Past affiliations include: associate, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart (K&L Gates)
JD Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
BA Brandeis University
Endless summer: from litigator to camp director
On going from lawyer to Camp Director
On how her lawyer background helps in running a camp
Her advice to lawyers anxious about leaving the practice
Listen to interview:
EXJ: So, you practiced for a number of years. You clerked for the First Circuit Court of Appeals and worked both in BigLaw and at a smaller firm before becoming a camp director. So tell me about your career path. Let’s start with that.
Wendy Berliner: Okay. So, I always wanted to be a lawyer. That’s the funny part. My dad was a doctor, but I wanted to go to law school. I wanted to practice medical malpractice, which my dad didn’t care for. But it was a teacher in high school, I think, who really got me hooked on law. I took a law class in high school, competed in mock trials throughout New York State’s Mock Trial Association, and I loved it. I always wanted to be a judge, so I knew I was going to law school.
I graduated from Brandeis, went right to law school, hated it and I knew I wanted out of New York City. At that point, I got rid of the medical malpractice dream. I wanted to help people. I loved the government work that I was doing during law school. I worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office one summer and I had another government job during the other summer of law school. (This was New York City’s Corporation – in the Appellate Division.)
EXJ: You also did the First Circuit Court of Appeals clerkship.
Wendy Berliner: I did. So I liked government. I have always loved to read, write and research, and stuff like that. So clerking was the best job in the world for me. I did a year out of law school at the Connecticut Superior Court. The way that works is you’re hired by the state and then you’re placed in one of the trial courts. So I was in Stamford and Norwalk, and I loved it.
I thought to myself, I’m going to stay in Connecticut. I was making all these great connections and whatnot and then took the bar that February in order to practice in Connecticut. But because of a Brandeis connection, actually, I was connected with Judge Bownes on the First Circuit Court of Appeals and ended up working with him for two years. That was the greatest job in the universe. He was a gem of a guy, just an amazing judge, an amazing person, an amazing everything, and I thought about staying there forever and being a law clerk. But I knew I had to get out into the real world and figure out what I wanted to do. Again, I wanted government. I wanted to save the world, some sort of nonprofit, something like that. And it was Judge Bownes who said to me that I should just go to a BigLaw firm because, needless to say, the BigLaw firms were the ones that were kind of knocking down the door of the law clerks.
EXJ: So true and that’s where law clerks tend to end up in BigLaw.
Wendy Berliner: So he said that I should just do it for a year, get the experience, get the training that I wouldn’t get in the government, make some money, and pay back some loans. Obviously, I respected him greatly and said to myself, “All right. I’ll do it for one year, but on day 366, I’m out.” And he said, “Fine. That’s all I ask.”
I was very careful about which big firm I was going to go to. I loved Boston. I had taken the bar in Massachusetts and in New York, right out of school. I was not a New Yorker in any sense. I always loved Boston. I decided that I’d go to work in a BigLaw firm with a smaller office in Boston where I liked the people. So I joined what was then Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. It changed names a whole bunch of times. It’s now K&L Gates. And one year turned into eight or nine years, something ridiculous like that. But I liked the people. I liked the work I was doing.
EXJ: That actually sounds ideal. You got to work with people you liked, getting the benefit of BigLaw in a small office environment. (Though the “small office” was approximately 75 lawyers at the time!)
Wendy Berliner: Correct.
EXJ: You probably got better experience than you would have gotten in a big office.
Wendy Berliner: It was fantastic. I entered as a third-year associate, so although obviously I kind of started learning what everybody else did, I very quickly took on bigger and bigger projects. I was in the litigation department and kind of fell into the employment stuff and I really loved it. I had always said I didn’t want to represent companies like Exxon against Mobil—I know they’re one company now, but that kind of work wasn’t anything exciting for me. But I learned, especially when it came to the employment work. It was still about people, even though I was often on the side of big business and not the employee. But I liked the work I was doing. I loved the reading and writing. I was always the type of person who felt if I could write the motion and then hand it off to someone else to argue, that would be the best of all worlds for me.
