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Alternative Legal Career

The Transition from Practice to PD: An Insider's Perspective

By Jessica Jacobs

Five years ago, I attended my firm’s annual Associates’ Committee meeting as my office’s associate representative. I listened to a presentation by the Director of Attorney Talent and thought to myself: “I want that job.” Yet, it wasn’t until several years later that I finally made the decision to pursue a position in the legal professional development field.

It’s not easy leaving a job as an attorney in Big Law. I had spent three demanding years studying to get my JD and 10 stressful years practicing as a litigator at two big firms. How was I going to give up the prestige of my title and a decade of practice to start a new career in my late 30s? And how was I ever going to give up a Big Law salary? (Those golden handcuffs are no joke.) Moreover, my job was manageable. Sure, my first few years as a junior associate were beyond taxing, where I had to work more 15-hour-plus days than I care to remember, reschedule countless dinner plans, and cancel a vacation to Spain. But over the years, I had managed to develop a decent work-life balance — albeit with some extremely busy stretches — at least for a Big-Law litigator.

Happy at work.

Happy at work.

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Despite all this, I just was not happy. While I enjoyed crafting arguments and writing briefs, opportunities to take and defend depositions or argue motions didn’t excite me. Engaging in back-and-forth discovery disputes with opposing counsel was frustrating and not what I wanted to be spending my professional life doing. However, I loved running my office’s summer program for two summers, serving on various firm committees, and training and mentoring junior associates. I wanted to use my 10 years of practice and these experiences to develop other attorneys. So, four years after that Associates’ Committee meeting, I finally gained the courage to leave practice and enter the PD space.

Now that I am six months into my new position on the PD team, I can say that, without a doubt, it was the right move. I have learned so much in this short amount of time, including a few takeaways worth sharing.

Takeaway 1: Engaging Associates in Non-Billable Work Is Difficult

From day one, attorneys are taught to bill, bill, bill. When it comes to training and coaching, many associates do not want to participate because it takes time away from their billable work. And plenty of partners do not see the value in training courses when their associates can be billing instead. Therefore, developing interesting and skills-based training opportunities and creating occasions for associates across offices to get together in person heightens interest in and support for these trainings. This is something that I have been working on every day since I started.

Takeaway 2: Attorneys Don’t Understand the Time and Preparation that Goes into Everything

When I was an associate, I showed up for several one-hour CLE programs, earned my credit, and received my certificate. Easy process, right? Not quite. Now, being on the PD side, I have gotten to experience firsthand the extensive work that goes into scheduling and planning CLE programs, applying for CLE credits in each state where participating attorneys are barred, validating attendance, and the list goes on. Having a well-run process in place and a great team to ensure that everything runs smoothly is important, and that attorneys continue to think that the process runs itself.

Takeaway 3: Being Happy at Work Is Most Important

For more than 10 years, six-minute increments, and the stress that comes along with billing, was my life. When I was extremely busy, I was stressed because I had no time for anything else. When work was slower, that added stress because I worried about meeting my hours. When I took a day or a week off, it was stressful because I constantly thought about how I needed to make up the time. In my new position, I work very hard, but my stress level has dramatically decreased, and my happiness has skyrocketed. The attorney in me can’t help checking my work email several times on days off, but it doesn’t come with the same level of stress that it did before. It’s habit, and I am completely fine with that. And I am still every bit as much of an attorney as I was before — just a much happier non-practicing one.

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Jessica Jacobs

Attorney Training & Compliance Manager | Fox Rothschild LLP

Jessica Jacobs (jjacobs@ is the Attorney Training & Compliance Manager at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia.