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Lawyer or Administrator? A Reader's Query

Vivia Chen

November 9, 2011

CoinFlipIt'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 (www.alanet.org <http://www.alanet.org> ) or legal placement professionals (www.Nalp.org <http://www.Nalp.org>). Also  upgrade your skills—take courses in business administration and law firm management (such as this one: http://nearyou.gwu.edu/lawfirm/).

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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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected]


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AJ's wrong... there're jobs.

They might NOT be in the practice areas we dreamed of (like coming from a family of doctors [seriously, since centuries ago...even back when my family's name was "Kohen" we were physicians, etc.], and wanting to be a plaintiffs' water lawyer; only to become a plaintiffs' med mal attorney); but, there are jobs out there.

It's all bout the skill-set, and making yourself as indispensable, wherever you land (even if it's doing per diem work, or contract attorney work) as humanly possible--even if it hurts.

For example, the firm I am with has an IT consultant on a monthly retainer; but, I am ALWAYS the first one to get a call in their office if a workstation doesn't function properly.

Yeah, it's frustrating trying to balance handling IT schmegma, while STILL deftly handling courtroom appearances, and zealously litigating a case (discovery...ugh); but, it's an added layer of security.

So, with it all being about, who has the best, and most skill set(s) to offer, I say she should go for the Admin role; but, keep advertising that, she has practiced; and, could do so again, if needed... added layer of skill-set(s)=added lawyer of security/marketability.

Finally, AJ, don't be scared to contact a recruiter, or something, to get yourself into a contract position. And, try doing Per Diem if you aren't currently working everyday...

Sure,contract gigs're temporary; and, per diem only puts money in your pocket for today; but, both get you exposure to those who might, in another situation, be the ones to give that final, much-needed, nod in saying "I remember him, we should hire him as an associate here!"

Keeping the skill set (s) up I this economy has become the key to survival anywhere...the tech side is another key component...

Thanks, NIck&Ellen , Ms. Thomas-Calvert...

It's been NEVER since you've practiced law, because there are no jobs.

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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: [email protected]

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