Category Archives: From Law To …

From Lawyer to Academic, Author, Distiller or Tour Guide

LAL3DI love profiling former lawyers who have carved out fantastic alternative careers for themselves.  Here are four very different paths taken by ex-lawyers, all of which, frankly, sound fascinating.  I’m especially drawn to the tour guide story, since one of my first and favorite jobs was leading tours as a high school student around the Massachusetts State House.  That early experience telling stories on my feet to a captive audience, and the thrill I got from doing so, no doubt played into my decisions to become a litigator and, eventually, a business professor.  Each of these former lawyers also tapped into something they love to do in order to find their next, and better, career (well, OK, except for the prize-winning novelist who is still a public defender).

1.  Robin Kelsey, who used to practice law in California, is the Director of Graduate Studies in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Harvard and has tenure.  According to Harvard’s website, Professor Kelsey is “a specialist in the histories of photography and American art, Professor Kelsey has published on the role of chance in photographic production, geographical survey photography, landscape theory, and the nexus of art and law.”  Art and law!  Kelsey has also written and edited books about photography, including “Archive Style,” on photographs and illustrations for U.S. surveys in the late 19th century.  Writing about old photographs sounds like a fantastic job to me, but the cherry on top is that he works with my favorite historian, Jill Lepore.

2.  Sergio de la Pava, who is actually still working as a public defender in New York, won the PEN award for his self-published(!) debut(!) novel about a public defender in New York.  Heads up for lawyers who love to write – including those of us who have always loved to write but who went to law school in part to make money – de la Pava won the most lucrative prize given by PEN, worth $25,000.   His story is also one of remarkable persistence, since he began writing his 678-page novel at work in 1998 and did not self-publish it until 2008.  The PEN prize came five years later.  His second novel, Personae, is also getting a lot of love from literary critics.

3.  Michael Lowe, who practiced law in DC for years before starting DC’s first distillery in over a century with his son in law.  Their small-batch gin, Green Hat, is getting national coverage from gourmets and praise from local upscale restaurants.  More about what makes their seasonal gin superior here.

4.  Jack Friedman, a former telecommunications and finance lawyer whose job was eliminated in 2008, when he was in his late 50s.  After working with career coaches, Friedman decided to create an entirely different second career: he now leads student tours, primarily in Washington DC, New York, Philadelphia and Boston.   He says that his new job allows him to combine his love of travel with his interest in working with young people.  It also allows him to use some of his legal skills, like speaking in front of a group and doing advance research, but he gets to set his schedule and only works four to five months out of the year.

For thirty more stories of former lawyers who love their new careers, read Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the JD You Have.  It makes a great Valentine’s Day gift for the unhappy lawyer in your life (is that you?).

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Ex-Lawyers Make Excellent Leaders.

kripalu

Picture courtesy of Kripalu.com

The recent news that a former lawyer has become the CEO of Kripalu (the Berkshires haven for many unhappy lawyers and others) put an extra spring in my bakasana. Things got even more exciting when I read the press release in detail. Kripalu cited David Lipsius’ “training as a lawyer” first on the list of “qualifications that make David the right person to lead Kripalu into the future.” It’s so nice to see “training as a lawyer” recognized for what it so often is: training as a leader. Lipsius didn’t come to Kripalu from a BigLaw corner office, but from NBC, where he had been a VP in charge of operational and creative divisions, and on the senior team of the Today show. As it happens, Lipsius replaces another former lawyer, Richard Faulds, as Kripalu’s CEO. According to Kripalu’s website, Faulds “joined Kripalu’s residential ashram staff after several years of working as a Legal Aid attorney, and became Kripalu’s legal counsel in 1989.” Don’t you love stories of lawyers who run away to the ashram?

