A Q&A with Matt Wheatley, VP of Client Development at Priori

Matt Wheatley, VP of Client Development at Priori, has a unique perspective on alternative career paths for attorneys: Not only did he take one himself, starting his career practicing law and eventually moving into legal staffing and now business development at Priori, but he has also spent years working with attorneys and helping them pursue paths outside of the traditional model. In this Q&A, Matt shares some career advice for legal professionals looking to explore all of their options and reflects on his experiences as a practicing and nonpracticing lawyer.

The traditional legal career path can be limiting for many people, but it’s also a known quantity so it feels safe to follow. Looking back at your experience in law school, how do you think people can start to explore alternative legal career paths?

I think the reality is a lot of 22-year-olds are not thinking intentionally about law school. I went to law school because it seemed like the next logical step. Now, with the experience I have, there are a few things I would say that potential law students should do.

We should take a page from what most people who get their MBA do: They get real-world practical experience before they apply to go to business school. There are existing paths for people to take that approach in the legal industry. You can be a paralegal. There are programs for people who have just graduated, typically from top-notch undergrads, to go and work at the top firms and get a couple of years of experience while they decide whether or not to go to law school.

While that may not be feasible for the kid who went to University of Kentucky, like me, or another big state school that may not have the prestige to draw an offer from a big firm out of undergrad, there are other options too. You could work in a local law firm which very likely could be a litigation practice and you’ll get to see what that looks like.

And, increasingly, there’s an opportunity to work as a legal operations professional out of school. For example, getting a job as a legal ops coordinator at a medium or large-sized company that is starting to think more intentionally about how they run their legal department. Another option is to work at a legaltech company like Priori. Our Attorney Network team has been a feeder to lots of great law schools. They’re interacting with lawyers and getting to see what their life looks like and their quality of life and earning potential.

And, ultimately, you may find you don’t want to go to law school. You can be a legal operations professional or a corporate paralegal and make a great living just by staying on that path. So you can be in legal with or without your law degree.

You started off on a traditional legal career path but then went an alternative route. What made you pursue that path?

I almost went to work at a big legal recruiting firm right out of law school. But one of the people I met there during the recruiting process gave me some advice and said that I should take the opportunity to get some practice experience. He didn’t want me to jump into recruiting and a few years later be wondering whether I would have been happier as a practicing lawyer. At the time, I didn’t really care about being a practicing lawyer; I just wanted to live in New York. But I took that advice to heart even though I didn’t want to and I practiced for about a year and a half after law school.

I kept in touch with the person who gave me that advice and eventually they reached out again to revisit the conversation. As a lawyer, I wasn’t unhappy—I was doing some interesting things—but I still wanted to move to New York and I was in a better place financially and with my personal relationships to make the move. I certainly didn’t know that I was moving into something that could be just as fulfilling as a legal career can be, but I got lucky. I also ended up working under someone who was a fantastic mentor and boss and I was surrounded by other great people at the company.

What brought you to Priori?

Working in legal staffing around that time, in 2017, was a far cry from what it is today. It wasn’t as widely accepted in the legal industry and it was still growing. But by 2019, things were really taking off and people in the legal industry were thinking more about how to get work done more efficiently without adding headcount or sending work to large law firms. It started to click for me—what I was doing wasn’t legal staffing, it was helping people and law departments get work done more efficiently at better rates using different models than they previously had access to.

I started to nerd out on this idea and I wanted to be part of something on the cutting edge of this new environment, particularly something that was tech-enabled. I saw how technology was revolutionizing all of these different industries but it wasn’t as dominant in the legal world. That’s when I found Priori and reached out to Basha [Rubin, Priori CEO and Co-Founder,] on LinkedIn. She didn’t respond immediately, but by the time she shot me a message back I had seen more of the news about Priori growing and raising money. I met with her and the rest of the team and decided to join the company.

My move to Priori was kind of the first intentional move of my career. I thought, there is a ton of opportunity in this space and these people are really smart. I’m really thankful for the experience that I serendipitously gained at my previous job and how it forced me to grow because that set me up perfectly to be a part of Priori.

What has been the biggest surprise for you in taking an alternative career path as an attorney?

The biggest surprise for me is being at Priori and seeing that there is so much opportunity in the legal industry that’s not just following this traditional path that I had always looked for in the past. That path was: top law school, top law firm, in-house experience and available for 40-plus hours a week dedicated to a company.

What has been super motivating for me at Priori is to see that there are so many different paths that you can take in this industry that you don’t see every day. You might not see them on LinkedIn or when you’re looking at the background of the general counsel at a Fortune 500 company or an AmLaw 50 law firm partner.

You can go to a Big Law firm, you can get in-house experience and then you can hang up a shingle and be a solo practitioner and make really good money for yourself using the skills that you’ve learned. You can not go to a Big Law firm; you can not go to a law firm at all. You can start a data privacy consulting firm. You can go straight in-house at a tech company and start negotiating commercial contracts. If you can find the right niche and develop the right expertise, there is an opportunity for you to do really well.

There’s no path you have to follow, despite how it sometimes seems in the industry. You’re not doomed if you’re not following exactly what you’ve been told you need to follow because of the pristine examples that you’ve seen in the upper echelons of the industry. That’s been motivating for me working at Priori and seeing people who have taken those paths and helping to facilitate those paths. I have the opportunity to do that in a way I never would have in my previous role and certainly not as a practicing lawyer.

Follow Matt on LinkedIn for more insights into legal industry careers, how technology is changing the legal industry and much more. And if you’re interested in learning more about how Priori helps legal teams of all sizes work more efficiently, find out how it works or start an RFP today.