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Elaine Chen

Head of Marketing, North America                                                       


New York, New York

JD Fordham University School of Law   

BA Harvard University

The right narrative proves crucial in a move to marketing

elaine chen

On giving yourself permission to leave law

On the need for a narrative when transitioning out of law

On determining why you want to transition

Listen to interview:

Full Transcript

ex judicata:  With us today is Elaine Chen, who is the head of marketing for North America at Kantar in New York City. Thank you for joining us. For those who may not be fully familiar with Kantar if you could give us a capsule sketch of the company.

Elaine Chen: Kantar is a leading market research firm. We offer research services and insights to brands, media companies and agencies in all kinds of areas like telling which media channels are the most effective for your advertising, which ads are the highest performing from a creative standpoint, and also brand strategy and how they can optimize the value of their brands.

ex judicata: I was looking forward to speaking with you because our backgrounds are somewhat similar in that we both went to Fordham Law School and then practiced for a brief time.  About a year in your case. 3 months for me. And then we both concluded that that we didn’t want to practice law. This is exactly the position that many of the attorneys who will be reading this interview find themselves in.  It’s the now what moment.  It was a lonely and frustrating place for me back then. And I’m going to guess it was for you as well.  And to this day, not all that much has changed for attorneys who want to leave the law, which is which is why we launched ex judicata. If you could talk about your thought process and emotions upon coming to the realization that you really didn’t want to practice law for a living.

Elaine Chen: Sure. I certainly have met other former attorneys who were in the same position I was, which was that I never wanted to be an attorney. In certain cultures, like my immigrant family, your parents work hard their whole life to get you into Harvard and it is understood you will continue on to be a doctor or a lawyer. I told my parents I wanted to be an architect. They looked at me and said if so we will pull you right out of Harvard.  We will not pay for it because we’d be throwing our money away.

I have an older sister. She was supposed to be the doctor. I was supposed to be the lawyer. Actually, being a lawyer was the compromise when she didn’t become a doctor and I didn’t want to be one either! With law I knew I enjoy talking to people, I knew I enjoyed writing, and I was like, ‘well, this seems like it will be a better fit for me than being in medical school.’

So, I became a government major and then went to law school after college. I was not the world’s best law student because I was interested in other things like writing, music and design. My parents would kind of say to me, ‘well, those are really great hobbies, but you’re going to be a lawyer, and when you’re a lawyer you’ll have plenty of time to do these other things’. I didn’t quite get it at the time but now that seems crazy,

ex judicata: I guess at some point your parents came to terms with your decision and career choice?

Elaine Chen:  I think they were very concerned about me not being able to support myself. And they were thinking law will be safe and secure.  They eventually came to terms with my not staying a lawyer. My thought was if you are a terribly unhappy lawyer, you’re not going to be very successful at that and you’re not going to make the money you wanted to make anyway.

ex judicata:  I think that may be true in most cases.  But I know many lawyers who put their head down, worked like dogs, hated their jobs and are very successful. So, Elaine, what was your first step moving forward out of law school?

Elaine Chen:  I wasn’t graduating into a great economy. I ended up getting a role at a relatively small litigation firm that specialized in essentially defending insurance companies against claims arising out of forklift and elevator mishaps. So, it was very specialized. But I was happy to be working right at the time. I was really stressed out about my loans and all these different things. The insurance company that I was working on behalf of got acquired, my firm lost the business and they had to make cuts.

They laid me off along with another associate. It wound up being the classic case of being the best thing that could have happened to me.  My friends were very vocal about this from the start.  I was panicked. I had never lost a job before in my life. I had law school loans. I didn’t have many savings. They were right, but honestly, it would have

been really hard for me to make that decision.  And I have other friends who, like me, were heavily pressured into becoming lawyers and they feel trapped today.

At the insurance defense firm, I wasn’t even making so much money that it was a sacrifice to change careers.

ex judicata:  So, what did you do after you got laid off?  Did you have other occupations in mind?

Elaine Chen: Not really. I spent about a year doing various types of temp gigs.I also went through a long process of being in therapy to sort of give myself permission to do what I wanted to do even if my parents were going to be disappointed.

My therapist had a background as a career counselor which is why I chose her. She asked what would it take to make me happy?  You seem to really enjoy writing. What about writing careers? 

I started talking to people who were in the field of journalism. And then I got a job at a technical publication that focused on the semiconductor space. I went from there to advertising and ultimately to marketing, Taking that writing job was the first step in a long journey. But it was worthwhile.

ex judicata:  Obviously, you’ve been very successful in marketing. I’m just I’m looking at your career trajectory now where you wind up heading up marketing in North America for a big company.  What do you think has made you successful as a marketer and how did your JD skill set help you along the way?

Elaine Chen:  Sure, I do think that as a marketer at the end of the day your job is to persuade people to do something.  Not that different from learning how to persuade people on, say, a jury that your client is innocent. Law school teaches you how to be persuasive in your arguments.  It helped hone my writing skills which I have relied on my entire career. I also developed analytical skills that have served me well in business.

Also, through moot court and the like you develop presentation skills. Presenting is a huge part of any business job.  Looking back, I think a business degree would have been more helpful for me. But I would never say I didn’t get valuable skills from those three years at law school.

ex judicata: We often talk in these interviews about something that we call, for want of a better term, positive issue spotting. In law school you’re given a fact pattern and you have to see all the things that can go wrong. This is the reverse. It is looking at an opportunity and thinking about all the different ways that you can maximize that opportunity. How has issue spotting been a part of your development?

