Change of plans

July 16, 2021
From third-year law students to senior associates, a growing number of legal professionals are moving toward career paths outside the law office and the courtroom.
By Amy Downey

It’s no secret that those with a background in law are giving careful consideration to J.D.-advantage jobs. Opportunities in the public and private sectors continue to grow steadily; look no further than the in-house legal operations departments being created at companies — including at law firms. And, thanks to the rise of emerging careers, there’s even more work in industries that didn’t exist five or 10 years ago. From advocating cannabis bills to protecting data privacy, it’s less about what’s available in today’s job market and more about what you want to do with your law degree. “Consider the skills you got in law school that other people don’t have,” says Kathy Greenier, director of emerging careers at Richmond Law. “You can literally do anything.” (Greenier herself has a law degree that she’s used in three different J.D.-advantage roles.) As Matt Dahl, L’09, an intelligence analyst at the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, put it: “Just because you go to law school doesn’t mean you have to be a lawyer. Your degree can be useful in other ways, and just as rewarding.”

Here’s a look at newer career paths chosen by six Richmond Law alumni — and advice for those thinking of doing the same.

an illustrated portrait of Casey Emery, L'04 TIP #1: MAKE THE DIFFERENCE YOU WANT TO SEE
Create social impact through the world of nonprofits.

When Cassandra “Casey” Emery, L’04, went to law school, she envisioned a career prosecuting child abusers and sex offenders. But after doing some pro bono work and becoming frustrated with dynamics of the system, she decided to shift her energy to policy and nonprofit work. “I felt like I could create more systemic change this way,” Emery said. Over the years, she became senior vice president for the Greater Richmond Chamber and executive director and CEO of YWCA of Richmond, where she was able to reach her goal of providing services for children and families in crisis.

Law school, said Emery, had prepared her to process information quickly so that she could make practical decisions about a given situation. In her current role as COO of Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond, she does just that: helps to identify short- and long-term organizational and community opportunities, helps steward the organization’s resources, and serves as the organization’s liaison to policymakers and administrative bodies. Emery also helps connect philanthropists to community needs such as COVID-19 response and affordable housing.

Working for various causes through nonprofits has forged an entirely different and more fulfilling path for Emery. “Don’t become too focused on where you think your career should be that you overlook opportunities that could provide significant growth,” she said. “Explore where things may take you.”


An illustrated portrait of Matt Dahl, L'09 TIP #2: CONSIDER A SPECIALTY — LIKE CYBERSECURITY
Don’t have the right background? Try good old-fashioned networking.

Fields like cybersecurity can be harder to break into without a degree specific to the industry or any prior experience, but it’s not impossible. “A lot of people look at the industry and think that you need to be a computer scientist to get involved,” said Matt Dahl, L’09, a principal intelligence analyst at CrowdStrike. “But there are lots of different roles and opportunities for people who want to take the time to learn about it, find what interests them, and build connections with people in the industry.”

Dahl always wanted to get into national security law as a lawyer but wasn’t necessarily interested in pursuing the traditional law practice route to get there. So he reconnected with a friend in cybersecurity to find out more; Dahl was intrigued by what he learned and, after a short internship at a cybersecurity firm called iSIGHT Partners, was hired there. In 2012 he went to CrowdStrike as a senior analyst and legal counsel. (Those without any contacts can still find ways to network, Dahl said, even if it’s as informal as engaging with someone in the field on Twitter.)

At CrowdStrike, Dahl parses through feeds of data from customers in the private sector and looks for malicious activity — specifically, cyber-espionage — and then writes reports about his findings. There’s great satisfaction in his work — some of the threats he researches are ultimately the subject of federal indictments — and also a demand for it. More industries than ever need analysts like Dahl to protect sensitive information. (Look no further than the May 2021 cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline, which created a gas shortage frenzy and jump in prices.) The nature of the work is analytical, and Dahl said his law school background is ideal for that: “The way that you have to think in law school lends itself very well to this job and probably many other jobs.”

Consider the skills you got in law school that other people don't have. You can literally do anything.

An illustrated portrait of Carley Dix, L'15 TIP #3: LOOK FOR AN ADJACENT FIELD
One possibility: Advocate for equity from outside a courtroom.

Wanting to get into civil rights and anti-discrimination work led Carley Dix, L’15, to her career in equity and compliance in higher education. “I could combine and address all of those interests,” said Dix, who is the Title IX and Section 504 coordinator and compliance officer at Davidson College in North Carolina. In her role, she coordinates institutional policies and procedures regarding discrimination based on sex, gender, or disability.

Although her job is rooted in making sure the school is legally compliant, she spends a lot of time fielding complaints or concerns, finding resolutions, and fostering a sense of community. “You’re not just bringing the legal substance to the table,” Dix said, explaining that being skilled in other areas — such as training, investigating, and mediating — is just as important as understanding laws and the needs of protected classes.