This got me thinking about other ex-lawyers who run major institutions. As a new-ish business law professor, I’m especially interested in ex-lawyers running universities. The president of Bentley University, Gloria Cordes Larson, is my favorite example, and not just because she is a great boss. President Larson’s career has run the gamut of public policy and government work, from developing geriatric service programs to managing consumer affairs policy to putting together the Boston Convention Center, an enormous undertaking. Although she tells me that former lawyers make up a small minority of university presidents, they’re especially effective in that role.   Other ex-lawyers running universities include President Clayton Spencer of Bates College (Yale Law School, 1985) and President Kenneth Quigley of Curry College (Villanova Law School, 1982).

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that ex-lawyers make superb leaders. After running some case teams, many partners prove to be excellent managers (and I know that many other partners are terrible managers – I mean, I know).  Leadership requires not only vision and tenacity but the kind of analytical skill and ability to build consensus that lawyers often develop as their careers progress.  Those skills are enormously transferrable.  My hope is that more lawyers will take their leadership skills beyond the case team and into an organization they are passionate about.  David Lipsius makes an excellent role model.

Readers, who are your favorite ex-lawyers in leadership?  Maybe this one, or this one?

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From Lawyer to Marketer to Jeweler

Zoe Mohler Head Shot-2Zoe Mohler is the artist behind Three Sisters Jewelry, which makes gorgeous handstamped necklaces among other beautiful things (I wear her “Aria” necklace most days).  She is also a former lawyer and law firm marketer with a truly great story.

Zoe had doubts about law while she was still in law school.   Although she had a nagging feeling that law practice wasn’t right for her, she wasn’t about to change her plans on that basis alone.  “I didn’t understand the importance of instinct when I was 24,” she says.  “I didn’t think that happiness mattered, because I was raised to be practical about work.”

She joined the transactional practice of a firm with more female attorneys than other firms, and stayed there for five years.  When she became pregnant, she transitioned into a job in the then-emerging field of law firm marketing.  She had her first two daughters while working a flexible schedule.  Her mother took care of both kids while Zoe was at the office.  When her children were four and two, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and her heath went rapidly downhill.   While her mother was dying, Zoe asked for some family leave.  Her manager refused.  Zoe quit.  One week later, her mother passed away.

Zoe was devastated.  After some months at home, she started thinking about how else she might contribute to the family’s income.  She had always liked photography, and started taking night classes to improve her photography skills.  She started doing weddings and portraits on the weekends.  Once she started promoting her photography, it turned into a business that kept her busy all weekend.  Her husband watched the girls while she worked.

Two years after her mother died, Zoe herself was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  At the time, her youngest daughter was two months old.   During her radiation treatments, she could not see her three children because even casual contact would put them at risk for radiation poisoning.  While she was in isolation, and thinking about family, she made keepsake jewelry for her daughters.  She had researched how to make hand-stamped jewelry and stamped metal discs that were personalized for each girl.

The treatments worked, and Zoe found herself wanting to make more of the stamped jewelry.  But the jewelry business didn’t go well at first.  At her first trunk show, she didn’t sell a single piece.  “I sat in the car and cried afterward.  It was a disaster,” she says.  Instead of selling person to person, she decided to create her own website, which she learned to do online.

Her big break came unexpectedly.  About four years ago, Zoe took the financial plunge of hiring a professional web designer.  On the day her new website launched, the Today Show did a segment on personalized jewelry and broadcast her website address across the screen.  She got 8,000 hits that first day.   “I believe in small miracles,” she says.

But it wasn’t entirely a miracle.  The Today Show apparently found Three Sisters by doing a key word search for “personalized jewelry.”  At the time, few other companies produced the same kind of personalized jewelry that Zoe was creating, and she took advantage of that.  She had used the SEO skills she learned in marketing to code her site so that it ranked highly during searches for “personalized jewelry” and “handstamped jewelry.”  If she hadn’t made Three Sisters so easy to find, the Today Show would not have promoted her site.

Zoe credits law school with helping her develop a sense of drive and confidence in her own abilities.  She recalls the unspoken law school rule that you had to come to every class fully prepared and on top of your game.   “Everything that I’ve done for my business, from learning how to build my own website six years ago to creating new jewelry lines, required that same kind of personal dedication,” she says.  She also uses the analytical skills she honed in law school to understand her competition and adjust her position in response.  She has a better understanding of copyright law than most other artisans, and is more comfortable negotiating contracts than most small business owners.

