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Front Page - Friday, September 15, 2017

Life after law: Taking legal skills to new fields

Attorneys give up practices, find new ways to aid organizations, community

Chattanooga attorney Emily O’Donnell loved the practice of law. She enjoyed the thrill of spotting an issue in a case and devising a strategy to address it. She liked the gamesmanship of going up against another entity and, as a Legal Aid lawyer, was scratching her itch to do good in the world.

Likewise, Heidi Hoffecker could not imagine a better job than being a litigator. In law school, she was so eager to someday be in court that she never even considered that some people were there to learn how to negotiate deals and write contracts.

“If you have to work for a living and you’re going to be a lawyer, then, by golly, litigation is pretty darn fun,” she says.

Virginia Anne Sharber was one of the attorneys Hoffecker apparently didn’t know existed. After a brief dalliance with trial work, Sharber found her niche in commercial real estate. She says the win-win nature of putting together a deal suited her better than the adversarial nature of going to court.

“I also liked pointing out the buildings I’d worked on to my kids,” she says.

But O’Donnell, Hoffecker and Sharber are no longer practicing law. After enduring (and paying for) three years of law school, passing the bar exam and establishing careers as attorneys, they stepped away from the legal profession.

To non-attorneys – and some practicing attorneys – this sounds crazy. But lawyers do leave the profession for a variety of reasons, some of which include the insurmountable work load, the pressure to constantly prevail in an antagonistic system and boredom with the daily grind.

There are other reasons attorneys call off their careers mid-stride, some of which are not as black and white as being overworked, stressed or bored. Such was the case with O’Donnell, Hoffecker and Sharber, each of whom has a new career.

As these former lawyers pursued new frontiers, they found themselves challenged in fresh ways and discovered that although they’ve left the law, the law has yet to leave them.

The lure of the law

A Decatur, Georgia, native, O’Donnell earned her undergraduate degree at Sewanee: The University of the South, where she enjoyed what she calls “an indulgent educational experience.”

“I didn’t grow up feeling called to be a lawyer,” she says. “I didn’t even have aspirations of going to graduate school.”

When O’Donnell found her political science degree to be less than helpful in securing employment, she joined AmeriCorps, a civil service program supported by the federal government.

While stationed in Flagstaff, Arizona, O’Donnell did trail work in national parks, cut down massive Ponderosa Pines that were infested with bark beetles and camped for several days at a time. She also developed a love for environmental preservation.

When O’Donnell’s term of service ended two years later, she’d accumulated several thousand dollars in education credit. She didn’t want to waste it, so she “took a stab at the LSAT.”

“While I was grappling with what I wanted to be, a family friend, who’s an attorney said, ‘Emily, only priests are called. The rest of us have to get a job, so take the LSAT and go to law school. It will open doors,’” O’Donnell says.

With an eye on becoming an environmental lawyer, O’Donnell made her way to the Georgia State University College of Law. An internship with the Environmental Protection Agency crushed her aspiration.

“The lawyers I worked with never went to court,” O’Donnell says. “Most of them were researchers and writers, and I had learned through mock trial that I liked courtroom advocacy.”

After moving to Chattanooga to escape Atlanta, O’Donnell found work as a staff attorney at Legal Aid of East Tennessee. There, she advocated for clients who were in danger of being evicted, represented victims of domestic violence and resolved other sundry dilemmas for the indigent.

Like O’Donnell, becoming an attorney was the farthest thing from Hoffecker’s mind as she started college. Instead, she intended to become a forensic pathologist.

A class on organic chemistry at Maryville College crushed Hoffecker’s aspiration. “It was the weed-out class – and it weeded me out,” she says, laughing.

Hoffecker graduated with an English degree in 1989, but unlike O’Donnell didn’t look for work. Rather, she settled into being full-time mother to her first child, Rachel, born the same year in Knoxville with Down syndrome.

In 1990, Hoffecker and her husband at the time moved close to St. Louis for his job. Once there, she began working a series of clerical and secretarial jobs at Washington University School of Law.

Hoffecker also was fighting insurance companies and the Social Security Administration on behalf of her daughter. Feeling like she was trying to swim upstream, she decided to go to law school.

“I thought if I added a ‘J.D.’ after my name, it would carry more weight than ‘mom,’” she says.

Like O’Donnell, Hoffecker attended law school at UTK, which she said was cheaper than “Wash U” and more accommodating to families. Her goal at the time was to become “the greatest advocate for disability rights ever.”

Hoffecker soon realized she was aiming too high. “I couldn’t be Rachel’s advocate and mom and be a disability advocate at work,” she says. “That would have been too emotionally demanding.”

So, unsure about where her law degree was going to take her, Hoffecker slipped her resume into all the slots at the job fair and did the customary round of interviews. Robinson Smith & Wells in Chattanooga bit.

