Life, and Social Impact, After a Legal Career

The following is a guest post by Elena F. Deutsch, MPH who is not a lawyer, but loves working with them. She is the Founder of WILL – Women Interested in Leaving (big) Law where she helps women attorneys become clear on what they want next, kick their inner nay-sayers out of the driver’s seat, and take action on their dreams. You can find her at www.womeninterestedinleavinglaw.com or on Twitter: @elenaatwork. 

“I’ve already lived my bucket list,” said a man with silver hair who sat in the front row. His suit and tie still looked crisp at 8:00 pm. “I’ve had my motor cycle, traveled the world and had a fulfilling career. I do M&A at a big firm and I enjoy my work. But I can see on the horizon, my clients will be leaving. I’m not ready to stop. What else can I do?”

Following the panel, a woman asked, “I’m the first generation of boomer women to really make it in big law, what’s going to happen to all we know as we retire?”

These were some of the many questions raised at the “Time for an Encore Career,” encore event co-sponsored by Encore.org and the New York City Bar Association on November 2, 2017. The panel, included four attorneys, three of whom are no longer practicing. Moderated by Vivia Chen, chief blogger of The Careerist at the American Lawyer, and pulled together by Marci Alboher, VP for Encore.org and author of the Encore Career Handbook. Other panelists included Pamela Carlton, President, Springboard; Susan Fisher of BoardAssist; and Lynn M. Kelly, Executive Director of the City Bar Justice Center. 

The conversation sparked around two core questions: What can people do individually to move into an encore career? What can institutions, such as law firms, do to leverage the knowledge and wisdom held by lawyers who want meaningful work later in their lives and who could apply their accumulated smarts to social action and community needs and mentoring the next generation of lawyers?

The packed room, filled evenly with women and men engaged with the panel – and with each other – on options to use or transfer legal skills, creative networking (start a poker group? get involved in a bar association committee?) and how to begin to explore a next act.

In terms of lawyers who want out, Marci described the two general kinds of people who want to leave law:

  1. The person who knows they want to leave but don’t know what they want to do instead,
  2. The person who knows what they want to do, but don’t know how to transition to it.

As a coach who works with women interested in leaving big law, I would add a third category – a hybrid. Many people want to leave big law, and have ideas – from strong inklings to nascent dreams. But fear the unknown and stepping out of the lock-step paths of firm life, can be tremendously challenging.      

Discussion of networking focused on relationship building, rekindling dormant connections and approaching conversations with a spirit of giving. Pamela Carlton of Springboard shared how relationships had been the bridge between one career and another.  

In order to explore interests, Susan Fisher of BoardAssist suggested engaging in volunteering on non-profit boards and plugging into a local community or topic you care about. The key she said, was to follow your interests – whether they be community development, arts or politics. One audience member asked for input on how to work on his passion — dismantling the electoral college. Several audience members had ideas. Clearly, transitions like this benefit from access to a team of like-minded people 

Lynn Kelly, of the City Bar Justice Center, offered a variety of ways her office deploys lawyers in pro-bono work, ranging from bite-sized increments, to projects that run for a few years, all with training attached. Either way, these opportunities can fit your personality, have huge human impact, and scratch the itch to deliver purpose driven work.  

A few elephantsized questions lingered in the room:

  1. How to do meaningful work, connected a sense of purpose, while still wanting and needing to earn money? 
  2. Where are the law firms in this conversation? How can they leverage senior lawyers as mentors and much more? Why not offer creative off-ramps to transfer seasoned legal talent to community needs, while giving senior lawyers an attractive path to a new stage. There seems to be a lack of leadership from firms to both honor, and capitalize on the experience of their aging counsel. Vivia Chen said, as long as firms are making money with their current business model, nothing is going to change.

That said, innovation was in the air. A man announced he is forming a Senior Lawyers Committee at the NYC Bar Association and invited everyone to attend a November 28th meeting. 


Want more on this topic?

In a Q&A with Vivia Chen (note: free account required), Paul Irving, former managing partner and co-chair of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips — and now the chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging — said, “Lawyers have brains and connections to stretch themselves. We have a supply and demand challenge: great human capital, the resources of older adults, and we have needs that are crying for solutions. The question is how to connect the two.” Clearly the energy generated to address the night’s questions will continue, as individuals and institutions pursue ideas to leverage the experience, wisdom and create new avenues for encore legal talent.