These Lawyers Branched Out Into Careers They Are Passionate About
Whether it’s the economy or the growing awareness that a law degree can be valuable in many career areas, attorneys are increasingly moving away from conventional law practices. One recent study that tracks law school graduates from the class of 2000 found that almost a quarter of them are not practicing law today.
That study — funded by the American Bar Foundation, the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education and the National Science Foundation — has checked in with the 2000 grads regularly. Three years out of school, just 9 percent were not practicing law. In 2012, that number was 24 percent.
The biggest movement is toward the business sector, where only 8.5 percent worked in 2003 and 27.7 percent worked in 2012. During the same time, the percentage of respondents in private practice was 44.1 percent in 2012, compared to 68.6 percent in 2003.
The survey also has shown that the lawyers are still happy with their decisions to attend law school. Asked to rate their satisfaction with their decision to become a lawyer on a 1-to-5 scale, the average was 3.92. Asked whether law school was a good investment on a 1-to-7 scale, the average was 5.5. Asked whether they would go to law school if they had it to do over again using a 1-to-7 scale, the average was 4.91.
A separate, unrelated study found that lawyers in “prestige” jobs, who had the highest grades and incomes, aren’t as happy as lawyers working in public-service jobs for substantially lower pay. (Judges, however, were happiest of all, the study reported.) “Prestige” jobs included lawyers working in firms of more than 100 lawyers and those working in areas such as corporate, tax, patent, securities, estate-planning and plaintiff’s tort law. Public-service lawyers included legal-aid lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders, government lawyers and in-house lawyers for nonprofits.
Least happy were the other practicing lawyers, according to the study, including those working in the fields of general practice, family law and private criminal defense.
“These data consistently indicate that a happy life as a lawyer is much less about grades, affluence and prestige than about finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful, and is focused on providing needed help to others,” the authors concluded. “The data therefore also indicate that the tendency of law students and young lawyers to place prestige or financial concerns before their desires to ‘make a difference’ or serve the good of others will undermine their ongoing happiness in life.”
They noted that law schools emphasize grades, honors and potential for high earnings, though those factors “have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.” Also, there was “an almost meaningless correlation” between lawyer well-being and graduating from a higher-tier law school.
What Can You Learn from This?
What many lawyers have found is that there are numerous paths to finding a satisifying career and that having a law degree, fortunately, can be a big plus in helping you find and succeed in a wide variety of careers, both inside traditional practice and outside of it. Whether you are practicing law and loving it; practicing law and wondering what else is out there; or starting out fresh with an open mind about what to do, take a look at this sampling of Tennessee lawyers who earn their livings in nontraditional, inspiring ways.
When former Tennessee Bar Association President Larry Wilks died in August 2011, the legal community mourned the loss of the 56-year-old man from Springfield, Tenn. Wilks’s smile and caring personality could fill up a room and he made a difference in many people’s lives whether he was related to them, representing them or just smiling and saying hello occasionally in passing on Springfield’s courthouse square. Crossing paths in their hometown allowed Terry Price, who also lives in Springfield, to get to know Wilks. Though they didn’t know each other extremely well, Wilks, through his life and death, helped to change the course of Price’s life.
“I had been talking about doing things for years,” Price says of how the news of Wilks’s death was a wake-up call for him. “Everything I heard about Larry was that he was doing what he was called to do. That’s different than what I was doing.” Even by earning a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding Univerisity’s low-residency program in 2006, Price did not feel as if he were doing all he was called to do.
Learning of Wilks’s death affected him such that he and his wife discussed the possibilities, ultimately telling the other partners in his firm — Guenther, Jordan & Price in Nashville — that he would be leaving in six months to pursue his dream of writing, mentoring other writers, teaching and leading retreats. Toward this goal, he had earned that master of fine arts in writing. “There are parts of the practice I enjoy, but there were other things I really wanted to do,” he says.
“If something happened to me today people would now say ‘He was doing what he was called to do.’ This is the position I wanted to be in. Larry was doing that which he was called to do. I wanted to be in a similar position. That was the impetus for us to think about it.”
Five months into the six-month notice, Price was waking up in the night feeling as if he were about to jump from a plane with no parachute. His partners, with whom he had worked even before he went to law school, realized they needed his expertise in various areas and asked him if he would continue with the firm on a contract basis. He could set his own hours, call his own shots.
