Resources Articles Patchwork Parachutes

Patchwork Parachutes

(a publication of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession)
Volume 11, Number 3
Winter 2003

Susan Etheridge, J.D., founder and president of Professional Placement Services, Inc., looks back and realizes she need not have changed careers in order to “have a life.” In fact, she might still be working at the same law firm today, had she only imagined that a reduced-hours schedule was a possibility. Many dissatisfied lawyers are not aware of available options, and they assume that every legal job will be the same as the one they want to escape. Without realizing the range of possibilities - a different firm or work setting, a new practice area, or even a schedule change - they conclude that running away from practicing law is their only resort.  

Chief among a host of reasons for the high dissatisfaction among lawyers is the pressure of high billable-hours requirements in large firms, which has made it extraordinarily difficult for many lawyers - particularly those with family-care responsibilities - to achieve anything approximating a balanced life. Some lawyers have found answers to the problem of poor quality of life, without having to give up law as a career altogether.


Few people know as much about lawyer dissatisfaction and its expression in career transitions as Hindi Greenberg, J.D., creator of Lawyers in Transition. Since starting one of the first businesses of its kind, Greenberg has worked with 15,000 lawyers during more than 17 years as a lawyer’s career counselor. “Most of the people I talk to have lifestyle issues,” she reports.

But when asked if she sees a mass departure of lawyers from the legal profession, Greenberg replies, “For every 10 lawyers who say they are unhappy with their work, four eventually carve out of comfortable niche in a job within or related to law. Only two actually leave law for other fields.”

As for the remaining four, she reports: “One, after researching the alternatives, makes a reasoned choice to stay in her current job; one decides it’s the wrong time - financially or emotionally - to make a change; and two spend a short time thinking about a career move, then decide it takes too much effort and continue unhappily in their jobs.”

Good career decisions are based on many factors: personal values, task preferences, interest in particular subject matter, and the need for different kinds of personal interaction. Stage of life is also important. Lisa Horowitz remembers sitting in a hotel one evening, preparing for a trial, when she got a call that her daughter had a 103-degree fever. The incident sparked a process of reflection about her job and how it fit into her life. Horowitz says she became increasingly aware that “the adversarial process was not aligned with who I was. Although, when I began practicing, I’d enjoyed it, at this point in my life the work felt meaningless.”

Interested in mediation, Horowitz found satisfaction in Metropolitan Mediation, a business she started. “I didn’t have to be in the office from 8 to 7. I was able to spend more time with my children and had more flexibility because I set my own schedule.”

Like many other career changers, Vicki Lens’s initial steps toward a new professional identity were spurred by a sudden change of circumstances. After 15 years as a public service lawyer, her political party lost an election and she found herself feeling alienated in a job she had enjoyed. Her interest in public speaking, which she had long neglected, led her to try her hand at teaching the subject she knew best - law - to social work students. To her delight, teaching ignited a passion, and she returned to school to earn her Ph.D. in social work.

Today, Lens is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Columbia University, and coordinator of the Law and Social Work Joint Degree Program. Like many lawyers who have left practice, she continues to focus on legal issues in her new career. According to Lens, whose research program examines law from a social welfare perspective, “In some ways I do more with the law now than I did as a lawyer. I’m able to be more thoughtful and reflective about the law than when I was practicing.”


There’s wide variation in the degree to which attorneys leaving traditional practice retain swatches of their legal career within their “patchwork parachutes.” Many enjoy continued work with lawyers but don’t practice law, while some use their legal expertise in nontraditional ways. Two examples typify the way that a creative approach can salvage a flagging enthusiasm for the practice of law. Greta Van Susteren of Fox News Channel was a trial attorney before she became a legal analyst for CNN and attained notoriety as a commentator on the O.J.Simpson trial. Felice Wagner, J.D., founded Sugarcrest, a firm that consults with law firms on marketing and client development.

Still other women have effectively woven their legal experience into a job that allows them to carry what they most love about the law into nontraditional terrain. Holly English was working in a 25-attorney firm when her husband landed a unique career opportunity in Australia. Unable to practice law there, she volunteered at a nonprofit business ethics firm that consulted to major corporations, government units, and nonprofit organizations. The director of consulting mentored and then hired her, and the experience changed everything. Today she heads her own practice, Values at Work, in New Jersey. English had enjoyed practicing law, but she felt she could use more of her skill set in values and ethics consulting. Although lifestyle conflicts motivated her career transition, from her position as an independent consultant she could see in hindsight other constraints of legal practice.

“I remember when my children were two and six. I would sit in court with my stomach in knots, waiting to hear when the judge would schedule the next court date so I could scramble to set up child care.”

In addition, English now feels able to be more creative. “Legal writing is confining - it’s tortured prose, and being a courtroom lawyer requires stylized presentations. Law rewards a methodical, precise way of thinking. But if you’re a broad thinker who likes to look at things from many angles, this can be confining.

English describes her values and ethics work as “mission-oriented and more meaningful” than her legal work, yet she credits her law training as forming much of the basis for her career. “People look at you strangely when you say you’re working at something as ephemeral as values and ethics - but when you say you’re a lawyer, it provides automatic legitimacy. Knowledge of the law has been very helpful for me. I know what the line is between where law governs and where ethics kicks in.”

