Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers.
Michelle Lin is a serial entrepreneur, one who not only started up her own stationery business, Chelleline, but in the months that we have corresponded, also started up two other businesses online. Ever ambitious she has moved countries and careers while still remaining active within the spheres she has left.
I hope you enjoy her interview!
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What made you decide to forgo a practice of law after many years of school/training? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you? Do you regret going to law school?
I went to law school because I thought that being a lawyer would give me a chance to do challenging, intellectual work. It was a respectable profession, and the compensation was decent. However, when the economy tanked during my second year of law school and I was struggling to find a summer job, I started to play around with the idea of going full-time with Chelleline Cards (my stationery business).
In the beginning of 2011, I finally decided that I would try to take my business to the next level while continuing the legal job search. This coincided with my husband getting a job in Montreal. When I found out that I would have to take 1-2 years of classes in order to even qualify to take the bar in Quebec, I decided that it wasn’t worth it, and from then on, put all my energy into Chelleline Cards.
I can’t say that I regret going to law school. No education ever goes to waste, and my law school education has been a huge asset for me in my business. I may try to find something in law at some point (never say never!), but it’s still a tough market for entry-level lawyers out there, and I don’t want to give up something that has huge potential for growth and that I love doing in exchange for a legal job that may or may not exist.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job? Why did you choose to found a stationery business?
I never intended to start a stationery business – it just kind of grew organically from what I’d been doing. I started making cards the summer before law school, in 2007. My main hobbies at that time were reading and writing and I wanted to get out of my head and work with my hands.I decided on greeting card design after stumbling on a greeting cards blog. (I used to make collage postcards out of old wrapping paper and paper scraps when I was a kid and had a lot of fun with that.) So, I sat down with a pair of scissors and a pile of paper one June afternoon and came up with four designs. A month later, I set up shop on Etsy, and several months after that, I got into my first brick-and-mortar store and started selling at craft fairs (I actually met my future husband while selling at a craft fair). I didn’t intend for it to be a business in the very beginning, and in spite of the early successes, it was pretty slow-going throughout law school. I kept going with it because I loved making the cards. It was only after I graduated that I really started to take it seriously and think of it as a business.
It’s hard to decide on the most fulfilling aspect of the job. I love the design and creation process. It’s so gratifying to see all the different parts of the design come together – from shapes to color to composition – and to hold a final product in my hands.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in branching out from traditional private practice but concerned about what is out there?
I think that most people in general are risk-averse, and lawyers even more so. As a result, they have a tendency to obsess over getting all their ducks in a row before taking the leap. The problem is, you can spend forever doing that. Unless you’re planning to start your own law firm or some other business that has high legal and financial repercussions if you get something wrong, stop worrying about getting everything perfect, stop talking about what you’re going to do, and just do it!
When you’re first starting out, many people will think that you’re crazy for leaving a stable and lucrative position as a lawyer, and will not hesitate to tell you so. Try your best to ignore them and concentrate on doing what you want. Once you start to show some signs of success, the naysayers will quiet down and some may even become your best supporters. (I know this from personal experience!)
Do you still identify as a lawyer or use the skills you developed in your legal training?
Having never practiced as a lawyer, I’m not sure if I ever identified as one. I do enjoy seeing the look of surprise when I tell people I’m a law school graduate (and technically, a lawyer, since I’m a member of the New York Bar). Makes me feel like a superhero in disguise.
A fellow entrepreneur once told me that a law degree gives you a HUGE competitive edge in business. I do feel that my legal education has helped me a lot with Chelleline Cards, in terms of helping me decide what business structure to use, demystifying the process of business licenses, intellectual property strategies, and dealing with taxes. Even though I don’t practice law per se, knowing about the law and how it works makes me feel more powerful and less scared and overwhelmed. If I don’t know the answer to a legal question, I do know where I can find it, and I have my legal education to thank for that.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
Lawyers know how to have fun. I think a lot of them have a “work/study hard, play hard” mentality. I think a stereotype of lawyers and law students is that they’re either working or studying all the time, but my law school classmates and the lawyers I know frequently go to bars, parties, and clubs. I actually think they have more fun than I do!
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Michelle Lin is the owner and head designer of Chelleline Cards, a stationery company focused on sweet and imaginative collage greeting cards and quirky travel postcards. After graduating from Fordham University School of Law in 2010, she decided to leap full-time into stationery design, and brought on her mother, Emily Lin, husband, Dmitry Gimon, and friend, Pauline Rousseau, as additional designers. Chelleline Cards is currently carried in over 40 stores in the US, Canada, and abroad. Michelle has also published legal and literature articles in academic journals such as Rodopi and the Journal of the Patent and Trademark Society (JPTOS). Her article, “‘Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World’: Trademark Remedies for Musicians,” won the Rossman Award in 2012, awarded to the JPTOS paper that in the last year “made the greatest contribution to the field of patents, trademarks, and copyrights.” Ever the entrepreneur, she also sells Soviet vintage and vintage books online. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.