Hoffecker started with the firm in 1996, and while there developed a practice centered on professional negligence defense work. Hoffecker loved her cases.

“It was terrific fun. I loved learning about the medicine for each new case, and interacting with the doctors, witnesses and opposing counsel was very rewarding,” she says.

Of the three former attorneys, only Sharber had early, firm plans to become a lawyer – and nothing crushed her aspiration.

Born and raised in Chattanooga, Sharber grew up watching her dad, the Hon. Robert M. Summitt, in the courtroom.

A liberal arts education at Vanderbilt University prepared her for classes at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville, where she studied to become a litigator.

Sharber secured a position with Miller & Martin after graduating in 1984, and the firm indulged her desire to try cases in court. But she soon found herself at odds with the work.

Thankfully, Sharber says, Miller & Martin allowed her to transition to a commercial practice. “I loved it. It was a better match for my personality,” she adds.

Although all three attorneys intended to practice law for the rest of their lives, each eventually arrived at a divergence that took them in unexpected directions.

The paths less traveled

As O’Donnell helped the endless parade of people in dire straits, she started to think of poverty as a series of systems rather than individuals. This revelation birthed in her a desire to effect change on a broader scale.

“I could save a woman from eviction or help someone divorce an abuser, but I wasn’t changing the system that kept them in poverty. That was frustrating,” she says.

“While individual services are desperately needed, if the education system allows you to leave high school and you can’t read a lease, you’re going to be evicted over and over and over again.”

To begin focusing on systemic change rather than individual casework, O’Donnell left Legal Aid and the practice of law and took a job with the Public Education Foundation.

Under the umbrella of external relations, O’Donnell built partnerships, wrote grants and handled media relations.

PEF boasted upon hiring O’Donnell that she served on the board of The Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga, a nonprofit that advocates on a state and local level for policies that affect women and girls. Passionate about the issues, O’Donnell was a long-time member of the organization.

Two months ago, O’Donnell left the PEF to become the executive director of The Women’s Fund.

Whereas O’Donnell left the practice of law to have more impact in her community, a desire to be present with a much smaller but no less important group of people motivated Hoffecker’s departure from the profession.

In 2002, Hoffecker transferred to Baker Donelson to handle nursing home litigation. But the demands of the practice – 16-hour days and regular road trips – did not mesh well with her responsibilities at home, especially after she and her second husband added a son to the mix.

“The situation was untenable,” she says. “ I couldn’t continue to give my firm, clients and family what they all deserved.”

A change needed to be made but Hoffecker didn’t know what to do. When she learned that Orange Grove Center, a private nonprofit that serves adults and children with intellectual disabilities, was hiring a development director, her uncertainty transformed into resolve and she applied for the job.

Hoffecker had been on the organization’s board since 2009. Her volunteer service as well as her personal interest in the population Orange Grove served worked in her favor, and the nonprofit gave her the nod.

Hoffecker’s exit from the practice of law was marked with hesitation. In comparison, Sharber’s career change was a ride in the park on a sunny day.

Sharber remained with Miller & Martin her entire career, but as she settled into her fifties, she slowly applied the brake on her practice, went of counsel and started to do more volunteer work in the community.

Her service over 30 years was extensive and included turns as chair of the board of The Bright School, as well as chair of the CHI Memorial Foundation, Allied Arts (now called ArtsBuild), Women’s Fund, Community Foundation and Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute boards. Sharber also served on the boards of Baylor School and the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera.

She’s currently chairing the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga board and the Chattanooga Public Art Committee, and is serving on the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, River City Company and Chattanooga Design Studio boards.

Sharber’s fondness for saying “yes” to community service also landed her a stint as interim executive director of Hunter Museum of American Art in January 2015. Six months later, the board made it permanent.

Other than one art history class at Vanderbilt, Sharber has no formal training in the arts. But she has enough credibility to fill a several pages of a resume.

U.S. Senator Bob Corker tapped Sharber to chair the Public Art Committee when he served as mayor. During her term, she oversaw the installation of a $1.2 million public art venture along Chattanooga’s waterfront. Sharber also co-chaired Chattanooga Forward, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s arts and culture task force.

But she doesn’t believe her experiences with public art led the museum’s board to hire her. Rather, she believes her lack of artistic bones – as well as her commitment to her community and her broad connections within it – made her an attractive candidate.

“Maybe they thought I could give them the perspective of the average person and help them to make the museum appealing to everyone,” Sharber says.

While their life stories differ, O’Donnell, Hoffecker and Sharber have the law in common. They also share the challenges of settling into an unfamiliar role after establishing themselves in another profession. But within that common experience, their stories deviate again to reveal surprises about themselves and the new paths they are walking.

New challenges

When O’Donnell was offered the job leading The Women’s Fund, the idea of spearheading the organization intimidated her. At Legal Aid, she practiced alongside her fellow attorneys, and at the PEF, she worked under the auspices of other people.

