By Noha Sidhom • August 08, 2010•Other Career Issues
What drew you to law school?
I always knew I was going to attend law school. In high school I traveled to Poland and Israel. When I returned home I saw an article in my local paper about a lawyer who practiced Holocaust restitution. That was the first time I realized that people could create a career for themselves that made them happy and enabled them to combine professional goals and personal dreams. I had decided to practice Holocaust restitution and simply did what I needed to do to fulfill that goal.
What possible avenues did you consider before choosing law school?
Often the hardest job to land is your first job of out of law school. What was your first job out of law school and how did you land it?
My first job out of law school was at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference), a non-profit organization adjudicating a $1.25 billion settlement for Holocaust survivors and their heirs. I graduated without a job, took and passed the NY Bar, and in September, when most of my friends were starting as first year associates at large firms, I was still unemployed. I have since forgotten where else I applied but I do recall being scared ad disillusioned. Then I saw a job posting for a position as Director of a branch of the Claims Conference. I knew I had no hope of getting a position at that level but I had to apply. It was the job for which I had initially applied to law school. I did not get the Director position but I did secure a more appropriate spot and was still able to fulfill my dream. I should mention that during my first summer of law school I worked part-time at a firm doing similar work. Therefore, I did know that Holocaust restitution was still a viable career choice for me and that I was already building my skills for a job after graduation. I did not initially pursue a non-legal career but securing that position at the Claims Conference gave me the confidence to pursue others.
Why did you decide to leave law?
I knew I never wanted to practice. Litigation and transactional work never appealed to me. When I attended law school there was no explanation of what options existed for lawyers who did not want to "be lawyers." I read A LOT of books and went on too many informational interviews to count. In many cases only practitioners can tell you what their job is really like…or in this case, a non-practitioner. My second summer of law school, the summer you are supposed to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life, I worked in the recruiting department in the New York office of a London based firm. I loved reviewing resumes and working with lawyers. What I heard repeatedly in my informational interviews was that without traditional legal experience a JD would be less valuable. I agree and disagree. The degree alone does not make you a lawyer. It is the practice of law makes you and your skills valuable. However, your JD, in nearly any situation I have been in, read about, heard of and can imagine is invaluable. It is your legal training, only some of which you learn in law school, which makes you into a desirable candidate. The way you learn and think and speak for the rest of your life has been changed, if only slightly: you are a new person…you’re a LAWYER! I will forever be proud of myself. I will always be a lawyer first, and a whatever-else-I’m-doing second. The knowledge that my degree is useful, important, and respected, no matter how many lawyer jokes there are, enabled me to seek an alternative legal career.
A large reason many people take traditional law jobs or don’t leave them is because of the massive debt many take on when they attend law school. How did you manage your student loans and what advice do you have for others?
I do not have any specific advice regarding student loans except to say, do what you need to survive and live comfortably so that you can eventually have the job you desire. You may find that you excel at the position you secure which will enable you to enjoy the lifestyle you seek.
How long did the entire process take, from the time you decided that you wanted to leave the law until you felt you were at a comfortable place in your new career?
It took a few years but only because I did recruiting during law school, then practiced, then went back to a quasi-legal, non-traditional legal, non-legal practice.
Were there several different jobs involved in the process or was it an immediate switch?
There were several jobs involved in the process. Learning what I did not want to do and confirming the same made my more recent decisions more firm. Right out of law school I did Holocaust restitution, but in the back of my mind I thought that I should probably use my legal skills in a way that was more typical, really BE a lawyer, so after leaving my first job I did women’s health product liability for five months. I will always be proud of that time and the fact that as an associate I went before a Magistrate judge in the Eastern District of New York (the same judge I clerked for during a semester of law school). I felt that my experience there, however brief, enabled me to confirm that I could be a “real” lawyer if I chose to and that I knew I really really never wanted to be one. Although I realized I did not want to practice I also realized how much I enjoyed being a lawyer, using my brain in a legal way and reading legal language. That is one reason why I went into a business that is all about language. After leaving that litigation position, I took about one month off and revisited some of my informational interviews and pursued new connections in recruiting at placement agencies, in academia and in law firms. At that point in my life, a position at a placement agency was ideal for me. While pursuing those positions, I went to a job fair with two versions of my resume. That was crucially important. I knew I had the skills to do contract attorney work so I had that version of my resume. The other version highlighted my recruiting experience and all of the transferrable skills I had gained through working at my earlier jobs. I took my pride and my suit and my resumes and I went up to a table and handed both of my resumes to a man who would become a colleague and friend. “Here is my recruiting resume if you are looking for a recruiter, and here is my legal resume, if you need more legal temps.” That was a Monday. I was hired the next Wednesday as a Recruitment Coordinator at Strategic Legal Solutions. I am embarrassed to say now that I went into the interview not knowing for which position I was being interviewed. I loved that job. After only a few months I was prepared to stay for the rest of my career. The office, the people, the work and the experience were all ideal for me at that time in my life.
