Drawing Your Own Path

From The Practice March/April 2016
Forging new identities in the profession

A recent study by the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession found that the vast majority of HLS graduates—nearly 95 percent—practice law in their first jobs after law school. This is hardly surprising. The majority of these young lawyers enter firms (60 percent), and a significant minority of them go into the public sector (30 percent). In many ways, this picture mirrors popular perceptions of what graduates of law schools do, and the professional identity of lawyers remains closely linked to the actual practice of law, whether it takes place at firms or in the public-interest sector.

What these numbers don’t reveal is the small but increasingly significant group of lawyers who are pursuing alternative careers, stretching the mold of what it means to be a lawyer. The same study of HLS graduates found that as early as 10 years after graduation, nearly 25 percent of graduates no longer practiced law. (This is largely consistent with the findings of After the JD, a nationally representative study of lawyers in the United States.) Importantly, the HLS study also found that the vast majority of those who left the practice of law nonetheless reported law school to be a valuable and worthwhile experience. Some pursued careers in business. Others went into consulting. And notably for this article, many are entering positions that might be considered “law adjacent,” resting at the intersection of law and other fields, such as technology, business, and education.

Whether by choice or due to broader market circumstance, the innovative careers of these lawyers raise interesting questions about the professional identity of lawyers. How do these individuals view their professional identities? And how does their presence alter the overall perception within the profession about what it means to be a lawyer?

A path less traveled

Ned Gannon didn’t know much about lawyers or the law when he entered law school. In a recent interview with The Practice, Gannon reflects, “I didn’t have any lawyers in the family. I didn’t even know a single lawyer before entering law school! What I had heard about lawyers was essentially what I had seen on TV or read about.” In that sense, Gannon’s understanding of lawyers, and ultimately his own professional identity, was very much the product of his experiences at law school. Unlike the majority of his classmates, Gannon pursued a joint degree at Harvard—a J.D. from HLS and a Master in Public Administration (M.P.A.) from the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government. Explaining his decision to pursue a joint degree, Gannon says, “I enjoyed the nuts and bolts of what I was learning in law school—reading the case law and having those discussions—but I also liked the broader perspective of how the legal profession intersects with business, with government, and where it’s going in the future.”

Despite earning a joint degree, upon graduation from HLS and HKS in 2003, Gannon began a professional career that fit, at least on the surface, the standard story of a graduate from a top law school: he became an associate at a major corporate law firm, what would become Dewey & LeBoeuf. He then moved between a series of major law firms, including Paul Hastings, working primarily on M&A deals and representing private equity firms. Gannon believes that, in his day-to-day work as a corporate associate, his M.P.A. didn’t affect how others viewed him. He explains, “I was doing essentially what all the other corporate associates were doing: conducting due diligence, drafting contracts, maybe negotiating here and there.” However, the degree certainly played a role in shaping Gannon’s own professional identity. He explains,

The fact that I had done all this work at the Kennedy School, for example, classes in regulatory, policy, and political issues, gave me a broader perspective to not only look at what I was doing in the trenches that day but to step back and say, “What trends are there in the legal industry over all? How was it changing? How are attorneys’ roles changing? How was technology influencing it?” So I always was interested in that broader perspective.

In 2009, Gannon took a chance on that unique perspective. He left the practice of law to move into the startup business, founding a company called Audible Auto, which developed infotainment technology at the intersection of smartphones and vehicles. Two years later, he cofounded eBrevia, which draws on artificial intelligence to improve the process of reviewing contracts and legal documents. Reflecting on this transition and how it related to his own professional identity, Gannon explains,

When I graduated from law school, I ended up practicing corporate law. As part of that process, I was always very interested in the business side. I got to witness some really great entrepreneurs build up these companies and then sell them to a private equity fund. I was fortunate to have a lot of time to interface with the clients and get to know the entrepreneurs and their teams. That drew me into the business side, and I always thought to myself, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to kind of sit on that side of the table at some point?”

In talking about the transition from law practice to entrepreneurship, Gannon recalls the timidity he felt when first explaining his transition from corporate lawyer to entrepreneur.

It can be a little disconcerting to be in a social situation where you’re used to saying, “I’m a corporate attorney” when asked what you do. There is a lot of prestige that goes with that. It’s a very concrete thing. It’s different when you say, “Oh, well. I just started a company. I’m an entrepreneur.” People say, “Oh, OK. We’re not quite sure what that means.” People felt that becoming a lawyer was a pretty exciting thing, so after you’ve made that transition, people ask, “You were a corporate lawyer and now what are you doing?” I talk to other associates who have made similar changes after practicing law, and I think it’s common to confront that situation.

And even though he now identifies himself primarily as an entrepreneur, Gannon still thinks of himself as a lawyer and as part of the legal community. His knowledge of the law and legal practice has been critical for the success of eBrevia, and he finds that it also helps his clients—who are predominately lawyers—to have faith in his business. He isn’t someone trying to disrupt the industry from the outside, but rather he is working to innovate from within. “I consider myself a part of the legal profession,” Gannon says. “And I like to think that, as the legal profession is changing, we’re on the forefront in terms of helping attorneys to adapt to some of these changes.”


eBrevia automates the contract-review process by using machine learning technology. The company’s products, which leverage artificial intelligence research from Columbia University, are used by law firms, accounting firms, commercial real estate firms, and corporate legal departments to more efficiently, accurately, and cost-effectively extract and summarize key provisions from legal documents. Applications include due diligence, contract management, lease abstraction, and document drafting.