“It was a win-win situation and although they didn’t know it,” he says, “they handed me a parachute.”
Now Price, 57, spends every Tuesday in the law office, with occasional other days as needed, and the rest of the time he is writing, meeting with writing clients, editing manuscripts or planning retreats (such as www.westofthemoonretreat.com). He says he enjoys working with people and “helping them find their own voice and gain a footing to where they say ‘I can do this.’” He is also a mentor in The Writer’s Loft, a certificate program at Middle Tennessee State University. He manages a website, www.terryprice.net, as well as another with a co-writer, www.thewritingspace.net.
It’s a balance to be sure, but don’t talk to him about work/life balance.
“As I have gotten older I see my life less compartmentalized. I don’t look at it as work/life. I look at it as life,” he says. “I just want life balance.” He says he makes his daily decisions by judging how they line up with his priorities. “Every night I think about the things that are most important to me in life and if I handled them that day as well as I could have.” If he did, he considers it a good day.
He points out that the law and writing have a whole lot of overlap, in two specific areas: words and justice. And not just because his favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, combines the concepts. (He credits the book with why he became a lawyer … and also why he became a writer.)
“In working with legal documents like motions, affidavits and petitions, you realize the significance of words and their power,” he says. As for justice, he looks at it not just from a legal standpoint, but as “ethics and morality. As attorneys we are officers of the court and I never forget that. I see some people who may forget that, so caught up in the game of winning. My job when I walk into that courtroom is to make sure I represent my client zealously, but also to be open, honest and candid so the court has what it needs so that the best right can be done.”
Price, who graduated from Nashville School of Law in 1992, focuses on estate planning and estate administration, which he does see as part of his calling, too. “In estate administration, I can sit with people and help them work through the process. It’s not just legal paperwork. It’s a family transitioning after a major loss in life. I get to help them. I can’t alleviate the pain. But I can say ‘Here’s how we’re going to make sure everything is taken care of.’”
Price advises others to “step back and examine all the areas where you might plug in,” if you suffer burnout or don’t feel as if your current job situation is what you should be doing. He points out that the law touches every aspect of life, every single day and there are many different areas of law you can practice, in addition to other jobs in which you can use your legal training. Be more proactive, he says. “It’s your life and you should live it deliberately; live with intention. It comes down to this: are you happy when you put your head on the pillow at night and are you excited when the new day arrives?”
Meagan Frazier isn’t having an “alternative” legal career, really. She is having the law-related career she meant to have. And although you don’t hear many little girls saying they want to be lobbyists when they grow up, that’s exactly what Frazier set out to do. Law school was part of the plan to help her be a better lobbyist.
“I’ve always had a strong interest in politics,” she says, but was not from a “politically involved family.” Her parents steered her away from a political science degree, but she never stopped wanting to be involved in politics.
While working on her degree in mass communications with a political science minor at Middle Tennessee State University, she participated in a legislative internship program. “That made the difference,” she says. “I made some contacts and got a real look at state government. That solidified it for me.
“When I was choosing where to go to law school, I chose with lobbying in mind,” she says from her Nashville office, across the street from Legislative Plaza. Although she was accepted to several law schools, she says she chose Nashville School of Law when she realized this would help her stay in Nashville and be a lobbyist in state government. As she finished college, she worked for the Tennessee Treasury Department and upon graduation began working in the House Clerk’s office, which gave her “real insight to the process from the inside out. Having that knowledge was very helpful.”
While she was in law school, Frazier began to work at Smith Harris & Carr, where she works today, 10 years later. Of the three business partners who own the government relations firm, Frazier, 34, is the only lawyer, but she is not the only woman. All three principals are women with children, which she says helps a lot when it comes to work-life balance. Not that there is any balance during the legislative session.
“During the session, the balance is tipped toward work. It is very difficult to balance,” Frazier, who is mother to two young daughters, admits.
That she loves her job is evident as she describes what it’s like to represent her clients (she has about 12 right now). “I enjoy the strategy of how to effectively communicate my clients’ positions, whether it be for or against a piece of legislation. I enjoy the business of it, committee meetings, meeting with legislators — the hustle-bustle.”