EXJ: I argued moot court in law school. I was really good, actually, and made quarter-finalist. If I won one more argument I’d have made the national team, but I didn’t like litigating.
Wendy Berliner: I know. It was the same for me. I was good at it but didn’t like doing it. I asked Judge Bownes, “When do you stop getting nervous, even before you argue a small motion?” And he said to me, “If you stop getting nervous, you don’t care and it’s time to retire, it’s time to do something else.” And I thought, good point.
EXJ: So that’s when you went to a firm. But then you left law. Why the change?
Wendy Berliner: So I went to K&L after that. I was there for about six years maybe, but I had reached what was the equivalent of an eighth- or ninth-year associate, and I was up for partnership. All of a sudden I looked around and thought, “This is not what I want to do with the rest of my life.” At this point, I had my daughter. She was probably one or two. And you know how it is. I tried to do the part-time thing after I had her, and there’s no such thing as part-time.
EXJ: It’s like a 50-hour week commitment instead of a 75-hour-plus week if you’re lucky, but you end up working far longer than the 50 hours.
Wendy Berliner: Right. It wasn’t part-time because I was still working those hours but getting paid for part-time. So I said, “This isn’t working. I’m going back to full time.” But then all of a sudden, as I said, when I was up for partner I thought, “Wait a minute, I don’t want to do this.” I looked around at the partners. While I admired, respected, and adored them, that wasn’t the life I wanted. They were working as long and as hard as I was, while my dad, who was a doctor, worked less as he became more senior. It’s not about not working hard because I’m definitely a workaholic, but law firm partnership wasn’t the life that I wanted.
EXJ: Wow. For someone who was just going to be at a firm for a year, you sure did stay a long time.
Wendy Berliner: My one year turned into way too many. It was time to go. I looked around and I found DeMeo & Associates, which was a small litigation boutique with lawyers just like me. They were lawyers who all came from big firms and wanted a better lifestyle. There were probably six or seven attorneys there at that point. Then, in 2007, I had my son. I liked the firm, but I didn’t love it. I missed the people at K&L, I think, and I missed the work I did there. The work was similar, but it wasn’t as exciting. The economy was tanking, and the firm was looking to lay someone off. I asked them to pick me. My son was little. He was at home. So I took that early retirement, so to speak, that layoff, and got to be home with my son, which was fantastic.
EXJ: I know all about that. It’s so hard to find that balance and you don’t get that time back.
Wendy Berliner: I knew I had to work. I love working. I like feeling challenged. So I started to think about what else I would do. At this time, I was coaching the mock trial team at Brandeis, so I still had that. I was teaching at BU Law School where I was a legal writing adjunct instructor at that point. I thought maybe I’d teach and get into that. I think, at that time, I also started grading the bar exams from Massachusetts. I can’t remember the exact timeline.
EXJ: I wrote and edited content for a bar review course. So, how did you end up picking a camp-related job?
Wendy Berliner: So the camp that I was at was up in Maine. I had been a camper and then a counselor there. Camp was my life growing up. I went for like 10 summers. I was always very close with my camp owners. So, this was 2008 or 2009. I was working with the camp on a volunteer basis to create our upcoming 50th reunion. One night while working on it, we were having dinner and they said to me, “You know, would you ever want to go back to work?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I definitely want to go back to work. I just need to figure out what I want to do.” They asked if I would come work with them. I laughed and said, “You know I can’t exactly be the water ski instructor anymore. I’m married with two kids and a mortgage.” They said they were looking for a number two to manage the camp. So I started talking with them. I talked to my husband about it, obviously. He didn’t go to camp, so he didn’t have that same experience. To him, overnight summer camp was a cult because we get together, we sing all the songs. We’re like ridiculous.
EXJ: I can see that. It is a little cultish, but it’s a lot of fun.
Wendy Berliner: Completely cultish.
EXJ: I also went to camp for a long time, nine years. After my last summer, I did the Harvard summer program before going to Brandeis. That was a big change from camp. I also loved camp.
Wendy Berliner: Yeah, there’s nothing like camp.
EXJ: Helping give that experience going forward to kids must be incredible.
Wendy Berliner: It’s amazing. So this was definitely 2009. The reunion was going to be in 2010. But my husband, Marc, who is also a Brandeis alum, and I decided to give it a try. It was going to be a little strange. On the one hand, I’d be working from home, which back in the day was unheard of, and it would be nice and flexible. I had two small kids, so it was great. But then what was going to happen when I’d move to Maine for three months in the summer and took the kids with me? So the deal that Marc and I made was that we’d try it for one summer and see what happened with that.
EXJ: We learned about your one-year plans.
Wendy Berliner: Exactly. We were going to try it for one summer. If it didn’t work for either one of us, no questions asked it would be over. Needless to say, the minute Marc got to camp and especially saw our kids there, he got it. He saw what camp is. So that was that. That was in 2009, and I have never looked back. I was at Camp Matoaka as the assistant director for 10 years. Then COVID hit, and we didn’t open in the summer of 2020. As I said, I was there 10 years. My daughter was a camper for 10 years. My son was across the lake at the boys’ camp. And I was looking for a change. I needed a change to grow.
EXJ: I think in today’s world, people get that. Years ago, people stayed in one job until they retired and got a watch.
Wendy Berliner: Yes, especially something like a camp where it’s a family business. I was the assistant director and I was never going to reach the top. There was nothing else I could do at that camp. COVID hit and that was the best for all of us in terms of my job. I found another job as director at a camp, a bigger camp, a coed camp in the Poconos, Camp Lindenmere, and I’ll be celebrating my third anniversary there next week.
EXJ: That’s great.So, what does your job entail?
Wendy Berliner: What is my job? What isn’t my job? What doesn’t my job entail as a camp director?!
EXJ: You were heading to Europe for work when we were going to set a time to talk.
Wendy Berliner: That’s right. So, you know, as a camp director I do everything. I’m sweeping the floor, I’m cleaning up throw up, and I’m talking to staff, campers, parents and camp service providers.
EXJ: So not everything is so glamorous or fun.
Wendy Berliner: People think I’m playing all day. Every year, when I come home, people ask how come I’m not totally tan. Well, that’s because I wasn’t laying out or playing soccer all summer. I’m taking care of 425 of other people’s children.
EXJ: Right. It’s a year-round job. People think, oh, it’s just the summer. No, a lot goes on throughout the year.
Wendy Berliner: Correct.
EXJ: So tell us about those things—what you work on throughout the year like recruiting campers and addressing any sort of staffing issues.
Wendy Berliner: I do all of it. Everything. I do programming and program development for the summer, camper recruiting, and staff recruiting. I oversee the health center during the summer. I don’t know anything medical, but having my law degree and having practiced for as long as I did, especially in the employment sector, a lot of my skills have translated very well.
EXJ: Which skills did you find translated really well?
Wendy Berliner: So many of them. Basically, I am HR for my camp in every sense. I’m the one who is signing all the contracts not only with our staff but even the vendor contracts and stuff like that. I don’t sign all of those, however. There are other people who are involved in that. But all of our staffing, it’s all me, the insurance, the ACA accreditation, all of that kind of legal stuff. I handle that. Of course, we do have outside counsel that we consult with who work with camps and with our insurance company. But so much of that, and just reading the contracts, goes to me.
EXJ: So you’re always the first set of eyes. What an advantage for the camp.
Wendy Berliner: Having a legal background is great. Then there are a lot of little things too, especially in today’s world. There are health and medical accommodations and other issues like those. I’m always being asked, “Wendy, what do we do? Wendy, what do you think?” So it’s really very similar to what I was doing as an attorney. And I also do a lot of reading and writing. I think people don’t realize how much we write down. I’m creating the staff handbook, and I’m creating the health center manual. I’m writing out schedules, and things like that. I’m still very detail-oriented, and I think a lot of that is from my training as a lawyer.
EXJ: What surprised you in your camp assistant director and director jobs?