Elaine Chen: Some of my friends who stayed in law, love the practice. I’m thinking of one in particular who does contracts for a major bank. She has to think of every possible bad outcome. So if you go on vacation with her, it’s the same thing. “What if the car doesn’t come? What if it rains?” I just don’t think that way.

ex judicata: What else served you well in making the transition from law to business?

Elaine Chen:  One thing that I would definitely advise anyone who was trying to do a career transition and again, I’ve done it more than once, is that it’s very important to have a narrative as to why you did what you did.  So, if it’s leaving law it’s getting past ‘are you here because you couldn’t find another job as a lawyer?’ And then it’s being able to explain why you want to move into marketing, or whatever it is, you want to do.

I was having dinner with the manager who originally hired me at Kantar and she was relaying how she was concerned that I was just there because I couldn’t find a legal job but then that I explained how my parents had pressured me, it wasn’t what I wanted to and here’s why I’m a fit for this new career.

ex judicata:  That is extremely important. What you just said about having a narrative, having a story. We have an article that’s on the website.  It’s an article entitled What Is Your Elevator Pitch.  During the course of these interviews one attorney after another who moved into something completely different has said you have to have a story.  The equivalent of a startup company’s elevator pitch. You’re of course not selling a product or service, you are selling yourself.  The goal is to describe how your skill set will make you a fit for the job and make your boss look good. It’s not about, if you are litigator, trying to match say taking depositions or arguing in court or writing persuasive briefs with the laundry list of job requirements.

Elaine Chen:  I remember when I wanted to move to a more strategic realm in advertising, I was talking to somebody about being a planner. He was like; “They’ll never hire you to do this.  You have a great skill set and you could do the job but that’s not the way this employer thinks.” Sometimes you must go sideways to go up. So I went from the agency that I was told wouldn’t hire me, to a much smaller agency that was a little less rigorous.  They were like you have great experience, you’d be perfect in the role, you’re exactly what we need. Then, once I got into that strategic role I was able to transition to in house marketing where I am today. Sometimes these smaller organizations in particular can benefit from a lawyer’s approach so maybe 20% of your job then involves using your lawyer-type thinking and 80% everything else.

I also think it’s important to really be clear about what it is that you’re looking for from a job. I have a friend who was a tech journalist.  She kept telling me she hated tech. She saw a counselor who was able to ferret out that it was the particular company, early hours and rigid deadline pressure that she couldn’t stand.  She actually really liked tech.

There are a lot of different environments in law. You have to ask yourself what is it about law that makes you feel it’s not a fit for you?  Is it the schedule? The promotion path? The not being able to comfortably ask questions?  Or, is it the practice of law, the entire profession?  And again, for me, I think it was the right decision.

ex judicata: That’s a good point about making a determination. Is it the practice of law you don’t like or the environment that you are in?  I always tell associates who are thinking about leaving the profession to experience at least two different types of law. And at least two different work environments. So, because it’s hard to get positions in law departments, at least two different law firm environments, just to get a sense.

ex judicata:  One last question for you. One of the things that we’re doing at ex judicata is creating courses to help transitioning lawyers bolster their skill set to get business jobs. The very first one we shot—these are all asynchronous learning—was on financial fluency for attorneys moving to business. Are there any other areas that you think people could benefit by some additional training?

Elaine Chen:  Sure. Law firm management structures are unique. First years do this, third years do this, this is how to use paralegals, this is how you bill every 6 minutes.  And there’s the huge divide between partners and associates. My company, Kantar, is really good at management training. One thing is how to have what we call a ‘flourish conversation’:  Talking to your reports to understand where they are coming from in their viewpoints, their career aspirations.  This is just one part of a lot of leadership training. Anyone moving to a business role should have an understanding of the difference in management structures.

ex judicata:  It’s very interesting you say this.  Another course we have under development is exactly this. In a nutshell, how do you prepare for a management role in corporate America when you have never managed anyone?  If you’re an associate, maybe you’ve managed a paralegal or younger associates but you essentially have 50 bosses or whatever number of partners there are in the firm.  You go from this to a completely different environment where you have a boss, and your boss has a boss etc. And you are judged for promotion on how well you manage and lead people. The exact opposite of a law firm in most cases.

Elaine, you’re the embodiment of what we strive to do at ex judicata. That is help JDs who want to transition out of law to positions that will bring them career satisfaction.  In your case it was into marketing very successfully. So, it’s just a great story. Thank you.

Elaine Chen: Absolutely. And I realize I was lucky. My parents ended up paying off my student loans, I didn’t have children or other big financial obligations, making it easier to take an alternative path than it is for most attorneys who want to transition today.

But at the same time, I also think things have changed a lot since when I was doing all of this in the 1990’s.  So many people have been laid off and have had career transitions. The workforce has become much more flexible in terms of hiring people for positions where their background on paper isn’t a natural fit.  Hopefully, this will make things easier for JDs who want to move today.

And I definitely think what you guys are doing is providing an amazing resource that it’s shocking to me hasn’t been available in the past.

ex judicata:  Thank you, Elaine. I appreciate your saying that. And, thank you for all your time today.

Elaine Chen:  My pleasure! Thank you.

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