She says about half of the registered lobbyists in Tennessee are women, and only about 25 of them are lawyers.
“The law degree makes me more knowledgeable on some issues that are very important to my clients,” she says. “It provides me with a perspective where I can read a court case that may be affecting pending legislation and know how to tackle that issue.”
She says she also has the opportunity to lobby for things she cares about and do pro bono work, including for Tennessee CASA (she served on its board of directors for the last six years) and the Tennessee Chapter of the ALS Association (she is president this year). “This job allows me an opportunity to communicate the needs and concerns of organizations I’m passionate about, and to help them through the process. They really value my expertise and it means a lot to me to be able to give back to them.”
A legal job outside of mainstream practice means you are not surrounded by other lawyers every day, she notes, which is why she loves being a part of another group – the Tennessee Bar Association, where she serves on the Governmental Affairs Committee and on the executive committee for LAWPAC.
“I enjoy that camaraderie of just being with other attorneys,” she says, recalling a day in 2007 when she first realized this. A recent law school graduate, she had come to see one of her professors, William C. Koch Jr., be sworn in as a justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court. “I was surrounded by all those attorneys and I thought, ‘I get to be a part of this profession!’ Being an active member of the bar still gives me that same feeling of being among fellow attorneys,” she says. “That’s why I go. It’s my chance to be among my comrades.”
Frazier did not take a circuitous route to her career. Focused, she went straight toward lobbying and created the career she dreamed of. She points out, though, that no matter what direction she had gone, she would’ve wanted a law degree and she advises anyone who asks her that it’s a good bet.
“A law degree can be used in so many diverse ways that it is very valuable — businesses see it as valuable,” she says. “You just have to market yourself and your legal education into the needs of that business you are interested in and passionate about. Without a doubt go get that law degree. It will be valued in whatever profession you ultimately choose.”
Taylor Berger says he has “always had the entrepreneurial itch.” He had ideas in high school and college that he didn’t pursue, but then would watch as others took his idea and execute them successfully.
“So when I saw a self-serve yogurt shop in another city, I knew I had to be the one to open in Memphis; I couldn’t watch somebody else ‘steal’ my idea again,” Berger, 34, says. “I had been practicing tax and estate planning law for a couple years when I opened two stores in August 2010, thinking they would be side projects to my legal career.”
Within a week of opening YoLo Frozen Yogurt he says he knew that he had underestimated the amount of time and work it takes to run a small business.
“I quit practicing law. It was either that or fail at both. Since then I’ve never looked back, even though my career has morphed several more times, just never back into the private practice of law. I realized after I quit practicing that I enjoyed business more than being a lawyer, and I was probably better at it anyway. It fit better with my personality, which was not suited to a desk and suit and tie.”
He earned his law degree from the University of Memphis in 2007 and LL.M. from the University of Washington the next year. He says he didn’t, like some, have a dream of always wanting to be a lawyer but saw it as a way to “learn how the system works, how to get stuff done.”
The month before he opened the stores, an article he had written, “‘Unpublished’ Opinions in Tennessee,” was published in the Tennessee Bar Journal — and would later earn him the prestigious Justice Joseph Henry Award for Outstanding Legal Writing. When he accepted the award the following summer, he was no longer practicing law and was up to his eyeballs in yogurt. YoLo now has nine locations, and Berger has since founded more than a half dozen other companies.
“I knew the day after I quit I’d made the right decision,” he says. “I remember sipping coffee and driving to the hardware store at 7 in the morning thinking, ‘I don’t have to go to the office today.’ It took a while to get used to a freewheeling way that is more a of 24/7 on-call kind of life. I get to do yoga at 9:30 in the morning and sometimes I’m home after lunch, but other times I’m working until midnight or taking calls at 6 a.m. It all balances out.”
He sees the law degree as a tool to help him do the job he enjoys. Looking back, he says he wishes he had taken law school a little less seriously. “It’s a great time to learn and explore the law without billing hours or taking on stressful liability of other people’s problems.” If he could do it again, he says he would have “tried to have more fun with it and not focus so much on grades.”
“Without my degree I don’t think I would have had the confidence or skills to pursue my passion. Business is people, conflict, contracts and property. We are trained in these areas as lawyers and I use that every day.”