Dix’s clinical placements at Richmond gave some of that invaluable experience. At an education rights clinic, she learned how to be an advocate for both individuals and communities. In another placement, during her third year, she earned her mediator certification at the CMG Foundation, a community mediation center. There, Dix realized she wanted to pursue a legal-adjacent position. She loved having the basis and boundaries of the law, but also the freedom to be a little more creative in how the law is used. By doing this in a university environment, Dix can empower students and help them learn the skills needed to address issues such as equity — skills that they, in turn, can take into their communities and future careers. This, Dix said, creates a ripple effect of positive change.


An illustrated portrait of Dave Esposito, '06, GB'09, L'09 TIP #4: LEGAL OPERATIONS JOBS ARE IN DEMAND
Leverage your law expertise on the business side.

For David Esposito, ’06, GB’09, and L’09, the draw to work at Capital One wasn’t necessarily about being in banking or financial services. He wanted to move away from private practice, where he had worked as a civil litigator for nearly five years, for the chance to use both his law degree and his MBA.

After serving as in-house counsel in Capital One’s litigation department for a couple of years, he transitioned into legal operations in 2016. Now, as director of legal operations, he manages the department like a business, asking — and answering — questions such as: Do we have the best technology to keep pace with the rapid changes in the industry? Do we have the right data to make strategic decisions? Can we be using our resources better? Because he’s in a highly regulated industry and dealing with customer data and finances, risk management is also a focus. But people with a legal background, he said, are already primed to evaluate risks and determine how to prevent and mitigate them.

Roles like Esposito’s have grown significantly and are even a popular hire for law firms. (Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, or CLOC, is a good resource for more information.) The position requires the skill to communicate and the ability to influence — essentially, to make your case. For example, the way that Esposito presents recommendations for a particular business problem is very attorney-like — he lays out all of the evidence so that it almost makes the solution obvious.

“Legal operations is everything associated with running a law department or law firm that’s not practicing law,” he said. “It’s also taking a more business-oriented lens than law firms or legal departments have often taken in the past.”

When you find your passion, stick with it.

An illustrated portrait of Gary Piacentini, L'82 TIP #5: EMBRACE ENTREPRENEURSHIP
There’s always time for a new beginning if the idea is good enough.

Early on in his career as a real estate attorney, Gary Piacentini, L’82, was doing some house closings for clients of the firm and noticed how disjointed the process was for a homebuyer — specifically, the number of people involved and how money was exchanged. So he came up with a more efficient idea: Offer the expertise and loans under one roof. By eliminating the extra players and the fees associated with them, the model could substantially reduce closing costs for borrowers. In 1997, Piacentini founded CapCenter mortgage and realty company.

“We’re really a professional services firm that happens to have money,” Piacentini said, explaining that CapCenter has in-house experts in real estate, law, and mortgages. With federal and state laws to navigate — the mortgage industry is one of the most regulated in the country — CapCenter has 20 lawyers on staff (including Matthew Jones, L’09, vice president of operations and legal).
What’s made the company thrive over the years, beyond a solid formula, said Piacentini, is a culture that’s highly ethical and client-centric — much like a very good law firm. Another reason for the success is Piacentini’s willingness to always evaluate a way of thinking he credits to learning the Socratic method during his first year of law school. “Ask the company, ‘What else can we do? What are we missing?’ instead of always thinking you’ve got the tiger by the tail,” he said.

He’s now spent more years as an entrepreneur than an attorney, but that time practicing gave him early confidence in making decisions as a businessperson: “If you get comfortable practicing law, you’re able to make decisions in gray areas and embrace the path forward.”


An illustrated portrait of Kristin Jordon, L'97 TIP #6: FOLLOW YOUR INTERESTS
Passions are becoming serious business.

Kristin Jordan, L’97, considered herself a quiet medical and wellness consumer of cannabis, but as the industry matured, she began to advocate for legalization. Jordan, a real estate attorney, also saw opportunity coming after New York passed the Compassionate Care Act in 2014. Through previous work with clients in the hospitality industry, she was familiar with the liquor licensing process and anticipated a similar process for medical marijuana providers and a new practice area. However, it never turned into a viable opportunity.

Still wanting to support the emerging cannabis industry, she sought new ways to educate herself and her community about plant medicine, social justice, and economic empowerment. She co-founded the Cannabis Cultural Association in 2016 to help marginalized and underrepresented communities in New York understand their rights and opportunities in the budding industry. CCA educates, in English and Spanish, about the plant’s benefits while advocating on bigger issues like criminal justice reform. She launched an events company called Mannada in 2018 to produce professional events for the cannabis industry, while also trying to build a cannabis law practice in a state with only five medical cannabis providers. In 2019, she joined Acreage Holdings, one of the world’s largest cannabis corporations, as its director of real estate; that same year, Forbes named her as one of the cannabis industry’s most powerful and innovative women. She now is the founder and executive director of the Asian Cannabis Roundtable, a networking organization working to advance Asian people in the industry.

“It’s so important for us to have a moral conviction about the policing of this plant,” she explained. Her commitment to the cause came to fruition in March when New York approved legalization — and, unlike other states, unveiled the most progressive bill ever with legislation for economic and racial equity to benefit people and communities impacted by the drug war. “When you find your passion, stick with it,” she said. “We finally have the opportunity to do this right.”