Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers.
This next instalment of my interview series highlighting lawyers who are doing interesting things is with Katie Aune, a fellow travel blogger (and fellow celiac) who quit her job last summer to travel through the entirety of the former Soviet Union. In one of those fun small world stories, I initially interacted with Katie on Twitter, only to find out that we had a mutual friend from Chicago, one of my friends from the first summer of working in NY. We finally had a chance to meet at TBU in Umbria this past month, and it was great to put a face to the name.
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What made you decide to follow a less conventional path than typical law school graduates? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
It was really a gradual evolution for me. By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew I was going to law school. I started taking practice LSAT tests as early as my sophomore year in college! Everything I did in college was designed to enhance my chances of getting into a good law school. At the same time, by the time I applied to schools, I didn’t really see myself practicing law. Rather, I thought a legal education would provide a good background to get into international relations. In my law school admission essays, I wrote about wanting to eventually work at a U.S. embassy overseas.
Unfortunately, I got sidetracked by the money that big law firms were willing to throw at new law school graduates and ended up as a tax attorney at a large international firm in Chicago. The firm had offices all over the world so I figured eventually I would end up working on cross-border transactions and get to travel. I spent four years there, working ridiculous hours and not once setting foot on a plane, before I left for a smaller firm. The first six months there were great – better hours, new and interesting work, but soon I found myself bored out of my mind and the thought of practicing tax law for the rest of my life was unbearable.
When I started looking at leaving the practice of law, I considered several options: legal recruiting, law school career advising and law school alumni relations and development. I had opportunities in each, but the latter seemed to provide the most stability and best career path, so I went that route. I spent three years planning alumni events, editing an alumni newsletter and managing alumni volunteers before being promoted to work as a major gift fundraiser. For the last year, I worked to identify and cultivate potential donors with high giving capacity with the goal of eventually asking them to make a significant financial contribution to the school.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?
I left my job as a major gift fundraiser in August to take a year to volunteer and travel through the 15 countries of the former Soviet Union. While working in alumni relations and development (fundraising), there were aspects of the work that I found fulfilling – hearing from alumni who were thrilled to reconnect with a favorite classmate or professor; getting rave reviews about an event I organized; or meeting with students who benefited from alumni mentors or scholarship funds. Unfortunately, those instances weren’t enough to leave me feeling fulfilled overall.
Many might call my current journey a “career break,” but I like to look at it as another career transition. I know I need to find a way to combine my passion for all things travel-related with what I do for a living. I have thought for years about starting my own travel-planning business (and even took an online course before leaving), but I could also see myself working for a tourism board, tour company or travel agency, heading overseas to work for an international non-profit or in the foreign service, or even going back to a university setting to work with study abroad or international programs. The possibilities seem endless!
While my “job” for the last 8 months has been traveling and blogging about it, I recently joined Meet, Plan, Go! as managing editor on a part-time basis while I travel. Since their mission is to encourage and inspire North Americans to take career breaks and travel, it is a perfect fit.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in leaving private practice but concerned about what is out there?
From what I have seen, it is becoming increasingly common for lawyers to leave the practice the law – whether out of necessity due to lay-offs or a feeling of dissatisfaction with their careers. Law schools are starting to address alternative careers more as well, encouraging students to use a legal education in a non-traditional way from the get-go. For me, the biggest hurdle was convincing potential employers that I really, truly didn’t want to practice law anymore. It was also a challenge to revamp my resume when all of my professional experience was in the law. I worked closely with a career counselor at my law school to highlight skills I developed in jobs in college and extracurricular activities in law school.
For anyone thinking of switching gears and leaving the law behind, I would encourage them to take a close look at their strengths and weaknesses and give serious thought to what they like or dislike about their current job. Develop a resume and cover letter that highlights your transferable skills, whether they are from your current job or ten years ago. Keep an open mind and network like crazy. Every interview I got was due to someone I knew.
Finally, don’t expect to make the leap overnight. I read somewhere that it takes an average of six months of serious looking to make a career change. In this economy, don’t be surprised if it takes longer, but don’t get discouraged. I looked for about four months without a single interview and then had multiple opportunities arise within a few days.
How did your legal education inform the way you see the world today? Do you still identify yourself as a lawyer?
I don’t know if it affects the way I see the world overall so much, although certainly things I saw or experienced while practicing law gives me a different perspective. For example, as a tax attorney, I worked with companies of every size, usually not to help them comply with US tax laws, but to find loopholes to avoid paying taxes. I listen to any US political debate over tax policy, particularly corporate tax policy, with a much different perspective than most.
I do still identify myself as a lawyer to some extent, but sometimes I feel like it is because I haven’t yet found a new professional identity yet. Although, if I ever refer to myself as a “former attorney” I am always told that once a lawyer, always a lawyer.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
They’re wrong! Seriously, law school was actually one of the best times of my life. I think a lot of lawyers have a personality that tends toward having a “work hard, play hard” philosophy. They may work their tails off and put in 70 hours a week at the office, but when they have the chance to let loose, they make the most of it. All of my lawyer friends know how to live it up, whether it’s hitting the town in Chicago, heading to Vegas for a weekend or ringing in the New Year in New Orleans.
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Katie Aune is a Minnesota native who has called Chicago home for the last ten years. After practicing law for six years and working at a law school for the next four, Katie quit her job last summer to spend a year volunteering and traveling through all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union. She is also a sports fanatic and running enthusiast who has been gluten free since 2010. Katie writes about her travels on Katie Going Global and she launched a website for gluten free travellers called Globally Gluten Free.