Monthly Archives: May 2013

From Lawyer to Environmental Advocate

Carleton Montgomery 2011This installment of the 0.1 Billable Hour Interview features Carleton Montgomery, the Executive Director of New Jersey’s Pinelands Preservation Alliance.  Carleton left legal practice in Washington, D.C., where he was a partner in the firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, in order to join the nonprofit world and devote himself to environmental protection. 

1. Why did you leave law?

I left the practice of law, but not the law itself, as the environmental advocacy work I do now is deeply tied up in a set of laws. Legal reasoning and argumentation is a critical element in advancing the organization’s mission, and I often work with and against other lawyers – so all the years of training and practice from law firm days does not go to waste.

I left my law firm and the practice of law because I decided my career should amount to more than the firm could offer. I enjoyed the work, for the most part. I liked my colleagues well and most of our clients. The work was intellectually challenging. We even found ways to have a lot of fun. But eventually, I had to face the fact that this work consisted fundamentally in saving or making a lot of money for very large corporations. Since we only go around once, I concluded that wasn’t enough for an entire career. I wanted to do something I believed in as an end in itself. For me, nature provided that end in itself.

There was another important reason: I wasn’t home enough while my children were growing up. Kissing them goodnight after they were already asleep, and being with them most weekends, was not good enough. I’ve been a better father – not perfect, just better – since changing jobs.

2. What was the hardest part of your career change?

The hardest part of the change was also one of the best parts: It is said that the law makes you sharp by making you narrow, and I found that was too true of my own practice. In contrast, running a nonprofit – even a small one – demands a far more varied use of what intelligence, wisdom and creativity I have to offer. In my job, I do legal and policy analysis, navigate a complex political landscape, meet and work with an extraordinary range of individuals, get outdoors, teach children and adults about a place I love, and manage a small business. The job is simply more interesting than corporate litigation. At first, that was intimidating. Now it is the reason I have stayed at it 15 years.

3. What advice do you have for other lawyers who are thinking of changing careers? 

I have three pieces of advice: First, consider working for a nonprofit. We can make a huge difference working for charities, in part because so few people with business and for-profit legal experience put their skills to work for public goods like alleviating suffering and protecting the environment. Second, save enough money to help make the transition less scary, especially if you go to a nonprofit, where the pay is likely to be significantly, even dramatically, less than for-profit practice. And finally, keep your bar membership up to date, just in case.

Readers, have you ever joining a nonprofit?  What do you see in Carleton’s career path that might help guide yours? 

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Baby Steps Toward Your Post-Law Career

While I was giving a talk last week, an audience member asked a great question.  “I’m not sure I want to leave my job,” she said, “but I’m not sure I can make a change, either.  I’m tired.  What do you recommend to people who don’t have as much energy as you do?”  It’s sad but true that I get so excited talking about post-law careers that I often forget how draining it can feel to come home at the end of a long day of doing something you dislike. 

No matter how little time or energy you have, there are several ways to take baby steps – small yet actually productive – toward a possible career change.  As an ex-lawyer, I feel the need to categorize them:baby steps

  1.  The Daily Question.
  2. The Minor Adjustment.
  3. The Perfect Work.

The Daily Question:   Sometimes, asking yourself a single question on a regular basis can help spark ideas that lead to your next great career.  Mary-Alice Brady, an ex-lawyer turned award-winning entrepreneur, found it helpful to answer this question at the end of every day: “What did I enjoy today and what was a challenge to me?”  A career coach had asked her to keep track of her answers.  You don’t need a career coach, however, to see progress from your answers to that question over time.  You just need a notebook.

The Minor Adjustment:   Is there some relatively small change you could make that might lead to a big difference in your job satisfaction?  Susannah Baruch, for example, switched from policymaking to policy consulting.  Becoming a consultant allowed her to keep her substantive focus on a field she loves – reproductive health policy – and get a more flexible schedule, allowing her more time with her sons.

The Perfect Work:  Take a moment to think about the following question.  If you could design your perfect job, what would it look like?  What kind of things would you do?  What kind of people would you work with?  Where would you work?  What kinds of matters would you work on?  Creating a crazily idealistic job description might not be so crazy after all.  In fact, sketching out your dream job may help give you some new ideas about your next steps.  Dreaming is the precursor to doing. 

What other baby steps are you taking?  What small moves might help you find work that fits you better?

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From Lawyer to Yahoo!’s Global Head of Human Rights

Ebele Okobi has what many people would consider a dream career.  As the Global Head of Yahoo!’s Business & Human Rights Program, she helps an enormous corporation direct its resources toward effecting social change.  She lived and worked all over Europe and in Africa before landing in California with her husband and having three babies and starting the process of adopting one teenager in the span of three years.  But she started out as a corporate lawyer.

