schools borrowed an average of $57,170 in 2007.
When looking for that first big job after law school, it is critical for law graduates who seek alternative careers to “educate” employers about the skills that a juris doctor degree can provide, said Lisa Patterson, associate dean for career services at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School.
Often, nonlawyer employers haven’t encountered applicants with a law degree, and they are unsure about how those graduates’ education will fit with a position.
“It’s about self-marketing,” she said.
Patterson maintains that the outlook for law graduates seeking nonlawyer jobs right now is brighter than for students who are only considering positions as lawyers.
She is pressing students to think about careers in regulatory and compliance work, given the change in administration with the election of Barack Obama as president.
The fact that young people attend law school as a way to forestall making a decision about their professional direction means that many of them end up seeking nonlawyer jobs when they graduate, said Erik Mazzone, director of the Center for Practice Management of the North Carolina Bar Association.
They are often disappointed when they want jobs in other professions and realize the limits of their education, he said.
“It’s like telling someone who wants to be a forest ranger to go to medical school first,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a great return on investment.”
A graduate of Boston College Law School, Mazzone was in private practice at the firm now known as Nixon Peabody and at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, before becoming a consultant and then taking a job with the North Carolina Bar Association.
Whether graduates fresh out of law school have better luck getting nonlawyer jobs than lawyers who have practiced for a while is unclear.
Stephen Fine, founder of AlternativeLawyerJobs.com, asserts that seasoned lawyers have a broader array of choices because they often have acquired experience and contacts in a particular field, which can serve them well when switching careers.
“Where people have expertise, there is opportunity,” he said.
But Seckler of BCG Search said that years in the profession make it harder to break out.
“The longer you’ve been practicing, the harder it is for people to picture you in some other role,” Seckler said.
In addition, those who are accustomed to “thinking like a lawyer” may be adept at identifying potential pitfalls and problems in certain situations. But those skills don’t easily transfer to other businesses where risk-taking is crucial, he said.
“If you want to be successful, you have to think more like an optimist,” he said. “There is a change in thinking that has to go on.”
University of Virginia School of Law graduate Mary Porter said she was “casting about” after a stint at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as an associate. “I knew I didn’t want to be in a big firm,” she said. Porter discovered her entrepreneurial streak while working at the Answer Network, a technology startup in Seattle during the 1990s. Today, she is the chief executive of Curiosity Zone, a hands-on science center for children in Ashburn, Va.
“Sometimes I think I should’ve gone to business school instead of law school,” Porter said. Even so, she said that her experience as an antitrust lawyer gave her the confidence she needed to develop and run her own company.
“Once you’re a lawyer, you can’t be intimidated in business,” she said. “It helps you see around corners.”
Author C.D. Mitchell doesn’t regret working as a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney for seven years before leaving the field to get a master of fine arts degree. He is a writing instructor at the University of Alabama and quit the practice of law after becoming disillusioned about being able to make a positive impact on his community as a lawyer.
His 23-year-old son is in the process of applying to the University of Arkansas School of Law for the upcoming school year. He is tempted to discourage him from going.
“It’s something you’d better be damn sure you want to do,” Mitchell said.