Recent Indiana law school graduates are broadening their horizons, with many taking nontraditional post-graduate paths in the business world as the legal profession is increasingly graying.
The popular culture ideal of people going to law school and immediately joining law firms “is an archetype that’s a relic of the past,” said Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor William Henderson. “A lot of students are just migrating to something else.”
Sara Phillips fits into that category. A May 2014 graduate of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, she was hired as legal counsel at the Carmel insurance firm of Baldwin & Lyons Inc. after interning there.
“The practice of law is dynamic and it’s constantly changing,” Phillips said. Among her classmates, she said, people are graduating and taking jobs that aren’t in the legal field.
“They’re going into different sectors, different fields,” she said. “You don’t have to graduate and be in a courtroom.” That’s someplace Phillips said she doesn’t expect to be; her role largely involves mediation, arbitration and assisting outside counsel with matters that are on a litigation track.
Phillips’ experience is increasingly common for young lawyers. Henderson said some of his former students are working at global design firms, as government investigators, for multinational corporations, or in other areas that may or may not require a law degree.
Henderson recently authored a Legal Whiteboard paper titled “Is the Legal Profession Showing Its Age?” that documented what he called a startling reduction in practicing attorneys who are 35 or younger. That demographic made up 39 percent of the licensed bar in 1980, but just 13 percent in 2005.
“I would think that it may have plateaued, but it’s not headed in the other direction and really it’s a pipe dream to think that it would,” he said of the trend. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“Innovation is occurring and it’s not stopping,” he said, and law schools have to be responsive. “If law schools are not aware of those changes and don’t adapt their curriculum, they’re not going to do very well.”
About a quarter of 2000 law school graduates were no longer working in the legal profession in 2012, according to a tracking study by the American Bar Foundation.
Teal Anderson Cracraft is an example. The Zionsville native practiced briefly after graduating from Whittier School of Law in California in 2005, but she was becoming dissatisfied with litigation when she moved back home in 2009.
Cracraft went to work for Fanimation, which had relocated its designer ceiling fan manufacturing operation (as well as the Antique Fan Museum) to Zionsville a few years back. The company sells its products in lighting showrooms and e-commerce platforms.
“I stayed in the business because I loved it,” said Cracraft, who now is Fanimation’s business development manager. “I didn’t really know a lot about a lot of different kinds of businesses, so it was great for me to get experience, then kind of understand the industry and segue into it.”
Her legal skills proved useful in negotiating contracts with the company’s sales reps and designers, but she also is in charge of marketing, making sure the company is meeting sales quotas, and managing customer service, among other things. “There’s never a day where I’m doing the same thing all day long,” she said.
Cracraft said law schools could do a better job of explaining to students how their training can help them in careers that may not necessarily require a JD.
“To me, the best tools I have are problem analysis and getting down to what are the issues and how do we resolve this,” Cracraft said. “I was never offered in law school classes on how you could use your law degree in a corporate setting.”
Problems of fewer opportunities and sometimes staggering debt among recent law school graduates are well-chronicled, but several recent studies also have found solid majorities of recent graduates who say they would choose to go to law school again.
B. Ronan Johnson, a Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP associate, is the outgoing chair of the New Lawyers Section of the Indianapolis Bar Association. Given prevailing trends, he expected membership in the section to decline, but it grew by more than 10 percent to roughly 450 members between 2012 and this year.
Johnson said that growth may be linked to an emphasis on programs that aim to actively connect new lawyers to the Indianapolis legal community as well as the broader community. The bar also has given new lawyers opportunities to learn how to present continuing legal education topics.
Johnson graduated from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis in 2009, one of the worst economic climates for law grads in recent years.
“I would say somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of them don’t appear to be in a position that would require a law degree,” he said of his classmates. “It might be they realized after practicing a couple of years that it wasn’t what they wanted to do, and the terrible recession probably exacerbated that.”
Phillips recalled a fair amount of nervousness among her 1L classmates when she started in 2011. But while the traditional profession might have been limited, she said the traditional ethic of working hard, studying hard and networking provided good opportunities for many classmates.
“I think the market did take a hit and the legal field definitely felt that,” she said. “So many people we talk to now think the market is getting stronger all the time. … Indy is a tight-knit community, and I think there is always going to be growth.”
Matthew D. Neumann, a Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP attorney who will take over the IndyBar Young Lawyers Section leadership in January, hopes to continue the networking programs that have grown the section in recent years.
“I think in a tough environment, taking advantage of opportunities like that becomes much more important,” Neumann said. Likewise, his message to law students is that grades and performance may matter to potential employers now more than in the past. He’s also candid with potential law students – “It’s a tough market out there, and you should definitely think about that.”
In the long term, the down legal market of recent years might have a silver lining for current young attorneys who make the most of their early careers, Neumann said. When older lawyers retire, “If there’s work that’s out there that needs to be done, if that stays the same but the pool of lawyers doing that work shrinks, there could be a real opportunity.”
Meanwhile, some law grads also are putting their degrees to work far from where they studied. Nirav Parikh graduated from IU Maurer in 2007 then worked for a couple of years at Riley Bennett & Egloff LLP. “I met a girl, and things changed,” he said. Family took him to Houston, where he now is a senior associate with Deloitte Discovery.
Working on electronic discovery, data management, data hosting, document review and other client services isn’t what Parikh expected in law school, but his affinity for technology made his current occupation a good fit.
“I envisioned being a litigator, working in trial settings and dealing with litigation,” he said of his expectations during law school.
“I think one of the benefits of being in law school and what I do now … I think it’s the skills, the problem-solving, managing time and managing client expectations,” Parikh said. “Some of the things I learned in the more practical classes apply to what I do now.”
Parikh feels fortunate to have landed in a position that matches his skills and legal training. Seven years after graduating, Parikh said some of his law school classmates “are still unsure where their careers are going.”•