What's out there for lawyers who want a different career?

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By Caryn Tamber, Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer

Originally appeared September 4, 2009 in Maryland’s The Daily Record.

Non-practicing lawyers tend to fall into one of two categories.

Either they always wanted to be lawyers but found once they started that it wasn’t what they’d hoped for, or they never wanted to be lawyers but drifted into law school because they couldn’t think of anything else to do.

The Daily Record spoke to a dozen people who have law degrees but don’t practice law. They work in fields such as finance, education and nonprofit leadership. A representative sample of their stories is featured below.

The ex-practitioners’ new careers are diverse, but they share a common message: there is life after the law.

The Law Librarian

Janet Sinder knew by the time she was in junior high school that she wanted to be a civil liberties lawyer.

After she graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1979, she took a job as a criminal appeals defense lawyer in Illinois, but she didn’t enjoy the work as much as she thought she would.

A few years later, she decided to get a master’s degree in library science. She became a law school law librarian — law schools tend to require that their librarians have JDs — at the Duke University School of Law, where she stayed for 16 years. She came to the University of Maryland School of Law library in 2004.

Her job is "gratifying," Sinder said.

"You can find things they didn’t know existed or they thought would be hard to find," Sinder said. "When you’re a criminal defense attorney, you don’t win a lot of your cases on appeal, but you get so much positive feedback in the library world when you help them find something."

"I know there are lawyers out there who, rumor has it, don’t like their jobs," she continued. "I don’t know too many law librarians who don’t like their job. Most of them do."

The Financial Planner

At first, Amir Eyal thought he might want to be a doctor, so he took the MCAT. Then he realized he didn’t want to go into medicine after all, and a lot of his friends at the University of Maryland were taking the LSAT, so he signed up, too.

He did well and was accepted to the university’s law school.

After getting his J.D. in 2003, "I clerked a little bit, I practiced a little bit, but it just wasn’t exciting," Eyal said.

He tried to start his own estate planning practice, but "it didn’t really catch," he said.

His father-in-law kept asking him to join Mylestone Plans, his Rockville financial planning business, and finally, he did. Eyal is now a certified financial planner.

Mylestone has contracts with more than 400 nonprofit groups, so Eyal spends much of his time helping their employees figure out how to save for the future. When one nonprofit folded, Eyal helped its executive director minimize the amount of money she had to borrow from her retirement account and even aided her in finding a new job.

He describes his job as part planner, part "social worker/shrink."

The Democracy Consultant

Eric Bjornlund went to law school as a "way of keeping options open."

"It seemed like lawyers did a lot of interesting things," said Bjornlund, who graduated from the Columbia University School of Law in 1984.

He got a job at Ropes & Gray LLP in Boston and worked there for four years doing transactional work. While he was there, he was assigned to a pro bono project in Namibia, then known as South-West Africa, which was in the process of asserting its independence from South Africa. Bjornlund helped the country write its Bill of Rights, which was based on the U.S. Bill of Rights.

By the end of the process, he was considered an expert on Namibia. He got a job with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, helping Namibia administer its first national elections in 1989.

He expanded beyond Namibia and worked on election monitoring issues, writing a book on the subject. In 2003, he founded his own organization, Bethesda-based Democracy International. The group consults for the U.S. government and sometimes other countries on democracy issues, taking on projects like monitoring national elections in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Albania. The organization also conducts opinion research in foreign countries.

The Traveling Entrepreneurs

Tonya Fitzpatrick always wanted to be a lawyer.

"I think that a common thread among first-year students is that we enter law school with the thought that we’re going to save the world and do good out there and represent the little guy," she said. "After law school, after the bar, the opportunities are not as plentiful."

After Fitzpatrick graduated from Wayne State University Law School in 1998, she worked as a prosecutor. Eventually, her career took her to the federal government. Her husband, Ian, graduated from the University at Buffalo Law School in 1990 and got a job teaching law at a high school. He, too, wound up working as a government lawyer.

Around 2005, the pair began contemplating a career change, thinking about what truly made them happy. They seized on travel and decided to open a travel agency together, but that project was sidetracked when Tonya Fitzpatrick was recruited for another position with the federal government. When the Bush administration ended in January, she left, and the pair decided to start their own travel media company.

The Silver Spring-based Fitzpatricks make one or two trips a month and produce an Internet radio travel show, Travl’n On. Their shows focus on issues like promoting environmental sustainability and cross-cultural understanding while traveling.

"We feel very strongly about educating our audience," Tonya Fitzpatrick said. "We don’t talk about the pretty beaches out there because that doesn’t educate people."

The Fitzpatricks often discuss legal issues on their show, such as a pending bill that would, among other things, force cruise lines to report crimes that occur on board.

The Training and Diversity Director

Randi Lewis didn’t know when she decided to become a lawyer that dealings with opposing counsel could get downright hostile.

Lewis, who graduated from the George Washington University Law School in 1983, practiced in Los Angeles for 15 years, where, she said, the legal community is less collegial than in Baltimore. The adversarial system just didn’t fit her personality, she said.

When she moved back to Baltimore in 1998, she needed a job but was not admitted to the Maryland bar.

She had been the hiring partner and had run the summer associate program at her firm in California, so she applied for a job as the recruitment director at Miles & Stockbridge P.C. She is now director of diversity and professional development at the firm.

She has helped the 200-lawyer firm increase its count of lawyers of color from just a handful to 17; the firm is on the road to having diversity "as a way of life," she said. She also coordinates the in-house training programs for Miles’ lawyers.

"I’m never bored," Lewis said. There’s always another challenge. "This is such a great fit for my personality and my intellect, too."

The Dealmaker

Kavita Thakrar says that among her friends who began their careers at large law firms, most long for "escape."

Thakrar, a native Canadian, graduated from the University of Victoria law school in 1997 and then got her LL.M. from Boston University in 1998. She practiced with Jones Day LLP and then with Morrison & Foerster LLP in New York, doing corporate finance work.

"Like many lawyers, I never really liked the practice of law,î she said. ìI missed the people contact. I felt it was paper-pushing at a high level."

She left and started a legal search firm, but the economy then rendered the headhunting business dormant. She and her husband founded Columbia-based Skada Capital, which connects businesses with lenders when banks turn them down. Skada takes a percentage of the money loaned.

If a hotel chain wants to build a new hotel, "two years ago, a bank would have been, ‘Great, here’s $10 million,’" Thakrar said. "In this market, the banks have all tightened their funds, even [for] companies that would have A-plus credit."

Several banks have deals with Skada and refer borrowers there when the bank itself cannot make a loan.

Among big-law attorneys, Thakrar’s departure from practice represents the ideal, she said.

"Leaving the law is kind of the golden parachute now," Thakrar said. "It’s like, ‘Wow, you’ve managed to escape and do something with your life.’"