World of Law: Alternative Careers Panel

BY ERIN ARCHERD

You never know how your career is going to end up agreed panelists at last Thursday’s World of Law: Alternative Careers Panel. Sheila Hubbard, Associate Director of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, moderated the event, which was co-sponsored by the Office of Career Services.

“This panel is dear to my heart because it’s also what I did,” began Hubbard. “It never hurts when you’re looking for a job to say you graduated from Harvard Law School.”

Peter Shabecoff, a 1991 HLS graduate as well as a graduate of the Kennedy School, started his career as an attorney and then moved to a private equity firm before opening his own shop, Atlantic Street Capital Management.

“I wanted to be a politics/policy wonk type,” said Shabecoff, “I was in New York working on the Clinton campaign and at a firm, and the law firm allowed me the opportunity to move to Paris. It was a particularly interesting time. I spent most of my time working on development in Prague in Budapest. Moved back to NY and ended up getting an offer from one of my clients and 8 years later started my own firm.”

Sheryl Goldstein, who received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in 1991, practiced criminal law for seven years and has held several positions at the Center for Court Innovation in New York. This week will be her first as the Director of the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice in Baltimore. She gave herself time to search after quitting her job as a lawyer.

“I wanted to have a broader impact on the criminal justice system, [so] I quit and took three or four months to look for jobs and interviewed all over the United States because I could,” Goldstein said. “Then after three or four years [after taking my first job at the Center for Court Innovation] a friend at the ABA told me about the chance to go to Kosovo [where I] worked with a criminal law center.”

Scott Westfahl ’88 is director of professional development and training at Goodwin & Proctor. His time at a corporate law firm showed him that his passion lay in helping lawyers develop their talents and enhancing their training.

“While a was practicing law for ten years I took on people positions. My passion was helping people develop, the softball team, pro bono work… I transitioned to McKinsey, which had developed sophisticated tools for how you train people. I spent 6 years doing that and through Mark Weber here [at the Office of Career Services] I connected with Goodwin & Procter in Boston.”

Cliff Sarkin ’05 is a program associate working on health care coverage for California’s kids at the Children’s Defense Fund. He splits his time between drafting model legislation and advocating with constituent groups and the state legislature. He joked that his career path wasn’t that alternative.

“When I told my girl friend I was going to be on this panel she said ‘You’re not a punk, tattooed artist.'”

Each arrived at their arguably alternative careers by a different route. Sarkin interned with the Justice Department while a student at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I did policy work with victims of crime. I was around a lot of lawyers, mostly former prosecutors. I thought, ‘Wow, these lawyers are doing really good things.’ My last year at Berkeley, I had a part time job at a small, boutique litigation firm in the East Bay. That probably defined what I did.”

Westfahl found it was his friends who first pushed him away from the traditional path of corporate law work.

“I was motivated by friends who kept telling me, ‘You don’t seem like a lawyer,'” he said. How I was projecting myself as a person didn’t fit with what I did…Even though I still work very hard, [my job in professional development] doesn’t feel anything like the work before.”

Goldstein was startled by the change from being a trial lawyer, a job she characterized as “the most intellectually challenging, stimulating” thing she has ever done. That stimulation came at a price that she did not perceive until after she left.

“I sometimes miss it,” she said. “When I transitioned from law to the non profit sector, one, I didn’t realize how stressful it was until I didn’t do it anymore.”

Having a law degree has rarely hurt a career, though Shabecoff finds that lawyers sometimes have to prove themselves more to the business community. Yet more and more lawyers are entering into that world.

“I had a dinner with 10 of my closest friends from law school last fall and none of us were practicing law,” Shabecoff said. “In the business world, some people don’t think we understand and [as a lawyer] you have to prove yourself more.”

The panelists cautioned people not to blindly go to law firm straight out of law school and to take stock of how they are feeling about their work.

“Here it seems like there’s a single momentum and hierarchy of firms,” observed Sarkin. “It’s not what you think. When our group’s successful, 1 million kids will have health insurance.”

“If you’re heading into the large law firm world, often people put on blinders and there’s an inexorable path that you’re one and that if you’re not an equity partner you have failed,” said Westfahl. “I know a lot of people who love what they do, but…you have to follow your heart.”

They had a wealth of advice for students considering non-traditional careers.

“First of all, you have to decide what’s important to you, and second, be willing to take some risks,” said Goldstein. “You’re not going to make as much money in the public sector. Also, it’s harder to go from non-traditional practice into a traditional practice. Finally, build relationships and never burn bridges. I’ve worked at the same place three times now, and my last law firm job left me with a boss who’s been incredibly helpful throughout my career.”

“My advice to 1Ls: don’t be afraid to do something completely out of the ordinary one of your summers,” said Sarkin. “For 2ls, if you are thinking of going to a firm, I did that and I’m glad I did for a lot of reasons. For 3Ls, I don’t think I had a job at this point. This was the time I was camped outside Alexa’s office. It’s going to seem like the loneliest place, but having a HLS degree is priceless and you will have a job.”

Westfahl reminded students to always be thinking about their next potential job.

“Along the way inventory your skills and what’s fun for you,” he said. “I used to write resumes and people wouldn’t know how to describe their skills. You have to think about what you’re doing along the way.”

All of the panelists agreed that networking was extremely important during their job searchers.

“I went a long time practicing law, and at some point I needed a different kind of life. I wasn’t as happy as I needed to be,” said Westfahl. “One of the best things you can learn how to do is keep building your network. Keep the list going. Make sure you’re building your network of friends and colleagues along the way.”

Shabecoff reminded the audience that every new position requires a lot of on the job training.

“I’d say for the first year and a half I was pretty incompetent at my job. It’s a tough learning curve.”

Hubbard concluded the evening emphasizing the support available to students from both OPIA and OCS.

“Remember how very versatile the law degree is: business, government, foundations, nonprofits, and human resources. You have a lot of opportunities so don’t box yourself in. We’re trying to steer you to what makes you tick.”

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