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Lawyer or Administrator? A Reader's Query

The Careerist, a blog
November 9, 2011
By Vivia Chen

It's once again readers' questions day at The Careerist. This one comes from a former lawyer in New Jersey:

I was a benefits attorney at a large firm from 1999 to 2001. I left the job when my husband started his own law firm, where I was the office manager for eight years. He was a construction litigator, and I did not practice law at the firm. We had eight employees when I left in 2010.

You see, we wound up getting divorced, forcing me back to seeking an alternative career path.

I am really struggling between going back to practicing benefits law, albeit at a junior level, or pursuing a path in law firm administration. I do not even know if anyone would hire me back to practice at a junior level.

Any advice about which path I should pursue?

Here are the responses from our panel of experts:

1. Career coach Elizabeth "Betsy" Munnell:

First, I'd defer making a choice until you develop a coherent job-search strategy. Learn about each career path, the nature of available jobs, and the firms hiring in your job market. Identify the "hot topics" and growth skills for each profession. Get out more--online and in person. Comment, tweet and, ideally, blog on those "hot topics." Build your network. 

If you want to go back to practice, you should take a CLE course and meet with former colleagues to brush up on benefits law.

If you decide to pursue legal administration, join the Association of Legal Administrators, and step up your involvement in your local chapter. You might consider the high-growth field of legal project management and getting training in this new discipline.

2. Career coach Ellen Ostrow (Ostrow also runs a program for lawyers who are trying to get back to practice after a hiatus.):

You can get back into employment benefits law if you've updated your skills, but it will take time. Based on our data, some people get jobs in six months, but it can also take a couple of years.

For returning attorneys, networking is key. You need a personal introduction when you apply for a job. Start attending meetings of the local bar for your practice area. Also tap your sources, like people from your old firm or law school alumni.

Keep in mind that most people who go back to practice don't go to big firms. Some build solo practices; some team up with a solo practitioner who's near retirement age and eventually inherit the business.

3. Recruiter Nick Rumin:

To me, the value of eight current years of experience in law firm administration clearly outweighs the value of  a decade-old, short-term, junior-level benefits law experience. Law firms are increasingly relying on professional management, so there is clearly an upside for someone with experience and interest.

I think your best option is to look directly at job boards targeted at legal administrators ( <> ) or legal placement professionals ( <>). Also  upgrade your skills—take courses in business administration and law firm management (such as this one:

4. Consultant Cynthia Thomas Calvert (Calvert is also a founder of the Project for Attorney Retention at the University of California, Hastings College of Law):

If you want to go back to benefits practice, you might want to look at accounting firms that provide employee benefits counseling, because some accounting firms are more progressive when it comes to hiring reentry lawyers.

Good luck on your decision. Let us know where you land.


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