Alternative Career Paths for Attorneys: Tips for Success - Priori

Alternative Career Paths for Attorneys: Tips for Success

By Priori Legal


Priori Senior Account Manager Erin Dunn shares advice from working in accounting, law and business development

Alternative career paths for attorneys are becoming so common it almost feels wrong to call them “alternative.” Whether working in a BigLaw firm doesn’t align with the goals you went into law school with, or you just find yourself drawn to a different type of work, many attorneys explore careers options outside of the practice of law (in fact, one popular guide lists 70+ ways lawyers have found success in other occupations). 

From Consulting to In-House Counsel to Business Development – Erin’s Journey 

Priori Senior Account Manager, Erin Dunn, has firsthand experience navigating alternative career paths as an attorney. Her desire to help people led her to law school after undergrad—although she jokes that “watching Legally Blonde nearly every week for a year probably pushed me in that direction” as well. However, she graduated from law school into the recession of 2008 and found that opportunities were few and far between in her areas of interest: family law, public policy and law reform. 

Instead of waiting to see what might happen, she used her accounting degree to find an opportunity at a large consulting firm in their forensic and litigation practice. It married her two passions, accounting and law, and also allowed her to cut her teeth on the largest Ponzi scheme investigation in history (which is ongoing to this day). After a decade of working in the consulting world, she got the itch to return to legal work and had an opportunity to move in-house as a commercial generalist. 

While she enjoyed in-house lawyering, she came to a realization. What she really loved about working in accounting and law was advising. After many conversations with people in her network, she concluded that business development could be the perfect role to foster this passion for connecting with people, and learning about what they do and how they do it. In her current role at Priori, she draws upon her consulting and in-house experience, talking to legal operations professionals and in-house attorneys every day, hearing what they have to say and offering advice. 

Advice for Attorneys Looking at Alternative Career Paths

Throughout Erin’s career in accounting, law and business development she has not only experienced a lot herself but also connected with professionals in myriad different roles. We sat down with her to talk about what she’s learned, advice she has for lawyers (and others) looking to make a change and much more. 

Be Prepared to Pivot

“I learned how to pivot before my career started because what I set out to do wasn’t available to me at the time I graduated,” she says. “I learned to pivot right away because after three years of law school and passing the bar, the opportunities I had imagined when I first started on this path in 2007 were not options at the time when law school came to an end.”

She explains that many lawyers are put in this position, regardless of the timing of their graduation. “Many lawyers finish law school not knowing what’s next. I like to remind law students and new lawyers that just because you don’t have a job lined up in the spring of your 3L year, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to end up lost or not in the place you want to be.” 

Her advice is to hit the ground running: “Talk to those in your network, talk to your office of career services, talk to the people who you know who were a year ahead of you and really explore every avenue to figure out where to go and what to do next.” 

The Importance of a Strong Network

“I think the network that each of us has is the most important piece of the puzzle for everything we do,” Erin says. “In a personal and professional setting, be expansive about how you approach your network. It’s not necessarily, ‘Looks like this company has an interesting role so I want to seek that person out and talk to them,’ although that could be the right strategy. It could also be, ‘This person in my network is connected with so many people and they’ve seen so many different things and I’m curious what they would say if I talk to them about what I want to do.’” 

How to Build Your Network

When you’re reaching out to someone to connect, whether it’s in person or on a social media site like LinkedIn, you’re making an ask. “You’re asking someone to invest in you and take that time to have a conversation,” Erin says. “My first tip is: Be bold. The worst thing somebody can do is say no, and that’s OK.”

She continues: “I think you have to utilize people in your network who you trust, whether that’s somebody you’ve known for 10 years who can help you frame where you’ve been and where you’re going or someone new to your network who you’ve met through a job or through LinkedIn or through work in your community. You should keep an open mind. Anyone who is willing to have that conversation with you and help you frame these issues that are really multifaceted and complicated can be helpful.” 

But what if you’re uncomfortable making an ask? “You need to get out there and if you feel unsure about it, offer something in return. ‘Hey, I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee,’ or ‘I’d love to share some of the insights I’ve learned from this interesting book I’m reading.’ Even if it’s just something simple, I think that allows people who don’t know you to open the door for you.”

Key Career Considerations

When figuring out what you want to do next, Erin recommends looking at your core beliefs and values. “What makes you tick?” she asks. “What makes you get out of bed in the morning? How do you like to spend your time? Answer these questions and bring all of your ideas together and think about how they might fit into a role.” 

If this sounds easier said than done, Erin has some advice for thinking about the right role. “Something that helped me when I was conducting a search and ended up coming to Priori was going through the exercise of building out my own role. I wrote down the aspects that were most important to me.” 

For Erin, two extremely important factors were the company’s mission and the actions she would be doing. “I wanted to be at a place where I felt personally aligned with the mission. I needed to believe in the company and trust and enjoy the people I worked with because that is such an important part of my day-to-day life.” 

Make Your Next Role Fit You

Erin explains that it’s unlikely you’re going to find a role that fits perfectly with everything you want, but listing your goals will help you find roles that fit with what you want to do. And once you get to the stage where you’re talking to a hiring manager, you can ask whether there is a way to include things you’re passionate about in the role even if they’re not listed in the job description. 

“You shouldn’t be scared to ask, ‘This is what I really enjoy doing, is it possible to do 90% of what you’ve described and then add some additional tasks where I think I can make a difference in the role?’ You’ll be showing your value and at the same time accomplishing your goal of getting closer to the role you want. And at a time when technology has us all moving so quickly, the hiring manager will likely appreciate you bringing it up.” 

Remember the Big Picture

“A career is a long, long time,” Erin says. “Don’t get too caught up in the minutia or the details and try to keep the big picture in mind. How can you move closer to something that’s within your core beliefs and core values, working for a great company with great people? If you’re moving those goals forward, everything else will fall into place.” 

The common refrain that your career is a marathon, not a sprint, is common for a reason. It’s true. “I think too often, especially with lawyers, legal operations professionals and people in adjacent careers, there is a mindset of ‘go, go, go.’ But I would encourage people to take a step back and think about their career as the vast expanse that it is. You can start a new career at 40 years old and have 30+ years left in that career. Time is fleeting but I think we all have a lot more time than we think to explore who we are, what we want to do, how we want to do it and who we want to do it with.” 

For additional insight from Erin into alternative career paths for attorneys, the world of in-house lawyers and legal operations and more, follow her on LinkedIn and check out her recent appearance on the Cockpit Counsel podcast. And if you’re an attorney who is curious about a new way to practice, consider joining the Priori Attorney Network to work with interesting clients, gain new experiences and work flexibly.

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