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When paralegal Christine Larrabee told the attorneys at Shook, Hardy & Bacon last year she was leaving the firm, they asked if there was something they could do to make her stay. “I couldn’t think of anything,” Larrabee recalls. Like the other former support staffers profiled here, she knew she needed a change. From ex-Fenwick & West legal secretary Susan Bologna, who realized at 50 her desire to go to cooking school, to Jean-Luc Szach, whose love of carpentry lured him from his associate librarian position at Morrison & Foerster, each former staffer offers hope for legal professionals no longer satisfied with their careers. For those willing to risk the comfort of stable employment, a job that means more than a paycheck may be the reward. “I did have one moment in the last 11 months when I wished I was in an office,” said Larrabee, who now enjoys a career as a deep-sea videographer in the Cayman Islands. “But that passed.” SHE TOOK THE PLUNGE

Christine Larrabee Underwater Videographer Just a little over a year ago, Christine Larrabee swam through a daily legal sea of tobacco defense work in San Francisco as a paralegal at Shook, Hardy & Bacon. A former case clerk and paralegal of two years at Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, Larrabee, 34, said she loved the attorneys she worked with at Shook Hardy and that the work was substantial and interesting. But that wasn’t enough. “I just was really unhappy,” she said. “I kept telling myself that if I worked more, if I was more successful, that I’d be happy.” Without another job lined up, she gave notice after one year with the firm. “I was so busy at Shook, I didn’t have time to look for a job,” she said. With nothing holding her down, she took off on a trip to the Cayman Islands with her mom to go deep-sea diving. The trip marked her first time scuba diving. On the last day of her vacation, the deep-sea diving business she used offered her a job. “They asked me if I wanted to be a videographer,” she said. “I came home and told my roommate and she said, ‘You’re going to do it, aren’t you?’ I thought, ‘How can I give up everything I’ve worked for?’” Larrabee went to her family and friends for guidance. “If one of them had said no, there’s no way I could have done it,” she said. Now Larrabee spends most of her waking hours filming scuba-diving tourists. She dives in and out of coral reefs, swims by hammerhead sharks and plays with schools of baby squid. “I’m probably the only person you know who has to give a presentation dripping wet in a bathing suit,” she said. And no, she doesn’t regret leaving the law. In fact, she makes use of some of the skills she gained as a legal support staffer. There are the organizational skills, the goal setting and the time management. “What I do now is so different,” she said. “But it’s not a party. When it’s raining and it’s cold, I have to dive — that’s my job. When I’m sick or I have an ear infection, I have to dive — that’s my job.” Still, even with the nine-hour work days, no breaks, and pay that keeps her living hand-to-mouth on a regular diet of peanut butter and jelly, she said she plans to sign on for another year. “You’re not bound by the laws of gravity,” she said. “It’s like a flying dream.” THE JOY OF COOKING

photo: Jason Doiy

Susan Bologna Chef When Susan Bologna turned 50, she came to a realization that would end her eight-year tenure as a legal secretary and paralegal at Fenwick & West. “My husband said, ‘What do you really want to do? What would really make you happy?’ ” she recalls. “ And I said I wanted to go to cooking school.” In March 2000, Bologna started taking classes at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She completed the school’s cooking program in April and is currently taking pastry and baking classes. This coming winter, she hopes to extern at a restaurant in Italy or Spain. Even before attending the academy, Bologna, 51, said she was always reading cooking magazines and cookbooks and experimenting in the kitchen. But going to cooking school hasn’t been a piece of cake. Bologna has to get up at 4 a.m. to commute to San Francisco from her Sunnyvale, Calif., home, allowing extra time before her seven-hour school day begins to change into her chef’s hat and checkered pants — or lose points for tardiness. “There were a lot of things I really hadn’t expected, that I didn’t think you’d have to know,” said Bologna, who has taken classes in chemistry, bacteria and mathematics while at the academy. Bolgna took a leave from Fenwick to free up time for studying, returning on a part-time basis after five months. She has since quit the firm, not only to allow more time for school but also to make the separation she needed to move on to her next career. Now she’s finding out that some lawyers and haughty French chefs have a lot in common. Bologna remembers a black-tie dinner she helped out with at the academy. “They had about five French chefs all in the same kitchen at the same time,” she said. “And they have their egos, like people can have, like lawyers can have. Some people were scared to go in, and I said, ‘This is nothing.’ “ HAMMERING AT HOME

