The Flip-Flop: Law Student Turned Internet Marketer Turned Law Student/Internet Marketer Phil Segal

With a son and wife to support and hefty student loans to repay, ex-law student Phil Segal did the responsible thing:  He returned to law school.  This is his story.

Law School, Take One

Phil Segal was miserable.  As a 2L at University of San Diego School of Law, Phil was working part-time as a valet and legal assistant/clerk.  He had a newborn son at home, his wife (due to the pregnancy) had not secured the job they’d been banking on, and his parents had run into hard times.  His daily law school life pit him against fresh, recent college grads with all the time in the world to devote to their studies.

“I managed to pass all my classes, though skipped a lot due to sheer exhaustion and general time constraints.  The peak of difficulty was when I had a final exam the day after my son was born,” says Phil of his time at USD Law. “I was not enjoying school at all and really wanted to quit, but I was trapped  because we were living off loans and we started to accumulate debt.

Despite the realities of caring for a newborn son and working part-time while in law school (i.e. no sleep, ever), Phil powered through until the end of his 2L year when he accepted an internship in online advertising with Todd Harmon, Inc.

“It was creative, interesting and fun for me, and it started taking off,” Phil says of his internship.  “I really started to run with the ball and actually landed a client in addition to the internship.  So after my 2L year I said, ‘I’m going to take a break.’  It was just going to be a year, but during that year, I got a full-time position with one of my clients.  Then the year after, I got another position with more pay.”

Law School, Take Two

Phil, now a full-time Analyst & Account Manager (SEM/SEO) at Shopzilla, is finishing his law degree after a two-year hiatus by obtaining his 3L credits online through Concord Law School.  We caught up with him on his first day back at school  in hopes of gaining insight into his decision to flip-flop.

So Phil, why go back to law school now?

I realized there was only a certain amount of time that I could retain my units from USD Law and that the two years of misery I already lived through would soon be lost.  I also had a debt-to-income ratio deferment on my loans that would soon expire, and the imminent loan payments are way above my current budget while trying to raise a young family.  So the question ‘Am I making the right decision by not finishing?’ became a very poignant and timely one.

I had the stress of caring for a family, and I began wondering if I’d look back and regret letting go of the work I’d already done.  I worried that in ten years I might think that I could have had that door open for me, if I only had finished my law degree.  One of my fears, too, is ever having to look my child in the eye knowing that I can’t provide for him and that I hadn’t done everything I could to not face that scenario.

If I didn’t have a child, I would be more inclined to take risks.  Now I have to be more cognizant of and more cautious about things like the ability to take on a huge expense on a monthly basis.  It’s easy to say just go do what you want with your life if you don’t have anyone else to take care of.

What do you hope to gain by finishing law school?

You don’t really walk away from law school with a whole lot of knowledge per se.  What you do walk away with is the ability to have that knowledge.  For example, I can look at a contract and understand its ramifications, though someone without a legal education might just be intimidated and ignorant of its consequences.  It gives me a leg-up in that sense, and I hope that with my unique combination of skills, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.  I’m also hoping that I’ll be in a better position to repay my loans even if they will be slightly higher when I finish my education.

I do think the education will be valuable in certain ways in a business environment.  Whether the benefits ever exceed the $100k+ price tag, well, perhaps I’ll be able to answer that down the road.

Do you expect to practice after graduating?

There are times when I could see myself being a trial attorney, but ultimately no.

Realistically, the facts are that I’m not gaining any legal experience right now, my day-to-day work has nothing to do with the law, and I’m finishing my degree through an online school.  For me to enter a law career, I would have to really devote myself to it.  I know I could be a very good lawyer.  I have the skill set and intelligence, but it’s not where my passion lies.

Why an online school this time?

At the end of the day, it was a matter of balancing cost versus benefit.  To finish this education will cost me $20,000 online which would have cost me another $62,000 at a brick-and-mortar school.

Let’s get to the four-letter word:  Debt.  Any advice on that front?

My advice is only take out what’s necessary.  Do what you need to do, but don’t take out loans for living expenses if you can afford not to.

Debt really puts you in a hole so that you just can’t leave law.  The debt takes something from you.  Unfortunately, no one really tells you that, and disclosure documents certainly don’t do anything other than fulfill a legal requirement.

What advice do you have for law school hopefuls?

I would say think really, really carefully about it.

Get some practical experience in the law and see what it is you’re working towards.  People saying ‘Oh you’re going to be a great lawyer,’ isn’t a good reason to go to law school.

Also, don’t go to law school, because you don’t know what else to do.  See what is out there and compare it to other careers.  A law degree doesn’t mean nearly what it used to.

If you’re the kind of person who is passionate about something else and you don’t have a personality that works well in law, you will likely leave at some point anyways and it will be harder the longer you wait.  Cut your losses.

Finally, know that what opens doors is working really hard and gaining experience that’s valuable in the business world.  What speaks to people is experience in the real world, not the degree.

In fact, a legal degree can actually be a detriment if you choose to pursue a non-legal career, as people will constantly wonder why you’re not practicing (maybe you couldn’t hack it), or on the other end of the spectrum might doubt your motivations for seeking that job (perhaps you’ll leave when you find something in the legal profession?). I had much more success in the real world when I removed my legal education from my resume, ironically.

