So many ex-lawyers have found more rewarding careers after 50. In writing my 2013 book, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the JD You Have, I interviewed over a hundred former lawyers and met women who had shed a work identity that no longer fit them – and that perhaps never had – in order to do work that they truly love.
One of my favorite examples is Deborah Felton. She started her career as a lawyer, opening her own practice handling child protection cases. Deborah decided to take time off when her youngest daughter was three. She didn’t go back to paid work for fifteen years. Instead, she transferred the energy she had poured into her legal work to community programs instead. She volunteered on town committees, became the President of her synagogue, and generally developed a reputation for getting complex things done well. People would go to her when they needed help with a town issue. “I realized you can effect change as long as people realize that you’re an ally, not an enemy,” she says.
Deborah was invited to join several boards, including the board of Fuller Village, a senior residence in town. The Executive Director knew that Deborah was smart, committed and well connected. Soon after she joined, the President of the Board was in a car accident, and Deborah was asked to take charge. She ran the Board of Directors meetings while he recuperated.
After four years on the Board, the Executive Director position came open. Her fellow Board members wanted Deborah to take it, and she considered it seriously. She was ready to go back to work. Going back to the legal profession, however, seemed too daunting. She knew it would take her a lot of time and effort to catch up on all the legal and technological developments she had missed while she was out of the paid work force.
More importantly, she wanted to run her own show. She had honed her leadership skills during her fifteen years in the community. She was a great leader, and she didn’t want to apply those skills as a bureaucrat in an organization or a division that she didn’t really care about.
She did care about Fuller Village, and she knew it well. Becoming the Executive Director would allow her to use her skills in negotiation, advocacy, and organizational management. It would allow her to speak publicly about a cause that is growing in importance.
Getting the position wasn’t as difficult as it would have been if she had been a complete stranger to the organization. She had the full support of her Board, who knew she would be a good fit, so she wouldn’t have to go through a battery of draining interviews. She accepted the position. She was 55 when she started her new job.
The Executive Director role suits her perfectly. “If I had ever taken a professional aptitude test, this probably would have come up as my ideal job,” she says. She likes being in charge, as she always knew she would. She gets to interact with a variety of people every day. Fuller Village has 45 staff members, some of whom are part time, and 400 residents. She likes mentoring and encouraging her staff, because it allows her to use her good judgment and experience for their benefit. She also appreciates having a flexible schedule, which, as the boss, she can give herself.
Most importantly, Deborah enjoys advocating for the residents. She has been an advocate all her life, whether she was acting on behalf of her legal clients, her daughter, or her community. “It is who I am,” she says. She enjoys using her persuasive skills to help the residents get the help they need, and to work in partnership with their families when necessary.
Deborah loves her work, but she’s not planning to do it forever. “I’ll do this for another few years and then think about finding a beach somewhere,” she says.
Liz Brown, JD will be speaking at SHE DID IT/Boston on March 24, 2014. For more information on SHE DID IT/Boston, click here.