But the nature of O’Donnel’s work at The Women’s Fund has allowed her to slip comfortably into a leadership role. As she builds a legislative agenda, writes statutes and analyzes how current policies are either reinforcing systems or breaking them down, she finds herself pulling out her legal toolbox and utilizing some familiar implements.

“All roads have led me to this place,” O’Donnell says. “The practice of law gave me the skill of advocacy and helped me to understand the arguments that are made in support of any issue that affects any group.

“I feel like I’m still practicing law, just in a different way.”

That said, O’Donnell has already identified at least one key difference between serving as the executive director of The Women’s Fund and the work she did as an attorney: changing a system is a longer game than handling a single legal issue.

“When you’re in court, you have to convince a judge or jury to see things your way,” O’Donnell says. “But when you’re trying to change a system, you have to win over an entire legislature or constituency. That’s more complicated.”

As such, O’Donnell is doing her best to learn an all-new skill: patience.

As development director of Orange Grove, Hoffecker is picking up a slew of new skills, too, including fundraising, grant writing, database management, marketing, event planning and more.

Thankfully, like O’Donnell, some of Hoffecker’s new responsibilities allow her to draw on her past legal experience.

“I couldn’t write a brief or argue my position to a judge with no evidence. There was no such thing as, ‘Because I said so, your honor.’ I use that skill when I write grants,” Hoffecker says.

“Once they teach you how to think like a lawyer, you can’t undo it. I will forever use those skills no matter what I do,” she adds.

Hoffecker has carried one other remnant from her law practice to her new career: the struggle to achieve an equitable work-life balance. When she leaves Orange Grove at the end of the day, she takes her job home with her.

“I’m still answering emails and responding to crises,” she says. “I put in fewer hours than I did at Baker Donelson but it’s still not an eight-to-five job.”

Hoffecker says this has more to do with her than it does her job. While expansive, her work at Orange Grove is not as stressful or intellectually demanding as practicing law. But, in some ways, she makes it that way.

“I’ve learned that a lot of the struggle is intrinsic to who I am,” Hoffecker says. “I expect a lot of myself no matter where I am. I expected a lot of myself when I practiced law and I expect a lot of myself here.

“But at least I’m not going to get a nastygram from opposing counsel, or a motion for sanctions, or a motion to compel.”

Like Hoffecker, Sharber is as busy as ever. Her daily to-do list includes increasing the number of visitors, ensuring financial sustainability, running the museum efficiently and effectively and hitting the museum’s target audiences. She also must make sure the museum’s visitors are having good experiences.

That should be no sweat for a former attorney. But add the learning curve and it’s a whole new ballgame.

“My legal skills are all applicable here. I know how to negotiate a contract, but I’ve never been in charge of a 77,000-square-foot building or a staff of 30 full-time and 30 part-time employees. At Miller & Martin, other people did those things for us,” Sharber says.

Sharber is even finding that her leadership role at the museum differs from her experience chairing boards. “It’s one thing to set policy and another to be responsible for making sure it’s implemented,” she says.

Never say never, unless ...

In her article titled “How did I get to be an unhappy lawyer?” Jennifer Alvey, a Nashville resident and recovering attorney, says she often wonders why many people who practice law end up despising it.

More than 50 percent of lawyers say if they could do it over again, they wouldn’t go to law school, she writes.

That’s high. But it’s not been the experience of O’Donnell, 38, Hoffecker, 48, or Sharber, 57. All three are still licensed attorneys and have not ruled out returning to the profession.

“I loved practicing law. I miss the courtroom and interacting with a wide variety of poor people with crazy issues,” O’Donnell says. “My office looks out at Patton Towers. After it had a fire, I helped its residents with the legal issues that rose out of that incident. I miss having a connection to those people.”

Hoffecker hasn’t dismissed the idea of becoming a practicing lawyer again, either, although she comes the closest of the three attorneys to doing so. Perhaps that has more to do with her ties to the people Orange Grove serves than any dissatisfaction with her legal career.

“There are two fellas who come to my office every day to give me a hug or say hi. I loved the staff at Baker Donelson, and they loved me, but I never walked into a deposition, courtroom or the office, and people were overjoyed to see me,” she says.

“But the people we serve are happy to see me, not because I can do something for them but because I walked through the door. That’s awesome.”

Sharber also says she probably won’t practice law again, although with less conviction than Hoffecker.

Perhaps that has more to do with the people she misses than her satisfaction with being an attorney.

“I miss everyone. I also miss being a part of things that were happening,” she says. “My world is different. I love when folks from my past life come to the museum.”

If there’s one more unifying factor between O’Donnell, Hoffecker and Sharber, it’s that they might have changed careers but their careers have not changed them.

“Was I born to be a lawyer or development director?” Hoffecker asks. “Probably not. But I was born to not walk away from a fight.”