Time for a career change? Advice for lawyers on switching things up (podcast with transcript)
By Stephanie Francis Ward
Mar 3, 2014, 03:00 pm CST
Some law practices don’t work out, and others die out. How can lawyers tweak what they do—and how they present themselves—to stay relevant? Our guests tell ABA Journal reporter Stephanie Francis Ward how they reinvented their practices and shifted careers, and how others can do so too.
Listen now: Time for a career change? Advice for lawyers on switching things up (podcast with transcript)
In This Podcast:
Richard Granat is the CEO and founder of LawMediaLabs, DirectLaw and SmartLegalForms. He started his career with the National Legal Services Program, and later founded a school that trained paralegals.
Karen Kaplowitz, president of New Ellis group, specializes in business development strategy, training and coaching for lawyers and other professional service providers. She was the third woman lawyer hired by O'Melveny & Myers, in 1971, and a few years later opened a small, women-owned law firm that focused on plaintiff employment cases. She also was a partner with Alschuler, Grossman & Pines.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Changing your professional life is hard, but it’s also unavoidable for many lawyers.
Richard Granat: If you’re going to be static, you’re like a deer in the headlights, you’re just going to get annihilated.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and when we return, two lawyers who have made various job changes will tell you how you can do it too.
Advertiser: This ABA Journal Podcast is brought to you by Westlaw Next. Folder sharing in Westlaw Next enables you to tap into previous research across organizational boundaries like never before, saving you time from reinventing the wheel. Learn more at westlawnext.com.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Today we’re speaking with Richard Granat and Karen Kaplowitz.
Richard is the CEO and founder of several legal startups, including LawMediaLabs and SmartLegalForms, and was one of the first attorneys to launch a virtual law firm.
Karen began her career as the third woman lawyer ever to be hired by O’Melveny & Myers, then launched her own small firm. She’s now the president of the consultant firm The New Ellis Group, and specializes in business development.
How did you make the switch from doing the trial work to the focus on business development?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, it kind of came naturally because when I left my small, women-owned law firm to join a midsized firm, I had been an expert on marketing our own little firm. So when I joined this midsized firm, I took on the responsibility of supporting everybody else in the firm who was interested. And then 15 years ago, I came to a crossroads and decided that I wanted to spend my time on the business side, not practicing law. But I’d been working, really, in supporting other people for over 15 years at that point.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And did it just kind of dawn on you at one point, you know, “I’m really good at this. I could get paid – other than like just doing favors for people and doing this as part of your law firm practice, I could go out and get people to hire me to do this.” Did that just kind of dawn on you one day?
Karen Kaplowitz: You know, it came to a point where I felt torn between being involved on the business side of running my law firm and being a practicing lawyer. And I just got to a point where I decided that I could spend full time on the business side, and then I chose to. So, it wasn’t that scary, because I had lots of experience and I had a very broad network to rely on to help generate clients, and I just did it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Richard, you’ve said previously that you think it’s a good idea to reinvent yourself every five years or so and that’s what you’ve done. I’m going to guess that your children were young during some of your career changes.
Richard Granat: Well, my wife worked. That helped. In most cases, I was starting an enterprise. I had resources from other enterprises that fueled the next one. I think it’s always a risk if you’re starting something from scratch, but that’s not the only career move that people can make. Sometimes a career move can be driven by simply switching a practice area, because one concludes they’re more passionate about one area than the other.
For some people—that may never should have gone to law school in the first place—sometimes a career move is to move into something which is collateral, like a marketing role or a business development role rather than a straight practice role. So I think it really depends what drives your passion, and what you’re really interested in.
Karen Kaplowitz: It’s clear that most lawyers will have to consider at some point some change in their career, either changing a job; going to a different firm; going into a different business; doing something different. I think that Richard’s right, that the changes in the legal marketplace and in the economy will drive a lot of change. And people need to be mindful that if they live from paycheck to paycheck and they don’t have some savings that give them some flexibility, they’re going to have few options and less control over making changes.
So, as to your point about what do you do if you have children and a mortgage, you know, people have to have some sense of some flexibility in their lives and some financial control to enable more opportunities.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right.
Richard Granat: Yeah, I think that’s really a good point. For me, to be a professional means you’re constantly learning something new, even in the law. The law is always changing, and I think it’s actually incumbent on lawyers to kind of reinvent themselves, even if they’re in the same practice area over a period of time. So, that requires a kind of an R & D kitty, always looking for having some resources to be able to prepare for the next big thing that’s coming along. Because clearly, what was before will never last.