Earlier this year, Berger jumped into another arena by adding his name to the ballot for Shelby County Commission, but withdrew in March. In an email to the Memphis Business Journal, he cited his busy schedule opening three restaurants this summer, marketing consulting, completing his real estate license, several nonprofit and faith-based initiatives — and the commitment he and his wife, who works, have to their two young children.
“To run this race right,” he wrote, “I’d jeopardize my family and business.”
He says his job has become “making Memphis better through the work I do with business, nonprofits and government,” focusing primarily on place and quality-of-life issues, which he says is crucial to Memphis’ success as a city. “Millennials are mobile, and they move to cities that have cool restaurants, green paths, authenticity and positive people,” he says. “My mission is to make Memphis that way so my kids want to stay here when they grow up. If I can find a way to continue to get paid to do this work I will keep doing it.”
YOUR ASSOCIATION LAWYERS
There is a huge and often-overlooked career jackpot and it is called the association. In Tennessee, there are hundreds, and they need smart people with many different talents and interests to make them work. The Tennessee Bar Association is one of these groups, employing 24 people, four of whom are lawyers. These four lawyers’ jobs are vastly different from each other’s in content and nature – yet each one of them is fulfilling a different passion. And guess what? Their jobs all intersect with the law.
The Executive Director
When Allan Ramsaur was a student at the University of Tennessee College of Law, he was introduced to legislative work through an internship program where he worked for a session with the Tennessee General Assembly’s Office of Legal Services to draft bills and report on legislative action.
“I got hooked, using my skills as a lawyer to implement policy,” Ramsaur, 62, says.
This is the thread that runs through his career, which for the past 16 years has seen him as executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association. It’s a job where he combines his love for legislative work and policy — and one that uses his legal skills every day.
After law school he started in the legal counsel’s office of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health, as liaison to the legislature, drafting rules and regulations. From that vantage point — and seeing the work of his wife, Jimmie Lynn, also just out of law school and working at Legal Aid — he realized fully the need for legislative representation of legal aid clients. He says he was able to “talk what is now the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services into hiring him full-time” to do just that, so he made the move. He did this for more than seven years until he “burned out” and says he lost some of his effectiveness. “I was too close to the problems,” he says. “I didn’t have professional distance.” During a brief hiatus, he worked as the research director of the [Steve] Cobb for Congress Campaign.
Across town, a decision was made that helped him decide what to do after that: the Nashville Bar Association planned to make a big change and hire its first executive director. Ramsaur was the man and he did that job until 1998 when he was hired as executive director of the TBA. In this job he assists the bar leadership in developing and implementing policies and programs; he manages a staff of 24; and advocates with the General Assembly and courts on behalf of Tennessee lawyers.
“I work for the lawyers of Tennessee,” he says. “It’s a real privilege to come to work every day to work with the best and brightest lawyers in the state who are at the top of their game. They want to do some good and are willing to give time and energy to make that happen.”
Ramsaur did not always aspire to be a lawyer, acknowledging that his degree in political science didn’t give him a clear career direction. But the law seemed like a natural extension, he says, even though he didn’t know at the outset if he would practice law or not. This job and the jobs leading to it have put his law degree to work every day. He says he likes “taking a problem, taking it apart and looking at all sides of it, putting it back together and presenting it to folks.
“As a lobbyist you need to know the law you’re lobbying on. You need to know the subject matter and have the knowledge of how to research; combine that with the policy analysis and then turn it into advocacy. Lawyers are trained to develop the best arguments and present them in the most convincing fashion,” he says. “That’s the stuff I do that’s most like practicing law — I consider it practicing law.”
Since Ramsaur came to the TBA, its membership has more than doubled, revenues have more than tripled; the Tennessee Bar Journal has grown to a monthly offering and TBA Today puts today’s legal news and appellate decisions in every lawyer’s hands every day on the day they are issued. The CLE program has gone from about two offerings per month to more than 100 live and 100 distance and on-demand programs per year. Public service activities include high school mock trial competition, Youth Court program and annual video contest. Access to justice, ethics and professional responsibility, Leadership Law and Mentoring are all new programs that have come about during his tenure.
“Much of what we do is facilitating public service work,” he says. “It’s not just pro bono or indigent representation or helping the community understand the legal system. It’s helping institutions -- helping lawyers to help institutions that help people to thrive.