Wendy Berliner: It’s a hell of a lot more fun. I mean, I don’t think that surprised me. But, you know, that’s the best part. I think one of the things I always joke about is I don’t have any summer clothes at all because I wear my camp shirt and a pair of shorts and I don’t go to the dry cleaner anymore, and stuff like that.
EXJ: What were the challenges? What’s the most difficult aspect of your job?
Wendy Berliner: I think one of the biggest differences, like professionally, is that being a camp director actually can be a pretty lonely job in the sense that here I am sitting in my daughter’s bedroom because my husband is still working from home, too. This has become my office. But even before COVID, I worked from home and I wasn’t surrounded by people.
EXJ: It can be very isolating, that lack of interaction.
Wendy Berliner: It was a great thing for someone like me, and you probably saw this too. Back when I started working from home, I could only talk to somebody on the telephone unless I was meeting with them in person. You didn’t see another face. Whereas COVID changed a lot. Technology has made the world so much smaller and made working from home so much easier.
EXJ: I have this group, the Legal Marketing Association, and I interviewed a marketing leader. To make a long story short, she had just started as the chief marketing officer for a firm when a week later the world shut down because of COVID. I asked her how she was keeping sane. She said she knits. I crochet. We formed a crafts group of legal marketers, which has been great. We talk about business, we talk about personal things, we talk about our crafts. We share and we created a sense of community.
EXJ: I love it.
EXJ: Zoom has been great. You get to visually connect instead of just talking on a phone.
Wendy Berliner: So yeah, that’s what I’ve had to do, in general. I’m on the board of the American Camp Association, needless to say, involved in way too many committees and things like that so that I can still have those professional connections and networking opportunities. That’s been important to me. It’s very hard. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I’m doing laundry right now and still working, and I didn’t have to commute anywhere.
EXJ: I was really lucky years ago because I worked in an office that was two avenues from my apartment. So I would come home at lunch, I would nurse the baby, put up a turkey or chicken, and then go back to work. When I got home, dinner would be ready. It was just great to see my baby in the middle of the day. It’s very hard to leave your children when they’re little.
Wendy Berliner: Yeah. And even more so when they’re older and need rides everywhere like that.
EXJ: True. And as they get bigger, so do some of their needs. What advice do you have for people who want to make a change like you did? How should people prepare themselves?
Wendy Berliner: What I always say to people when I get this question is, “Do it! It’s scary, but just do it!” I remember having to tell my parents who paid for law school that I was going back to camp. Fortunately, my parents always loved camp, so they got it. But I think, if you want a change, you have to just do it.
I think a lot of lawyers get stuck where they are because they feel like they can’t leave, like they can’t give up being a lawyer. But I’m still a lawyer. I’m still admitted to practice in three states. I still pay my bar dues. I actually keep my hand in it in different ways. I remember people asking me, “What do you mean? You’re not going to be a lawyer anymore?” I’d say, “Well, I am a lawyer. I’m always going to be a lawyer, but I’m taking it in a different direction.” I think that’s a little different now. I think a lot of lawyers are working as lawyers in different capacities than when we first started out.
EXJ: But it’s also just taking that knowledge and experience and applying it in a different realm.
Wendy Berliner: 100%. I think I’d also tell people not to be afraid of it. Just do it. And how do you do it? You just talk to people. You network. My whole life has been about networking and every opportunity presented to me has been through networking.
EXJ: So, for your industry, where should people network?
Wendy Berliner: The American Camp Association, anything educational, anything with kids, things like that. And as I said, I didn’t leave the law to be a camp director. It just happened.
EXJ: Exactly. The opportunity came to you. I think volunteer work is a really great way to make connections. Also, recognize that just because you didn’t like a job doesn’t mean that taking that job was a mistake because you learn what you don’t like so you can then work toward figuring out what you may actually want to do.
Wendy Berliner: Yeah, that’s huge.
EXJ: I think another piece of advice is to keep your bar admission active because if you don’t like the career change, you can always go back to practicing law. People think you can’t go back, but you absolutely can.
