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The ex judicata Checklist for Lawyers Who Want to Transition to a Nonlegal Career

Making the leap from practicing attorney to businessperson is almost certainly the most daunting professional challenge you will ever undertake.  If you are a litigator, it is more difficult than arguing your first motion.  If you are a corporate attorney, it is harder than your first lead on an M&A deal.

We at ex judicata have all made the jump.  Some of us started from point A with a long list of alternative careers for lawyers and worked from there. We have experience.  We have been in your shoes.  What follows is our take on the critical elements you need to have in place to make a successful move to a business role. This is the ‘getting your house in order ‘part’ The process of choosing a new career and succeeding in that nonlegal career are topics covered throughout exjudicata.com.

  1. Money.  For the cautious–make sure you have enough put aside to take what will most likely be an immediate hit to your yearly income.  For the super cautious—Add to this an amount you think may be necessary if your first business job doesn’t work out in which case it’s not only less of an income, but also no income for a period.

We know student debt is an important consideration for many.  The absolute first thing to do is calculate how much you really owe.  A surprising number of attorneys do not know.  Often because it’s painful to think about, it’s easy to put it into the category of ‘things that will somehow work out’.

The next step should be getting the latest information on debt management and forgiveness from websites like studentloanhero.com, studentloanplanner.com or fitbux.com.

Alternatively, you should consider talking to a Certified Financial Planner.  Apparently, you can even find some advisors who were formerly attorneys.  There is a further designation that some Certified Financial Planners have, CSLP.  Certified Student Loan Professional.  We’ve seen no indication that a top Certified Financial Planner needs to be a CSLP.

A quick note on timing if things don’t work out.  This isn’t like making a move from XYZ law firm to ABC law firm.  Here, assuming you have the credentials, if ABC isn’t the place for you, you can probably go to DEF law firm with little problem. It typically takes longer to go from one business job to another. That’s the reality in the world of alternative careers for lawyers.

  1. Family support.  It is not at all uncommon for spouses and other close relatives to worry that you are making a mistake.  “You’ve got a good job as a lawyer in a profession.  “What do you know about doing___?”  “Why would you make a move with a cut in pay?”  You’ll want to spend some time here calmly answering any questions that your family has.  And, you may have to repeat your performance like a trained stage animal more than onceIt will be worth it.  You don’t need any negativity surrounding you at a time when you are taking on a new challenge emotionally, psychologically, and financially.
  1. Begin the process of building your own unique personal brand. 

You are going to sell yourself just like P&G sells Tide.  You are the product that employers will want to buy

If you feel you need professional help, we have assembled a hand-picked all-star group of experts in our Career Corner who can provide guidance.

If you are joining a company in a role not given to attorneys before you’ll be examined more closely…

  1. An additional layer of due diligence.  It’s amazing that so few attorneys take this critical step.  That is, speaking to someone who was an attorney and transitioned into the business position you are contemplating.  It’s unlikely that this will be someone in the company you are applying to.  If so, great.  Talk to them.  In most cases, you’ll have to do a little digging.  Career/Alumni offices at your law school are a good place to start. Many times there’s a loose-leaf book lying around with Alternative Careers for Lawyers written on it.  It’s usually a catch-all for any information gathered about nonlegal careers.  Included many times are bios of graduates now working in non-practicing roles.

You want to find out the following:

  • How have lawyering skills been of benefit to the person in their role?
  • Are there any courses they took or can recommend that will be of value to you? (such as Financial Fluency for Lawyers to business)
  • What was the biggest surprise to the person? Both positive and negative.
  • Is there one piece of advice you should keep in mind in particular?
  • Assuming the person has been in the position for some period what has been their path of advancement?

We assume you’ve done traditional financial due diligence on the company you are considering joining.  It is especially critical, now, when there are so many startups.

  1. Get your wardrobe in order.  There used to be a real difference in the way lawyers dressed as compared to businesspeople in Corporate America.   Law was a formal profession.  This started to change with the advent of “Dress down Fridays” and then further as west coast-based law firms came to prominence.  Their lawyers started to mirror the outfits of the software, hardware and internet executives they worked for (Students of law firms gone haywire will recall, Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison was a pioneer in dress down.  They also advanced the practice of taking equity in lieu of fees from promising startup clients.  In the year 2000, Brobeck had 750 attorneys, PPP of over $1.0 million and the starting salary for associates was $135,000!.  Then the dot com crash and the firm was bankrupt by 2003).

But, even, Brobeck never took dress down too far.  West coast lawyers then and now don’t wear t shirts in the office even though many of their clients do.  There will always be a herd mentality in law firms whereby attorneys dress as a group.  City by city.   If lawyers at XYZ law firm on Wall Street in New York dress a certain way odds are that attorneys at ABC law firm uptown on Sixth Avenue dress the exact same way.

It’s not the same in Corporate America.  Sticking with New York as an example, a company in Tribeca may dress one way and a company on Madison Avenue another way. 

The critical takeaway is this.  During the interview process pay careful attention.  Take notes immediately after if you must.  Seriously.  We don’t recommend asking someone where they got their suit during an interview.  It can be seen as trying to win favor.  It is ideal to have a few outfits purchased in advance once you’ve got a sense for what people wear.  It’s just one less variable you’ll have to worry about during your period of ‘change’ if you will.

  1. Be prepared to be scrutinized.  If you are joining a company in a role not given to an attorney before you’ll be examined more closely than a non-attorney would be in the same role.  Sometimes it may be very direct: “You know we’ve never had an attorney in this position before.” “How did you even find this job?  It’s not as if it was listed in a book on alternative careers for lawyers.”

Not to put too much pressure on you but you’ll be representing the profession and in your own way making it easier for other attorneys to transition as we chalk up another success in the ether.

  1. Be emotionally ready.  See immediately above.
  1. Take the books with you. By all means bring along your Lawyer’s Desk Book, Black’s Law Dictionary, copy of the immortal Calamari and Perillo on Contracts or whatever.  It’s like having old friends around.  And the next best thing to displaying your diplomas.  See below.

We should point out that not everyone agrees on this point.  They feel this may be showing off.  Telling everyone you are an attorney.

  1. Leave the diplomas at home.  Lawyers, Doctors and other ‘professionals’ need to display their credentials.  Corporate America generally don’t.
  1. Be ready for a more supportive, non-confrontational business environment.  Yelling and screaming have no place here.  In other words, don’t be a jerk.

Further to this, treat your subordinates well.  There is no place for a ‘kick the dog because I was kicked’ mentality.

Good luck.  If you are this far down the line chance are good, you are making the right decision.

.Ed

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