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How I Successfully Transitioned to a New Career

An image of Michelle Shaw.
By Michelle Shaw, Associate Director/Pre-Law Advisor and Advisor for Careers with Social Impact at Williams College Career Center
June 7, 2017
An illustration of a fish jumping from one fish bowl to another.

When I decided to change careers more than five years ago, I was plagued with reservations and self-doubts, and even feelings of disloyalty. While I expected this, I didn’t anticipate just how scary this phase of my life would be. I now count that time as valuable experience and rely on it every time I coach alumni through a job or career transition.

As a young lawyer working in a large law firm, I was surrounded by partners who had been working for the firm for decades. Were they all happy? I’m not sure happiness was the priority consideration. In many cases, those partners had never worked anywhere else since graduation from law school, perhaps with the exception of a  fellowship or clerkship at the beginning of their careers. Maybe it was a generational thing, but when they started a job with a company, they expressed loyalty by staying with that company until they retired.  I, on the other hand, didn’t feel the pull to stay with one firm or even with one industry.

As a career counselor, much of the advice I’ve imparted is the same whether the alumni is a year out or twenty years out. I’ve found that regardless of the reason for the transition, the alumni are bringing the same types of concerns and the same difficulty articulating skills across new job sectors.


Remember when you were five

A while back, I attended a workshop on career self-assessment.  The instructor asked us all to sit quietly for ten minutes and think back to when we were five years old and wanted to be firemen, transformers, superheroes or ficus plants.  I honestly found the exercise uncomfortable. After, however, I really came to value this exercise in career exploration.

Because of that workshop, I started my  exploration by making a list of all the things that still made me excited about my job as an attorney, or that I enjoyed doing on those rare occasions I met the billable hour requirements early and could leave the office.  When I made my list, I found I actually liked research, writing, counseling, analysis and interpretation. I was doing all of these things in a law firm; I just didn’t want to do it anymore in a law firm—or for that matter, in any legal setting. I also knew I still liked the law and, specifically, working on environmental matters, which I had been specializing in since I started practicing.

Once I arrived at this point, I then put my research skills to work by identifying all kinds of jobs (using job boards) I could do that would utilize my job skills (in the generic sense) and incorporate my specific interests. I wanted an integrative role that would utilize my job skills and my interests, so it wasn’t enough just to do something that was research-based if it didn’t meet most of my passion-interests. That is, I needed to be able to marry most of these skills and interests even if I didn’t know yet what the job title would be.

Not all job titles are created equally, nor do job titles always convey the skill set required to do the job.  I learned this after researching different job descriptions on all the popular job search sites, and also by visiting libraries and bookstores to read what other people were saying about career trends.  I was surprised that there were quite a few things out there that would never have occurred to me as a job for someone with a law degree, including public relations, journalism, consulting, and career counseling.


Working your network

I knew I never wanted to be a partner because I hated networking.  Yet, it was the very way I landed my current position.  I hated going to receptions or lunches with clients and making small talk. As soon as I determined to fully pursue a career change, however, I realized I could be quite good at networking if properly motivated. I reached out to current and former colleagues, law school alumni, undergraduate alumni, former employers, and friends who were doing exciting things. I made friends with recruiters, joined Linkedin and reached out to folks through Facebook.  I connected with people I didn’t know, but who were doing something I thought I wanted to do. I was very surprised You would be very surprised how responsive people are when you tell them they are doing great things and you want to be like them when you grow up.


Internship at any age

It is very important if you are making what amounts to a real career or job change from what you are currently doing that you utilize any opportunity to really understand what the new world is about. This includes understanding how people in this new culture think, speak and behave.  For example, I initially thought I wanted to transition into a non-profit career.  I took on a pro bono opportunity with a start-up nonprofit  in order to determine if this new world made sense and if the skills I was taking with me could be easily translated. I realized in short order that I wasn’t yet ready for that world, and it was important that I figured that out before I committed myself to this new path.


Your resume reads like a [lawyer] . . . and that’s a bad thing.

One of the things I had to get used to when I decided to switch careers is that no one is going to hire me just because I’m a lawyer. The average person simply does not know what it is lawyers do, and often have some extreme or romanticized version of the characters they see on television.  

I had never had to introspect and and try to understand what my basic skills were.  However, once I had done my research and settled on an area of interest (higher education), I began to appreciate that this world had an entire culture and there was a whole new language. Once I had command of the language, I could then speak about those skills to prospective employers so they didn’t immediately dismiss me as just a lawyer.   After I revised my resume, I used the connections I had made in my new area of interest and had one or two of them review the resume to make sure it passed the smell test.


Freelance. Freelance. Freelance.

Flexibility is key to a successful career change.  Most attorneys who are thinking of a career change may be limited geographically and financially. If geography or finance is a restriction for you, there is always remote freelancing.  Freelancing is for lawyers what waitressing is for future actresses.  If there is an industry you wish to explore, offer your transferrable skills as incentive to get that first bit of experience on which you can build.  It is often difficult to make inroads in a completely different industry and this is a great way to do so while earning a living and without having to move halfway across the country. Some freelancing sites include UpWork,, Fiverr, and

Your transferrable skills aren’t likely to be evident unless you can easily distance yourself from your resume. Seek the help of your school’s career center or a trusted friend to help you identify these skills for your next best job!


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Michelle Shaw, Esq., LEED AP is an alum of Williams College and former attorney. She currently serves as an Associate Director and the Pre-Law Advisor for the Career Center where she counsels both current students and alumni.

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