* Nonlegal Careers

Possession of a law degree doesn’t mean you have to practice law in order to prosper and enjoy life. Plus, online career planning resources.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 10/1/1999; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

It’s been nearly five years since I put my legal career on hold, and I haven’t looked back. Considering an Internet career path? Here’s how I got started.

I spent four years at MIT getting my degree in electrical engineering. To pay for MIT, I spent four years in the Air Force, part of the time flying planes (until the Air Force decided it didn’t want me landing its planes anymore) and part of the time flying a desk. I never really practiced electrical engineering while in the Air Force, but I did manage engineering projects. I left the Air Force to enter law school. I became a patent attorney, thinking this was a good way to combine my technical experience with my law degree. Although I clerked for a patent law firm while in school, I never practiced law.

Before and while I was in law school, I wrote five editions of my book The Legal List, Law-Related Resources on the Internet and Elsewhere, an early (and for some editions pre-Web) attempt at cataloging all the Internet’s law-related resources in one place. The Legal List took over my life for three-plus years.

When I graduated from law school, I had the option to pursue a career as a patent attorney or a career in the Internet. I decided I would work in the Internet marketspace for two years. I promised myself that if, at the end of that time, I was still having fun, I would continue to put my legal career on indefinite hold.

So I went to work, writing two more editions of my book for Lawyers Cooperative Publishing (then part of Thomson Publishing, now part of West Group), and working for Inherent.Com, a Portland, OR-based Internet services company. I then decided to apply the marketing, sales and project management skills I’d developed in the legal market to the business market in general. In mid-1997, I left the legal market and started working in marketing and sales for national Internet service provider Verio Inc.

I enjoyed working in the legal vertical market, but selling to lawyers and law firms can be quite difficult at times. Besides, the legal market is just one small part of the much larger business market I was eager to tackle.

It’s been nearly five years since I put my legal career on hold, and I haven’t looked back. I still pay my bar dues and keep my law practice alive. The few cases I get I refer to friends and colleagues.

It’s a Matter of Problem Solving

So why would an engineer want to be a lawyer? And why would a lawyer want to be an Internet marketeer?

In fact, the practice of law is very much like the practice of engineering. An engineer learns to break up complex problems into smaller ones that can be solved. This same sort of abstract thinking is involved in the practice of law, particularly intellectual properly law, and even more particularly copyright law. A copyright lawyer may be involved in drafting contracts to license different rights associated with the copyright. For example, one publisher may be granted the rights to publish the hardcover version of a book, another publisher may be granted the paperback rights and a studio may be granted the movie rights.

Similarly, marketing and selling Internet services to businesses involves the same skill sets as trying cases before a jury. An Internet salesperson and a trial attorney are both selling something intangible, both trying to remove objections, both working to a defined target audience, both emphasizing their product’s (or story’s) strengths and downplaying its weaknesses. Everything is marketing. Everything is sales.

MIT taught me how to think. Law school taught me how to refine my thinking. I firmly believe law school will build on the skills you learn in your undergraduate training, and those skills can be applied to your undergraduate discipline, to the legal field or to something seemingly unrelated. And the key word in that last sentence is “seemingly.” I mentioned above that Internet sales and trial work both involve selling skills. Selling skills also are required in landing your first job, getting engaged and buying a home.

In fact, I have a theory that one really learns only a handful of identifiable skills in a lifetime. Much of my thinking on this topic has been influenced by Mortimer J. Adler’s many excellent books, including A Guidebook to Learning: For the Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom. So far, I’ve come up with four life skills: 1) abstract thinking, 2) communication skills, 3) creative skills and 4) mechanical skills.

So a doctor may be good at abstract thinking and mechanical skills (e.g., surgical skills) but poor at creative and communicative skills. A pilot may have strong mechanical and communicative skills. An engineer and an attorney both would have strong abstract thinking skills. And a trial attorney and Internet marketer both would be strong communicators.

So if you ever feel you have to explain your career choices to your mother or your significant other, don’t. Your time in law school will be well spent regardless of whether you ever practice law. My career path is a bit odd, I suppose. But the one thing I have learned in talking with people is that everybody’s career path is unique. There is no rule about how to apply your law degree (or any degree, for that matter); there are only the exceptions to the rule that you create.

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