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November 1, 2010

In Transition . . . Pace Law School New Directions Program - Post Two by Denise Menton

This is not an advertisement for the Pace Law School New Directions Program: Practical Skills for Lawyers Returning to Practice. But it is a terrific program for lawyers who have taken time off and want to re-enter the practice. Or figure out that they might want to do something else.
I first thought about returning to law in 2008, when my sister sent me an article she saw in the newspaper about New Directions. Then I fell and tore my ACL, so I had a good excuse to sit around and do nothing. I thought about the program again in 2009, but then I tore my ACL again, so I sat around some more. Finally, in 2010 after two years of physical therapy, my ACL was fine, and I had no more excuses. If I was going to go back and practice law, I needed to refresh my skills. I knew this because I had applied for a few jobs and no one would hire me. For law, or anything else. I signed up for the program.

I agonized about what to wear. An email had said “business casual.” I didn’t even know what that meant. At this point in my life, I mainly own gym clothes and black tie attire. OK, maybe I have a few other things, but I felt confused as I looked through my closet. Nothing felt right. The term “business casual” seemed like an oxymoron.

When I showed up in class, I was not only impressed by my classmates, I was also seriously intimidated. There was a minister, an airline pilot, a guy who founded and ran a non-profit organization dedicated to raising money for crohn’s disease and colitis, a musician who wrote songs for Disney, and moms who had raised or were raising kids. All were accomplished individuals interested in returning to the practice of law. I shrank into the back of the room, next to a woman who clearly understood better than I the meaning of the expression “business casual.”

The first week of the class is called “Boot Camp.” And it felt like a boot camp, not that I would actually know, but I’ve seen it on TV. It’s very intense with much to learn, or re-learn, in a short amount of time. Presenters taught CLE classes, lectured about returning to the workplace, and challenged us to feel good about ourselves and proud of the things we’ve accomplished during our years away from the practice of law. One presenter looked around the room, and let his eye and pointing finger land on me: “You, in the back, tell me, why should I hire you?” he asked. “I…really can’t imagine,” was my response, “I wouldn’t.” I hear they’ve added a second week of boot camp to the upcoming sessions, and I think that’s good. I clearly needed more time to get the hang of this.

I was surprised to find that one of the very first presentations given was on Alternative Legal Careers. So, this is not only a re-entry program for people who wanted to practice law, it’s a place to explore alternative careers. The presenter asked each person what he or she would like to do if she could not practice law. Some people weren’t sure, but for me, it was clear. A writer, I answered, or an astrologer. The latter raised a few eyebrows, but the program director, Amy, thought she might be able to help me with the former option. When the time came for the externship portion of the program, when participants go out into the workplace to hone their practical skills, most of the participants chose a more traditional legal experience. But here I sit, writing a blog about lawyers transitioning back to law or possibly to alternative careers. I hope I made the right choice. I’m still not completely sure.

Has anyone reading this successfully transitioned into another career? Or transitioned from a different career into law? Or know someone who has? I would love to have people write in and share their thoughts and experiences.

Also, could someone please explain to me the difference between “business” and “business casual”? It’s still not quite clear to me, and I feel that I ought to know, for the future, because even in an alternative career, one can’t wear sweat pants.

by Denise Menton

November 4, 2010

Actor to Lawyer? by Denise Menton

Actor to Lawyer?

An article in Sunday’s Post - ok the TV section - talks about how actor Jerry O’Connell was studying to becoming a “real-life lawyer” when he quit to star in The Defenders, a new television series about lawyers. The article quotes Harvey Levin, who runs TMZ, as saying to him “Why would you do this to yourself?” An interesting question. Why would a successful actor, with a long and varied career (check out IMDb) all of a sudden go to law school? He was bored. Didn’t have anything else to do. Wait, that’s the same reason I did it. Except, I wasn’t offered a starring role on a TV show halfway through my first year.

My good friend Haviland is a successful film, television and stage actress. Every time I see her in something, I get a little excited, because I’m friends with someone who has such a glamorous life. In recent years, she’s also taken up a second profession as a licensed real estate broker. There aren’t that many roles for actresses over forty. She recently told me she might be interested in law school. She thinks it would be fun.

A previous post on this site talks about a lawyer who is embarking on a second career as a stand-up comedian. A former associate at my husband’s law firm left the firm and he too has become a stand up comedian and comedy writer (www.paulmecurio.com). I went to a memorial service yesterday for a friend’s father, a well-known and brilliant tax lawyer. Among the many wonderful things that were said about him, that he had a razor sharp intellect, a creative and incisive mind, is that he was hilariously funny. A friend of his commented that he would have loved a career as a stand-up comedian, except that he had stage fright.

