Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers.
I met Erin through Anthony De Rosa, who was then the social media head honcho at Reuters. Now working for Circa, Anthony saw that we had both shifted from law to a broader but more satisfying (for us at least) path, and connected us.
Erin was also at Reuters until recently and is now working as a freelance journalist while still based in New York. Her husband recently made his way to Saigon for work, so it was great to meet (and feed) her other half here too.
Here are Erin’s thoughts on her career trajectory, answering the usual 5 Thrillable Hours questions.
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What made you decide to leave private practice? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
I was a journalism major in undergrad, and could just never get the idea of being a journalist out of my head. I left my Texas law firm in 2007 and moved to one in New York. While I’d had a prominent role in my cases in Texas, in New York I had way less responsibility and it felt like more of a grind. Being in New York, which is obviously the centre of the media industry in the USA, also made making the change seem more possible. I’d just turned 29 and it felt like “now or never”, so I applied to Columbia’s journalism school. I was to hear whether I got in or not on April 1. I quit the law firm the last Friday of March so that even if I didn’t get in, I’d have no choice but to somehow make a career in reporting work. Luckily I was admitted, as I don’t know where I’d be without the contacts I made at Columbia.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?
I’ve always been a news junkie, so meeting and being friends with reporters I admire, as well as just playing a tiny part in providing people information (and sometimes getting that information first!) is still really exciting to me. I also like that I can write about whatever I want — from serious things like intellectual property law to fun things like fashion. I covered a Supreme Court IP case involving Nike, for instance, and got to talk to all of the high court advocates, as well as the “little guy” who originally brought the case. I also used my interest in lifestyle reporting to write a few fashion law articles a year, which turned into covering fashion shows and interviewing the author of a book on Balenciaga. None of it felt like work.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in branching out from traditional practice but concerned about what is out there?
If you’re not enjoying being a lawyer, set a date by which you no longer want to be one and stick to it. Also, think of a field you’d like to work in and people who are prominent in that field and call them and ask them how they got there and if they have any advice for you. When I was first learning to be a reporter, it was scary to call people, but it turns out most people like to talk, especially about themselves, and most people like to help other people. And even if 9 out of 10 people ignore your email, the info you get from the one who answers will be worth the effort. Obviously there are some limits to this — it’s unlikely you can achieve your dream of becoming a professional basketball player by calling Kevin Durant — but chances are your lawyer skills can transfer to something you would like to do.
Also, it’s at first hard to give up the idea that lawyering is an “important” job and that your new career might come with less prestige. First of all, so what? But second of all, if it’s important to you, it’s important. I know an associate at a top firm in New York who wants to leave to become a fitness instructor. I really, really hope she does it. She’d be so great, and so happy. I’ve also NEVER known a lawyer who left to do something else and was sorry they did. It doesn’t mean it’s easy — I’ve had plenty of bad days — but it’s always been worth it.
One caveat, though — if you’re a big firm lawyer, embrace that you’re probably going to make less money. Make a plan for that change in lifestyle. (Full disclosure: Going to Texas means that my law schools debt was totally manageable, and my husband has always been fully employed. So if my journalism career tanked, I wasn’t going to starve. But I don’t quite have the clothes budget I used to.)
Do you still identify as a lawyer or use the skills you developed in your legal training?
I don’t really identify as a lawyer anymore, and don’t necessarily want to be identified as one. But since I’ve spent lots of time covering legal news, I’ve definitely used the legal training. That said, learning not to be a lawyer has been really important, too. Lawyers don’t like to ask questions they don’t know the answers to, which is a major liability for a journalist. I’m also still trying to not write like a lawyer. Sorry, lawyers … most of us are terrible writers.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
That’s like people who say women aren’t funny. I know lots of still-practicing lawyers who have fun at their jobs — a partner that actually goes to trial a lot, a deal lawyer for a major tech company, and a genius litigator who works for a state attorney general’s office, to name a few. But if you’re a lawyer who wants to do something else, I can almost guarantee you’ll have more fun if you take the leap.
2020 Update: Erin has just released her first book, published by Harper Collins. Entitled Thank You for Voting: The Past, Present, and Future of Voting, the book looks at the past, present, and future of voting. Erin examines long and continuing fight for voting equality, why so few Americans today vote, and innovative ways to educate and motivate them; included are checklists of what to do before election day to prepare to vote and encourage others. You can pick up the book here, with a review here from Publishers Weekly.
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Erin Geiger Smith grew up in tiny Liberty, Texas and went to college and law school at the University of Texas in Austin. She began her legal career at Andrews Kurth in Texas and finished it almost five years later at Chadbourne & Parke in New York. She received a masters degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and started Business Insider’s law blog before becoming a legal reporter at Reuters. She wrote on topics including major litigation and intellectual property while weaselling her way into things like reporting from New York Fashion Week and interviewing Molly Ringwald. She is now a freelance reporter in New York covering all of those topics and more for publications including Fashionista and The Wall Street Journal. Don’t follow her on Instagram if you’ll tire of pictures of Central Park, her chihuahua, or her 3 month old son, Reed. She tweets about law, lifestyle and everything in between here.