Zoe urges lawyers who are thinking of changing careers to have confidence, and not to underestimate their own chances of success.   “Before I started this business, I would never have expected that I could,” she says.  “I was 38 when I started.  But you never know.  You can do more than you think you can.  You just have to try.”

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From Lawyer to Fashion Entrepreneur

bridgette hyltonIn this installment of the 0.1 Billable Hour Interview, we talk with Bridgette L. Hylton.  Bridgette, an ’09 law school graduate, is a former corporate associate who left law to cofound fashion tech startup ShopRagHouse.com with her Harvard Law School classmate Joana Florez.  ShopRagHouse is the place where Project Runway meets Kickstarter. Everyday fashion enthusiasts and designers can submit their design ideas for a chance to have them produced and sold for a share of the profits.  Let’s get to the questions!

1. Why did you leave law?

The short answer is that I left law because I wasn’t passionate about it. It was a hard choice to make since I was learning so much at my firm, the pay was good, I loved being a part of the hustle and bustle in New York City, and I really admired the partner that I worked with. She was and is a powerhouse, but I could tell that we were different. While the creative structuring of deals was something that really drove her, it didn’t drive me. Doing my job, even doing well at my job, didn’t bring me joy. That should have been a big red flag.

Then there was a question of fit. I started to feel like I didn’t fit in pretty early on. I strolled into the office in sky high red stiletto Stuart Weitzman pumps only to have my secretary tell me that I should try to tone down my fashion choices. At some point you have to be honest with yourself about fit or you will never be happy. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized my dream of becoming a Prada suit wearing M&A partner, wasn’t my dream any more.

After leaving practice, I almost immediately fell back into the things I had cared about in law school and still care about now, politics and startups.  I spent some time exploring what my next move would be and in the meantime became a mother. I knew after having my child that I wanted a career that would allow me the flexibility to be hands on with my son, but would also still challenge me. The idea for ShopRagHouse was born while I was doing some major soul searching about what I wanted to do next – a rough and tumble time where my career dreams swerved between politics, writing, and fashion (I even tried to launch my own dress line!). When my business partner called me with the idea for ShopRagHouse, something just clicked. It fit. I could use my legal education and still wear red stilettos?! Sign me up! We’ve been full steam ahead on trying to launch our startup since then.

2. What was the hardest part of your career change?

One big change is not having the internal structure that lets you know if you are doing a good job or the right thing. At a firm if you do well, you keep your job and if you do really well, you get praised for it; if you do poorly, ultimately, you probably don’t get to keep your job. It’s pretty straightforward. In the startup world, there is no easy validation and when you are your own boss, there isn’t always someone there to pat you on your shoulder and say, “good work, Hylton.” We rely a lot more on intuition now than we do on praise: Does it seem like our idea is building traction? Do people seem excited to talk about ShopRagHouse? The answers to those questions have to motivate us on a daily basis to keep plugging. Luckily we’ve had some great feedback so far and the buzz continues to grow so we are optimistic.

Adjusting to being more flexible about deadlines and timelines was another big change for both of us. We have to remind each other that we don’t have to freak out if we don’t get a pattern back on time every single time, but I’m grateful that we both know how to push things forward when we need to – chalk that up to our legal educations!

3. What advice do you have for other lawyers who are thinking of changing careers?

Be brave! Be confident! A lot of people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I left big law to start a startup – especially so because we’re still just getting off the ground. If I weren’t confident that this was the best decision for me and that this business can and will succeed, I might have run back to a law firm begging for forgiveness. I haven’t yet and I look forward to ShopRagHouse being a huge success soon so that I can prove that following your joy to the ends of the earth is 100% worth it.

Readers, have you thought about starting your own business?  Are you doing it now?  Why or why not?

