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After the Bar

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Horizontal Career Transitions: Your Journey May Not Always Be Vertical

Kelly Carroll

Horizontal Career Transitions: Your Journey May Not Always Be Vertical
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If I viewed my career as only fruitful or successful based on a steady climb up a vertical ladder, I could feel pretty low about myself. I knew I would have to relive the right-out-of-law school experience of starting from the bottom when I moved from New York to North Carolina, a state where I had no connections to the legal community or a law license. In my previous career, I advanced from the position of criminal court assistant district attorney to deputy bureau chief. I make less money now than I did five years ago. I went from being the person attorneys looked to for advice to the person asking basic questions.

Although my horizontal transition sometimes feels uncomfortable, I remind myself that this is my journey. In law school, I focused on the destination: passing the bar exam and getting a job. This destination-focused approach is fine, considering that law school is only a three-year commitment. However, it is important to switch gears once you graduate and enter your legal career. This is the time to move from destination mode to journey mode. Here are some tips on how to enjoy your journey through your legal career.

First Is Not Last

Most likely, your first job after law school will not be your last job. Sometimes, you must take what you can get to pay your bills and get out into the legal community. Your not-so-dream job can be a very integral part of your journey. It can teach you what areas of law you do not want to practice. It can expose you to other lawyers who can become life-long mentors. You can meet friends that may provide you with better opportunities in the future. 

My first not-so-dream job in North Carolina was at a family and immigration law firm with mostly Spanish-speaking clients. I’ve never practiced family or immigration law and do not speak Spanish. I knew this would not be my forever job in my new state, but I became familiar with where the courthouse was, common family court and immigration court filings, and different websites to find forms or pertinent case information.

Don’t Pass Up Opportunities

No matter how you feel about your job, whenever there are opportunities to work on special projects or take on a case you do not ordinarily do, take them. You never know when that skill or experience will help you during your career journey. When I was a prosecutor in New York, I handled all types of criminal cases but always ran from financial crimes or financial fraud cases because math and numbers are not my forte. Little did I know I would move to the second largest banking hub in the United States, and that experience could have helped me when I was job seeking.  

Conditional Career Satisfaction

Do not drive into the ditch of conditional career satisfaction. While there is no harm in being destination driven in law school (i.e., “I will be happy when I pass the bar exam” or “I will feel great if I graduate in the top 10 percent of the class”), when that transfers to your career, it can set you up for disappointment. If you only feel fulfilled when you become a partner or only feel valuable when you win cases, you could be stunting your growth:

  • Working 80-plus hours per week may get you on the partner track, but does that stress negatively impact your relationships and well-being?
  • Winning cases feels awesome, but does that stop you from taking the more borderline, difficult cases?

Being driven is admirable, but when you are in overdrive, it can cause you to miss signs or exits along the road that may lead to other rewarding experiences. If you are in overdrive, passing all your milestones, and not feeling fulfilled, it may be time to reevaluate your practice area or career path.

Be Prepared for Bumps on the Road

Making horizontal transitions is not always easy, especially when you’ve been practicing in an area for a long time. Sometimes, you feel like a freshman entering high school trying to figure out the lay of the land when you are a senior. After being a lawyer for 15 years, it was news to me that custody and divorce cases were decided solely by judges, and the parties could not elect to have a jury trial. I remember being flummoxed when I received a notice of deposition and could not believe a domestic violence survivor could be required to give testimony before the trial. Another revelation was that my cross-examination skills were not on par with my experience level. In criminal cases, most defendants exercised their constitutional right to remain silent. As a result, I did not have many opportunities to cross-examine defendants. On the civil side, every defendant testifies, making this skill key and not easily honed by reading a book. I’ve taken every opportunity to engage in virtual cross-examination trainings and often notice that I am usually one of the oldest or senior participants.

Get Out of the Office

Being a new attorney can be overwhelming. You have a new job, must keep up with continuing legal education credits, have law school loans, are honing your legal skills, and are networking. Joining a committee or bar organization may be on the bottom of your to-do list, but becoming a member of these organizations is especially important if you work in a small firm or are a solo practitioner.

Outside organizations can also fill a void if you are practicing in a field that may not be the best fit for you. You can start building connections with individuals in a field that interests you and learn about volunteer pro bono opportunities. Admittedly, I practiced law in New York for 15 years and never joined a bar organization. In less than two years in North Carolina, I have joined multiple bar committees and organizations. I’ve met great attorneys, gone to festive events, and published my first blog post.

There is no single attorney roadmap to follow. You have invested much time, effort, and money into becoming an attorney. You never know where your journey will take you. I practiced criminal law for 15 years and thought I would for the next 15 years. Now, rather than knowing criminal procedure like the back of my hand, I am getting reacquainted with civil procedure. Who knows, 10 years from now, I may be proficient with the US Bankruptcy Code (probably not). This is your professional journey—enjoy it!