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  • Writer's pictureKath Hall

Don't let these common thoughts hold you back from applying for a non-traditional law job

During a recent careers discussion, one of the panel members noted that law students often hold back from applying for graduate positions that are not in legal practice. He was discussing the range of employment options that have a legal element but are not pure law jobs.

His comment rang true. After investing years in a law degree and seeing your friends take jobs in law firms, it can be hard to consider not taking a law job. But this could be a limited approach to your future. Just because you have studied law does not mean a law job is the best career decision for you.

To help you keep an open mind, the following discussion highlights five common thought processes that can affect your thinking on what jobs to apply for and accept after graduation. The first three are cognitive biases, that is "systematic errors in thinking that occur when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them and affects the decisions and judgments that they make". The last two are common thinking patterns that can limit any of our decision making.

Being aware of these processes can help to reduce their impact and empower more informed decisions about life, careers and your future.

1. Priming

Although law school is not just about training lawyers, it can sometimes feel like all the focus - both inside and outside of the classroom - is on legal practice and students' future role as a lawyer. This is influenced by -

* the emphasis on case law, courts and the adversarial process in courses,

* the structure of assessment which often asks you to provide legal advice to potential clients,

* the prescribed courses (the Priestley 11) which form the core of all law degrees and are required for admission to practice,

* the focus of many law school career discussions and events on clerkships and grad jobs, and

* the prestige given to large commercial law firms within law school.

This repeated focus on legal practice can lead to "priming", or an automatic association between studying law and becoming a lawyer. In psychology, priming is understood to work by creating a link between two stimuli or issues. It occurs without our conscious awareness and can result in two concepts being stored in our memory as implicitly related.

To overcome priming, it is useful to consciously acknowledge when a link is being made and to challenge that association in your thinking. Read as much as you can on law grads who take different career pathways and be aware that - while law school's job is to make sure you can qualify as a lawyer - you don't have to!

2. Sunk costs

Studying law involves a huge investment of time, energy and money. For many students, the years spent studying law represent a significant portion of their lives. It can therefore seem a "waste" not to go on and get a legal job after graduation.

This reasoning reflects the "sunk cost fallacy", or the way we tend to give undue weight to our past investment of time, effort or money when deciding whether to continue with an activity in the future. Research has shown that we often make decisions based on the emotional investments we have made to something in the past rather than the prospective costs of our actions in the future. The more time and effort we have invested in something, the harder it is to let go.

An example of this tendency is when people continue to put money into an investment (stock, property or business) after it is loosing money, rather than getting out and accepting the "sunk costs". This is referred to as "throwing good money after bad".

To reduce the effect of this bias, it is best to focus on what you want to do in the future (prospective costs and benefits) not what you have done in the past (retrospective or sunk costs). The time and effort you have put into study is behind you, but how you use your degree in the future is still within your control.

3. Loss aversion

Many students I speak to about grad jobs talk about keeping their options open by going into legal practice for a few years before deciding what they really want to do. While it is true that you can gain a lot of useful experience practicing law, it does not follow you reduce your options by taking a non-law job after graduation. Every job provides you with useful skills and experience that can be applied towards a range of careers. Employers are often looking for people with a diverse range of experiences and skills rather than "one size fits all" applicants.

The idea of keeping your options open is also influenced by the concept of loss aversion or the mental bias that “losses loom larger than gains”. Research shows that people are more motivated in their decision making by avoiding any loss by making a gain. This can lead to being more risk adverse and conservative in your thinking, and a focus on what could go wrong with a particular course of action rather than what could go right.

The best way to overcome loss aversion is to think long-term, be honest with yourself about the factors influencing your decisions and to focus on the positives instead of the negatives when making job decisions.

4. What other people think

There are many times when other people's opinions are worth listening to. But when it comes to deciding what you should do with your life and what makes you happy, it is important to give more weight to your own opinion than to others.

Psychologists have shown that we often project our fears and internalised self-judgment about our decisions on to others. This means that when we stop worrying about other people's opinions, we also stop being so harsh on ourselves.

When our decision making is tied to what other people think, we can also experience the "yo-yo effect". If other people approve of us and our decisions we feel good, but if they disapprove of us or our decisions, we feel bad. This process is endless and tiring, and only stops when we take back the power to control our wellbeing and perception of ourselves.

5. Imposter syndrome

Many students report feeling that everyone is smarter than them or that they don't belong in law school. These thought patterns can reflect the "impostor syndrome", a thought process that happens when we believe we are not as competent as other people perceive us to be.

Put simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony or worrying that we might be found out to not be as smart or deserving as people think. This feeling can affect anyone no matter what their social status, background, skill level, or expertise.

Some of the common signs of imposter syndrome include

  • self-doubt,

  • not being realistic in your assessment of your skills or abilities,

  • attributing your success to external factors,

  • putting down your achievements,

  • being afraid that you won't live up to expectations,

  • constant overachieving,

  • sabotaging your own success,

  • setting yourself very challenging goals and

  • feeling disappointed when you fall short.

Perfectionism plays a significant role in the impostor syndrome. You might think that there is a perfect "script" for your life that you have to follow or you have failed. You may also have trouble asking for help or may procrastinate with key tasks due to your own high standards.

While these traits and behaviours are common at law school, they are not healthy. To start overcoming imposter syndrome it is important to focus on how you have created the successes in your life, what you are good at, what skills you have and what you enjoy doing. When you do this, it is much easier to see the truth of your situation, and more realistically assess your own abilities. It is also important to speak up when the expectations that others have of you feel unrealistic or overwhelming. It is often the case that other people are actually asking less of us than we are asking of ourselves.


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