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From Lawyer to Environmental Advocate

Carleton Montgomery 2011This installment of the 0.1 Billable Hour Interview features Carleton Montgomery, the Executive Director of New Jersey’s Pinelands Preservation Alliance.  Carleton left legal practice in Washington, D.C., where he was a partner in the firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, in order to join the nonprofit world and devote himself to environmental protection. 

1. Why did you leave law?

I left the practice of law, but not the law itself, as the environmental advocacy work I do now is deeply tied up in a set of laws. Legal reasoning and argumentation is a critical element in advancing the organization’s mission, and I often work with and against other lawyers – so all the years of training and practice from law firm days does not go to waste.

I left my law firm and the practice of law because I decided my career should amount to more than the firm could offer. I enjoyed the work, for the most part. I liked my colleagues well and most of our clients. The work was intellectually challenging. We even found ways to have a lot of fun. But eventually, I had to face the fact that this work consisted fundamentally in saving or making a lot of money for very large corporations. Since we only go around once, I concluded that wasn’t enough for an entire career. I wanted to do something I believed in as an end in itself. For me, nature provided that end in itself.

There was another important reason: I wasn’t home enough while my children were growing up. Kissing them goodnight after they were already asleep, and being with them most weekends, was not good enough. I’ve been a better father – not perfect, just better – since changing jobs.

2. What was the hardest part of your career change?

The hardest part of the change was also one of the best parts: It is said that the law makes you sharp by making you narrow, and I found that was too true of my own practice. In contrast, running a nonprofit – even a small one – demands a far more varied use of what intelligence, wisdom and creativity I have to offer. In my job, I do legal and policy analysis, navigate a complex political landscape, meet and work with an extraordinary range of individuals, get outdoors, teach children and adults about a place I love, and manage a small business. The job is simply more interesting than corporate litigation. At first, that was intimidating. Now it is the reason I have stayed at it 15 years.

3. What advice do you have for other lawyers who are thinking of changing careers? 

I have three pieces of advice: First, consider working for a nonprofit. We can make a huge difference working for charities, in part because so few people with business and for-profit legal experience put their skills to work for public goods like alleviating suffering and protecting the environment. Second, save enough money to help make the transition less scary, especially if you go to a nonprofit, where the pay is likely to be significantly, even dramatically, less than for-profit practice. And finally, keep your bar membership up to date, just in case.

Readers, have you ever joining a nonprofit?  What do you see in Carleton’s career path that might help guide yours? 

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From Lawyer to Yahoo!’s Global Head of Human Rights

Ebele Okobi has what many people would consider a dream career.  As the Global Head of Yahoo!’s Business & Human Rights Program, she helps an enormous corporation direct its resources toward effecting social change.  She lived and worked all over Europe and in Africa before landing in California with her husband and having three babies and starting the process of adopting one teenager in the span of three years.  But she started out as a corporate lawyer.

Ebele graduated from Columbia University School of Law in 1998.  She worked as a corporate securities and M&A lawyer at Davis Polk in New York and London.  As a third year associate, she realized that she was more engaged by her pro bono clients, including political asylum applicants and battered women seeking no-contest divorces, than by her paying clients.  At the beginning of 2001, she took a year to travel and volunteer in New York, Senegal and France, while leaving open the possibility of returning to law.   Small SXSW Photo

Then came September 11, 2001, when everything changed. “I lost one of my oldest friends. We’d gone to high school together–he was one of the kindest people I knew, and his life touched so many people,” she says. “After that, I realized that for me, life is too short to spend doing work about which I couldn’t be passionate. I also knew that I wanted my life and my work to have some sort of impact, for good.”

She started as an attorney fellow at Consumers Union, focusing on health care advocacy, and then went to work as the director of advisory services at Catalyst, the premiere research and consulting firm focusing on women and business.  When she and her husband decided they wanted to live in Europe again, she persuaded Catalyst to make her its first and only employee in Europe.  Then she fell in love with the emerging field of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Although she was initially resistant to the idea of an MBA (she cheerfully admits to leaving before actually graduating), Ebele went to business school in Paris in order to develop expertise which would help her move into operational roles.  She then joined Nike’s management development program, where her rotations included a new business concept launch, a manager effectiveness project in Northern Europe, and helping the Africa strategy team align its CSR, sports marketing and distributor strategies. 