I mean, we see this happening all the time: You know, the real estate market collapses, so you’ve got to anticipate that and realize that you’re not going to be making in real estate law for a decade. So you need to switch it to something else. It’s never static. It’s always dynamic. And if you’re going to be static, you’re like a deer in the headlights. You’re just going to get annihilated.
Karen Kaplowitz: Another way to think about that is that our clients are always changing, too. So, if lawyers are very client-focused and client-centric and are paying very close attention to their clients’ businesses, if they’re on the business side of law, then they’re going to evolve, because their clients’ businesses and business needs will keep changing.
So, for example, Richard is in the online lawyering business, e-lawyering. The clients, the business community has become a virtual business community as well, so that if the people who serve businesses who are very oriented to the new ways of doing business (online, for example) are paying attention, then they have to evolve in the same kind of way. So, one of the rules and enablers of change is to stay very client-focused.
Richard Granat: We tell lawyers actually that you have a new generation of clients, the millennia generation, where they have the Internet in their DNA. And they really expect to deal with their lawyers online, because they shop online, they get their entertainment online, they bank online and reality is, this new generation would probably prefer to text you rather than sit in your office in a face-to-face conversation.
So, all those changing consumer behaviors which include a need for transparency and speed and things like fixed pricing aren’t going to require changes only in lawyer behavior, but also in the technologies that they use to deliver legal services. And we tell law firms that we work with that they’re going to have to adapt to that. And it’s part of the reinvention process. I mean it’s just not static, so you constantly have to adapt to where your clients are going. As Gretzky would say, you go to where the puck’s going to be, not where it’s been.
Karen Kaplowitz: I heard a client, a senior lawyer at a major entertainment conglomerate, last week say that he tells the law firms and lawyers who do work for him not to send anything that can’t be read on one screen of his cellphone. He wants very short information, advice and messages. He’s not going to read beyond one screen.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious Karen, so when one of your consulting clients, when they come to you—because oftentimes they probably do want to make a change and that’s in part why they come to you—how do you help them build up their confidence to do that?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, I often work with lawyers who’ve made changes. I actually work more with people after they’ve made lateral moves, you know. We’re seeing an epidemic of people making lateral moves and they often get to new law firms without much support and that’s the place I step in. In terms of people kind of assessing what’s possible, I think the starting point for people is to figure out who they know; among the people they know, who thinks highly of them; and which of those people is in a position to help them.
So, I help people think about an inventory of their resources, primarily on the people side. And when they do that, when they’re carefully thinking through, “well, who do they know and which of those people are likely to help them because they think highly of them,” they can prioritize who they go to for help. And that’s a very empowering kind of analysis and process.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you tell me about some successful changes you’ve seen with other lawyers?
Karen Kaplowitz: A lawyer with whom I worked developed a spectacular reputation as a plaintiff-side class-action lawyer and often prosecuted class-action claims against the big accounting firms. And at some point, that lawyer started getting hired by the accounting firms that he used to sue, and over time transitioned from being a plaintiff-side class-action lawyer to being an accountant’s liability-defense lawyer.
Now, that was a very smooth, natural evolution of that practice, but it’s also an idea that people have to keep in mind: If they develop expertise that serves one group, will the same information and expertise serve another group as well?
Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay.
Richard Granat: And I think at a more skill or fundamental level, every lawyer needs to know what they’re really strong at, what their strengths and weaknesses are. And there are clearly certain kinds of personalities which work better with certain kinds of practices, so the person who’s a tax practitioner is not the same person who’s going to be a class-action lawyer.
And you don’t necessarily want to fall into an area which is playing to your weakness rather than your strength, at whatever price. Even if the price looks good, you still need to stay in the area where you’re strong, personality-wise and intellectually, because otherwise you’re going to get frustrated and it’s never going to work. It’s not going to work out. You’ll be unhappy.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Karen, what do you think? Do you think there’re a lot of lawyers who would like to change what they do?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, I think a lot of lawyers these days are being forced to change what they do or what they expected to do. I mean, I think that everyone has to be prepared for the inevitable changes that go on: Law firms collapse, go into bankruptcy, the partner with whom a lawyer works leaves the firm, retires or dies even, or the economy changes in some way that wipes out some kind of work that goes on. You know, the other thing that’s going on—that Richard’s really at the forefront on—is the changes in the legal marketplace, the commoditization of so much work.