My work at Strategic Legal Solutions enabled me to see what I most enjoyed and how I could best utilize my skills and career goals to better serve the candidates, clients and ultimately myself.
Would you change anything about your career path?
I would, like most everyone I know, change the current economy and its effect on my career path. Otherwise, I have been unbelievably lucky. Although it is always easy to say you are lucky in retrospect. I worked hard to get the jobs I had. I was in the right places at the right times, and while there is no way to know that will happen until after-the-fact, I knew where to be because I did my homework and I knew what I did not want. That can sometimes be more helpful than a long list of what you do want.
Some believe that lawyers are too risk averse and this prevents them from breaking into new careers or trying a new path, even though they may be unhappy in their current jobs. Do you relate to this sentiment?
I have seen that risk aversion when I work with my clients. I was just as scared as I imagine everyone is when trying something new. Lawyers are trained to work alone, to assess risk and to be adversarial. None of those things lend themselves well to an open job search.
If so, how did you overcome that aversion to risk?
I was not afraid to take a risk, in fact, going into law school knowing I would eventually not practice law probably made the entire process less stressful for me.
What inspired your move into your current position?
I went on maternity leave the week before Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008. There was no way to know, at that time, that I would not return to Strategic Legal in January as planned due to the company’s drastic downsizing. I missed the daily interaction with candidates, fulfilling the needs of our clients, reviewing resumes and providing interview skills assessments. I also really missed working with lawyers. I spoke regularly at the New York City Bar on topics including Contract Lawyers, The Effect of the Current Economy on Your Job Search, Resumes and Cover Letters, and Non-Traditional Legal Careers for Lawyers. In many cases the programs focused on the interests of law students. People would always line up to speak to me afterward. They all wanted to speak to a recruiter. I would take their resumes back to work and review them, which was no problem because I had a salary and an office. However, after I stopped working I could no longer review resumes for free. I sought a way to incorporate my past experience and my interest in working with lawyers. I chose to focus on lawyers who are just beginning their legal careers and those who are interested in making a transition from practicing law to a non-traditional legal career. I had been part of both populations and I felt they were under-served. I know when I was seeking guidance as a student and later as an attorney looking for a change, there were very limited resources. I took a few months and launched Attorney’s Counsel where I specialize in preparing lawyers for career advancement by giving them the tools they need to pursue the career they desire.
Were there particular individuals, books, role models or other sources that were instrumental in your career shift?
Three individuals stand out as instrumental in my career shift. First, Camille Chin-Kee-Fatt, the current Director of the Brooklyn Law School Career Center, hired me at an international law firm to do recruiting while I was in law school. It was that experience that solidified my desire to pursue a profession in legal career advancement. Second is Ed Coughlin who is currently an Associate Director in the Office of Career Services at New York Law School. Ed is the man I handed my resumes to at that job fair. He had been at Strategic Legal for years and I would have been happy to have the same job satisfaction and longevity. The people I met at Strategic Legal showed me that it is possible to love your job and how to use my JD in a non-legal way. Third, Hillary Mantis is a career consultant and a pre-law advisor and author. I read, highlighted and tabbed Hillary’s book, Alternative Careers for Lawyers, while I was in law school. The day I moderated the Non-Traditional Careers for Lawyers panel in which she participated, I was emotional. I have an audio recording and I told the audience that I was proof that they could have a fulfilling non-traditional legal career. I told them that I had attended the same program as a student and through various steps in my career, had literally progressed from a seat in the audience to a seat on the dais. Since then, including just a few weeks ago, Hillary and I have had the opportunity to sit together on panels regarding Resumes and Cover Letters and How the Economy Effects Law Students. In fact, my second month at Strategic Legal, Hillary called Ed and invited him to speak at New York Law School. Ed brought me with him because I was close in age to the students and would be better able to relate to them. The alternative legal career world is quite small.
Two other sources that were instrumental in my career shift include informational interviews and the Career Advancement and Management Committee at the New York City Bar Association. The meetings with practitioners in my intended field were crucial in my education regarding what my career options were. Just saying I wanted to do recruiting was too broad. I had to narrow my focus. All job searches must be focused and learning as much as possible is an important step in the process. Finally, the Career Advancement and Management Committee was instrumental in my meeting other successful professionals in my field and in enabling me to plan, moderate and speak on numerous panels regarding a variety of career related topics. Membership on bar association committees, whenever possible, is crucial to professional advancement. The people you meet, and the news you are exposed to by the people who make it is an amazing experience. I have since had the honor of bringing new colleagues and new connections to the Committee. It is so important to “pay it forward.” If you have the skills and the drive and do not use them to further other people’s dreams as well, you are not serving your profession. The membership of the committee is mostly lawyers who are in non-traditional careers at law firms, universities and law schools, and at other professional development organizations. Seeing such accomplished and respected people already doing what I sought to do was inspiring.
What was most helpful and why?
Attending seminars and panels at the City Bar was really instrumental in learning what type of positions existed and informational interviews helped narrow my focus. I wish I had the resources available to job seekers today, LinkedIn and Twitter, and Facebook, none of that existed when I was searching…and it wasn’t that long ago.