When she read about the opening for her current job at Yahoo!, she felt that the position had been made for her.  Yahoo! appreciated her legal background as well as her diverse business experience and education. 

In fact, Ebele has drawn on her legal experience at every stage of her career.  Being an associate, for example, taught her client service skills.  “I’ve found that having been trained to focus on the client is excellent practice for putting the consumer first,” she says. “And the research that I conducted and analyzed as a lawyer proved handy in guiding my thinking around what women want in the marketplace at Nike.”

Ebele loves what she does now.  “I am fascinated by the nexus between doing “good” and doing well. I don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive, and I believe that companies have a responsibility, and a challenge, to do both.”  The process of getting there, while never straightforward, sounds pretty amazing too: “I got the chance to live in Paris, to run in Casablanca, dance in Rio, cheer in Nuremburg, and learn from and work with classmates from every corner of the world. I’m now working for a company I love, in a position in which I feel fully engaged, and from which I am learning what feels like a million new things every day.”  Ebele’s story is a phenomenal example of what can happen when your idealism leads you away from law and, maybe, toward a career in CSR.

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From Lawyer to Publicist & Social Media Strategist

JenBersonI’m thrilled to present the first 0.1 Billable Hour Interview, the interview with an ex-lawyer that should take just six minutes to read.  Jennifer Berson is the President & Founder of Jeneration PR, a public relations and social media marketing firm that specializes in promoting beauty, fashion, lifestyle and baby brands.  Prior to founding Jeneration PR in 2005, Jennifer was an attorney in Los Angeles, specializing in civil litigation.  Jennifer has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, PR Week, Los Angeles Daily News, Fox 11 News, TV Guide Network’s “Hollywood 411,” and was profiled on Apple.com.  Babble.com selected her as one of the 10 “Mompreneur’s Who Made it Big!”

1) Why did you leave law?   I always felt like my position as a lawyer was more of a job than a career.  I wasn’t as passionate about my work as I knew I could be, and I was frustrated with the extremely slow pace of litigation.  I wanted more creativity and balance in my life, and I knew I would want to start a family someday, but I didn’t see many female partners who seemed to have the work-life balance I was seeking.  I always felt that there was something out there for me that was a better fit with my personality. In the back of my mind, I knew I could always go back to practicing law, but after 8 years of having my own PR firm, I’m confident that I will never have to.

2) What was the hardest part of your career change?   In the beginning, I was concerned about my lack of experience and credibility in this completely different field. I worried that I might have a hard time convincing prospective clients that we could be effective with so little experience.  I busted my butt, working late nights to make all of the connections I could, and trying to get my name out there.  To help bridge the gap from lawyer to fashion and beauty publicist, I took a position at the Fashion Institute of Design & Marketing (FIDM) teaching Principles of Entrepreneurship in their beauty department.  I also took on clients for a below-market retainer fee, and made the case that if they took a chance on our agency, we could grow together. I believe that my genuine passion for their brands helped me win the work, and I’m thrilled to report that my very first client when I started my business 8 years ago, Little Giraffe, is still a client to this day!

3) What advice do you have for other lawyers who are thinking of changing careers?    Think about what you are passionate about and what you would genuinely enjoy doing every day.  Ask people you know personally, or whom you admire, who have a career similar to the one you are seeking to share their experience with you.  Do as much as you can to plan for your transition while you are still employed–save money, plan your exit strategy, carefully build your network.  Give yourself a significant period of time–3 to 6 months– to see if you can make this career change happen.  Draw as many connections to your experience as a lawyer to the skills you will need in your new career, and move forward with the confidence that you can successfully make the transition.

Excellent advice! Do you know an ex-lawyer I should feature on www.lifeafterlawblog.com?  Let me know at lizafterlaw@gmail.com.

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