Ebele graduated from Columbia University School of Law in 1998.  She worked as a corporate securities and M&A lawyer at Davis Polk in New York and London.  As a third year associate, she realized that she was more engaged by her pro bono clients, including political asylum applicants and battered women seeking no-contest divorces, than by her paying clients.  At the beginning of 2001, she took a year to travel and volunteer in New York, Senegal and France, while leaving open the possibility of returning to law.   Small SXSW Photo

Then came September 11, 2001, when everything changed. “I lost one of my oldest friends. We’d gone to high school together–he was one of the kindest people I knew, and his life touched so many people,” she says. “After that, I realized that for me, life is too short to spend doing work about which I couldn’t be passionate. I also knew that I wanted my life and my work to have some sort of impact, for good.”

She started as an attorney fellow at Consumers Union, focusing on health care advocacy, and then went to work as the director of advisory services at Catalyst, the premiere research and consulting firm focusing on women and business.  When she and her husband decided they wanted to live in Europe again, she persuaded Catalyst to make her its first and only employee in Europe.  Then she fell in love with the emerging field of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Although she was initially resistant to the idea of an MBA (she cheerfully admits to leaving before actually graduating), Ebele went to business school in Paris in order to develop expertise which would help her move into operational roles.  She then joined Nike’s management development program, where her rotations included a new business concept launch, a manager effectiveness project in Northern Europe, and helping the Africa strategy team align its CSR, sports marketing and distributor strategies. 

When she read about the opening for her current job at Yahoo!, she felt that the position had been made for her.  Yahoo! appreciated her legal background as well as her diverse business experience and education. 

In fact, Ebele has drawn on her legal experience at every stage of her career.  Being an associate, for example, taught her client service skills.  “I’ve found that having been trained to focus on the client is excellent practice for putting the consumer first,” she says. “And the research that I conducted and analyzed as a lawyer proved handy in guiding my thinking around what women want in the marketplace at Nike.”

Ebele loves what she does now.  “I am fascinated by the nexus between doing “good” and doing well. I don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive, and I believe that companies have a responsibility, and a challenge, to do both.”  The process of getting there, while never straightforward, sounds pretty amazing too: “I got the chance to live in Paris, to run in Casablanca, dance in Rio, cheer in Nuremburg, and learn from and work with classmates from every corner of the world. I’m now working for a company I love, in a position in which I feel fully engaged, and from which I am learning what feels like a million new things every day.”  Ebele’s story is a phenomenal example of what can happen when your idealism leads you away from law and, maybe, toward a career in CSR.

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Shrinking Big Law: Necessity is the Mother of Career Reinvention

When Bloomberg Businessweek’s cover asks “What do you call 176,000 lawyers lying at the bottom of the ocean?” it gets my attention.  This month’s lead article explores the dwindling growth of Big Law through the lens of recent implosions at Howrey, Dewey & LeBoeuf, and my own ex-firm, Heller Ehrman.   The 176,000 figure is meant to be the “excess” number of JDs minted compared with law jobs created between 2010 and 2020.   The legal employment prospects for new JDs are grim – pretty much the opposite of a good start.

It’s no secret that many large firms are struggling, although I’m thrilled when a general audience rag brings it to the fore. But what is really changing for lawyers in those firms? This, to me, is where the real drama lies. I don’t care so much about the firms themselves; I care about the lawyers who literally billed their lives away in the now-questionable expectation that, if they worked well and long enough, and they found the right sponsors, or they were male, they would make partner.

One of the reasons so many lawyers change their career strategy is that they have to.  The old model of success in private practice doesn’t work anymore.   For graduates of elite law schools, Big Law used to be the auto-pilot route to financial reward.  As Elie Mystal, the Harvard Law alum who now edits Above the Law, explained to me, “I got a very high score on the LSAT, and I didn’t look up again until I was leaving my law firm.”  I did that too.  My competitive nature, combined with my lower-income background, led me straight to on-campus recruiting.  I didn’t really think about what I wanted to do with my life until I was miserable.  By then, I was billing too many hours to think about anything but my cases and where to get take-out on the way home. 

Now that the Big Law model is broken, many JDs have to think more creatively about using their skills and talents.  Ex-lawyers usually find greater joy in alternative careers – once they work out the kinks – than they did in law school or practice, although it can be harder to pay down debt.  Fortunately, an increasing number of successful ex-lawyers can serve as role models for others considering a major shift.  I profile 3o of them in Life After Law.  And I have never met an ex-lawyer who regretted leaving the law.  Have you?  

Attending a pricier law school won’t necessarily improve your legal job prospects, by the way.  As an Edward Tufte fan, I liked this graphic (scroll down) showing the lack of correlation between what various law schools cost and their unemployment rates. The most expensive schools have the same range of underemployment rates as the cheapest ones. If you’re going to pay under $100k for your JD, you might as well do it at LSU (less than 10% underemployment) instead of CUNY (about 37% underemployment). And if you’re paying closer to $300k, you’re better off at Columbia than Cardozo (but you knew that, right?).  In fact, you might be better off not practicing law at all.

Here’s what I want to know: can we reduce the number of unhappy lawyers before their firms or careers implode?  How do we encourage people to think differently about their career options before and after they go to law school?  I like the idea of mandatory Myers-Briggs testing along with the SAT, but that hasn’t gotten much traction yet.  What do you think?


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