By Stinson Woodward Ferguson
The tradition of going to work for a law firm after law school is becoming increasingly nontraditional. University of South Carolina School of Law ("USC Law") reports that the number of law school graduates going into business and industry has increased since 2011 (following national trends), and now accounts "nationally for almost a fifth of first jobs for law school graduates.1 Jobs for which a JD degree is preferred, but licensure as an attorney is not required, are often first choices for law graduates."2
The Charleston School of Law reports that of its 81 employed 2017 graduates, 27 transitioned immediately into jobs that did not require bar exam passage.3 While 42 of the 81 transitioned to law firms, 20 transitioned to business and industry, 10 to government, two to public interest, five to clerkships, and two to education.4 U.S.C. Law reports that of its 184 employed 2017 graduates, 35 transitioned immediately into jobs that did not require bar exam passage. While 71 of the 184 transitioned to law firms, 32 transitioned to business and industry, 28 to government, two to public interest, 48 to clerkships, and three to education.6
Some attribute this trend to factors like economic uncertainty, increased access to information and job opportunities, and fear of burnout. But South Carolina lawyers have been actively seeking and thriving in nontraditional careers for some time. South Carolina is home to many attorneys in non-traditional careers who remain engaged in the legal community, recognize the value of their legal training, and put to good use skills and knowledge gained through law school and previous employment.
Opting for the alternative
While traditional practice remains the foundation of the SC Bar, the legal landscape has never been homogenous and continues to evolve. Anne Ellefson, former SC Bar president and the first female to serve as managing partner of a law firm with over 100 attorneys, currently serves as deputy general counsel for Academics and Community Affairs for Prisma Health [formerly Greenville Health System ("GHS")].7 When Ellefson accepted an offer to practice at Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, she stayed for 35 years thinking she would never leave.8
She was planning to return to her real estate practice after stepping down from managing partner when approached by GHS to take on a newly-created role in healthcare.9 Despite Ellefson's insistence that she knew nothing about healthcare law, she was assured that she had great management skills and "could learn it all."10 "I did some due diligence, talked it over with my husband, and accepted,"11 Ellefson says. "I wasn't quite clear on what I would be doing but it sounded fun."12
Marjorie Palmer Cleary is the government relations associate for the Nature Conservancy in Columbia, whose mission is to "protect the lands and waters on which all life depends."13 Cleary's work involves regular meetings and relationship building with groups like land trusts, resource coalitions, conservation banks and volunteers; science-based research; and federal priorities.14 Cleary took the bar exam with an eye toward environmental policy and conservation. She reached out to the Nature Conservancy and started working on miscellaneous projects with the government relations staff.16 When a paid policy and coalition building opportunity arose, she was hired on a temporary basis in 2010, and has worked in this role ever since.17
Susan Hills Nelson, director of HIPAA Compliance in the Office of General Counsel for the University of South Carolina, worked as a paralegal before going to law school. After law school and an appellate clerkship, she worked in private practice, for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control on healthcare regulation, and briefly at the SC Bar before landing at USC.19 In her current role, Nelson offers regulatory guidance to all eight U.S.C. campuses in addition to "whatever matters the chief general counsel gives me to handle."20
Tigerron "Tiger" Wells is the director of Governmental Affairs for the Municipal Association of South Carolina ("MASC"),21 where he leads advocacy efforts on behalf of the state's 271 municipalities before the General Assembly22 Wells describes his career path as "a winding road guided by a desire to discover purpose, and shaped by divine intervention along the way"23 Wells worked in private practice for years - even earning shareholder status -before accepting an offer to join the MASC as its government affairs liaison.24 After serving in that role for five years, he was promoted to his current role. While in private practice, Wells worked in pharmaceutical and medical device defense and on public finance transactions.26
Jennifer Olmert is the executive director of Upstate Mediation Center ("UMC"), "a community based non-profit organization providing high-quality, affordable mediation services to individuals, families, and businesses in conflict in the Upstate of South Carolina."27 Prior to Upstate Mediation, Olmert worked in private practice, as a staff attorney at the South Carolina Supreme Court, for the Court of Appeals, and then took time off to focus on her growing family28 When she decided to re-enter the workforce, she had longstanding relationships with many in the non-profit sector, but needed help determining which organization might be a good fit for her. A friend recommended that she consider UMC.30
Kim Kent is a founder of Copper Dome Strategies, LLC,31 a government relations and lobbying business, and has recently found herself at the helm of Kentwool,32 her late husband's family business with interests in textiles, real estate and retail.33 Kent partnered with other professionals - including one other attorney - to launch Copper Dome, which is now housed as a subsidiary of a law firm.34
D. Hope Watson is a staff attorney at The Center For Heirs' Property Preservation, a non-profit organization that "protects heirs' property and promotes its sustainable use to provide increased economic benefit to historically under-served families." Watson describes her journey to her current role as a "long and winding road."36 She first worked at the Center as a student intern but transitioned to law school recruitment immediately after graduation.37 When an outreach coordinator position became available at the Center, she rejoined as a staff member.38 In this role, she helped plan events, facilitated seminars and networked.39 When a grant enabled the Center to expand, she transitioned from outreach to a full-time staff attorney and remains so today40
Nicole Cuadrado recently transitioned from private practice to in-house associate counsel for Regional Management Corp., a consumer finance company41 Cuadrado works primarily with the human resources and compliance departments on regulatory, employment, legal, financial, and operational policy and issues.42 She reviews commercial contracts and leases and oversees vendor relationships.
I.S. Leevy Johnson, the first African-American president of the SC Bar, comes from a multi-generational family of funeral directors.44 In 1968 - the same year he graduated from law school, passed the bar exam and married -Johnson's grandfather (then-owner of the family business) died.45 This motivated Johnson to establish a solo private practice to ensure a stable future.46 He founded his own law firm, which is now known as Johnson, Toal, & Battiste, P.A. in Columbia - the first law firm in the state to be racially integrated at the partner level.47 In 1995, Johnson bought the family funeral home, but his son Chris handles its daily management.48 His oldest son George is managing shareholder of the law firm, is also a licensed funeral director, and serves as the attorney for the South Carolina Morticians Association.49
A typical day is atypical
A common thread among attorneys in nontraditional careers is that there is no typical day. For Nelson, no two days are alike in her current role.50 Kent shares: "Every single day has been different. I sometimes find myself in Greenville starting at the Kentwool headquarters sorting through issues related to our corporate real estate holdings, then holding conference calls with government affairs clients and preparing for the legislative session. I may hang up the phone and head to Pickens where our manufacturing facility is located to discuss the wool market, trade issues and workforce challenges. Then I may wrap up the day in the Copper Dome Strategies space to confer with my partners on client matters or make calls to legislators to catch up on the latest...