Students step outside of the box

Despite the presence of individuals like Gannon who have managed to forge a new path between law and other fields, it remains an uphill battle for law students seeking to stretch the mold and forge alternative professional identities. Stacy Ruegilin, currently a second-year law student at HLS, came to law school after many years of working in the tech industry. “I developed applications and business intelligence,” Ruegilin explains, “but after a number of years in the industry, there was a shift in which a lot of technologies that were being hosted in-house migrated to the cloud. That was a pivotal point for me. I thought either I could reframe the technologies that I was working with or I could make a career shift. So I came to law school.”

I didn’t grow up with lawyers in my family. So it wasn’t that I dreamed of being an attorney, because I couldn’t articulate what that meant.

Stacy Ruegilin, a second-year law student at HLS

Like Gannon, Ruegilin admits that when she entered law school, she didn’t have a strong sense of what being a lawyer meant or the professional identity that came with it. “I didn’t come in with the whole Ally McBeal dream that a lot of people come in with,” she tells The Practice. “I didn’t grow up with lawyers in my family. No one in my family knew what it was. So it wasn’t that I dreamed per se of being an attorney, because I couldn’t articulate what that meant.”

Given her background in technology, however, Ruegilin says she was hoping to pursue a career in technology law—for instance, focusing on intellectual property—as that seemed like the most natural fit. However, after being exposed to a class titled Innovation in Practice and Education at HLS, she became more interested in thinking about legal technologies as part of the legal profession but separate from the day-to-day practice of law. “When I came in,” Ruegilin explains, “I thought I wanted to do tech law, but as I went through law school, I found that I conflated the two. What I’m more interested in now is legal technology.” She continues,

There are a few classes at HLS, like Professor Scott Westfall’s class on innovation, which are not the traditional black letter law courses but which blend the technology business, law, and design. So you start seeing the faces and then you can start to identify each other. In a class of 500, there are maybe 10 or so who have that same interest.

While she has managed to find a community of students who also identify with nontraditional legal careers, she explained that it takes some determination to pursue a different path. Indeed, law school structures are often geared toward students entering law firms or the public sector (see “The Professional Identity Formation of Lawyers”). For instance, law schools typically offer two main job-placement services: one assisting students with recruitment to private law firms and one helping to place students in public-interest positions. Students with more diverse interests—and who are in the process of forming different professional identities—often have to seek out their own mentors and sources of support.

We’re raised in the Silicon Valley startup world. So even when we find ourselves being drawn to more ‘traditional’ professions, like the law, we still want be like them and push the boundaries of our profession and identities.

Stacy Ruegilin

Asked why she thinks her budding professional identity doesn’t fit into the existing boxes, Ruegilin stresses that her experiences prior to law school informed her thoughts on professional identity and drove her to create her own trajectory. “I know what the alternative to law is,” Ruegilin says. Law students like Ruegilin, who have prior work experience, are becoming more and more common. Just a decade ago, the majority of law students entered law school straight from college; today nearly three-quarters of all law students enter with at least a year of experience elsewhere. This means that new students are entering the legal profession—and forming their professional identities—with preexisting identities. And there are few reasons to believe that these existing identities would not influence their views on being a lawyer.

Ruegilin also links her mentality to a larger sea change in how her generation thinks about their own identities and roles in society. She explains that as a millennial, she believes that many of the movers and shakers of her world have been individuals who have used technology to transform old industries and solve problems. This is a world in which it’s OK to try something and to fail, and she thinks that many young people will take this approach with them as they enter into the professions. “We’re raised in the Silicon Valley startup world of a new business every minute,” Ruegilin reflects. “We view these people as the largest, most important players in our world. So even when we find ourselves being drawn to more ‘traditional’ professions, like the law, we still want be like them and push the boundaries of our profession and our own professional identities.”

Professional identity 2.0

Law schools and other innovative forms of training that connect law with other disciplines are pushing the boundaries of what “being a lawyer” means and the professional identity that comes with it. For instance, law schools are increasingly offering courses that reflect the myriad career options out there. As Ruegilin notes, course offerings on innovation and changes within the legal profession encourage students to think outside of the box and remind them that law, like all professions, will transform with time. The University of Notre Dame, for example, offers a course titled “Legal Technology and Informatics: Think Outside the Bar,” which examines how big data and technology trends intersect with the law. In addition to curricular changes, there have also been experiments with degree options. Northwestern University recently graduated its first class of students in a new Master of Science in Law program, a one-year master’s program geared toward those who want to work on the legal side of entrepreneurship and business (see “Developing a Master of Science in Law”). And there are innovative educational models, such as LawWithoutWalls, that further blur the lines between law, business, technology, and entrepreneurship, thereby offering new dimensions to the profession and alternative perspectives on what it means to be a lawyer.

Nonlawyers enter the law

Shifts in the practice of law are not just occurring within the profession of lawyers. Indeed, just as lawyers are increasingly developing professional identities outside of traditional legal practice, so too are nonlawyers entering areas once defined strictly as territory for lawyers (see “Model Objectives: New players in the profession?”). For example, the state of Washington recently launched a pilot program for Limited Licensed Legal Technicians, professionals trained and licensed to advise and assist individuals going through divorce, child custody, and other family law–related matters. This path-breaking program raises important questions on both how this new class of legal professionals identify themselves as well as how their presence might prompt lawyers to redefine their own professional identities.

It is clear that the professional identity of lawyers will continue to grow and change in the coming years. While all may not agree with the drastic picture painted by thinkers like Richard Susskind—who portends the end of the professions as technology disperses expertise—no profession is immune to change. As Susskind argues, the tasks that a doctor or nurse does today are quite different than they were 50 years ago. There is no reason the field of law would be any different. Helping students to understand and embrace this will not only help future lawyers ride the waves of change but will also encourage those students whose interests expand beyond the traditional boundaries of the legal field.