There’re so many things that are now getting broken down into pieces that don’t require lawyers at all—that can be done by consumers on their own or can be done by paraprofessionals. So lawyers have to be prepared to figure out something else. I think there are as many people who are being impacted by those kinds of changes as are sitting around thinking they’d like to make a change, they just haven’t gotten around to it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, I would think changing on your own is going to be a lot easier for you in a variety of ways than being forced to change. Would you both agree with that?
Richard Granat: Yes.
Karen Kaplowitz: Yes, although people often don’t change until they’re forced to change. I mean, for example, I’m often brought in by a legal outplacement service that provides my support to some of its clients. And what those lawyers find out is that the process of learning how to transition and to take advantage and build their own networks, for example, positions them very well for the rest of their careers and they’re learning skills that are just invaluable. So, I think a lot of people don’t start making changes until they’re really pushed, but sometimes find it to be a really empowering experience.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And in terms of anticipating changes, what’s your advice on anticipating how a practice will change early on so you can reap the benefits from it?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, this goes back to sort of a core value that I have about practicing law, which is that it has to be very client-focused. So, whatever client group lawyers are servicing, they need to be talking to those people and understanding what they need, where they’re going and how the legal services have to adapt to best serve those clients. That’s kind of at the heart of the professionalism of lawyers.
And if people are doing that in a consistent way—listening to their clients, understanding their clients’ objectives and understanding their constraints as well, especially economic ones—then they will get into the habit of figuring out what needs to change to best serve their clients. And those are the kinds of changes that will open doors for them as well.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And what do you think, Richard?
Richard Granat: I think you have to have a healthy sense of curiosity about what’s going on around you, at least what’s going on around in the world, because the changes that we’re seeing in the world itself create new legal problems and new legal issues. And from those new legal issues, new practice areas flow. Every one of these technological ways around us creates new legal issues. So, if you have a sense of curiosity and you’re interested in those things and you’re kind of ready for the opportunity, there are opportunities out there that people can seize on.
We’re teaching a course in law practice management for law students and we talk to them about how to identify a niche that they can develop over a period of time, moving into an area where nobody else is in and connecting that with your core interests and your core passions. Because you spend so much time practicing law. If you don’t really enjoy the underlying subject matter, I think you burn out really quickly.
So, it’s the world that really creates the opportunities. I mean, I do divorce law. Now we have a whole new area on same-sex divorce that I’m working on, and same-sex couples who have custody issues, you know. So, the law changes because society is constantly changing, so you have to have a healthy sense of curiosity about what those changes are.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I read somewhere that if you are thinking about if you want some changes in your professional career, if you’re surrounded by people who have the same life experiences and outlook as you, that’s probably not very good for you bringing change to your life, because everyone’s thinking the same way. So, it’s a great idea to expose yourself to people with different experiences and different outlooks on life. Would you both agree with that?
Karen Kaplowitz: Another strategy that’s really the opposite in effect is to look for people who are doing things that attract you and that interest you, who are role models and whose career path you can study. So, one thing I often advise lawyers to do is to go find other lawyers they admire and study their careers. See what organizations they were a part of, see what they write about, see what firms or other employers they’ve had because that can also show people the way.
And now we have such vast access online to so much information about people that people can get access to and study a pretty wide array of role models too.
Richard Granat: Yeah, I think that’s really a good idea. I think copying is the sincerest form of flattery and I copy a lot. Both in ideas and people that I want to work with. I think it’s a very efficient strategy to find a mentor, somebody who lays the path before, and then copy that path.
Karen Kaplowitz: Um-hum. Well, and the idea of role models doesn’t have to necessarily rise to the level of a mentor.
Richard Granat: Right.
Karen Kaplowitz: So, you can identify somebody who you admire and study their career path even if you don’t have a personal relationship with them in a mentor or sponsor kind of way.
Richard Granat: That’s a good idea. That’s a great idea.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And on that note, that’s everything I have. Did either of you want to add anything else?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, I think the topic of career changes is just a fabulous topic because it impacts so many lawyers these days who are affected by law firms collapsing, law firms downsizing, things changing and so thank you for addressing this issue. It’s really an important one.
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