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The following discussion thread excerpt is from a recently completed law.com online seminar “Shifting Gears: Alternative Careers for Lawyers,” moderated by Deborah Arron, JD, author of “What Can You Do with a Law Degree?” For information on this program and other law.com seminar offerings, please visit http://www.law.com/seminars. MODERATOR DEBORAH ARRON, CAREER COUNSEL TO THE PROFESSIONS, SEATTLE Most nonlawyers consider the practice of law an intriguing and lucrative field. The first question they’ll have — often unspoken — is why you would want to leave. Are you a “loser” lawyer, or just a flake, unable to stick to anything very long? Do you really know what you’ll give up or what you’re getting into by making a switch? At the same time, many lawyers who must make a change — whether from layoff, dissatisfaction, or to earn more money — feel very negative about their experiences. It can be hard to explain your reasons for wanting to move on without sounding (or appearing through body language) bitter, defeated or hostile. How have panelists and participants successfully met these challenges? Are there any good buzzwords or phrases that are universally effective in dealing with employer skepticism? PANELIST STEPHEN SECKLER, SECKLER LEGAL CONSULTING, NEWTON, MASS. A great way to respond to an employer’s doubts is to make the hire less risky. This may mean shifting some of the risk back on yourself. While employers are concerned about making a bad hire because the individual may not have the skills or motivation to do the job well, they are even more concerned with how they might get rid of you if things are not going well. If you have the ability to work in anything less than a full-time permanent position, you can remove some of the risk. It’s kind of like dating before you get married. Look for employers who have an immediate need and offer to work on a contract, part-time or temporary basis. This way the employer gets to see your work product without making a commitment to keeping you on the permanent payroll. I know of a number of instances where lawyers have done projects for management consulting firms, and after doing a good job, they were offered full-time jobs. The caveat, of course, is to make sure that the temporary assignment has the possibility of leading to more work, and that the work itself gives you more credibility to claim that you have the skills and interests to do the job that you want. PANELIST MICHELLE COTTON, LEGAL SEARCH CONSULTANT, SPHERION LEGAL GROUP, SAN FRANCISCO I think an important thing to suggest when responding to an employer who may be questioning your “sudden” desire to shift gears is that: 1) a legal education is an excellent basis for any occupation that calls for good writing, analysis and complex, conceptual thought processes and 2) that by its very nature, the practice of law affords attorneys exposure to a wide variety of professions and matters well outside the practice of law. Lawyers are usually some of the most articulate, logical thinkers around. Moreover, the practice of law requires constant learning — a skill that is essential (and definitely transferable) to any new occupation. There will always be skeptics about the transferability of a law degree, but with thoughtful and honest explanation, many employers will come to understand an attorney’s decision to shift gears. One thing I mentioned to employers when I was leaving litigation is that I was fine with contentiousness when it was necessary to protect my client’s interests, but it was the unnecessary contentiousness that seems to surround so much of the practice of law that was the last straw for me. People understand this, and hopefully see you as a consensus-building individual who views unnecessary contentiousness as counterproductive. Prospective employers want to know that you will be a team player, and not a nay-saying attorney. ANONYMOUS ATTENDEE I am a midlevel associate at a law firm and in the future I would like to work in a law-related setting. Someone told me that if I wait too long to make the switch to a nonlaw firm job that I would price myself out of a job. I figure that certain jobs have set salaries or salary ranges (e.g., careers services) and that would be a nonissue. I would like to hear the panelists’ take. STEPHEN SECKLER I think I understood your question, but if this doesn’t answer it, please post again. It is true that the longer you stay in the practice of law, the more likely it is that salary in another profession can become an issue. Law is still a fairly lucrative profession and many lawyers in transition experience sticker shock when they look at salaries in other fields. While you can make a lot more in investment banking or in your own entrepreneurial venture, you are likely to have to consider a pay cut if you leave a large or medium-sized firm for other nonlegal pursuits. There are two issues with respect to “pricing yourself out of the market”. The first one has to do with your own needs. If you take out a large mortgage to buy a big house, if you have grown accustomed to driving expensive cars, if you like taking fancy vacations, then the longer you wait, the more difficult it can become to leave (the “golden handcuffs” syndrome). From the employer’s perspective, there is also the issue of whether or not you can really be happy earning less. The salary differential between practicing law and many other pursuits tends to grow over time. Therefore, the longer you wait, the harder it may be to convince an employer that you really are prepared to make the financial tradeoff to switch careers. On the other hand, I really believe that it is never too late to make a major career shift, and a lot more has to do with your own readiness. People make dramatic career shifts at all stages in their careers. And since there are so many lawyers making the switch, there are many nonlawyers who do understand why you might be willing to make the tradeoff. DEBORAH ARRON Here’s how one lawyer overcame the “you’ll want too much money” objection. A.C. was an associate in Dallas earning in the range of $75,000 annually. By examining her strengths and values, she decided she wanted to get into university administration, specifically the career services office at SMU. The job as director paid $25,000. The dean of the school tossed her resume; he assumed she didn’t know what the salary was. But A.C. was undaunted. She worked the network she’d created to learn about university administration and scheduled a meeting with the dean. She carefully explained to him how she had changed her living situation and paid off her debts so she could afford to take a huge pay cut. She was hired. Two years later, her salary doubled. She then moved into a law firm marketing position with another large pay increase, then moved to Chicago to work in administration at the University of Chicago. Now she’s director of business administration for a Presbyterian church there. A.C. anticipated the employer’s objection, raised it herself in a personal meeting, showed what she had done to make it a nonissue, and impressed the employer with both her strong desire to have the job and her clear understanding of what it entailed, both pro and con.

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