Five "Off The Wall" Strategies For Changing Legal Careers

It is probably more difficult now than ever before for a lawyer to change careers in midlife. A downsized economy, combined with fear and uncertainty from the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, mean few if any job opportunities for lawyers in transition.

That does not mean that opportunities are not available, or that you should just "stay put" and weather the storm until things get better. They may not get better for years. More than ever before, the job opportunities of the future will go to those brave lawyers who are willing to go beyond their "comfort zones" and make the opportunities happen, force open doors that are now closed to them, and do the "off the wall" things that other lawyers (heck, even their own families and friends) view as crazy or ruthlessly aggressive.

If you are looking for work, or are looking to change the focus of your practice, here are several "off the wall" strategies that may work. They all entail a certain amount of risk, but the rewards are great if you hit the mark.

Strategy No. 1: Work for Free

If your financial situation will allow you a few months of independence, offer your services free of charge for a limited period of time to local law firms and/or corporate employers. This strategy is especially useful if you are looking to change specialties or develop new legal expertise. Let's say, for example, that you are a corporate lawyer who wants to develop litigation skills. Apprenticing yourself to a local law firm for a year, at no cost to the firm, you will do a lot of the important "grunt work" that litigators have to learn (such as committing your state court's practice book to memory) to be successful. Once the year is over, and the firm gets to know and like you, you are in a good position to cut a deal with them for a paying position, or go off on your own with some solid litigation credentials. Look at it as a free education, not as free labor, and you will be able to grind your teeth and get through it.

Strategy No. 2: Try the "Of Counsel" Gambit

This one worked well for me once, and it can for you. If you practice in an area that is in demand locally but is too highly specialized for local firms to develop internally, ask several of your local law firms if they would consider an "of counsel" relationship.

"Of counsel" relationships are basically real estate deals. You get an office (maybe even a furnished one if the firm) without having to pay rent. You offer to do up to X hours a week for the firm's clients without charge, which they can then bill to their clients at 100% profit. That is your rent payment. The rest of your time you use to develop a client base. If your clients need other types of legal assistance that you are not qualified to provide, you refer them to other attorneys in your firm (for a referral fee, to the extent that is ethical). The firm has no legal liability for your malpractice, and is getting "free labor". You are getting an opportunity to build a practice in a supportive environment, so both sides win.

Because an "of counsel" lawyer is essentially a solo practitioner, you will have to carry your own malpractice insurance, make up your own business cards and stationery, etc. You will also have to watch out carefully for conflicts of interest between your "personal" clients and the host firm's clientele.

Strategy No. 3: Free-Lance for Other Lawyers

If an "of counsel" relationship is not feasible, a law firm or corporate legal department may be willing to hire you on an "outsourcing" or consulting basis. In this arrangement you do not have an office or physical presence at the client's business locations. Instead, you work out of your home, or rented office space, and are essentially a solo practitioner, but one who functions solely as a "subcontractor" for other lawyers.

This strategy works especially well if you have an unusual specialty (such as ERISA, health care or immigration law) that is highly complex and not likely to be developed by most law firms internally. You would be surprised, however, how many small to midsized corporations cannot find affordable legal help and cannot afford to hire a general counsel to oversee their legal affairs. Offering your services as a legal generalist to such firms on an "outsourcing" basis may be the first step to building a solid relationship with a fast-growing client that may hire you someday as General Counsel. It would also be a great way to build your knowledge base in areas of the law you have not practiced in before and want to know in a "general" way, since most small to midsized corporations do not have "rocket science" issues to deal with.

Strategy No. 4: Get an Advanced Degree

It never hurts to be an authority in your field. A corporate lawyer with an L.L.M. in Taxation or Securities Law is always more desirable than one who doesn't have this degree. I have one or two friends who are going further and getting S.J.D. (that's the equivalent of a legal Ph.D.) degrees, in the hopes possibly of qualifying for academic positions down the road. Getting an advanced degree will require time and money, and may require you to "drop out" of the profession for a while. But it pays dividends in the long run, especially if the advanced degree qualifies you to participate in a fast-growing specialty.

Strategy No. 5: Become an Expert

Strange as it may seem to some lawyers, you do not need an advanced degree to become an expert in something you don't know anything about. Every once in a while, when I am giving my "legal career management" program at law schools and bar associations, a student will ask "hey Cliff, you're a great guy, but you are not a psychologist, a Human Resources executive, or a career counselor. What qualifies you to teach people how to interview for legal jobs?"

My response is always the same: "three things. First, I have interviewed with over 1,000 law firms, corporations and government agencies in my 20 year career, and Iremember everything I did wrong in each interview. Second, I have made six successful job changes during my career, and I remember everything I did right to make those changes happen. Finally, and most importantly, I wrote and published the first book ever written on how to interview for a legal job before anyone else thought to write one."

It has been said before: if you really want to master something, write a book about it. Or an article for Business Lawyer or other widely-read legal publication (forget law reviews - only academics and the occasional appellate court judge read them). Or a "layman's English" article for your local newspaper or business magazine. Read everything you can about the subject. Attend trade shows and make friends within the industry who can show you the "real world" and the way things really work in the field.

For example, let's say you have decided that "the law of terrorism" is going to become a hot new field in the next decade (a not unreasonable assumption), but you have never dealt with a terrorist situation before. There is nothing, other than your own timidity, that prevents you from becoming the world's leading authority on terrorism law. Read everything you can on the subject. Study the criminal statutes and regulations of countries like Israel, Egypt and the United Kingdom that have had much more experience than us in dealing with terrorists. Attend law enforcement seminars about terrorism and defensive techniques (believe me, there will be a lot of those cropping up soon), and don't worry that you are the only lawyer in the room. Heck, if you are the only lawyer in the room, that's terrific! Make friends with law enforcement officials with extensive experience in dealing with terrorists, even if you have to travel overseas at your own expense to make their acquaintance. Write articles for local business publications on "protecting your business from terrorist attacks". Prepare a book proposal on the subject and submit it to literary agents (for the general reader - the multivolume legal treatise on terrorism law that other lawyers will use as a standard reference comes later). Get your name out there before anyone else does.

And above all, don't worry that your lack of experience or credentials will expose you to claims of fraud. If you have done your homework well, and have studied the subject more than anyone else has, well then, Hell, you ARE the world's leading authority on terrorism law! Be proud of it, flaunt it shamelessly and without fear, and be sure to charge fees befitting your exalted status.