So what is the connection between lawyers and actors or lawyers and comedians? Both require creativity and an ability to think on your feet, to spin the truth a little, to comment on the world around us, or project it in the manner in which we would like it to be seen. I spoke with a friend today, a brilliant trial lawyer, who pointed out that lawyers, particularly trial lawyers, and actors also both need to speak LOUDLY enough to make themselves heard. And to read with expression, because sometimes a lawyer needs to read things to the jury, and you certainly don’t want to bore them. My friend pointed out that juries are entitled to be entertained and that presenting material to them can become a little bit of theater. However, he cautioned me that a lawyer must always be natural and be himself - he can never pretend to be anyone else. A jury will sniff out a phony in about two minutes and they will hate him.

My friend told me about a case he tried long ago in California, before I was born he said, although I doubt that. It was a criminal anti-trust case and the government wanted to put on a witness who was an FBI agent. The witness was really only going to present evidence about the existence of a phone bill. My friend was not thrilled, because he understood that having an FBI agent on the stand might seem mysterious and exciting to the jury, and it could give the case an aura of criminality.

My friend made the US attorney lay a foundation for allowing the witness to testify, and the attorney did so, repeatedly referring to the witness as “Agent” and addressing him, about five hundred times, as “Agent Jones,” so as to emphasize the point.

My friend stood up to cross-examine the witness.

“Agent Jones,” he said, “this is very exciting to cross examine a FBI agent. Tell me, are you carrying a gun?”

“Well, no, no, I’m not.” Agent Jones admitted.

“As a matter of fact Sir,” my friend said, “you’re an accountant, aren’t you Sir?”

“Well, actually, I’m really just a paralegal,” said Mr. Jones.

My friend said that everyone in the courtroom laughed, including the judge and the agent witness. His image was deflated, the aura of criminality was removed, and the jury was entertained. Maybe the difference between lawyers and actors or comedians is that they both get to perform in front of an audience, but in the case of actors and comedians, the audience can applaud.

So is Haviland right? Is being a lawyer fun? Should she go to law school? Or do we all just like to perform?

Posted by Denise Menton

November 9, 2010

A Transition from Business to Law . . . and Retail by Denise Menton

A Transition from Business to Law...and Retail

A lot of people seem to be retiring from law, transitioning from one type of law to another or searching for alternative legal careers. So I was intrigued to speak with a woman last week who is transitioning from a long and successful career in business into a career in law.
Barbara Durkin was the youngest person to graduate in her college class at St. John’s University, Staten Island campus in 1971, and the oldest to graduate in her class at Pace University Law School this past spring. It seems that she always wanted to be a lawyer. Hers is not so much a transition, I think, as it is a long journey towards a career in law. When I first spoke to Barbara, I wondered if she was a Capricorn, because she was so deliberate about pursuing and accomplishing her goals. The astrological sign Capricorn is symbolized by the Goat, who makes his long, steady climb up the mountain until he reaches the top. But no, Barbara said, she is a Sagittarius. Sagittarius is represented the Archer, who loves learning, philosophy, higher education and The Law. Also, Sagittarius loves freedom and adventure, and as Barbara described her career path, it did seem more like an adventurous trek than a steady climb.

When Barbara went to college, she was planning to major in history but, then, she took a law class and really liked it. She liked business too, and she took so many business classes that she was advised to become a double major in Business and Political Science so as not to “waste” the credits. She thought about becoming a paralegal, but a professor encouraged her to go to law school instead. Barbara considered it, she was interested, and she thought law school might be “really fun.” That is the second time, since I have been writing this blog, that people have told me that they thought law school might be fun. I have to admit, I had never heard that before. But then I thought about it and I guess law school is fun – if you like mind-blowing intensity. Anyway, before Barbara could apply to law school, an opportunity beckoned: an all expense paid trip to Iona College to get an MBA.

Barbara got an MBA in Organizational Behavior and went on to work in human resources. She has worked in organizations, universities, and as an independent consultant in employee relations, organizational culture, project management and business management. She taught classes and designed training programs in employment related law issues. She traveled upstate, and back, with her daughter, whom she was raising as a single mother. She worked several jobs at once, when she had to. Finally, when her daughter was ready for college, Barbara applied to law school.

Barbara went to law school and earned more academic awards and accolades than I can name here. She taught classes at the law school while still a student. She wrote for a law review. She did moot court. She was a teaching assistant, a research assistant, a law clerk, a judicial intern. Sagittarians do not like to be bored.

The thing that’s amazing to me about Barbara’s story is not so much that she changed careers, but that she can’t find a job right now. With all her business experience, her MBA, her law degree and academic accolades, I’m astonished that people are not pounding down her door. But she’s upbeat about it – very Sagittarian. She’s not sorry she changed careers. Right now she has taken a temporary job at Lord & Taylor for the holiday season. She’s working in “Career Wear.” When I asked her why she had taken that job, she explained that it’s because Lord& Taylor pays slightly more than the competing department stores. But why didn’t she go back and get a job in the business, I asked. They don’t have temporary business jobs, she responded. And she really wants to be a lawyer. She’s sure the right law job will come along. When you want something, Barbara told me, you find the courage, and the perseverance to do it.

