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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

April 3, 2016

I’ve been in a non-legal compliance position my entire career. How can I move into a different type of legal job without taking a huge pay cut?

Julie Q. Brush

Historically, law students who crossed the 3L finish line typically chose the traditional career path of an Esq. – and remained a counselor for life. But today a growing number of newly minted lawyers are opting for something different…outside of the profession. Some are happy with life outside law, but others seek to opt back in after a period of time. And when they do, they can face some tough challenges and tough choices.

You have worked in a non-legal compliance role in a company your entire career (5 years) and now would like to switch professional gears and without taking a huge pay cut. So how doable is that? Generally speaking, the likelihood is close to nil that your base pay will not suffer as you seek to start a new life as a lawyer in a different substantive area. While you have excellent experience, you have no legal experience – and no experience outside the compliance realm. So employers will not match your current pay for expertise you have yet to develop. Any move to retool will need to be made on the ground floor. And this includes the compensation to match. With this said, narrowing the gap may be possible in two scenarios:

  1. Big Law.

It is widely known that Big Law pays Big Bucks. So if you are able to successfully transition to an AmLaw firm, you’ll preserve much if not all of your current pay – and may even increase it. So what factors will influence your success to such a transition? (1) Your seniority: The more junior you are in your JD grad year, the more likely a firm will seriously consider your candidacy. As a 5th year JD, you’ll be junior enough to be considered as a retool to some firms. But such firms will require you to take a seniority hit and offer a position as either a 1st or 2nd year associate for purposes of partnership consideration. Even at a lower seniority, however, compensation will be competitive; (2) Your credentials: If your creds are impressive, you will increase your odds for a shot at a practice retool. If they are not, small to mid sized firms might be an option, but opportunities will be fewer as will the salary offered; (3) The job market: When the market is hot, more jobs are available and more candidates are in demand. Employers also tend to be more flexible on candidate profiles and retools are a more common occurrence. We are currently in an active legal job market, but it has softened a little since Q4 of 2015. Despite this, the window still exists for those associate level lawyers who are seeking law firm positions; and (4) The practice area you’d like to pursue: Are you interested in a practice area that’s in high demand or one that is niche or less desirable? Specialties that are in high demand present more hiring opportunities with greater employer flexibility if supply cannot satisfy demand. So if you’re interested in a more active practice area, the chances of landing a coveted associate role in Big Law go up.

  1. Compliance Role within Legal.

The compliance function can be housed in different verticals depending on the organization. Some sit within Legal, others do not. And yet others straddle both worlds. While you would like to move away from compliance to a different legal job in a different substantive area, your greatest marketability – and opportunity to preserve your current compensation in the transition to legal is through a compliance role that sits in and is an integral part of Legal. Compliance is current an “active” practice area and not every Tom, Dick and Harry possesses this unique experience. So many employers are willing to consider compliance candidates who are not tethered to the legal function in their current role. The fact that you have this experience and a law degree will make you a more attractive candidate. So while pursuing this option doesn’t pivot your primary practice, it does transition you into Legal and preserves your negotiating power on compensation come offer time. If you can find a role that offers the opportunity to diversify your skillset, you’ll be well positioned for more diverse roles in your subsequent moves.

Retooling one’s practice is rarely easy. Add to it a ground floor legal profession entry and more challenges materialize. Despite this, I encourage you to press forward with your professional goals – as it is important to follow a path that leads to greater career and personal satisfaction. But it is also important to know the legal market so you have perspective on your options and your expectations are managed on compensation. For your next move, equaling your pay (or getting close) as a legal and substantive retool is a tall order and won’t likely happen unless you can capitalize on a Big Law or Legal housed compliance role circumstance. If neither of these situations materialize, your alternatives may offer you the opportunity, but at a lower price. So it may take two or three subsequent moves before you’re at salary equilibrium. With this in mind, proceed with your search and assess your options as they arise with these market realities in mind. If you can swing the financial hit, it is worth seriously considering an offer that can reset your career path now. Because the longer you wait, the more challenging it will be to not only bridge the compensation gap, but join the club of practicing lawyers in the capacity you desire.

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