Feeling confined by legal practice is a sentiment expressed by many attorneys who’ve chosen nontraditional career directions. Lori Gordon practiced corporate and securities law for 13 years. “I had a desirable practice, a narrow specialty, and a hot area of securities law. I was one of a few experts, I had a steady stream of deals without having to look for new business, and the deals were complex. But after 26 of them, it was hard not to feel ‘been there, done that.’ And I couldn’t see substantial change ahead.”

Gordon did not resent the demands of practice. “I felt that the crazy hours were compensated financially. but a law firm can be a chilly climate for women. The range of acceptable behavior is narrower for women than for men; it’s boundaried by being a bitch or not being tough enough. I needed to get into an environment where I could express my whole personality.” Gordon took a sabbatical and almost immediately, she reports, she could feel her personality bubbling to the surface.

Gordon recently began a new position working for the Attorneys’ Liability Assurance Society. “I do loss prevention counseling. I use my legal background, interact with smart, knowledgeable people, serve the profession, and grapple with tough issues. And it’s a reasonable working life. I have personal and emotional energy left over. As a practicing attorney, I ended each cay feeling used up and exhausted.” Gordon is now involved in developing new rules that will affect ethical conduct for lawyers, and the ABA recently published her book, Rest Assured: The Sabbatical Solution for Lawyers.

Blaire Postman patchworked her legal skills into a career as a lecture agent at the Washington Speakers Bureau, where she represents speakers in the media, politics, and business. With experience as a media lawyer, an interest in entertainment law, and experience volunteering for Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, she decided she really enjoyed working with talented and creative people. She joined the William Morris Agency, where “you take your law degree to the mail room, then help the assistants, then become a floater, then work for the agents when their assistants are out.” Her experience negotiating contracts and her familiarity with copyright and licensing law are useful in her newfound career as an agent. But at The Washington Speakers Bureau, she says, she “creates something rather than fixing something that’s broken.” It’s not all about lifestyle. Postman says she doesn’t have more of a life, but lives a very different kind of a life. “I work nine- or ten-hour days and spend a lot of time out of the office, meeting people, going to events, and I’m around creative people all day.”

English, Gordon and Postman would be counted by typical survey methods as legal profession casualties. Yet none could have attained her current position without the legal training they use every day in their new careers.


Back to Susan Etheridge: After six years practicing litigation at a Tampa, Florida firm, Etheridge loved her work and could see her way to making partner. But the limited time she could spend with her two-year-old daughter and husband who traveled extensively on business was a constant source of concern. The notion of working reduced hours had not yet surfaced, so she never even broached the subject with the firm’s partners.

Joined by members of her working mothers support group, Etheridge started Professional Placement Services, Inc. (PPSI). Initially, she intended to place working mothers - many of whom were her friends - as contract attorneys, so they might find the balance that eluded them in their full-time legal careers. But as her business grew, she found that many male attorneys were also seeking part-time work - not only for family reasons, but also in order to write novels or screenplays, or to tide them over while starting their own businesses.

Now PPSI provides permanent, temporary, and temporary-to-permanent placement of attorneys, legal administrators, legal nurse consultants, law clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries. It also provides expert witness testimony and consulting for law firms on a variety of employment-related issues.

“In some ways,” says Etheridge, “there’s more pressure because I’m running my own business. But I don’t have the pressure of billable hours or of someone looking over my shoulder or checking to see if I’m in the office. I’d say I traded pressures.”

One thing Etheridge found she could change was the workplace culture. “My company is run by women, all of whom are trying to balance work and life. We were all pregnant at the same time, but the births were sufficiently staggered that we made it through. All of us have empathy for people who want balance. We send notes to one another expressing appreciation - that is not what happens in a law firm.”

As she builds PPSI, Etheridge speaks up as an advocate for flexible hours in law firms. “Partners are willing to listen to me because I’ve established my credibility. I show then how alternative schedules can work for firms. I’m able to persuade them to try it just once, and, after that, they’re convinced.” Some of the firms have gone on to create part-time tracks that are not just “mommy tracks.”

Ironically, Etheridge’s former firm tried to lure her back with the flexible schedule she’d never requested. But by this time PPSI was well under way. “You don’t have to leave the law to find the flexibility you want,” advises Etheridge. “You have to know what you want and work for it. First, try to make it work where you are. So many times, we make assumptions about what’s possible. You have to have the chutzpah to go to the powerful people and ask for what you want.”

Greenberg says she asks clients seeking a career change: “Are you sure that if you change careers, you won’t still work 70 hours a week?”

Similarly, Kathy Morris, director of the ABA’s Career Resource Center, points out that “just changing careers won’t solve your problem. It’s not a foregone conclusion that you’ll have balance.” After 17 years of experience counseling attorneys on career issues, Morris emphasizes that there are two skills essential for achieving balance: the ability to say “no” and the ability to delegate. “If you’re a perfectionist and won’t delegate, balance will be elusive in any career.”

Some lawyers find their passion entirely outside the law. Deborah Schrils left corporate law to pursue her interest in meterology and now forecasts the weather for a Florida television station. Greenberg notes that a husband/wife lawyer team writes the Zagat restaurant guides and that a lawyer she counseled now leads gourmet bicycle tours of France. The field of possibilities for women trained in the law is limited only by the boundaries of imagination and courage, and women are proving that their patchwork parachutes can bring them not just a safe landing, but a satisfying career as well.


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