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Advance a Law-Related Career Without Passing the Bar

Delece Smith-Barrow

People with an interest in law but not getting J.D. - or with a J.D., but who haven't passed the bar - still have job options even in this competitive market, experts say.

And those opportunities may soon expand, as the American Bar Association's Task Force on the Future of Legal Education recently recommended the legal community explore, among other steps, creating licenses for nonlawyers to perform certain kinds of legal work.

In a September draft report, the task force described several ways to revamp law school and the profession of law, but it also discussed the need for more people to offer legal services.

However, there are several law-related career paths available right now to students contemplating law school or who are on the verge of graduating from a J.D. program, experts say.

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Those interested in patent law, for example, can work at the United States Patent and Trademark Office as a patent examiner without passing the bar.

In this role, law graduates can learn about the approval process for patents and receive great training for a career in patent law, says Shauna Bryce, who offers career guidance through her company Bryce Legal Career Counsel. "You learn all about the agency rules and regulations and their statutes."

Financial services is another industry that welcomes law school graduates, but doesn't require them to take the bar. Job seekers with a J.D. can tailor their search to firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte or Ernst & Young. Law graduates can do compliance work, which involves helping make sure the financial entity complies with federal regulations, she says.

"They are almost always hiring entry-level positions," says Bryce, a graduate of the law school at Harvard University. "A lot of those entry-level positions are J.D. preferred but not required."

A J.D. is not required to work in human resources, either, but can be of value, says Patricia Rosier, president of the National Bar Association.

"Because of their skills and education, they are able to identify laws that are applicable in the personnel area," Rosier says.

If the public sector is more your speed, law graduates should consider working for Uncle Sam.

"In any business or government agency there's a need for someone who can interpret legal statutes and things like that without necessarily having to have a legal opinion from a lawyer," Rosier says.

Graduates can also do legislative work and clerk for a state legislator. This job allows law graduates to experience the legal process from the beginning, when laws are drafted, Bryce says.

If law graduates eventually want to work at a firm as an associate, a position that usually requires bar passage, Bryce encourages them to make the transition after two or three years working in a law-related job.

"While law firms like to hire people with some practical skills, as you start to go up the corporate ladder in another environment, it becomes hard for you mentally to transition back to being entry level at a law firm," she says. "While it's law-related work, it isn't the practice of law. So at some point people do reach a crossroads."

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There are also several career paths available to people with a passion for law but who don't have a J.D. The next two or three years may see substantial growth in these types of jobs, says Betsi Roach, executive director of the Legal Marketing Association. It focuses on the business aspect of developing a successful law practice.

"We're forecasting a 14 percent increase in legal marketing and business development professionals," Roach says.

If someone hasn't gone to law school, but has an interest in law, he or she may work as a communications manager or chief marketing officer, or in functional roles for social media, market research or pricing strategy, Roach says.

Business school graduates can be especially coveted by law firms for non-attorney roles. "More and more, firms want an MBA because that's where that analytical development is really going to be helpful," Roach says.

Becoming a paralegal is also a popular option for people who want to work at a firm but not as a lawyer, experts say. Paralegals support attorneys and do a lot of administrative work. People frequently use this job as a steppingstone for becoming a lawyer, says Bryce.

"Being a paralegal can give you a really good overview of how a case proceeds from start to finish," she says.

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Bryce encourages people contemplating a career in law to think about their entire career trajectory.

"One of the keys of good decision-making is thinking about the long term," she says. "Sometimes what benefits you in the short term does not benefit you in the long term."

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