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  • Journeys

Legal Layoff Leads to Marketing Career

By Elaine Chen
elaine chen

When you’re commiserating with friends over drinks following a layoff, they often say, “You’re going to look back and say this is the best thing that ever happened to you.” In my case, it really turned out to be true. Getting let go from my first job in law freed me to take new directions that ultimately led me to a great career in marketing. And I don’t think I would have ever taken the risk without that rocky start.

“There’s always law school!”

Considering how challenging law is as a discipline and career, it’s surprising how many people consider it to be the safe default choice: How many times have you heard someone say “well, there’s always law school”? For me, law was a compromise between the more creative endeavors I was drawn to and my parents’ choice for me, namely medical school. When pressured to pick a major as a sophomore at Harvard, I figured I loved to write and enjoyed watching LA Law, so law school it was!

After working as a paralegal at a large firm for a year, I was admitted to Fordham Law. I loved being in the heart of Manhattan and made some great friends, but given my lack of motivation was not surprisingly an indifferent student. As graduation approached, I was grateful to finally land a job at a small firm that defended an insurance company against claims related to elevator and forklift accidents – far from the glamorous world of LA Law, but at least it would allow me to start making my school loan payments.

A shock to the system

My first job as a lawyer only underscored how poor a fit law was for me. The conservative partners at my firm did not allow women to wear pants to the office and required me to dictate all work product, even though I would have much preferred to type everything myself on my laptop. I spent many hours at the law library researching precedent on the improper completion of forms, alternated by reading gruesome depositions that often caused me to think twice before stepping onto an elevator.

And then it all came to an end: The insurance company that was our main client was sold and changed firms, leading to cutbacks. After years of study, numerous internships and many thousands of dollars in tuition, I was now no longer a lawyer.

In retrospect, it was an ideal time for a fresh start. I was single and in my 20s, and had a stabilized rent that was so low I could actually get by on unemployment. My main financial obligation was my law school loans, which were less than what a year of tuition would be at most schools today. And of course I had never wanted to be a lawyer anyway.   

But that’s certainly not how it felt. Making the “choice” to become a lawyer back when I was nineteen meant I had never done any real thinking about what I actually wanted to be. And I had also spent the last eight years of my life and many thousands of dollars training to be a lawyer – an investment it was hard to walk away from.

Permission to change

The next year was certainly tough at times. In those pre-LinkedIn days, the Fordham career office and the NY Times job wanted section were my main sources for job leads. I ended up cobbling together a living working as a part-time paralegal for a solo practitioner alternating with more lucrative but more taxing third shift legal proofreading gigs; I also taught LSAT prep. Throughout it all I continued to apply for legal jobs, but also looked to broaden my horizons into journalism and writing.

Therapy played a big part in this shift: With my COBRA coverage from my law job, I was able to find a good therapist who specialized in career issues, and we spent many hours talking about why law didn’t suit me and what better alternatives might be out there. Through this process, I came to realize that no job is easy or secure if you don’t enjoy it, and that finding satisfaction in my career going forward was far more important than any concern about “wasting” the years and money I’d spent in law.

The first step of many

After many interviews and networking meetings, I finally landed a junior reporting job at a trade magazine covering the semiconductor industry. All my experience with legal research helped me get up to speed with a complex new industry, and I loved the relaxed, creative atmosphere, learning and writing about new things every week and seeing my name in print.

While I truly loved writing, the profession of journalism has never been lucrative and became even more challenging as publications moved from print to digital. Fortunately, following my transition from law I was now managing my career in a very different way. In every role, I constantly asked myself if I was getting what I needed and contributing the most I could, and when it came time for a transition I was far more resilient and flexible.

Over the coming years I would move from journalism to advertising copywriting, then to marketing. This path took me to a broad range of companies, including both startups and household names, with a typical focus on complex and technical products. Yet there were many common themes throughout it all, including from my years in law. My training in crafting a persuasive argument and love of writing were ultimately as useful for persuading consumers to buy as they were for juries to vote in my clients’ favor.

Lessons learned

In my most recent role, I became the head of marketing at a large consulting and market research firm, managing a team of close to 20 marketers and a multi-million dollar budget. I’ve now done a lot of hiring and interviewing from the other side of the desk (or Teams call), and helped many junior employees manage their own careers. There’s some great lessons I’ve learned that could help many lawyers hoping to make a change:

Most of all, it’s important to be flexible. Sometimes jumping directly to your ideal role isn’t possible and you need to make an interim move, or go sideways to ultimately go up. (For example, when I decided I wanted to leave ad copywriting for a more strategic role, I went to a smaller firm that needed someone who could wear multiple hats). And never forget why you’re making this big change. Truly enjoying what you do makes every aspect of your life better – I know it has for me.   

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