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April 1, 2009 12:31 PM

NYC Lawyers Mull Career Switches

Posted by Nate Raymond

More than 110 lawyers in New York City packed a small room Tuesday night to mull if the financial crisis might present an opportunity to escape the law.

Lawyers at the offices of the New York City Bar Association listened to former lawyers who'd left their law firm careers to go into academia, career coaching, and yoga. The event was the second of two panels the association was hosting for lawyers trying to make sense of the troubling job market.

One underlying message recurred throughout the event: Tread cautiously if you're looking to leave the law, because in this recession, and beyond, it's unlikely that a law firm will hire you back once you've left the profession.

"It's just such a flooded market," said Melissa McClenaghan Martin, a former Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson associate who has since gone into career coaching and founded diversity consulting firm Career Women's Initiative. "If you want to stay in the law, I'd do something as tied to the law as possible."

That said, if you're ready to leave the law behind for good, then a switch is possible, panelists concurred.

Emphasizing nonlegal skills is essential in making the jump, according to the participants. Going back to school isn't necessarily needed to gain nonlegal skills, and panelists advised against quitting your day job before securing another job.

Michael DeCosta, a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, said lawyers exploring a career change can instead take on extracurricular activities inside their firms to build up resumes with skills unrelated to the law. Joining committees at a law firm is one way to pick up skills or experiences unrelated to a legal practice, he said. "You have to pick up the experience," he said.

And don't forget to capitalize on nonlegal skills you've already picked up in your job. Alexandra DaPolito Dunn was the general counsel of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies before she decided to go into academia. She hadn't published academic papers, a setback for making the switch. But she did realize she had management experience through her general counsel job, which helped her get a job as assistant dean of environmental law programs at Pace Law School in New York.

For all the panelists, making the career change meant sacrificing pay. "I took a pretty significant pay cut to move into academia," Dunn said. "I did not run the numbers, and if I had, I probably wouldn't have." McClenaghan Martin likewise remembered looking at her first post-law tax return and feeling sick. Connie Vasquez, who now splits her time between a litigation practice at Mazur Carp Rubin & Schulman and running a work-life balance consulting firm called AlchemESQ, said money also was an issue when she first started her business.

"When it got difficult, I really had to remember why I was doing it," she said.

While starting a business is an option, panelists cautioned that the current economy will pose extra challenges to that end.

"Any time you start a new business, failure is hovering above you," McClenaghan Martin said. While her firm began with a focus on diversity, lately because of the recession it's had to branch out into other streams, she said.

And there are, of course, issues outside the economy making it hard for lawyers to start a new venture.

"Most attorneys aren't entrepreneurial by nature," DeCosta said. "It's so hard to trigger that piece."

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