By Amy Montemarano
Amy Montemarano is assistant dean of Career & Professional Development at Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law in Philadelphia. She can be contacted at
Ilana Lam had been litigating medical malpractice and healthcare claims at a midsized Philadelphia defense firm for about four years when she was laid off at the beginning of 2009. Not surprisingly, as a member of a generation that has limited experience with economic-based layoffs, she “felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under” her. But she also had a sense that as a young professional with a strong skill set and work record, she would somehow land on her feet.
“I have always been interested in health care,” says Lam. Her Plan A was to practice for several years at a firm and then move in-house to a pharmaceutical company or hospital. But difficulty breaking into the in-house market combined with her growing interest in the corporate and management side of health care led her to question her path. The layoff provided the “little nudge” she needed to pursue Plan B. Now Lam is preparing to take the GMAT exam and applying to masters programs in healthcare administration. She hopes to use her skills to transition to an executive-level position in healthcare management or consulting.
Lam is one of many recently laid-off lawyers who are using the dislocation as an opportunity to explore other careers. This exploration is not a bad thing, according to Cheryl Rich Heisler, a career counselor for lawyers and founder of Lawternatives in Chicago, as long as it involves a careful assessment of individual skills and interests. Nor is the decision to leave law necessarily irrevocable. Heisler regularly sees lawyers move in and out of the profession, and those lawyers often describe their extra-legal endeavors as eye-opening and liberating. “They develop life experiences outside of their previously insular work world that they then use to return to the profession as better lawyers and more focused on exactly what they want to do in the law,” says Heisler.
Keith Lew, who was laid off from his corporate practice at a big New York law firm at the end of February 2009, has not given up on his legal career, but he recognizes that it may be awhile before he lands at another firm. So in the meantime, he is focusing on his photography business. He has been hired as a photographer for several fashion shoots and weddings, and he has set up a Web site at . On the site, Lew currently displays his photography series about the economic collapse, as well as the huge crowd at a recent New York City white-collar job fair. “I’m documenting this thing the whole way downhill,” he says. “But I also plan to be there to photograph the way back up.”
In addition to business and the creative arts, one area that lawyers have been turning to is academia. As put by one recently laid-off Chicago lawyer (who prefers to remain anonymous), the introspection she engaged in through several career counseling sessions caused her to realize that “the one thing that I have enjoyed all my life is being in school.” With an undergraduate degree in psychology and manageable school loan debt, she is contemplating a move into law school career counseling.
Darrell Davis has already made a similar transition. “Devastated” after being laid off from his in-house counsel job after fifteen years, Davis landed a position as assistant dean for students and multicultural affairs at Minnesota’s Hamline University Law School. How did he sell the school on his qualifications for the dean job? “Being a lawyer carries so many life skills that can be relevant to other careers—counseling, leadership, problem solving, critical thinking, remaining calm under pressure, good communication skills. That’s what I sold, and it worked because it’s true.”
After his counsel job ended, he took eight months off to travel, decompress, and clear his head. It was at the end of that eight-month period that a serendipitous phone call from an old friend led to the dean position, which he now considers the best job he’s ever had. “And the beauty of the thing,” he adds, is that “if I hadn’t used the time off to reconsider my choices, I probably would have stayed on a career track that wasn’t where my heart is.”
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