From Lawyer to Policy Consultant

Moving from the wrong career to the right one doesn’t always involve a drastic change. Susannah Baruch, a policy consultant, has spent most of her career working on reproductive rights and genetic testing issues.  Having known Susannah since we were 14, it wouldn’t have surprised me if she were running for President right now.  But while she began her career with an interest in politics, her fifteen years of policy work have changed her view of how she wants to make a difference.

Susannah grew up with a strong interest in social change, the only child of parents whom she describes as liberal and feminist.  She chose University of Chicago Law School, with its traditional conservative reputation, because she thought it would be the best place to hone her advocacy skills. After a Skadden Fellowship, she worked in Congress for Nita Lowey on reproductive health issues.  While she found the work engaging, she found the context she found daunting at first.  “The Hill was, even more than law school, like jumping into a big ocean of hard,” she told me.  It was hard to get things done, she says, because of the culture of “sharp elbows.”

After her first child was born in 2000, Susannah heard about a new organization that would focus on reproductive genetics, or the genetic testing before and during pregnancy – some of the issues Susannah found most interesting.  She pestered the founder “until she gave me a job.”   As she started work for the Genetics and Public Policy Center, she found it satisfying and a relief to be a step or two away from the political battles on Capitol Hill.  When the economy collapsed several years later, and the funding for her permanent position evaporated, Susannah decided to become a consultant instead.   Her children were seven and nine at the time.  Consulting offered her a more flexible schedule and the opportunity to explore new projects.

While her first client was the Genetics and Public Policy Center,  her next and ultimately biggest client was Generations Ahead, a progressive ethics and social justice group based in Oakland, California.   “The week I realized I needed to move forward planning my future life as a consultant,” Susannah says, “I saw that the founder of Generations Ahead  was advertising a full time job for a DC-based policy expert.  I had met this woman before and was impressed, so I asked if she would consider hiring me as a consultant, and making the job less than full time.”   Susannah had been working four days a week since her children were born, and Generations Ahead agreed to her proposal.  Susannah’s consulting work involves research, analysis and writing, combined with strategic planning designed to build consensus.  She now has a range of clients including the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum.

At a macro level, Susannah’s shift from Capitol Hill to consulting may not appear to be radical.  But she has made important changes in both the nature of what she does and the way in which she works.  While politics is not as comfortable a fit for her as she thought it would be when she went to law school, she is still engaged in the policy work that she has always found compelling.  Instead of competing with the hard-nosed advocates who work to push laws through, she works on developing the intelligence necessary to define what those laws should look like to be most effective.  By focusing on her strengths, maintaining her values and using her network, Susannah has created a career that allows her to work on important social issues without sacrificing the time she wants to spend with family.

What tweaks could you make to your own career?  Is a smaller shift better for you than a more drastic reboot?

1 Comment

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One response to “From Lawyer to Policy Consultant

  1. Martha DoByns

    Great example of creating your own niche, and I’m sure can inspire people for whom greater flexibility has become a higher priority.