Alternatives to Traditional Public Interest Lawyering

In addition to the wide variety of public interest practice settings discussed above, there are a multitude of public interest jobs that do not necessarily require a law degree but in which lawyering skills prove advantageous. More and more employers are hiring individuals with legal backgrounds and many lawyers who are disillusioned with traditional lawyering find satisfaction in these alternative career choices. If your interests and talents lie more in policy-making or program administration than in drafting legal documents, in resolving disputes through mediation or negotiation rather than through litigation or in combining your passion for journalism or counseling with your legal knowledge, an alternative to traditional lawyering may be appropriate for you.

Self-assessment, research, informational interviewing and networking become even more crucial in a nontraditional job search, which often involves changing fields. It is important to determine what an alternative career means and what it might entail. Employers may have to be convinced that your training and background will be transferrable and will meet their needs. It is important for you to reformulate your skills and experience into nonlegal terms to match the nature of the job, tailor your resume to the demands of the position you are seeking and be able to speak the specialized language of the field in which you want to work. Lastly, determine whether further education is required for the type of work you desire. Some questions to think about might be:

  • What are my main area of interests? What do I LIKE to do?
  • What type of work environment do I envision myself working in?
  • What transferable skills do I have?
  • Why do I want a non-traditional career?
  • What aspects of the law do I love? What aspects do I hate?
  • What skills can I develop in law school that an employer might find valuable in a non-law field?

In your self-assessment, it is important to recognize and reflect on your transferrable skills. Many organizations value, for example, the legal writing and analytical skills a trained lawyer brings to the table. Being able to scan through documents, synthesize information and present it in a clear and concise manner is an asset. Being detailed oriented, too, can prove to valuable. Other areas that can prove to be transferable are problem solving skills, leadership and advocacy skills that one can develop while practicing law. 

Non-traditional careers/job titles (sampling)*

Government Sector

Environmental Protection SpecialistResearch Director
Policy AdvisorPolicy Director
InvestigatorGovernment Relations/Public Affairs Director
Chief of StaffEthics Program Specialist
Civil Rights InvestigatorCriminal Investigator
Analyst of Social LegislationForeign Service Officer
Financial Enforcement SpecialistForeign Affairs Specialist
Customs Inspector 

Non-profit Sector

Law LibrarianAdvocate/Advocacy Director
Community Relations SpecialistGrants Administrator
Development DirectorConsumer Advocate
Non-profit Executive DirectorMediator/Ombudsman
Career CounselorAdmissions Officer
Program AnalystDirector of Planning
Chief Development OfficerDirector of Alumni Affairs

*These listings are a small sampling of opportunities in the public sector. For a more detailed look at job titles and descriptions for alternative careers, reference JD Preferred! - Legal Career Alternatives where these titles can be found.

Law-Related Government Jobs

The U.S. Government employs over 140,000 people in a variety of law-related positions in addition to approximately 20,000 attorneys in traditional legal jobs. Law-related positions exist in virtually every federal agency and similar types of jobs can be found on the state and municipal levels as well. Lawyers in nonlegal government jobs may formulate, analyze and implement policy; administer or monitor programs; investigate complaints; mediate disputes; manage personnel and provide guidance and counseling. Expertise in a particular policy area, a technical background or special abilities, such as foreign language proficiency, may be required for certain positions.

In addition to the usual job application route for these positions, special fellowship programs, such as the prestigious White House Fellowship or the Presidential Management Internships, have been created for entry into high-level policy-related arenas.

Economic Development

Spurred by a commitment to developing long-term solutions for distressed communities, an increasing number of law students are entering the field of economic development. Lawyers are able to provide legal and technical assistance to community-based organizations to help them develop affordable housing, businesses that can revitalize a neighborhood, job creation and job training programs and other projects that can bring resources to low- income communities. The work is often transactional or policy-oriented. Practice settings include legal services programs, community development corporations, government agencies and technical and financial intermediaries.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Many lawyers in public service settings use alternative dispute resolution during the course of their work. Most lawyers will find themselves in negotiations at some point in their career; in many cases, it will be a substantial part of their practice. Lawyers also turn to mediation and arbitration to resolve disputes in lieu of costly and sometimes bitter litigation.  Increasingly, lawyers are trying to use collaborative practices so that parties avoid disputes at the outset.  

Most full-time positions in the ADR field go to experienced lawyers who have built up substantive expertise in some area of the law and are subsequently hired as arbitrators or professional mediators.  Some federal agencies - such as the US Trade Representative and the State Department Office of the Legal Advisor -- offer a great deal of exposure to ADR.  There are also jobs within the court system, however these tend to involve coordinating mediators rather than actually mediating yourself.  Finally, there are a growing number of clinical fellowships in law school ADR clinics available to students with an academic interest in the field.  As with many nontraditional practice areas, networking is a critical way of breaking into ADR positions, particularly early in your career. 

Harvard Law School offers many resources on ADR.  Below are some links to clinics, journals and student groups at HLS with an ADR background.  

Some generally useful websites on ADR and finding positions in ADR can be found below:

Think Tanks

Lawyers interested in research, writing and consulting on policy issues might consider public service-oriented think tanks, such as The Center for the Study of Responsive Law. These jobs are quite competitive and often call for a proven academic track record and in-depth experience in the field. Most think tanks are located in either Washington, D.C. or in university cities.

