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Diving back in: 4 tips for restarting a legal career

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Diving Back In

The practice of law is not known for being particularly portable or forgiving of taking “time off” from one’s career.  But, for the future of our noble profession, I hope those things are changing.  And I believe that they are.  For example, as an increasing number of states adopt the Uniform Bar Exam and ease barriers to licensing for particularly mobile groups like military spouse attorneys, career portability becomes more possible.  And, there are increasing opportunities for flex time work arrangements and reentry into the profession after time off.

Personally, I have managed to live and work in three different states plus the District of Columbia since graduating from law school (yep, I’m one of those aforementioned military spouse attorneys) and am back in the private practice of law after a three-year break.  So, I’m here to tell you: it can be done.  And I’m here to offer a few tips I’ve picked up along the way for “restarting” a legal career, whether due to a move, time off, or any other reason.

Plan ahead

If you know your future is going to involve lots of moving or significant time away from practice, you can take steps to plan ahead and ease those transitions.  As for me, I got lucky on this one.  When I went to law school, I had no idea I would end up married to a military service member and moving every 2-3 years.  And starting a family – which ultimately did prompt me to take several years off from private practice – seemed ages away if it was destined to happen at all.  But, if I could look back now and tell the 22-year-old version of myself which law school to choose based on how life would look in five or ten years, I would offer a couple of pieces of advice.

Go to a law school that is nationally recognized.  A law school may be very highly regarded in its particular state or region but not well known at all on the other side of the country.  If you know you want to spend your career in that particular area, then the locally renowned school is a great choice.  But if you could literally end up anywhere, it will matter that recruiters and hiring managers recognize the name of your law school.  For me, this translated to going to the best law school that I could reasonably afford to go to.  Fortunately, I made that choice for a whole host of reasons at the time.  Despite the fact that I was just sure I would spend my career in either Atlanta or New York and have yet to practice in either of those cities, my choice of law school has served me well as my husband’s career has taken us up and down the east coast and mine has followed.

Also, try to choose a law school with a broad network of alumni who practice in many different practice areas all over the world.  First, those alumni are a valuable resource while you are in law school and trying to figure out what exactly you want to do with your law degree when you graduate.  But second, those alumni will be invaluable when you find yourself in an unfamiliar city and looking for a job.  This will tie in to tip number 2 below.

And finally, choose a law school that is very strong in and hopefully recognized for the broad area of law you hope to practice.  Don’t worry about bar passage rates: that’s what the bar review courses are for.  Instead, if you want to be a litigator, like I did for example, look for a law school with a strong trial advocacy program that will afford you opportunities to hone your research and analytical writing skills and to participate in moot court and other extracurricular activities.  Or, if you want to focus on transactional work, look for a law school that allows you to pursue that track through its course offerings, externships, or perhaps even a transactional law certificate program. Those foundations will carry you far.

If you’re past the point of choosing a law school, don’t worry – it’s not too late to plan ahead for any future “restarts” of your career.  Cultivate and grow your networks within the legal community.  Keep in touch with law school classmates and former colleagues.  Join bar associations at both the local and national levels.  Never burn bridges in the legal community.  Which leads me to my second tip:

Network

I know, I know – most people are tired of this word by the end of their 1L year.  But it’s true, and it’s unavoidable: the legal profession – and getting legal jobs! – is built on networking.  But, I think that word can come across as a little vague at best and downright intimidating, for some, at worst.  So, I’ll try to offer some more concrete tips.

First, plug into and take full advantage of your law school’s alumni network.  When I have moved to a new city, I have literally gone to law firm websites, searched for attorneys who went to my law school, and sent those people cold emails with a copy of my resume.  Believe me, it pays to have a broad and active alumni network.  I have even sought the advice of my law school’s career services office years after graduation!  If your undergraduate college has a strong alumni network, use those connections as well.

Second, do not discount local bar associations.  Joining them and attending their local events can be an excellent way to meet local attorneys, get to know the legal community, and start getting your name out there.

Finally, be creative with your networking!  Don’t discount the value of technology.  For example, I have found two jobs through LinkedIn – one via a former coworker with whom I was connected, and one via a recruiter who found my profile.  I have also found a job through my connections within the Military Spouse JD Network – a bar association for military spouse attorneys that exists largely online.  Spend some time thinking about all the connections you have and ways to get your name out there – particularly if you’re looking for work in a new city or state.

Prepare for the questions

Besides death and taxes, one more thing is almost certain: if your resume reflects a lot of moves and/or a big gap in employment, you’re going to get asked about it.  Anticipate that, and do not be caught off guard when it happens.  Advice on how to “spin” both of these topics runs the gamut, but for me, honesty has yet to fail me.  When asked what has brought me to a particular area, I have confronted head on the fact that my husband is in the military with the potential for frequent moves.  Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t think about how to frame the issue!  I truly believe that being a military spouse has made me a better attorney and employee – I am more adaptable, resilient, and team oriented than I would otherwise have been – and I am happy to discuss that with any potential employer.  So, be honest, but be strategic, in explaining any questions that are likely to come up about your resume.

As for a gap in employment, I tried not to make mine a true “gap.”. I knew when my child was born that I wanted to spend a few years mostly at home.  But, I made it a goal not to have any calendar year “blank” on my resume, and I was successful.  In some years, that meant doing contract work for previous employers.  Once I was able to work as an adjunct professor at a law school, which I enjoyed immensely.  So, while I spent the majority of my time at home for just over three years, my resume does not reflect an obvious gap.

But I’ll be honest: I was truly nervous about taking time “off.”  I was nervous that I had stepped away from private practice at the worst possible time.  I had just entered the mid-level associate years and was beginning to be heavily recruited.  My responsibilities, my hours, my caseload, everything was on the upswing.  And, here’s the kicker – I really liked my job.  I wouldn’t have left for another firm.  I wouldn’t have left for any reason other than the one I did: my family.  And, in the glow of 20/20 hindsight, I have no doubt I made the right decision.  But I struggled with it at the time, and I remained nervous about my prospects for reentering the profession full time.

But again, when asked about it, I have openly explained that I wanted that time with my young child.  Waiting until I was truly ready to return to work allowed me to return refreshed, energized, and fully focused – qualities I hope potential employers are seeking! And here I am: back in the private practice of law.  It can be done.

Stay positive

Finally, I don’t want to make this post sound like my multiple moves and unique career path have always been a rosy journey filled with jobs falling into my lap.  I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that there have been setbacks: emails that were never returned, jobs I did not get, sleepless nights, and sometimes frustrating advice.  But when the setbacks come, I try to stay positive.  I remind myself that in the past, setbacks have often been followed by wonderful and unexpected opportunities.  Stay open-minded.  I have found myself in jobs and areas of practice that I never anticipated but have truly enjoyed.  Hopefully, when you look back over your career one day, you will find yourself both professionally and personally fulfilled and with some words of wisdom to impart to the next generation of lawyers who will follow in your footsteps.

Thea Pitzen Thea Pitzen is a lawyer, a military spouse, and a mother of one. She is admitted to practice in Virginia, Florida, Georgia (currently inactive), and the District of Columbia and has previously worked as a judicial law clerk to a U.S. District Court Judge, as an adjunct lecturer, and in private practice. Prior to law school, she was a teacher through Teach For America. Thea is currently an associate at the law firm of Goodman Allen Donnelly in Norfolk, Virginia, where she focuses her practice on the defense of hospitals, physicians, dentists, nurses, nursing homes and other health care providers. She is also an active member and previously served on the board of directors of the Military Spouse JD Network.