Wendy Berliner: True. I laugh and I grumble when I have to pay my bar dues because I still do it for all three states too. Fortunately, my camp sees the value of it so they pay it for me, which is nice because they certainly don’t have to. I think keeping my hands in law is important. When COVID hit and I left my former camp and I was home.. I wasn’t doing anything.
EXJ: You must have been climbing the walls.
Wendy Berliner: I was climbing the walls. There were no bar exams to grade because they missed the bar exam. So I got connected with a legal research outfit. That’s the LRSolutions that you’ll see on my LinkedIn profile. And it’s the coolest thing in the world. It’s something I never thought about. I was literally hired to research and write. And that goes back to what I always used to say. If I could do the research and writing and hand it off to someone else with their name on it, that would be the best job in the world. Who knew that was a thing? But it is a thing.
EXJ: Yeah, it’s great. I’ve done some of that.
Wendy Berliner: I had no idea. So it’s been really fun. I take projects when I can and if I can and if I’m interested in them. The gentleman who runs LRSolutions is an awesome attorney on Long Island. He knows my schedule and he knows not to even ask me come April. But in September and October, when camp is really quiet, he can pound it on. It’s nice to make some extra money and it’s really great to keep my hand in what I really enjoyed.
It’s funny because now I’m researching and writing about law in states writing law in states that I never practiced in, and types of law that I never touched before. Obviously, it’s mostly litigation because these are often motions or briefs or something like that. But I think it also reminds me that I was at such a high level that I was intimidated to start doing something else.
EXJ: Speaking of that, about being able to afford to make the change, you must have gone from a really significant salary to making quite a bit less. So, how did you prepare yourself financially when leaving law?
Wendy Berliner: I joke that my poor husband married this hotshot lawyer who is making ridiculous money and then I pulled the rug right out from under him. It was like, sorry, you need to be the big breadwinner now. As long as I can pay the bills, as long as my husband and I together can pay the mortgage and pay our living expenses, we’re fine. I’m so much happier and that’s priceless.
EXJ: Having a second income certainly helps. Ideally, those who want to leave a law firm should take the time and put some money aside so they can adjust to the income drop and pay the bills. Also, as you mentioned, there are opportunities to supplement your income by doing some other projects throughout the year. There’s that to carry you over. So I think that that’s an important thing for people.
Wendy Berliner: That’s 100% right. I never thought I was going to go to a big firm. My plan had always been the government or a nonprofit, where I never would have made the type of money I made at K&L so that was a tease for a while, and it was a bonus. I didn’t think I was going to leave the law firm, but we still were careful while we were making that much money to start putting money into retirement accounts and 529 accounts. So, I would certainly say to people that right when they graduate, they should start these funds because you never know.
EXJ: Right. If you’re able to put that money aside and pay off your loans, do it! Then you’re in a far better position to do something else that you really want to do if it turns out law practice isn’t for you.
Wendy Berliner: You’ll have more choices.
EXJ: This has been great. It’s been so nice to meet you. You’re excited about what you do and that really comes across.
Wendy Berliner: I love it. I really do. It’s been a lot of years since I left K&L. The camp job fell in my lap in 2009. I always say I’m convinced it’s still a dream and I’m going to wake up at my desk at K&L with all those books around me because, you know, there were still those books back then, and I will have fallen asleep writing an appellate brief. I feel like this has all been a dream.
EXJ: That’s amazing.
Wendy Berliner: Absolutely amazing. So what is this interview for?
EXJ: It’s for a new venture that’s focused on helping lawyers who want to leave law transition. So this part is all about success stories, how people have done it, what they’ve accomplished, and what advice they have. We’re trying to pick all different careers, careers that make sense, careers that require specific talent, and careers that are just a natural fit and then help people gain an understanding of what these different careers entail. We should go live soon, maybe in March, maybe in April, but definitely this year. So, at this point, we’re gathering all our content.
Wendy Berliner: Got it.
EXJ: I’ll let you know when it goes live.
EXJ: Yes, please do. And obviously, if I can be of any other help, you know where to find me.
EXJ: Thanks. I really appreciate that. This was fun.
Wendy Berliner: Thanks, Nancy. Bye.