Don’t Be Shy When Changing Careers (and 5 Other Career Changing Tips)

magazine to lawyerDisclosure:  In today’s sponsored post, State Farm Insurance asked me to talk about my first career change — magazine editor to lawyer — and some of the people who helped me along the way.

I was at a recent alumni networking event, and everyone older than 30 heartily encouraged the students and new graduates to reach out to alums. An email that mentions a shared connection opens a lot of doors. Generally, people are happy to give advice. Cast a wide net — particularly don’t be shy about reaching out when you’re looking to enter a new career or change careers entirely. All of this advice rings true with my own experience in networking when you’re junior, and changing careers — not once, but twice now. I’ve written about my career change from media lawyer to fashion blogger, but I’ve never talked about the first big career change I made: from magazine writer to lawyer.

It’s fun to think back on what drove the change…

It was 1999, and I’d been working for almost a year. (I was class of ’99, but I finished my degree at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism two quarters early and got a job at Family Circle.) All of the usual reasons why people leave journalism were really starting to weigh on me.  At the same time, one of my last classes at NU had been on media law, and some good friends and I (including Auntie M) had done a big project on a crazy new law coming out: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. I had been very interested in the project (I am the daughter of a patent lawyer, after all), and it seemed like everywhere I turned I could see places where the DMCA would have an effect. Napster was big news at the time, and magazines were starting to speculate that we might one day download entire encyclopedias to carry in our back pocket. I was trying to turn all of this interest into a freelance article or two — at least, that’s what I told myself when I spent hours every weekend reading the stuff.  (Career changing tip #1 – call a spade a spade.  If your weekend focus could be another career entirely, it might be time to consider grad school.)

I was walking to work one day when it hit me:  I should just go to law school. Why report on it after the fact? I could become a lawyer, and be in the thick of these exciting changes in the law. I downloaded the first applications that night. (My parents, in their infinite wisdom, had strongly encouraged me to take an LSAT class before I left Northwestern, and I had gotten a pretty decent score on the exam, so that, at least, was already in place.) (Tip #2 – it never hurts to be prepared!)

When the time came, I chose to go to Georgetown. After I gave notice at my job and that cat was out of the bag, I started thinking: beyond my father, who could give me great advice on law school and legal career paths? I reached out to two people who didn’t know me at all:  the general counsel of Gruner + Jahr USA (the company that published Family Circle at the time) and a friend’s uncle, who was an in-house lawyer at People Magazine. I had nothing but the most tenuous of threads connecting me to either of them. (Tip #3 — as we all learned in Risky Business — sometimes you have to just say, “what the heck,” when it comes to reaching out to possible mentors.)

The first person I reached out to, Yvette, had recently gone through a fairly interesting case, and it had caught my eye in company newsletters and some of my weekend reading. In a brief email, I mentioned my interest in the case, as well as my upcoming plans for Georgetown — and I asked her to lunch. Much to my (delighted) surprise she took me up on it. She took me out to lunch, gave me tons of great advice for law school, and generally regaled me with her career path — what decisions she’d made, how she’d ended up as GC. It was absolutely fascinating, and we kept in touch for several years after that meeting — she even suggested different law firms to look at and helped me weigh different options when I was lucky enough to get multiple offers. We lost touch a few years after that, though, when G+J sold its magazines and cleaned house.  I’ve always wondered if my mentioning the case helped me make the connection, hopefully distinguishing me from the hordes of other 23-year-olds asking her for law school advice. (Tip #4: Use what you know about the person (or their job) to make a connection.)

As previously mentioned, the second person I reached out to, Nick, was even more tenuous. My former coworker Amy had mentioned in passing that she had an uncle who worked at People, so (after Amy said it was ok), I reached out to her uncle. He was a bit more standoffish (wary, perhaps, of going to lunch with a 23-year-old), but also full of helpful tips on law school, and stories on his legal career. Perhaps against his will, I kept bugging him for ideas on law firms and the like well after the meeting, even interviewing and getting an offer at his old firm. (We also have lost touch, but I understand he retired recently.) (Tip #5: Use who you know to get an introduction — sometimes just dropping a name they know (with permission) is enough to get a foot in the door.) 

I still think so fondly of Yvette and Nick, and I’ll always be grateful for their advice and encouragement. Looking back, I thank my lucky stars that I had the guts to reach out to people I didn’t know to ask for advice — and looking forward, I hope to some day be someone else’s Yvette or Nick.  

I’m curious, readers — what are your own successful networking stories? What unlikely — and likely — suspects have given you great career advice and encouragement?



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  1. Yay! This is a great thread, Kat, and I went thru the SAME thing. When I gradueated, I did NOT have a law job, so I took a job doeing PROCESS Serveing (b/c it meant I could be involved with lawyer’s, and doeing something at least close). So as I was going about to serve a subpeenie, I got in an elevator, and literally BUMPED into the manageing partner who was VERY interested in learning what a girl like me was doeing serveing subpeenie’s in his building. When I told him, he wanted to know more, and before I knew it, I was invited into HIS law firm where I found out HE was the manageing partner, and did I want a job being a LAWYER for his firm!!!! I was flabbergrasted, and of course said YES, b/c up until that point, all I got out of my process serveing job was a sore tuchus from all of the walking around and pincheing by the boss, who had VERY bad breathe and wanted to sleep with me!!! FOOEY!

    So it can be done, and I am Exhibit A, as they say in court. Now, onley 5 year’s later, I am a partner, just b/c I tripped when I stepped into the elevator and landed on the manageing partner! YAY!!!!!

    • Just wanted to let you know I find subpeenie to be one of your most entertaining spelling errors to date. And, everybody, yes, I know Ellen is fake.

  2. Coach Laura :

    Great photo Kat! Beautiful. (Hope this isn’t a threadjack.)

  3. Tip #6: don’t lose touch with your former career/colleagues. I made the same change – journalism to law – and still keep in touch with my new coworkers and am still a news junkie. You never know if you will one day go back to it or if you decide to merge the two careers.

  4. Yuk. This post annoyed the heck out of me for some reason.

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to invite someone you don’t know well to lunch. I would ask them if you could have 30 minutes of their time, or possibly meet for coffee. I don’t want to spend a hour at lunch with someone I do not know (as in Kat’s example) and I would feel obligated to pay if they were more junior to me (which is what happened in Kat’s example).

    And “If your weekend focus could be another career entirely, it might be time to consider grad school”. Not every weekend pursuit needs a grad degree if you want to turn it into a career.

    • You seem grumpy. I thought it was a great post. If you don’t want to grab lunch, just say you are too busy and suggest coffee. You are in control of your own decisions.

      • mmm, I think you are right, I am grumpy. I should be a in a good mood anticipating a few days off, but they are going to be spent with family coming to stay with me, so I think that is why I am grumpy.

        Note to self: do not post when grumpy.

  5. When I was 18 and interning at my company, I reached out to the CEO of a bank who I had heard has previously got his own career start at my company as well. He had no idea who I was, but I mentioned the connect we had of both getting our first opportunity at the same place, and he responded. He is currently a great friend and mentor of mine and has been instrumental in helping me make strategic career decisions. I am thankful I had the balls to reach out to him at such a young age. I don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t.

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