How to return to the law after leaving the law.
March 13, 2007 2:20 PM   Subscribe

I earned a law degree three years ago but I've never been a lawyer. Now I'd like to be one. How can I go about this?

I graduated from law school in May 2004, took the Florida Bar Exam, failed and then got a job in the state legislature. I hated Florida (I believe wholeheartedly that the entire state was cursed by the pirates. Don't believe me? Watch CNN on any given day and see how much weird, horrible stuff happens there.) I believe my failure of the exam was largely psychological, though I should add that I was a less-than-stellar, ambivalent law student, though I believe I'd be a first-rate attorney. I was a non-trad student having spent about a decade in journalism.

About six months ago, I moved to Arizona to help with my family's business with the goal of taking it over once my folks retired. Unfortunately, all the dysfunction that plagued us in family life is spilling over into business and I've discovered I pretty much hate the business and am slowly growing to despise the daily conversations with my mother.

I don't feel as if my parents are sufficiently concerned for my future. I am in my late 30s, unmarried and will be that way for the foreseeable future so I need to look at buying a home, retirement plans, etc.

I would like to sit for the Arizona Bar in February. I'm hoping I might work as a paralegal for some benevolent soul who will pay me well and allow me time for study.

Here are my questions:

1. Has anyone ever taken an extended break after law school and returned to the law? How did you fare?

2. Is it realistic for me to think I can study sufficiently and work and take care of myself? There are no other options (loans, parental help, etc.)

3. How might I word a cover letter introducing myself to firms without saying "Hey, I failed the bar in Florida but I'm smart as a whip, hardworking and think I'd be a great attorney."
posted by notjustfoxybrown to Work & Money (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Answer to #1: well, sort of. I took the bar when I'd been out of school for 5 or 6 years. I'm looking for work now (the job I had wasn't good but wasn't bad, so it's only recently become a matter of real concern).

#2: Yes, very much so. If you do a review course (I didn't), you may want to look at something like Micromash, that you can do on your own schedule. However, you can often buy used bar review materials on Ebay and work with those on your own.

#3: beats me. I did explain my situation to a legal temp place recently, and interviewed there (for whatever that's worth) but I don't know how I really stand with them.

You might look through my earlier question to see if anything in there applies for you.
posted by dilettante at 2:35 PM on March 13, 2007

I don't know about 1, but 2 is certainly doable. And as for 3, I'm not sure why you'd need to say you failed the Florida bar. I think you should say that you worked in the legislature and do not have a current bar admission. If they ask, then you can tell.
posted by dpx.mfx at 3:17 PM on March 13, 2007

From what I hear, the Maricopa County Prosecutor's office is always hiring, and aggressively. It might be a good place to check out.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:23 PM on March 13, 2007

BARBRI will get you through, no problem.
posted by caddis at 4:25 PM on March 13, 2007

Passing the bar is trivial; you just need to do BARBRI or a similar course and devote the necessary time. Yes, you can manage to study while holding down a job. Getting a job as a lawyer will be the harder part. What kind of law do you want to practice? If you want to be a public defender, no problem. If you want to do M&A work or complex commercial litigation on the defense side, you're pretty much hosed. I have friends in similar, non-trad situations who were successful in finding jobs they liked by starting as a contract attorney. First, you sign up with the equivalent of a temp agency for lawyers, and you work on document review or similar projects for firms that need extra staff on big cases. In some firms, at least, you can angle for an associate or counsel position if you do good contract work. Keep in mind, though, that many firms do not hire for permanent positions from the contract attorney pool.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 4:56 PM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: I'm not the least bit interested in Big Law. I'd be perfectly happy doing estate planning or real estate work for a small firm or working for a government agency. I'm still also trying to figure out the answer to Question 3. Of all that I've said, it's the most critical.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 5:20 PM on March 13, 2007

Response by poster: I'm not the least bit interested in Big Law. I'd be perfectly happy doing estate planning or real estate work for a small firm or working for a government agency. I'm still also trying to figure out the answer to Question 3. Of all that I've asked, the answer to this one is the most crucial.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 5:20 PM on March 13, 2007