Academic Administration

An increasing number of lawyers are being hired by academic administrations, especially in law schools, in positions such as Dean of Students, career services office directors, counselors and law librarians. Other academic administrative jobs include undergraduate pre-law advisors and positions on the university-wide level, such as Affirmative Action Officer, Director of Community Affairs and Assistant to the President.

Nonprofit Management

Management, administrative and lobbying positions with nonprofit organizations provide another major source of law-related public service jobs. Individuals with legal training can become directors and administrators of a diverse array of nonprofit organizations, such as art museums, youth job corps programs and international human rights organizations. Hundreds of nonprofits that aim to influence government policy, legislation and funding either have in-house lobbyists or hire lobbying agencies that specialize in public sector clients.

Foundation Work

Other nontraditional options for lawyers include philanthropic foundations which support their grantees in transforming innovative ideas into public service realities. Many foundations hire lawyers as directors and program officers. Because these jobs have low turnover and are difficult to find, they are highly competitive. An increasing number of foundations have established fellowship programs that hire lawyers directly out of law school. For more information on working in foundations, you can download OPIA's Guide to Careers in Foundations for Lawyers (.pdf).

Bar Associations

Bar associations also employ lawyers in management and program administration positions, such as continuing education for lawyers, lawyer assistance programs, referral and pro bono programs.

Political Campaigns

Political campaigns offer the opportunity to develop and refine a wide assortment of skills in an extremely fast-paced and flexible environment. Moreover, they give a unique perspective into the electoral process and the cares and concerns of elected officials, and can often lead directly or indirectly to government employment down the road. Campaign work is certainly not for everyone: there is usually little formal mentoring, little structured feedback, little administrative support, and little free time – and given the finite nature of the campaign cycle, often little long-term stability.

  • Campaign Guide (.pdf)


Lawyers who want to combine their legal knowledge with a journalism background can explore writing for legal public interest publications, such as the Environmental Law Reporter. OPIA has some hard copy resources for reference available in its office. Stop by Pound 329 to check them out. Check out the Harvard Law Library for updated versions of some of these books.

  • JD Preferred! - Legal Career Alternatives. Federal Reports, Inc., 1995
  • The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook - More Than 300 Things You Can Do With a Law Degree, Hindi Greenberg, 1998 (updated, 2002)
  • The Road Not Taken - A Practical Guide to Exploring Non-Legal Career Options, Kathy Grant & Wendy Werner, 1991.
  • Should You Really Be a Lawyer? - The Guide to Smart Career Choices Before, During & After Law School, Deborarh Schneider, JD & Gary Belsky, 2005
  • What Can You Do With a Law Degree? - A Lawyer's Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside and Around the Law, Deborah L. Arron, 1999

Online resources: 
The Canadian Bar Association's Career Alternatives to Lawyers offers a good amount of detail on exploring alternatives to practicing law.

The National Association for Law School Professionals (NALP) Handouts
At the 2011 NALP Education Conference, Susan Gainen presented Alternative Careers: Now More Than Ever where she offered insight and information on additional resources for pursuing alternative careers. You can find one of the conference handouts here.


OPIA annually hosts a career panel focused on introducing students to career options outside the practice of law. Below you will find some of the prior public interest panelists, including where they are now and where they were when they were at Harvard Law School for the panel. 



Rachel Anderson '03Director of Faith Outreachthe Center for Responsible Lending
Rebecca Plaut Mautner ’94Affordable Housing & Community Development ConsultantSelf-Employed
Lourdes RiveraProgram OfficerThe Ford Foundation
View the webcast of of this panel discussion.


John Cisternino '04Director of ResearchThe Tobin Project
Anna Dunbar-HesterProgram Coordinator & Policy AnalystPrescription Access and Quality and Policy Analyst, Hospital Accountability Project
Sarah Hurwitz ’04Special Assistant to the President, Senior Advisor to the Council on Women and Girls, and Senior Presidential SpeechwriterThe White House
View the webcast of of this panel discussion.


Christie Getto YoungPolicy and Budget DirectorOffice of State Senator Sal DiDomenico, Massachusetts State Senate
Brittny Saunders '08Senior AdvocateCenter for Social Inclusion
Matt Van Itallie '04Chief Accountability OfficerBaltimore City Public Schools
Gina WalcottExecutive DirectorLawyers Concerned for Lawyers
View the webcast of this panel discussion.


Sharon Kelly McBride '04Communications DirectorHuman Rights First
Rebecca Plaut Matuner '94Affordable Housing & Community Development ConsultantIndependent Consultant
Mike Wiser '03Film ProducerPBS Frontline
View the webcast of this panel discussion.


Tom DavisManager of Strategic OperationsPreservation of Affordable Housing (POAH)
View a video of this panel.


Andrew Greenblatt '93Founder and PresidentVendorboon (Former Partner at Criterion Ventures)
Sheila Maith '87ConsultantMaith Consultant (Former Advisor for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors)


Sheryl GoldsteinDirectorBaltimore City Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice (Former Director of International Programs for the Center for Court Innovation)
Cliff Sarkin '05In-House CounselVideoSurf (Former Associate at Children's Defense Fund and Policy Director at Insure the Uninsured)


Alicia Ely Yamin '91 (HSPH '96)Inaugural Director/Affiliated Faculty MemberProgram on the Health Rights of Women and Children/François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University (Former Director of Research & Investigations at Physicians for Human Rights)
James O'Neal '82Co-Founder/Executive DirectorLegal Outreach


Seth Stern '01Reporter/AuthorCongressional Quarterly
Michael Zamore '99Chief of StaffOffice of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley
Last modified: June 02, 2015

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