Returning to the Practice of Law via New Directions

iStock_000004428195XSmall_1_.jpgby Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

Carol, an employment law attorney, stopped working for about 7 years after her third child was born, instead leading a life filled with childrearing and community involvement. When her youngest child started going to school, Carol decided to explore ways to use her law degree but realized that it might not be that easy to return to the practice of law. “[During my time at home], I really broke from the law…I did not feel like a lawyer.”

Virginia had a similar story. “I had worked at a big Wall Street firm and in-house at a large company. I had my first child and kept working. And then I just couldn’t keep it up anymore. I retired and stayed at home for 14 or 15 years. Then came a time when I felt I should get myself back to doing something. [I] had been great at raising funds for my children’s school [among other things]…but there is a certain confidence that you don’t always have. You may have lost touch with all those professional contacts you had before. I found myself feeling a little isolated and out of touch.”

Jeanette also started with a Wall Street practice but realized that that practice didn’t really “match” with [her] family so she became a stay-at-home mom. “I did always think I’d go back to the law eventually. I did a variety of pro bono matters while raising the kids. I even set up my own small practice doing small commercial matters but I wanted to be back in a more organized office setting.”

Jim had been working in labor relations since the 1970s, when he decided to go to law school. Upon graduation and the passing of the New York Bar, Jim continued to work in labor relations and human resources, using some of the legal skills he acquired in law school but never actually practicing law. When the management team at the company he worked for was changed, he decided to seize the opportunity and become a full-fledged practicing attorney 24 years after earning his law degree.

Carol, Virginia, Jeanette and Jim were among the panelists who spoke at a recent open house for the New Directions program offered by Pace University Law School. The program, on which we’ve reported before, assists admitted attorneys who’ve stepped away from the practice of law to develop the skills and connections they need to return to the profession.

The program begins with a “boot camp” at which the attorney participants learn (or re-learn) the necessary practical skills to enable them to jumpstart their legal careers, including how to navigate the computer based legal programs like Westlaw and Lexis, hone their legal writing skills and effective management their time and stress.

Said Virginia of the process, “One of the very first things we did in boot camp was create our elevator speech. We had to stand up and say ‘I am X and I am an attorney.’ It was very hard for a lot of us because we spent so many years saying, ‘I’m so-and-so’s mom.’”

The week-long “boot camp” is followed by 2 to 3 sessions per week for three months, at which participants are introduced to various practice areas and career paths. Attorneys are also given hands-on assistance with their résumés, cover letters, and interview skills.

Carol said, “It also taught me things that I never really needed to know before, like how to find a mentor, how to take all the things I’d been doing as a stay-at-home mom and figure out what the transferrable skills of those things were (and there were many) and put them on a résumé to make myself marketable. I also learned how to network – something I never had to do before because I went right from law school into a firm. So it taught me all these valuable things.”

Arguably the most valuable component, however, is the externship through which participant attorneys can gain recent work experience in the practice area of his/her choice. Amy Gerwitz, the director of the program, and her team work with each attorney participant to find a suitable externship, whether it is a government, law firm or in-house position the participant attorney desires. “When we first started this,” explained Amy, “we only contemplated one externship per person. As the program went on, however, there have actually been people doing externships concurrently. They’re trying different practice areas; some are doing complementary ones.”

“The externship is valuable for several reasons,” said Carol, “It is for an extended period of time (i.e., 10 weeks) during which you are developing knowledge, gaining a mentor perhaps and then you have current work experience and recent referrals. Without that externship piece, it is hard to move on.”

And while Amy and her team make no guarantees of employment upon the completion of the program, they will do what they can to help the participants get back to work in the legal world. “We view our mission as preparing [returning attorneys] to have the skills to get back into the legal workforce. Given uncertain economic times and the resultant effect on the legal profession, there is an understandable concern [about the lack of opportunities]. But while it is not our ‘mission’, we are happy that over half of the former participants in the New Directions program are now in permanent paid fulltime positions and many others are staying with their externships while they are looking for permanent positions.”

Virginia added, “Nobody gets to where they are on a straight shot. Maybe we’ve all taken a detour but there is a way to get back into the workplace and [Amy and the team at Pace] are there to help.”

Pace Law School will be offering its New Directions program in NYC this summer. Applications are being accepted on a rolling basis through June 15, 2009. Please visit the New Directions website for more details.