photo: Shelley Eades

Jean-Luc Szach Capenter Jean-Luc Szach might not be a carpenter today if it hadn’t been for his 13 years as a librarian in the headquarter office of Morrison & Foerster. When he applied to work at the firm in the late 1980s, he was coming off an eight-month journey through India and Nepal and was working as a bike messenger for Quicksilver Messenger Service. He wanted a job with health care, vacation and other benefits. An opening came up for a library messenger at the firm and he interviewed with then-head librarian Teresa Oppedal. “She said, ‘You’re looking for a change and we’re looking for a messenger,’ ” he recalls. Although he hadn’t pictured himself working at a major law firm, especially in the library, he took the job. “I had these images of libraries being horribly, horribly stuffy,” Szach said. “But it was fun, friendly and didn’t feel oppressive at all.” Szach, 39, took up woodworking as a hobby in 1992. When it came time to find customers, he realized he needed to look only as far as the law firm corridors. He has crafted a wall-size oak bookshelf for the Oakland Hills home of U.S. District Judge William Alsup, a former Morrison & Foerster partner. And he recently delivered a queen-size slatted bed made of rosewood and narra, a deep orange-hued tropical hardwood, to partner Michael Agoglia. Szach has a dresser and bedside table on back order to go with it. “Most woodworkers would give their eyeteeth for a couple [law firm] partners,” he said. “It’s not a very easy field to make a living at.” In October of last year, Szach felt he had amassed enough skill and a large enough client list to start working full time in the shop he maintains in his garage in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. Szach said the communication skills he took away from his years of presentations in the library are as valuable to his business as the list of clients he took with him. Plus, he said, “I can hop on the Internet, no problem. But I’d rather be making sawdust.” A SPIRITED DEPARTURE

photo: Jason Doiy

Jeremy Cowan Shmaltz Brewing Co. When Bill Clinton took office in 1992, Jeremy Cowan saw an opportunity. “I thought I could move to Washington, D.C., and become a White House whiz kid,” he said. “Obviously, it didn’t work out exactly as planned because I became a paralegal.” For a year and a half, Cowan worked at the D.C. office of Atlanta’s Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy. He never did find his way onto the White House staff, but a few years ago he did found his own beer company, Shmaltz Brewing Co., maker of “HE’BREW — The Chosen Beer.” Even though the idea for HE’BREW started out as an inside joke with friends more than a decade ago, the beer has become a full-time job for Cowan. A 1991 graduate of Stanford University, Cowan, then 23, began working at Powell Goldstein following a stint as a bartender in New Orleans. He assisted on an antitrust case against Southern Bell reviewing documents, working on discovery, and even serving someone with a subpoena in a dark ally in Florida. But it wasn’t long before he made the decision to leave the firm. “The case was dragging actually and it wasn’t getting anywhere,” he said. “And I was young and needed a change.” After taking part in a public service program in Israel, Cowan returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and moved back in with his mother. He began interning at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and eventually went to work at a company that made audio tours for museums. He started HE’BREW on the side, sold out 100 cases for Hanukkah in 1996 and started delivering beer around the Bay Area in his grandmother’s Volvo. In March 1997, he quit his day job to focus on his burgeoning business. His stint in the legal world still serves him well. “The kind of skills you learn as a paralegal are applicable to just about anything,” he said. “Just the generic office skills and organizational skills.” Cowan also said he was able to do most of the trademark work himself. And while it was frustrating to watch the millions of free-flowing venture capital dollars find their way into high tech — although Cowan said he just makes enough to scrape by — his company has outlasted many of the dot-coms of yesterday. “I’m here,” he said, “still plugging along.” CAREER BY DESIGN

photo: Shelley Eades

Michael Gazzano Perkolate Web Services, Inc. At 20 years of age, Michael Gazzano wanted more than a job slinging java to get him through his student days at San Jose State University. Gazzano was making espressos at Nordstrom when he heard about Ware & Freidenrich. A few people he knew worked at the firm and told him the money was good and the hours flexible. Starting as a part-time records clerk, Gazzano remained at the firm, now Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, while studying fine arts and eventually through the recession of the early ’90s. Although he wanted to use his creative side more than the firm job allowed, the experience gained at Gray Cary proved useful later in his career. In his eight years at the firm, where he eventually became a paralegal, Gazzano said the attorneys he worked under were generous, allowing him to use his right brain on maps and other graphic projects to help out with cases. But when the economy started to pick back up, Gazzano said, he couldn’t pass up an entry-level position in marketing with 3Com. “I took a pay cut and I was a temp,” he said. “It was kind of a scary thing, but I realized that I wanted to do something different.” He started out preparing marketing materials like fliers, brochures and registration cards, and was later promoted to marketing programs manager. “Having worked at a law firm for eight years really helped,” he said. “When you’re working with attorneys, they’re under a lot of pressure, especially in litigation, to get things done. And when they ask you to do something, you find a way to do it. They don’t want to hear excuses.” Gazzano left 3Com after two years to work at San Francisco online marketing company zDegree. He started Perkolate Web Services Inc. — a Web site development company — in his spare time and built up the three-person business until it became a full-time venture this spring. His legal experience still comes in handy. Aside from computer skills and the ability to work under pressure, Gazzano gained the know-how at Gray Cary to incorporate his company and draft a four-page contract listing the terms and conditions under which he develops his clients’ Web sites. “When I started working with my first few clients they said, ‘This is really long, but it sure covers everything, doesn’t it?’ ” he recalls. “ It covers acts of God, like if the world blows up, I won’t be responsible.”

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