Should a Law Firm Hire an Associate Who Has Never Practiced Law?

What to Look for in Candidates Who Have Taken Nontraditional Paths

nonpracticing lawyer
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Some youthful J.D.s simply could not find jobs when they were fresh out of law school, so they might have wandered into different fields, for lack of better choices, and then stayed on either because their options were limited by the dismal status of the economy or because they did not want too many entries within too short a period to appear on their resumés. When these candidates now approach law firms for positions as attorneys, should the firms bother to take them on?

Thanks to the Great Recession and its aftermath along with growth of the do-it-yourself movement and the improved technology that makes that more possible, the legal market for traditional law firms has diminished, making for something of a lawyer glut, or, perhaps more accurately, a J.D. glut — because not everyone who graduates from law school goes directly to practicing law after passing the bar exam. Indeed, not everyone with a J.D. goes on to a job where a J.D. is required or even desirable.

Law schools in recent years have come under plenty of criticism for not exactly producing so-called ‘practice ready’ graduates. Often populated with career academics who have a tendency to perpetuate the legal education system as it currently stands, law schools famously are known for teaching students “how to think.” Teaching those students how to do what lawyers do — find clients, run conflicts checks, set up trust accounts, service those clients, manage a docket, market, operate billing systems, track time, negotiate, obtain financing, manage filing systems, hire and train personnel, make payroll, ding late-paying clients — was not historically a large part of the curriculum.

Sure, inroads in legal education have been made, with more law schools offering skills-based educational opportunities, such as legal clinics and beefed-up legal writing programs. Still, graduates tend to have to undergo plenty of on-the-job training before they are really well-functioning lawyers.

It’s an initiation that is not without its discomforts, both for the newbie lawyer and for his superiors who get to dedicate plenty of hours helping someone figure how to do legal work and run a law practice.

Any lawyer hiring flat-out newbies fresh out of law school, and just months away from having taken the bar exam, tends to understand what he is getting for his bargain — a moldable novice who can be trained and taught the business the way that particular law firm sees fit. It’s a deal that benefits both: the law firm obtains relatively inexpensive labor to be performed by someone grateful and enthusiastic about doing the work; the newbie gets a job and learns the trade. As a hiring attorney in this situation, you know what they don’t know. Those first-year associates have a tabula rasa you can write all over. You also know that you might have to write off a fair number of a fresh-out-of-law-school lawyer’s hours because these newly minted lawyers won’t be working all that efficiently no matter how happy they are to be a part of a law firm.

Long-out-of-law-school candidates who never practiced law may present a bit more of a predicament. The question is, of course, what have they been doing and why haven’t they been practicing law?

They might have pursued positions where a J.D. is desirable but not a necessity, such as one working in regulatory affairs for a government agency or lobbying. They might have been working in a related industry, such as legal publishing, or they might have worked at a major firm in a nonlawyer capacity, such as in marketing or information technology. Or they might have graduated with so-so grades from a so-so law school at a particularly unfortunate moment in the legal industry and taken a job doing something wholly unrelated to what they had just spent years training for. Or they might have changed locales for love and then not sought out big careers especially aggressively. Or they might have been building a small business or a real estate empire. Or, of course, they might have been waiting tables after failing the bar exam seven times.

Is it worth your while to consider such a candidate? Of course, it is always tempting merely to consider candidates who have walked a straight line from college to law school to bar exam to legal practice. Naturally, applicants with those sorts of backgrounds likely have skills that are easily discernible and, indeed, expected. Considering someone with a very different career trajectory will probably take a bit more work by the hiring attorney. Why bother to consider hiring someone who has been out of law school for a number of years but who never got around to actually practicing law? Because you might just be getting a hidden gem, one who will be so grateful for the opportunity that he will be exceedingly loyal to the firm. Because you might be looking at someone who has strengths you were not anticipating and a skill set that far exceeds that of a class-year peer who has been practicing all this time. Because you may well be getting someone of great maturity who knows how to hustle for business and give work her all simply to make a go of it.

Ultimately, when considering any passel of prospective hires, you will want to select someone who is going to be profitable, whether in terms of bringing in business, servicing clients, or undertaking all the myriad activities attorneys are called on to do in running their practices. No matter whom you are interviewing for a job in your law firm, you are going to need to get into some depth in your talks with the candidates.

Of course, any inquiries must remain with the bounds of legal constrictions, but what I would wonder about when interviewing a nontraditional candidate would be:

  • why they want to practice law now;
  • the strength of the skills they do have;
  • the amount of supervision they will need;
  • their willingness to learn;
  • their naiveté regarding what practicing law and running a law office really entails; and
  • how they will react if they discover they do not care for an element of the practice, from actually doing legal work to tracking time to marketing to billing to supervising paralegals. 

One area to focus on is their hustle — do they have a go-getting attitude and the sticktoitiveness necessary to get clients, service them, supervise others, and bill? For me, I want to see a certain amount of aggressiveness; sitting around and waiting for a career to happen tends not to impress.

Indeed, hiring attorneys might sometimes be wary that a nonpracticing lawyer does not have the mettle to survive in a real law practice. Dismissing someone for not practicing law fresh out of law school is easy enough. While that is a point well taken, hiring attorneys should also think about why someone who has been practicing law is itching for a change. Surely, if everything were proceeding completely well at her law firm, she would not be seeking work elsewhere. No matter who the candidate is and what their experience, they are looking for a new job because they want different opportunities than they currently have. You know, after all, that the skills needed to be a successful lawyer can indeed be picked up on the job when working as an actual lawyer within a law firm. But the talent that you just might be able to retain should you consider someone with a J.D. who has pursued a less conventional career trajectory may well be more than worth the effort that will be necessary to train him.

What would attract me about nontraditional candidates is

  • their worldliness, especially if they have had experience working in a client’s industry;
  • their communication skills;
  • their ability to juggle multiple projects; and
  • their organizational skills.

That a candidate spent a number of years working as a contract attorney would not necessarily put me off. Anyone who has done this for a while is able to forge through sometimes dull projects, take direction, and work with a changing cast. We are, after all, in a gig economy. Someone who managed to make a living in an alternative and creative way would be a draw.

Even if someone with a J.D. had spent a fair number of years on the daddy track, the mommy track, the performing artist track, the I-want-to-be-a-Broadway-star track, that candidate might just be a strong one for a law firm right now. Having pursued these other interest for a period of time may make their dedication and performance peak now. Law practice, after all, does require creativity, compelling and authoritative speaking skills, managerial duties — skills that can, indeed, be learned by being a parent, an artist, or an actor.

So much of hiring, no matter how much we as a society tell ourselves is based on objective assessment, comes down to a candidate’s personality. Would we want to work with this person? Would we rather work with this person than someone with a different skill set? Even if we don’t ‘like’ them in a conventional I-want-to-be-friends sense, will they be bright and beneficial additions to your law practice? Will they add value?

Given the time and expense of hiring and considering how important good hiring is for small law practices, hiring partners may just want to seek out alternative candidates. Someone who has a J.D. but who has not been practicing law might just have the experience, knowledge, and skill set that your firm actually needs.

Still have doubts? If so, you might consider alternative arrangements for a bit to see if a professional relationship will work out. Perhaps hire the candidate to do work for a while on a freelance basis, or set up an office-sharing arrangement where some overflow work might be sent his way.