Careers take interesting turns as opportunities and priorities shift. There are so many different ways to leverage a legal background for the benefit of an organization, yet much of the legal talent pool feel siloed in an area of expertise when they would like to broadened skillset and impact. Our guest, Alex Su provides a unique look into his legal career story - his struggles, aha moments, how he’s redefined his impact in the legal community, and his recommendations for those who want to do the same.
I went to law school because I wanted to be a trial lawyer. But a few years after graduation, I started to realize that the actual practice of law was very different than what I had imagined. I was still doing low level work, like managing document reviews, making privilege logs, and drafting discovery documents. Which was pretty unpleasant. But I figured I'd suck it up for a little while. I mean, I only had to do this for a few more years, right? Then I'd get to do all the fun stuff.
Then, one day, I was invited to join a conference call with an important client. Earlier that week, the partner had asked me to complete an expedited privilege review. Going into the call, I thought that the privilege review was a small portion of his work. Maybe the partner would spend the rest of the call discussing litigation strategy. Something more interesting, or at the very least, more important.
I couldn't have been more wrong. The client spent the entire hour quizzing the partner on the status of each of several concurrent privilege reviews. No detail was too small. This blew my mind--the client had at their disposal a partner with fifteen years of legal experience at one of the top firms in the country! And what did the client spend his time on? How we should format the cells in the priv log spreadsheet! One of the other associates on the call (on mute, of course) remarked: "You know, of the hundreds of litigation partners here, only a handful actually get to do the fun stuff."
That was probably the first moment I thought, maybe I want to do something else.
The transition didn’t happen all at once. I looked into a lot of different types of roles that could be a good fit for someone with my experience and personality. My first stop was at a plaintiffs' firm, but that didn't work out. Then, I decided to open up my own practice, but that also didn't work out. Over time, I realized that I needed to be more flexible and look outside of traditional legal jobs, so I started to search more broadly. I looked into legal recruiting, litigation finance, and other adjacent fields that seemed interesting. I considered everything and looked everywhere.
Eventually, I stumbled across an e-discovery technology company. They were looking for entry level sales reps. I thought, well, I’m pretty good with people and I’m not afraid of doing cold calls. So at the age of 33 and six years out of law school, I decided to start my career over.
In many ways this was a pretty scary move. But in another way, starting over was incredibly liberating. I had a good sense of what my strengths and weaknesses were. I knew I was good with people, and bad with details. I’d done a lot of work on local political campaigns knocking on doors and cold calling, so I knew I had a thick skin. I also had experience with e-discovery, both as a user and as a buyer. These were all assets in my new role. So doing what I did was actually less risky than it appeared.
Because I was such a productive sales rep, I ended up with a lot of free time. Which let me spend time learning and understanding the business. For example, I got a firsthand view of every single part of the sales and customer acquisition process. Down to the last detail. I learned where the landmines were. How to interpret what was being said in departmental meetings. What to pay attention to in Salesforce, and what to ignore. How to read between the lines. It was such a great education for me, as someone very much interested in business.
As I saw success, I moved up quickly and developed strong internal relationships. I was able to ask trusted confidantes on the executive team questions about why things were done a certain way. I learned, for example, how to recognize situations when it’s critical for the sales team to make uncomfortable concessions because not doing so would put the entire company at risk. Working on the business side gave me a lot of context about why certain things happen. It was a wonderful education.
It’s a difficult time right now for those entering the legal profession. There are just so many obstacles facing law students right now. It’s unclear how attorney admissions will evolve, as efforts to bring the bar exam online have failed. Some jurisdictions are experimenting with diploma privilege, but there’s also a lot of pushback. So becoming a licensed attorney isn’t as simple as it used to be. Just getting to the starting line has become a huge challenge.
I went to law school during the midst of the Great Recession. Back then we had our own worries and fears back then. Which in some ways, feels trivial compared to what’s happening now. New grads are now being forced to choose between their careers and their health. For those who are lucky enough to be already admitted, there are layoffs, job losses, and hiring freezes. Even if you hold on to your job you’re required to do more with less.
I do think there is reason to be optimistic, though. Things are different now than they were a decade ago. Technology has transformed how we do work. There are networking opportunities available to law students and young lawyers that were unheard of back when I graduated law school. There are resources and communities like TechGC. The rise of social media, and in particular, LinkedIn, as well as video-conferencing software like Zoom has empowered everyone to do work and connect with each other no matter where they live.
You don’t need to make a change all at once. I’d recommend dipping your toe in first. Volunteer on the weekends, and take on side projects. Help out with something outside of your comfort zone, that might involve a different department. Understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what you like or don’t like, is a necessary first step to finding meaningful work.
And as you figure things out, you’ll find where you belong in the legal ecosystem. What skills you can add to your toolkit. It might even take you outside of the legal industry. Social media and technology enables you to discover new and unique career paths that you never could have imagined. Personally, I never thought in a million years that I’d have a technology career. But now I’ve found my home at the intersection of law, technology, and new media. It’s an exciting time for innovation, and I absolutely love what I do.
I feel hopeful about the legal profession, and eager to see what the future holds.