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Alternative Career Choices: Heather M. Butts, J.D., M.P.H., M.A.

People often ask me how I arrived at the place that I am in my career.  I am a lawyer, but I am an administrator at Columbia University Medical Center, the founder of a youth non-profit (H.E.A.L.T.H for Youths; www.health4youths.org and an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Public Health School. In effect, I have gone the “alternate career” route. Did I plan it all out?  Did I know as a first year law student that I would be spending my weekends mentoring college bound under-served New York City young people?  Or that I would be grading graduate school papers on the ethical issues presented with physician assisted suicide cases.  To the question of was this my grant plan, I answer people as honestly as I can:

Yes and no.  In law school, I had a sense that the traditional law career was not for me.    But as to particulars of how I arrived professionally where I am, and what I do which I enjoy immensely, I can but offer three pieces of advice for my fellow alternate career seekers.

  1. Find a great mentor.  Preferably, you will have many wonderful mentors during your career, but for an alternate legal career, you should have someone who can advise you on both the “new” career you want to pursue as well as someone who can help you navigate through your professional life in a new non-legal world.  So if, for example you decide that you want to transition into journalism or acting, ideally you should have a mentor in the reporting or acting world as well as a mentor who has successfully transitioned generally from the legal to non-legal world.
  2. Live the old adage if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Transitioning to a new job can be difficult enough but transitioning to a new profession can be overwhelming.  There may be times when you fail at obtaining the position you think is perfect for you, or feel as though you’ve made a huge mistake in leaving the legal profession.  When this happens, speak with your mentor, do something special to reward yourself, and keep at it! You will find someone who understands what you’re trying to achieve and will reward you appropriately.
  3. Never let people make you feel like you don’t deserve to follow your dreams and goals.  There may be detractors – people who don’t understand what you’re trying to carry off.  People who may want to transition themselves but are afraid to do so.  Believe in yourself and what you are striving for and do not let the naysayers get you off course.

You can successfully make the shift.  For me, being able to help young people in my non-profit, teach graduate students and work with at risk populations in the research context is all the confirmation that I need that I have make the right decision.  You can make the transition if you seek guidance, don’t let the set-backs get you down and believe in yourself!



I am completing my MPH in December and took the LSAT on Saturday Oct 1, 2011. Since I’ve taken the test, I have become really self conscious about career opportunities having both degrees. Do you think there is a great need for those of us that have both a JD and MPH?

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