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Here is the predicament: You’re 55 years old, with two kids in college and a mortgage payment that is higher than it should be (love those adjustable-rate mortgages), and you don’t want to practice law anymore. Are you trapped? Do you have to play out the string until retirement? Is there a way out? I am here to bear witness to a story that reflects my extrication from a profession I no longer enjoyed and my smooth landing into a new career. My new mantra is, “Do not make changes for change’s sake, but do not be afraid to make changes just because it is change.” I was a senior partner in a successful and well-respected suburban Maryland law firm. I had been with the firm for 20 years and I had four partners, all of whom were hard-working, ethical, and trustworthy. We were business associates but not friends. I was primarily engaged in representing builders and developers of residential real estate, banks, and small businesses. The money was good but not great. Unfortunately, those surveys revealing the annual salaries for senior partners in law firms do not reflect reality for many of us. After much soul-searching, I decided that I no longer wanted billable hours and partnership meetings to be a part of my life. The business of law had changed. I didn’t like it, and I sensed that it was beginning to dislike me. So I started to look for something new. I regularly checked employment Web sites, scoured publications, and carefully made my intentions known to people I could trust, all the while having no idea what I really wanted to do (although becoming a bartender in Aspen had a growing appeal). One morning, I read in The Wall Street Journal that a client of our firm was merging with a company that I thought employed an old friend of mine — someone I hadn’t spoken to in at least five years. I decided to call him to see if our firm could be positioned to get work from the new company and to get some assurance that we would not lose the work we were currently doing. It turned out that my friend no longer worked for the company and, after some digging, I found him working for the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land-conservation organization. We talked at length about the nature of his work and the culture of the strong and successful nonprofit that employed him. By the end of the conversation I had confessed my dissatisfaction with the law business, and I began thinking that “doing deals” for conservation rather than development might be interesting and rewarding. He agreed that I might be a good fit, and we decided to talk again after he did some investigating inside the company to see if something might be available. Drawing optimism from that conversation, I began to think about my finances. My two children were almost finished with college, my wife was working, and I had a lot of equity in my house. I realized that I was ready and able to make a change in my lifestyle. As I contemplated a life of sacrifice for the greater good and life outside the material world, I wisely decided to read my firm’s stockholder agreement for the first time in 10 years. I learned that, for a variety of reasons, leaving my firm sooner rather than later would be financially wise. After my attorney confirmed the same, I gave my 90-day notice. Aside from my partners’ collective consternation at having to buy me out, my leaving did not cause them concern because I was leaving my practice behind and not taking any of the firm’s clients. While the clock was ticking on my 90-day notice, I began the interview process for a job opening in the TPL’s D.C. office as a project manger for Maryland conservation transactions. The position was nonlegal and involved finding and acquiring land for conservation from willing sellers, using a variety of public funding programs. The TPL has in-house counsel, so I would be the client — getting advice on land deals, not giving it. After a series of interviews, which included some expressions of amazement at what I was contemplating, I received an offer that I accepted. Although the salary was significantly lower than at the law firm, the benefits were excellent, the office was on Capitol Hill, and, best of all, I would no longer be stuck behind my desk all day. I left my firm on June 30, 2005, went to Iceland and hiked glaciers for a while, and started my new career on August 1. THE OTHER SIDE One year later, I have successfully transitioned into my new career. My experience as a real estate lawyer is viewed as a valuable asset by the TPL and has provided an excellent platform for my new work. My knowledge of how the for-profit side of the real estate world views transactions is very helpful when we are negotiating a land purchase from a developer. Having been on “the other side” has brought me credibility with sellers who might have previously thought of us as environmental advocates and thus the enemy. The age-stained Rolodex that has been on my desk since 1976 can open doors that were previously closed or unknown to the TPL. All real estate transactions have certain basic characteristics, and knowing those well has allowed me to learn my job more rapidly and, I believe, perform more effectively for the TPL. I understand the elements of a sales contract, due diligence, and title matters, and I can speak about most issues with confidence. I’m seeing real estate transactions from a different perspective, and it’s good to be intellectually challenged and stimulated again. Politics, government programs, and the public good are new elements to consider when I’m analyzing a deal. Perhaps most importantly, it’s very rewarding to be part of a larger effort to make the world a better place to live. I have bought into the idea that parks and open space, as well as the conservation of beautiful and important natural resources, improve people’s lives in a myriad of ways, for now and the future. At the end of the day, I still work hard, albeit for less money, and I am still accountable to a higher authority. But I’m respected for my experience, stimulated by the work, and respectful of my very smart and collaborative colleagues, and I feel that what I’m doing is valuable. And I haven’t had to hug any trees!
Richard Ross is senior project manager in the Trust for Public Land’s Chesapeake and Central Appalachians field office in Washington, D.C.

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