What are your thoughts on changing the current law school curriculum to make it more practice focused?
I do not think that law school should implement a curriculum similar to majors in college. I enjoyed the freedom to take classes in a range of topics, rather than being forced to focus on just tax or family law. However, had there been a law and literature track, I would have selected it. If there is to be a change in the law school curriculum, I believe communication and “people skills” are in short supply upon graduation.
Do you think this would be more or less beneficial to students pursuing an alternate career path?
Adding a practice-focused curriculum to law schools would further alienate any students who seek to use their degree for anything besides practice. While law school is a professional preparatory school, and the intention is to educate students in the law and the practice of law, there is much room for the addition of soft skills training which would greatly improve the chances of any student wondering if there is anything else to do in order to succeed. It would definitely help lawyers seeking to practice as well…as I am sure we can all agree.
What advice do you have for law students or practicing attorneys considering an alternate career path?
You have to know you want it. You cannot go into another practice area, and certainly not another profession without doing your research and without knowing why you want to make the change. You must be able to clearly articulate why you never want to or no longer want to practice law. You must also be able to explain to someone in the field you wish to enter why you want to do what they do. Why do you want to leave the law and either work in a law firm, or a school, or a corporation? Everyone knows that law school breeds ego. It’s OK. I’m a lawyer, I know that it does. So, you need to think carefully about giving up everything you worked hard to achieve and seeking something new. In one informational interview I had I was told that if you want to work in a non-legal capacity in a law firm, you have to be OK with not being invited to the firm retreat at the partner’s country club, and it has to be OK with you not to be asked for your opinion about the way a case is being handled, and it has to be OK with you not to make the same salary as people with the same level of legal experience as you sitting in their office down the hall and most importantly it has to be OK that you are now “the help.” But, it also has to be OK with you not to stay at the office past midnight and to have a freedom that those practicing at the firm do not have. If you can put your ego aside and work in a more service-oriented capacity, you are perfect for a non-traditional legal career anywhere.
To transition from one industry to another you must highlight your transferable skills. The same is true of a transition from the law to a career in the legal field but in a non-legal capacity. You must update your resume and tailor it to match those of whatever industry - recruiting for example - that you wish to enter. I recommend translating your legal resume into English, saving that document and then translating that into the language of whatever professional niche you seek to enter. You took depositions? You will not be doing that as a recruiter. However, you may need to listen, respond to specific requests, think analytically and occasionally, adversarially, and you will need to manage expectations as well as heightened emotions and take notes that can be interpreted by others who will need to use your work to do their own. Every lawyer has transferrable skills, regardless of the type of law they practice.
In what ways, if any, do you use your legal training in your current position?
The fact that I understand the words people use on their resumes is crucial to my business. I know what they mean when they are unable to articulate a point of law or to explain a skill required in the courtroom. Also, convincing clients that they should include some skills and omit others from their resume is made easier after legal practice. There are many other non-traditional legal careers that use a lawyer’s legal skills in a more “legal” way, for instance a sports agent will review contracts and advise clients what to do. However, they will also, most likely, have a legal team, a team of “real” lawyers, re-review those contacts to make sure that other lawyers are not able to refute them.
Do you think getting a JD helped you in the long run and if so, how?
The skills gained in law school - although it is a cliché - the way lawyers learn to think, read and write will always be an asset.
Do you ever miss practicing/studying law?
Occasionally when I meet with friends and they have come from court I wonder had I stuck it out would I have been happy. Then I am quickly reminded of my own experience and I know that I love what I do. Knowing yourself is such a crucial part of the job search and career satisfaction. Before participating in my first Non-Traditional Careers for Lawyers panel I said to the assembled speakers, “I am the only lawyer I know who loves their job.” Every other panelist said, “I love my job too and I also thought I was the only one.” We had all spoken to or worked with other lawyers who liked what they did, but were not as consistently happy with their career choices as we were.
Would you ever return to it?
Bio for Jessica Silverstein: Jessica Silverstein is the Principal of Attorney’s Counsel, a career counseling service that focuses on resume and cover letter review as well as interview skills assessment and social media consulting. Ms. Silverstein is an attorney who practiced Holocaust restitution as well as women’s health product liability prior to beginning her career as a legal recruiter. As a legal recruiter and career counselor she reviewed and revised countless resumes in addition to interviewing attorneys at every level of their career. Her expertise ranges from in-house candidate placement to placement with solo practitioners and in international law firms. Currently, she counsels attorneys regarding their job prospects and how their interview skills and resumes can be used as an effective tool to reach their career goals. Ms. Silverstein is the Chair of the Law Student Perspectives Committee at The Association of the Bar of the City of New York. As a member of the Committee on Career Advancement and Management Ms. Silverstein has organized panel discussions and lectured on topics including the current economy and its effect on recent graduates and attorneys as well as alternative legal careers and how to best market oneself for a job search. Immediately after graduating from Brandeis University, Ms. Silverstein went to Brooklyn Law School.