The Path to a Non-Traditional Legal Career

June 11, 2015

Keyboard typingHard Decisions Should Eventually Be Easy: How to Make a Career Change

Just over 15 years ago, I was playing chicken with myself. I knew I wanted to leave legal practice, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave the courtroom for a large legal publisher, or my office with a view for a cube without a door. Until then, my work had been focused on making a direct impact on particular people. As a victim-witness advocate, a law clerk in a prosecutor’s office, a judge’s clerk, and eventually a litigator specializing in family and juvenile matters, I regularly spoke with the people my actions affected. I knew that what I did every day mattered. That was invigorating – and exhausting.

I had never pictured myself in a setting that didn’t involve court. I liked my associates and partners. I liked making arguments and creatively helping families.  Still, I wasn’t up to a lifetime of angry divorces, clients who didn’t take good advice, difficult opposing counsel, and the unpredictability of the work. So, eventually, the hard decision was easy: I knew I was ready for a change, and I sought out a role with less conflict, more collaboration, and tons of impact, albeit more indirect.

My first job at Thomson Reuters was to write headnotes for judicial opinions. It was fun to find and summarize key holdings – especially since, as a former user of headnotes, I knew how valuable they were. I eventually moved from the Judicial editorial group to the Codes editorial group, taking on varying assignments publishing statutes, administrative codes, and court rules. I enjoyed developing relationships with my state contacts, implementing changes to the law, and finding valuable references and secondary sources to annotate it. I now manage the teams that produce the administrative codes for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Code of Federal Regulations. In some ways, it is as hard as practice was, but I find the challenges to be invigorating, not draining in the way custody battles had become.

In any case, my experience at Thomson Reuters taught me that even if you stay with the same employer, your role will adapt. You will need – and want – to develop new skills and take on new responsibilities. Thus, here are some things to think about when contemplating your next career transition.

Career Decisions Are Life Decisions: Work Consistently With Your Values

Whether we track our hours worked to bill clients or to monitor the cost of projects, they add up. Beyond the number of hours a job requires, however, consider the quality of those hours. Job stress rarely stays at work, but neither does job fulfillment. Find a job that gives you meaning, and foster that. For me, I thrive knowing that the statutes and administrative codes that my teams publish help people and businesses make sound legal decisions. By publishing the law, we advance the rule of law. That, as well as great relationships with colleagues, customers, and state contacts, helps drive my engagement and happiness at work.

Working for a corporation that supports work-life balance also makes a huge difference in my life. I like being able to spend time with my kids every day and to use paid time off to volunteer at their school. That they learn from the management concepts I practice on them (agile parenting anyone?) is just an added benefit.

So think about what matters most to you and find work that best fits with your values and the rest of your life. Then, be practical. Make the right trade-offs at the right time (I still sometimes miss my downtown office), work hard, and be ready for the next opportunity.

Be Ready: Fill Your Toolbox with Transferrable Skills

Change is inevitable, and sometimes we have no control over when it happens. Be ready. Instead of thinking of your resume as a list of jobs, think of it as a toolbox of transferable skills. In each job learn as many skills as you can. For example, the ability to negotiate a divorce can help you negotiate each team member’s workload in a corporate setting. The ability to convincingly draft bench memos can help you draft persuasive business proposals. The ability to make a cogent argument in court can translate into teaching. See your skills as starting points to new experiences rather than as confined to a particular job in a particular place. Many larger corporations, like Thomson Reuters, have in-house classes to increase productivity and decrease attrition. Still, even in smaller settings without training budgets, you can take advantage of learning opportunities by volunteering for new tasks, especially those that require leadership and project planning.

It’s Your Story: Be the Hero

Rarely is work just work. For most of us, work is personal. It makes sense that our identities would be tied to a place where we spend so much of our time and effort. So, whenever possible, take the job that helps you feel like a super hero. Find something you believe in – justice for children, the rule of law, good customer service – and find a way to incorporate that in what you do. Evaluate your opportunities in light of your values and skills, so you can have confidence in your decision. Then go for it. The career satisfaction will take care of itself, even when the career is non-traditional.