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Weil and Woolly

Vivia Chen

March 7, 2011

Fotolia_14629741_XS Big-firm lawyers who drop out of practice to chase their fantasies don't usually return to the scene of the crime. For one thing, few would want to go back. For another, firms are not forgiving--once you leave, the doors close shut (unless your fantasy career can yield billables).

But somehow Jaclyn Cohen (picture below) defied conventional wisdom. An M&A lawyer who just made partner this year at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Cohen was, until four years ago, a renegade. For two years, she dropped out of Big Law to run a little yarn shop in suburban New York.

So how did Cohen manage to satiate her curiosity about life on the outside without being banished forever from Big Law? 

Were you miserable as a lawyer?
No. I never felt I didn't like lawyering.

But something pushed you to dump law to open a knitting shop. That's a radical career change.
I was working at Dewey [in 2004] and coming close to partnership. I thought it was my last chance to do something I've always wanted to do, which is to start a small business. I thought about the skills, the capital I needed, and what I was good at.

And you picked knitting.
At first, I looked at all type of franchises--bakeries, smoothy stores, including the Buttercup Bake Shop. But I've always loved yarn stores, and thought it would be fun. 

How did you plot your escape from Dewey?
In early 2004 I started looking at space [for the business]. I looked at places in [New York City] and in Westchester [County], where I grew up. A friend called me and said, "I'm in Pleasantville--and the [karate studio] space is available and it's perfect for you." I signed the lease in February 2005, gave notice, and opened the store in April.

You don't waste any time, do you?
Decision making has never been a problem for me.

What was the reaction at Dewey? Did people think you were nuts?
Nobody said it to my face. People were encouraging. A lot of lawyers want to do something independent. [The firm] told me, if it doesn't work out, you can come back. But I didn't think I'd go back.

And was the knitting business everything you hoped it would be?
Business was great! It was in the middle of a knitting boom. I turned a profit in my first year--though not like what you make in a firm. I was looking at my own balance sheets instead of someone else's. Everything I did was for me. It was very satisfying.

I assume there was some culture shock going from M&As to minding a yarn store.
Definitely. For eight years, I dealt with men. Then, all of a sudden, my dealings were all with women. But I enjoyed that.

It couldn't have been just a bowl of cherries. Any unpleasant surprises?
I never realized what a nice customer I was until I had my own business. People walk through the door, and you don't know what happened that day. They don't hesitate to take it out on you. 

Is that when law started to look good again?
After the first year, I started missing being a lawyer--the intellectual stimulation. After two years, I thought retail was not a long-term commitment. I thought about all the things I loved about being a lawyer--negotiating deals, taking on new transactions. The store satisfied my creative side, but I missed the structure of a big firm and having clients call me, and the intellectual affirmation.

IMG_2869a How did you get back into law? Did you have to beg?
I called the partner [Michael Aiello] I worked with at Dewey, and he said I could go back anytime. He then went to Weil, so I interviewed there. 

So you had to convince Weil that you were serious about returning to law. Did you also tell them you were aiming for partnership?
Yes. I'm not capable of doing things halfway. I was up-front about my goals.

Did you think of keeping your shop open on the side?
No, because I was eight weeks pregnant when I started at Weil [in February 2007].

Whoa--you dropped law for knitting, then went back to practice at a new firm, had a baby a few months later, and then made partner? How did you manage to squeeze in all those major life events?
I had a second child too [in February 2010].

You must be very organized. The knitting seems to help with stress.
If it's an ardulous conference call, I've been known to do some knitting [during it].

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

Top Photo: Ivelin Radkov / Fotolia

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I am looking to open a yarn shop in my town. I have found an empty store but am looking for the right franchise yarn shop. How did you find the right one?

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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