“Too often we think of only going on some crusade or mission as fulfilling our passion; often it is right here at home,” he says. “Look for ways in which you can carry out your passions in what you do.”
The first thing people notice about Denise Bentley is her huge beautiful smile, followed by her infectious laugh.
“I’ve always loved kids,” she says. “I figure I’m in the kid business.” It’s obvious that she loves what she gets to do in her job as Youth Courts coordinator at the TBA, which she can’t talk about without smiling.
The Youth Court program is for young people — Bentley calls them all “her babies” — who are in the Juvenile Justice System for the first time on minor offenses. These cases are adjudicated by a jury of their peers, also teenagers. One thing she loves about her job is “this aspect of helping kids who’ve gotten into trouble, who may have made a mistake — and empowering other kids to help them.”
Since earning her law degree from Vanderbilt in 1988, she has worked in one “kid business” or another, including a private business work-force development initiative, and in what she calls a “giant leap,” working for Metro Nashville Public Schools in school security. There she managed violence prevention within the district and oversaw more than 200 employees.
She had intended to be a litigator in the area of entertainment/intellectual property. “That didn’t happen,” she says. For a while she was a solo practitioner in Knoxville, had a judicial clerkship and taught at the University of Tennessee College of Business.
This law-related track was a second career for Bentley, 60, which she undertook 12 years after getting her undergraduate degree in French from Fisk. (Did she always want to be a lawyer? “It wasn’t even on my list!”)
“I was a housewife,” she says, but noticed the change in a friend who had graduated from Vanderbilt Law School. “We were raised the same, as sweet little Southern girls. But after law school, she was no longer. She was very strong — a tiger, assertive,” Bentley says. “I went to law school for permission to be assertive and forthright. I didn’t go to be a lawyer. I spent a whole lot of money to do that. And that’s what it did for me.”
As a result, she got a law degree and a divorce.
“I feel like I’ve lived a grasshopper’s life,” she laughs. “I’ve had the ability to be free to be able to do whatever I want to do. That’s quite a blessing. It’s led me into some really phenomenal opportunities.” She began on a traditional law career trajectory until one of her clients, a 15-year-old boy, changed the way she thought and how she would go forward. She was appointed to represent him in a transfer hearing with a charge of felony murder, she recalls, explaining that this would determine if he was to be tried as an adult or juvenile.
“In my preparation for his hearing one of the things I realized was that his schools had failed him. We as a culture had failed this child in a lot of different ways but particularly throughout his educational opportunities — or lack thereof.” The boy was tried as an adult. This, along with her father’s death at about the same time, caused her to rethink what she was doing.
“This resulted in me determining that I wanted to meet kids before they needed somebody like me, before they needed representation.”
This is exactly what she does with Youth Court.
“Before I got this job I prayed for a position where I wanted to go to work every morning,” Bentley says. “That’s what I got. I want to go to work because I love what I do and I love the people with whom I’m doing it. I get to work with volunteers, schools, parents, judges and other lawyers, who all have a passion for kids who all are supportive of youth and who all recognize that we need to invest in youth.”
She has been described as “a builder,” which she says is what drives her. “If I can come into a situation and build it up, fortify it and stabilize, I’m just in hog heaven. I’m tickled. I feel like I’ve been blessed to do that.” Since Bentley has been director of the program, it has grown 150 percent, adding 12 programs in eight counties. Overall, the program now averages a 6.8 percent re-offender rate, down from 9 percent at the start.
There are trade-offs, she acknowledges. “I’m not making the kind of money that folks make who are in big powerful law firms, and that’s my choice,” she says. She works 70 percent, or four days a week, which helps with a semblance of work-life balance. She is still paying off her law school loan, however, which she admits probably would not be the case had she chosen a more lucrative path. “I love what I do so I’m not complaining,” she says.
Working with young people as she does, she sees the direction the work-life balance issue is going, and predicts that employers will need to become more flexible. “These millennial babies will cut and run. They won’t stay. They’ll go where they can get what they want. Being an associate in a law firm is the last bastion of slavery and these babies are not going to put up with it,” she says. “We need to figure out a new ethic.”
That her career is different from many of her fellow law grads is not lost on Bentley, and she is aware of the pressure many feel to stay in a high-paying job even if it’s not their passion. She’ll listen, but she does not have time for whiners.
