By Joanne Chong, Esq.
After spending years of preparation, not including time spent prior to law school, and going through the arduous journey of graduating from law school and studying for the bar exam, leaving the practice of law can be an unfathomable idea to some. On April 27, the Women’s Bar Association hosted its Spring Career Series: The Road Less Traveled – Non-traditional Career Moves. Panelists included Sameena Kluck, Strategic Account Executive, LawGeex; Sherri Keene, Associate Professor of Law, Georgetown Law; and Eve Runyon, President and CEO, Pro Bono Institute. Moderated by Janine Herring, co-chair, WBA’s Career Development and Mentoring Committee, this event was made possible by Macrae and held virtually with additional time allotted at the event’s conclusion for networking with WBA members in attendance. The fruitful discussion leaned toward the idea that moving away from a traditional career of practicing law requires an understanding of one’s identity, skills, and purpose.
Why did panelists leave the traditional practice of law? For Ms. Kluck, she began her career in a small litigation firm and did not find the work fulfilling or “sparking joy.” She ultimately discovered that while in that role she experienced the greatest joy whenever she was able to speak with her clients. In contrast, Ms. Keene enjoyed practicing law and writing briefs while she was at the Public Defender’s office. At the same time, she sought a teaching role and enjoyed the research and teaching aspects the position offered. She ultimately made the shift to teaching, leaving the practice of law, for the flexibility that came with the position. Similarly, Ms. Runyon, while committed to entering public service after she was able to pay off her student loans, enjoyed her big law firm experience. Toward the end of her tenure at the firm, however, she sought a new position she was passionate about—her pro bono experiences from her time at the law firm helped inform her decision.
While each panelist left the traditional practice of law for different reasons, each ultimately found a way to continue incorporating or using the skills they acquired from their traditional careers in their current non-traditional positions. Realizing and understanding they offered more than the skills they acquired from their experiences practicing law helped launch their non-traditional path.
Define Your Identity (Beyond an Attorney)
Law school naturally gears students toward a traditional law practice. Leaving, or breaking away from, the traditional legal practice can be difficult. For Ms. Keene, she realized teaching was another passion, in addition to her passion for practicing law. The challenge she experienced was leaving a job she enjoyed for another job she enjoyed. She was able to bridge these experiences by incorporating what she enjoyed in practice into her teaching experience, inviting former colleagues as guest speakers, attending moots, etc.
Ms. Runyon put a significant amount of thought and planning prior to making her move: poking around, looking at job postings, and talking to friends. She ultimately hired a career coach to help her remove herself from the mindset that she was a big law firm lawyer and to help broaden her identity with regard to her career. This allowed her to give herself the freedom to pick and choose where she wanted to go next.
For Ms. Kluck, she realized early on, within three months of practicing, that she did not enjoy what she spent her time on at the firm. Another nine months was spent coming to terms with the fact that she had spent a significant amount of time and energy to get to her position, only to realize a career as an attorney was not what would make her happy. A lot of her identity was centered around being an attorney. She eventually realized that there were other careers she could pursue with her law degree and began her search, talking to a lot of people along the way.
Transfer Your Skills
It turns out the skills learned in law school transitioned well into the panelists’ non-traditional careers. Without the need for additional courses or credentials, the panelists were able to capitalize on the skills they already had to be successful in their current positions. While Ms. Keene had no official training on how to be a professor, she tried teaching before completely making the transition. It also helped that she started teaching in a legal writing program where the structure was already provided.
Ms. Runyon called her transition a “soft land.” She had started as a director of one of the Pro Bono Institute’s projects. Her role required her to work with lawyers to build law firms’ infrastructure of pro bono work. What was key for her was understanding that her ability to manage litigation while practicing at the law firm also meant she could manage a project. Being strategic about a legal matter meant she could be strategic about developing an organization’s initiatives.
While Ms. Kluck learned in law school how to convince a judge or a jury, she had to learn how to be persuasive and convince a client or potential client to take a particular course of action. This skill was newly acquired, as she did not realize she had to learn the business side of the industry of her current position.
Understand Your Elevator Pitch
Convincing employers that they were qualified required the panelists to have an understanding of the skills they brought to the table and be able to adequately express them. Ms. Keene found herself speaking on her teaching and management skills, framing her different legal positions as being an expert in research and writing and talking about her management experience, including managing interns during her clerkship. While she felt she did not have the experience she needed, she felt confident she could do the work, which to her was half the battle.
Ms. Runyon spoke about understanding why she wanted the new role and whether she was ready to stop practicing law. It was extremely important to be able to articulate what about the new role spoke to her. She hired a career coach at this juncture in her career as well. Leaving law practice and speaking about something she was passionate about was a real change for her. She found that strategic thinking, something that excited her about the law, was something she could find at her current organization (e.g., persuading someone that a certain course of action is appropriate). Her transition from the director to president role was more methodical. This shift required her to be able to communicate how she had built a foundation that prepared her for the position.
Similarly, Ms. Kluck learned to communicate her skills and qualifications. While she did not hire a career coach, she took a negotiation course that helped her develop skills in convincing various stakeholders to agree with and support her and her ideas.
“Spring Career Series: The Road Less Traveled – Non-traditional Career Moves” will be available in its entirely for viewing for WBA members 30 days after the program. Log in to your member profile and click on video library.