Once you pass the bar, you might want to start out by taking a pro bono case or two. I don't know about Arizona, but California has great programs where they will actually train you and then place you with an attorney/mentor. That will give you some experience on your resume and get you contacts. Plus, of course, you'd be doing a great service for people who need it. I took the California bar 5 years after law school. I was a lawyer practicing in DC during that time. I did find that I had forgotten most of everything I learned at law school. I scared my lawyer friends by telling them that I was relearning equitable servitudes and contingent remainders. My experience was that BarBri was sufficient to reteach you everything. However, you really, really have to study and not screw around. You should allocate at least six weeks of your life (preferably even longer) to doing nothing else but studying. I would see whether the bar has any volunteer positions for non-lawyers (I know the California bar does)

Good Luck!
posted by bananafish at 6:36 PM on March 13, 2007

Oh and as to number 3, I'd work on building a legal resume in Arizona (whether it be pro bon or volunteer). If you have some interesting legal experience to talk about (say a trial you handled for a pro bono client or a will you drafted) then it won't matter so much what you did before the legal experience. I think that you have to accept that you may need to work for free or very low cost at first in order to gain some experience. I am certain that the public defender's office or public intererst legal organizations would let you volunteer and you could then gain some great experience to talk about in interviews. Also I would think of ways that your non-legal experience would be relevant to a law firm. You worked in journalism. Can you write well? Do you have a good writing sample? Think of skills that will translate well into being a lawyer.
posted by bananafish at 6:42 PM on March 13, 2007

How might I word a cover letter introducing myself to firms without saying "Hey, I failed the bar in Florida but I'm smart as a whip, hardworking and think I'd be a great attorney."

Don't start with that line.

Seriously, tell the truth. You worked in the legislature for 3 years and then helped out for a short time with the family business--now you are looking for work in AZ.

Act like its normal to be where you are.

It pretty much is. This is a crazy business, and you get every possible kind of story. Realize that you aren't that weird and you've won half the battle.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:07 PM on March 13, 2007

Know a buddy in that Maricopa county prosecutor's office. It is an OK place to work.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:08 PM on March 13, 2007

I have been amazed, in law practice, by how many of my colleagues have taken strange detours from law practice. I know a bunch of lawyers who took breaks from law practice to earn non-law-related graduate degrees. I know another lawyer who left law practice to start a wholesale candy business, of all things, and then returned a few years later.

The only area where your break from law will possibly matter is in BigLaw, which you're not interested in. Those firms have a very "lockstep" mentality and a fairly rigid idea of what people should do with a law career.

I read on a few days ago, an article about new programs that prepare lawyers in your situation for re-entry into the legal field. Maybe these programs are helpful, but frankly I suspect they're overkill.

I can offer much more specific information and advice by e-mail, mine is in my profile.
posted by jayder at 7:29 PM on March 13, 2007

I think you're going to have to start at legal temp firms. Unless you have a connection with a law firm, nobody is going to hire you in response to a letter, no matter how good the letter (and/or resume). Don't start as a paralegal; that's a job for someone who didn't go to law school. If you want to practice law, you are going to have to jump in.
posted by ubu at 7:45 PM on March 13, 2007

ubu -- notjustfoxybrown is not suggesting that someone will hire here "in response to a letter." She is (I think) talking about writing a cover letter that will get her an interview and then, we hope, a job with a law firm.

That is very do-able. Without going the legal temp firm route.
posted by jayder at 9:01 PM on March 13, 2007

I agree that a bar review course will prepare you quite well to take the exam. Hit the procedure sections hard, as things change there constantly.

For Florida nuttiness, go to Fark, which has a special tag for "Florida."
posted by KRS at 4:01 AM on March 14, 2007

Jayder, I get what she's saying, obviously there would be an interview prior to any hiring! Sorry if I was not clear; it has just been my personal experience from sending many, many letters (and receiving a few), that, outside of the formal interview process in law school, you will really only get an interview with a firm, big or small, if you have a personal contact with the firm. Of course that may be my bad luck, combined with graduating from law school in a slow market. I just personally think that the temp route would provide 1) funds and 2) contacts in the legal world, both of which I think would be useful in beginning a legal career. (BTW, I am talking about temping as a contract/temp attorney, rather than a legal secretary or paralegal.)
posted by ubu at 9:44 AM on March 14, 2007

Ubu --- Our experiences have been somewhat different. I had an idiosyncratic path into the legal job market myself, and sending out tons of letters actually worked for me. Maybe I was just lucky.

Oh, and I certainly agree that she should try to get work as a contract or temp attorney.
posted by jayder at 4:35 PM on March 14, 2007

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