The U.S. has too many lawyers chasing too few partnership-track jobs at law firms, but there are other ways to make the most of a J.D. degree.
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: Last spring, I graduated from a good law school and, all these months later, I still can’t seem to get hired by a law firm in my (fairly large) city. Most of them seem to be shrinking, not growing, and the informational interviews I’ve had so far have been interesting mainly because they’re so negative. Even some partners at big firms have told me “off the record” that getting ahead in the profession has been both boring and grueling, a really bad combination, and I should find something else to do with my life. The question is what. Do you or your readers have any ideas about how I should broaden my job search? I’d still like to use my law degree if possible, especially since I went into debt to get it. — No Name, Please
Dear N.N.P.: When I put your question to Mark Newall, a senior vice president at Boston-based Keystone Associates Legal, he said your jaded interviewees have echoed what he hears every day as a career coach for disenchanted attorneys. “Not only are positions in law firms hard to get, but often people who’ve been at a firm for a while find they really want to do something else,” he says. “More and more, lawyers are telling me, ‘This just isn’t the job I thought it would be.’”
So maybe, by coming up empty in your job search so far, you’ve inadvertently dodged a bullet. Newall frequently counsels his clients to look for work in any of five main areas beyond traditional law firms. See if one of these strikes a chord with you:
1. In-house counsel: Going on staff at a corporation is especially attractive to attorneys with an interest in a particular industry but who still want to practice law, Newall says, adding that thriving in these jobs usually requires a knack for evaluating risk, advising senior management, and chiming in on business strategy.
Working in-house “also tends to be more of a 9-to-5 job than the 24-7 schedule at law firms,” he notes — which is probably one reason why most career-changing lawyers want to go this route, often jumping from a law firm to a client company. “It’s very competitive,” he cautions. “But luckily, it’s also where most of the demand for lawyers is, right now.”
2. Law firm administration: Newall, who ran HR at a big international law firm for 14 years, says there are plenty of roles at law firms that don’t require practicing law, including recruiting, training and development, and coordinating pro bono programs. So you might find out if any of the big firms where you’ve already applied as an attorney have openings in some other area that intrigues you.
For lawyers who already work at a law firm but want to change careers, “it’s usually easier to make this transition by going to a different firm,” Newall adds. “It’s hard to reinvent yourself by staying in the same place.”
3. Government: Uncle Sam hires lots of lawyers, as do state and local governments, and they do all kinds of work. “The quasi-federal postal system, for instance, needs attorneys in roles that range from procurement and government contracting, to handling real estate transactions, to litigating on the agency’s behalf,” Newall notes.
Pay tends to be much lower than in the private sector, but Newall points out that you may be able to offset that, at least in part, by having some or all of your law school loans erased. “Most student debt is in the form of government-backed loans, so there are special loan-forgiveness programs for incoming lawyers,” he says. “You can negotiate for that.”
4. Nonprofits: Public-interest organizations hire lawyers to do a vast variety of jobs from fundraising to lobbying, Newall notes, and they often have loan-repayment incentives similar to those offered by government agencies. “Many attorneys went to law school because they wanted to help others and ‘make a difference,’” Newall notes. Working for a nonprofit, he says, can fit that bill by “achieving positive change.”
5. “Temp” work: Cost-conscious companies are increasingly hiring lawyers to deal with short-term problems or projects, often through matchmakers like Counsel on Call or Outside GC. Demand for temporary legal help is “huge,” Newall says, but “many lawyers hesitate to go that route because it’s not a full-time staff job.”
On the other hand, as with any kind of temping, project work “is a way to get experience and exposure at different companies, so it can bridge you to an in-house position,” he points out. “Any time you go into a company to work, you’re also there to network, so you can meet lots of people who might be able to help you find the right position in the future.”
Of course, you’ll need to recast your resume to emphasize somewhat different experiences and interests, depending on what kind of organization and role you set your sights on, but you’d be smart to do that anyway. Good luck!
Talkback: If you have a law degree, have you found a job you like outside of a traditional law firm? How did you go about it? Leave a comment below.