“If you are stuck in a place where you aren’t happy it’s your own fault,” she says. “If you’re happy practicing, God bless you. If not, do something else! Do what makes you happy. Nobody is holding you there except your own ego.”
For her, it’s simple: “Everybody is telling you that you ought to practice, that government practice isn’t a good practice. We hear these wives tales, fables and ego-laden pressures as we come out of law school that have lasting effect. All of that is mythical. If you want work-life balance, then go to some place you can get it. You are a lawyer. You know how to think, to strategize, to plan, figure out what you want. Develop your plan. Implement it.”
Josie Beets’s plan was to go to law school, make a lot of money and live in a fabulous apartment. She was doing the first part, attending Brooklyn Law School when, more than 1,300 miles away, a natural disaster would change the course of her life. Seven months after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Beets took her one year of law school education, headed south and began volunteering.
“I fell in love with public service work,” she says. “I knew pretty quickly that the traditional corporate legal career that I had wanted was not what I was going to be doing.” She not only fell in love with the work, but also with Sean Zehtab, another law student who had come to help.
They volunteered with the Student Hurricane Network, which placed law students in organizations, such as local legal nonprofits, to do volunteer work. Beets mainly worked with groups that did criminal defense work, like the Public Defenders’ Office. The network also organized volunteer trips for law schools to the Gulf Coast to do any legal work students were allowed to do, such as tracking down where 8,000 prisoners had ended up when the prison flooded. This is what Beets did.
“Nobody knew where anyone was or how long it had been since they had been to court,” Beets says. Months after the storm, the students sat with stacks of lists of inmates and looked up case statuses. The courts didn’t reopen until June 2006, about 10 months after the nightmare began, she says.
“This work showed me how with grit and hard work you can make a big difference in someone’s life,” Beets says. “It was so easy to get a person equity and justice by just showing it to someone who cared. I knew then I would have a nontraditional career.”
The stint caused her to see that she had “suffered from overly idealistic ideas about our justice system. My post-Katrina experience in New Orleans knocked me down a few notches.” But she counts that as a positive, as she saw “amazing attorneys and activists working in the community to make the system better.”
She admits with a sheepish laugh that she benefitted “both personally and professionally” from Katrina, as she and Zehtab were married in September 2008. After finishing law school and taking the Louisiana bar they settled in New Orleans, with Beets working with the Access to Justice Program at the Louisiana State Bar Association. There she worked with all the Legal Aid offices across the state to develop training and programs to support their efforts. Her hope was to work at the public defender’s office there, but her husband, who was in the Army, was transferred to Fort Polk, La., three hours away.
She then practiced law near Fort Polk, as a child welfare attorney and also was a civilian attorney for the U.S. Army, advising soldiers and families on a range of civil legal issues — until Zehtab was transferred to Fort Campbell, not too far from Nashville. He is a captain, chief of claims with the Staff Judge Advocate. At Fort Campbell, she volunteers with military organizations, working with spouses on advocacy issues.
Beets, 36, and mother of two small children, is now public policy coordinator for the Tennessee Bar Association, where she works on legislation that primarily affects the legal profession as well as working on grassroots development between TBA members and lawmakers. It seems like a career leap, but in her mind it is related to what she has done before.
“To me it’s really about the advocacy piece of it,” she says. “People don’t think their voice matters, not because they are a marginalized group but because they are unfamiliar with politics. I’ve learned through volunteer and bar work that our political leaders want to hear from their constituents and especially from the ones who don’t agree with them. That blows people’s minds who are not involved.”
During the session, Beets tracks a lot of legislation. “On any given day I am expert on something that I wasn’t the day before because of the great information I get from members,” she says. “The exposure to every single area of law you can think of is very interesting.”
All her jobs have been service-oriented and she likes it that way. “I have gotten to help people, whether client or fellow lawyer. This job is no different,” she says. “I love bar associations. You get to meet the most amazing people. Who helps lawyers? They are the ones who help others, but we get to provide this service to people who help others.”
She credits her volunteer efforts with helping her find her passion and give direction to her career. “If I had watched the news in August 2005 and had not been so personally offended by what was happening in New Orleans after the hurricane, if I had been apathetic and not felt like I had a role to play in that, I would not be here today,” she says. “I had the insane notion that I could make a difference. Then I followed this weird nontraditional career trajectory.”
