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Life after the law: Career changes require planning, self-assessment

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After nearly 30 years as a litigator, Anne Reed started to imagine a different kind of life.

“I loved practicing law, and I loved my law firm,” said Reed, a former partner with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren SC, Milwaukee. “There was no, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ I wasn’t looking to leave.

“But I think, like a lot of lawyers, I had always sort of wondered what a second chapter in my career might look like.”

Imagining a different kind of life became seriously considering one, Reed said, when she heard about an opportunity with the Wisconsin Humane Society.

“I started to wonder what that life would look like,” said Reed, who is now the humane society’s CEO and president. “And whatever it was that I almost involuntarily started picturing caught my imagination.

“What it might be like to help an organization, what I could add to it, what approaches I might take and what I might learn.”

That spark of imagination, followed by some real-world skills inventory, is exactly what attorneys need to do when they consider leaving the law.

“It starts with a self-assessment,” said Michael Keller, assistant dean for career and professional development at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

For some, figuring out why they want to leave the law is the best place to start.

“What do you want to get away from?” said Kate Neville, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Neville Career Consulting, which specializes in helping transitioning attorneys.

There could be many reasons to leave: lack of job satisfaction, inability to make partner, too little time with family or lingering thoughts about another life. Whatever the motivation, Neville said, understanding it can help mean the difference between running from an old career and running toward a new one.

Finding direction

Determining a career path often comes down to thinking about where enjoyment comes from at work and outside the office.

Reed said working with the humane society let her draw from her skills as an attorney while exploring her interest in business and indulging her love of animals.

For Amy Impellizzeri, a New York attorney-turned-author, the career change meant embracing her love of writing, which she had set aside after deciding to become a litigator. Her upcoming book, “Lawyer Interrupted,” which will be published by the

American Bar Association, profiles attorneys who left and returned to the law.

“I never wanted to be anything but a lawyer,” Impellizzeri said. “When I was in high school, I was going to be a lawyer. When I was in college, I wanted to be a lawyer.

“But I always loved to write. That part of me just got a little buried.”

Impellizzeri, a mother of three, said she has not looked back.

“I really do think there are periods of your practice that you can graduate from,” she said. “I graduated from my career as a corporate litigator. I did that for 13 years. Do I regret it? No. But I graduated from it.”

Still, reaching that conclusion took time. She took a one-year sabbatical to work it out.

“Obviously, that’s not practical for everyone,” Impellizzeri said. “What you need to do is practice not being a lawyer, even when you are a lawyer.”

And in the midst of that, Neville said, attorneys who are considering a change must weigh the practical considerations.

“What do you need to make? What’s your bottom line? Not what you would tell your employer,” she said. “But do you have a spouse? What’s their income? Are you willing to make sacrifices?

“You’re going to have more options the lower that number is. If someone says the number has to start with a 3 and that number is 300,000, that is going to be more limiting.”

Geography also plays a role.

“Where do you want to live? Would you go anywhere for the right job?” Keller said. “There are a lot of people who would be much more marketable if they were willing to move.”

And when considering a new career, attorneys also should think about the deal-breakers.

“One thing that’s worth a lot of money to a lot of people is flexibility, the ability to get your work done but not have to show up at a certain time and stay till a certain time,” Neville said. “That’s worth $100,000 to a lot of people.”

Doing the legwork

Thinking about leaving the law is one thing. Actually searching for and finding that perfect opportunity is another.

Reading list

Research is the foundation of the legal profession, and research also should fuel decisions when attorneys are considering switching careers.

Here are some research ideas:

  • “Non-legal Careers for Lawyers,” by Gary A. Munneke, William D. Henslee and Ellen Wayne
  • “What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law,” by Deborah Aaron
  • “Full Disclosure: Do You Really Want to Be a Lawyer?” compiled by Susan J. Bell
  • “The (Un)Happy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law,” by Monica Parker
  • “Judgment Reversed: Alternative Careers for Lawyers,” by Jeffrey Strausser
  • “Life After Law: Finding Work You Love With the J.D. You Have,” by Liz Brown — compiled by the University of Wisconsin Law School Library
“Prepare to network,” Neville said. “So many people come in and say, ‘I don’t have any contacts.’ I say, ‘Really? You went to college. You went to law school. Even if you haven’t talked to them in years, you have neighbors. You have relatives. You have to cast a wide net.’”

Change takes work, Neville said, but it is the kind of work attorneys are used to.

“Most people get jobs because they ask good questions,” she said. “And lawyers do nothing if not research. This is about information-gathering. It’s a research exercise.

“Think about what it is that you genuinely want to know and how to phrase it. That is the basis of networking.”

And law schools can be valuable resources for networking.

Jini Jasti, assistant dean of alumni relations at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said graduates routinely call for advice about the next step in their legal careers. That is part of the reason the school started the “What I’m Doing With My Law Degree” series, which explores what other graduates have done in and out of the law.

“After you graduate, there’s no magic bullet for what you should do next,” Jasti said. “It’s based on personal experience. People can really do wonderful, diverse things with a law degree.”

And attorneys, even if they do not realize it, are training every day for different careers.

“If you’re a mid-level associate, you managed up with you partner, you managed down with paralegals and staff,” Neville said. “You worked with clients. You worked with consultants. That is project management, but people don’t call it that. But that is a marketable skill.”

Other transitioning attorneys get into finance, become lobbyists or go to work for themselves. Attorneys with a penchant for computers have turned to IT, developing corporate compliance and training programs.

But whatever transitioning attorneys choose, leaving the law does not mean giving up their identities as lawyers.

“Identity is huge,” Impellizzeri said. “And, I say, if you still want to be a lawyer, you can still say you’re a lawyer. You still went to law school. You still got the degree. If you want to identify yourself as a lawyer you can identify yourself as a lawyer.

“But it’s something that people really need to think about before they leave. They think, ‘I’ll never miss this.’ But they will miss things. They will miss the idea of the career.”


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