I have to remember to ask her if I can do her astrological chart. Even though I see all her Sagittarian traits, I feel certain that there must be some strong Capricorn in there somewhere. Her career path screams Sagittarius, but her persistent determination has a Capricorn ring to it.
Footnote: Barbara has just found out she passed the Bar exam! Congratulations! Although, personally, I never had any doubt…

Posted by Denise Menton

November 30, 2010

On Sabbatical...? by Denise Menton

When I closed my store a few years ago. I told myself that I needed a sabbatical. I was exhausted. A lot of people asked me, customers mostly, voices filled with concern, what I was going to do now that I was closing the store. Absolutely nothing, I was happy to reply. I was relieved by the idea of having nothing to do. I looked forward to it. I thought of it in a Ferris Bueller-ish kind of way. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” I was certain I would find something else to do, find a different job, open a different business, or go back to law. It didn’t work out that way. A year later, I was dying of boredom. Now, several years later, I’m throwing my hands up in despair. I never expected my “sabbatical” to last as long as it has.

The idea of a sabbatical year started in Ancient Israel, although it has only really continued in the academic field. The word Sabbatical has its roots in the Hebrew word Shabbat (or the anglicized “Sabbath”). Shabbat is the seventh day of rest, in which religious Jews refrain from work of any kind - they even cook their dinner the night before. The Sabbatical year was in the same vein; every seven years, there would be a break in the agricultural cycle. The land was to lie fallow, and all agricultural activity was prohibited, including pruning and watering. The word for this year in Hebrew is Shmita, which literally means “release.” It was a forced break, but perhaps a necessary one.

I was very surprised recently to learn that a friend of mine took a sabbatical from his job as a partner in a large law firm. His firm is one of the few that offers this opportunity. In fact, not only do they offer a sabbatical, they encourage it. My friend’s law firm encourages its partners to take a three-month paid leave after 8 years as a partner. A partner can take a sabbatical twice during his or her time at the firm. And, there is no expectation that the partners do anything during their time off. They don’t have to write anything, research anything or even read anything. As far as the firm is concerned, the partner in question can sit in front of a television and drool for three months. Still, many people use their time as an opportunity to explore outside interests, or future post-retirement careers. One person wrote a detective novel, another studied theology. My friend, who had been working non-stop for years, used his sabbatical to spend time with his family. But most importantly, he learned he could have a life outside his job. He loves his job, but he could function outside it. Sometimes, he said, he felt a little lost, if he had some down time that he hadn’t expected, but in general, his time away from his job was completely rejuvenating.

It would be great if every lawyer could take a sabbatical and recharge his or her batteries, come back with a fresh perspective on work and life. The beautiful thing about my friend’s sabbatical is that it had a start date and an end date. In the olden days, before cell phones and laptops, people got to take vacations – real vacations. My husband, a partner in a law firm, goes on vacation, but not without his blackberry, which buzzes incessantly. He is not really able to take time off from the responsibility of his job because these days there is an expectation that, no matter where you are, you are going to answer that phone, or respond to that email, if not instantaneously, at least within the hour. In the movie The Shawshank Redemption – one of my favorites – an old felon named Brooks who had been in prison since 1902 is released after 50 years. (Sorry for the SPOILER-for the three of you out there who haven’t seen the movie). Brooks can’t believe what happened. “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry,” he said. I can’t imagine what he would say if he saw the world today, with its mind boggling speed and intensity. There isn’t a minute to catch one’s breath.

I wish my husband could take a sabbatical from his job. I wish my “sabbatical” from work had had an expiration date. But, I’m trying to take a new attitude towards it. Debbie Epstein Henry suggested, in her webcast Law and Reorder, that times of unexpected breaks from work are the perfect time to get one’s skills up to date. Take a computer class, a CLE class, or volunteer. It’s not exactly consistent with the ancient concept of a sabbatical, but the idea of letting one’s land lie fallow for an extended period of time is difficult for a lawyer - or anyone - trying to earn a living. Not all of us are so lucky that a sabbatical is built into the culture of our society, or, as in my friend’s case, his law firm.

Right now, I’m going to try and combine the Debbie Epstein Henry approach and the Ferris Bueller approach to my unexpectedly extended “sabbatical” from work. Hopefully, this won’t last too much longer and I’ll have had time to enjoy the world, smell the roses and I’ll have a better resume.

About November 2010

This page contains all entries posted to Lawyers in Transition in November 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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