She points out that volunteering is how she changed the direction of her career path and recommends that other lawyers watch for opportunities. “When you react to something, don’t discount that. Follow through and ask yourself what you can do to help. That will open all sorts of doors for you — not only in your legal career but also with nontraditional paths.”
When Liz Slagle Todaro was working in Washington, D.C. as a legislative associate, fresh out of Emory with a political science degree, she noticed something: So many of the women she met there whom she respected had a law degree. With her background as a member of her high school and college debate teams and the encouragement of attorney mentors, she had already considered law school. With these individuals as role models and after a few more years working in political and nonprofit organizations, she knew that’s what she wanted to do. She found a perfect fit at the City University of New York Law School at Queens College, whose mission is “law in the service of human needs.”
Today Todaro, 41, is the Tennessee Bar Association’s access to justice and public education coordinator, where she uses not only skills learned in law school but in the varied related jobs she’s had since graduating in 2003. She worked at the Women’s Prison Association in New York with the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project. Much of her work was based at Rikers Island and other New York correctional facilities, where she provided direct service advocacy and support for incarcerated mothers and individuals recently released from jail or prison. She trained volunteer attorneys, social workers and staff, and coordinated and supported the team of pro bono attorneys who represented the clients. She led support groups in the prisons and jails on issues and worked on individual family law cases. At times, her work required her to inform a mother that her parental rights had been terminated while she was incarcerated.
When she moved back to Nashville where she grew up, she served as director of outreach at the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. She then was the director of the Crisis Center at Family and Children’s Service, where she managed a 24-hour crisis line, serving mentally ill and suicidal individuals. Most recently, she helped found and lead Nashville Debate, a local organization working to bring policy debate back into Nashville’s public schools.
When she came to the TBA in 2012, she saw that both components of her job — access to justice and public education — were “consistent with my concern and focus around helping those most in need access the services and support that will make their lives better.”
The variety of work she does at TBA ranges from helping to plan and staff large events to getting to work with media and write. “I enjoy the behind-the-scenes staffing of the work, like managing meetings and providing other support.”
Like all TBA employees, Todaro works with volunteers a lot. “I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the volunteers who are so committed in the areas I get to work in.” Todaro believes her law degree gives her a “shared language and experience” with the member volunteers, “even if the ways we are using our degrees are vastly different.”
Her law degree has no doubt opened doors to this variety of work. “Look for opportunities outside of the expected path,” she advises. “The skills, resources and background are applicable in so many different contexts.” She says her early experiences with individual clients in such dire situations was “very intense and oftentimes very discouraging. I love that I had those experiences and appreciate that they have informed my understanding of so many of the issues I address now. But I also knew that there were others who were better equipped to do that work. Now I value having the opportunity to support their efforts.”
A mother of 7-year-old twin daughters, she admits this is not exactly how she pictured her career, although she never did see herself working in a law firm. “I thought I would be in the field of policymaking or lobbying or working with a nonprofit or legal services organization serving domestic violence survivors. But I never really considered any sort of traditional practice setting.”
She doesn’t regret for a minute the time she spent earning her law degree.
“People go to law school for all different reasons,” she points out. “There are so many other opportunities to use those skills and pursue something you are interested in.”
- The study also showed major differences in pay based on gender, law school ranking and grades. The 2012 results are considered preliminary because researchers are still determining whether weighting the results by region or other characteristics will change the findings. More than 3,000 people responded to the Wave 3 survey. Learn more about “After the JD,” by the American Bar Foundation and the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education from the American Bar Association at http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/twelve_years_after_the_jd_20_percent_arent_practicing_law/
- “Lawyers in prestige positions aren’t as happy as those in public service jobs, study finds,” by Debra Cassens Weiss, ABAJournal.com, March 17, 2014. The study was conducted by Florida State University law professor Lawrence Krieger and University of Missouri psychology professor Kennon Sheldon. http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lawyers_in_prestige_positions_arent_as_happy_as_those_in_public_service-job/
- “Exploring Alternative Careers for Lawyers,” by Kathleen Brady, Law Practice Today, October 2006.
SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.