What are your answers to our modified five?

1. Life for a lawyer who returns to the law is…a return to that continual pendulum of indecision about whether I should buckle down and power through or run away again.

2. The hardest thing about returning to the law is…having to juggle life and law again.

3. The best thing about returning to the law is…the satisfaction of at least knowing I am trying my hardest to complete what I began.

4. The primary misconception about lawyers is…that we can advise anyone on any legal issue competently.

5. The main difference between my life now and my life when I was not in the law is…more stress, less free time, more mental strain.

Lawyer Turned National Best-Selling Author Min Jin Lee Answers Our Five

“The primary misconception about ex-lawyers is that we remember any law.”

Not only is ex-lawyer Min Jin Lee the best-selling author of the rich and lovely novel Free Food for Millionaires, she’s also one awesome lady.  Min took a giant step when she left her New York corporate law position to become a full-time writer.  And look where she is now!

Shortly after meeting Min (as just one audience member at a packed reading), I left the law.  Her words of wisdom to me at that difficult time in my life were this:  “I think our paths are crooked and curious, but we have to keep walking and be sure footed.”  Her advice is something I have thought about frequently in the last several years, and I hope it will resonate with you fellow ex-lawyers as well.

Without further ado, here’s what Min had to say in response to our five:

1. Life for a lawyer who leaves the law is…not as bad as you would think it would be.

2. The hardest thing about being an ex-lawyer is…having to explain to sensible people as to why you left.

3. The best thing about being an ex-lawyer is…no longer having to make billables.

4. The primary misconception about ex-lawyers is…that we remember any law.

5. The main different between my life now and my life as a lawyer is…that I am doing what I want.

Min now resides in Tokyo with her husband and son, where she is working on her second novel, Pachinko.

Lawyer Turned Labor Relations Manager David Leon Takes Five

“The best thing about being an ex-lawyer is having other people do your legal work.”

For a change of pace, we thought we’d hit up David Leon, an ex-lawyer who has made a more conservative (ahem, smarter and more lucrative) career change than the one’s we’ve covered as of late, because obviously you don’t have to go from lawyer to cow hoof trimmer to qualify as an ex-lawyer.

After four years as a muni labor, employment, and environmental attorney, David is now a Labor Relations Manager at the Port of Seattle.  While David admits that his current work “has some legal overtones” his focus has shifted from legal minutia to the “day-to-day leadership and longer-term vision” of the Port of Seattle.  David enjoys his new career “most of the time, or at least more often than I was enjoying my legal work.”

Here’s his response to our five:

1.  Life for a lawyer who leaves the law is…like a dark cloud lifting from over your head.

2.  The hardest thing about being an ex-lawyer is…not feeling like you are working on a really important, intellectual, difficult yet structured project, against a really self-important, intellectual, difficult yet structured opponent.

3.  The best thing about being an ex-lawyer is…making the business decisions you wished your clients were smart enough to make; using your creativity; having other people do your legal work.

4.  The primary misconception about ex-lawyers is…that we are still lawyers.

5.  The main difference between my life now and my life as a lawyer is…less suffocation from rules & neckties.

Lawyer Turned Filmmaker Cole Wiley Tackles Our Five

“The primary misconception about ex-lawyers is…that we’re broke.  I mean, we are, but you don’t have to rub it in.”

1. Life for a lawyer who leaves the law is…like a box of chocolates…it’s oh so damn sweet.

2. The hardest thing about being an ex-lawyer is…admitting that you’re an ex-lawyer.  It sucks to be so close to being treated like a normal person, but not quite.  And it also sucks that your loan repayment plan with Citibank doesn’t change either.

3. The best thing about being an ex-lawyer is…learning that it is possible to find work that you actually love.  And not just that one night stand, “you’re so hot after three drinks” love, but real fairytale stuff.

4. The primary misconception about ex-lawyers is…that we’re broke.  I mean, we are, but you don’t have to rub it in.  Besides, that will change someday.  Hopefully.  Maybe.  Possibly.  Oh God…what have I done?

5. The main difference between my life now and my life as a lawyer is…now my idea of a nice restaurant is any place that doesn’t have a value menu.  And yes, that includes street cart vendors.  Maybe that’s why I don’t date lawyers now either.

Check out Cole’s work at Heygood Images Productions, Inc.

Lawyer Turned High School Physics Teacher Benjamin Mikesh

“The main difference between my life now and my life as a lawyer is… the average age of my clients.  Their average maturity level is largely unchanged.”

Ex-Lawyer Benjamin Mikesh just finished his first year as a 9th and 12th grade physics at the New York public school Bard High School Early College.  He responded to our five shortly after returning home from his school’s commencement ceremonies during which, Ben informs us, he “got to wear a robe with a fancy purple sash, since I have a JD.”  What a cool benefit to having a law degree!  Seriously, here are Ben’s responses to our five:

1. Life for a lawyer who leaves the law is… not necessarily more restful.  Once you’ve become acclimated to working inhuman hours, it’s hard to dial back to humane.  On the other hand, as a public school teacher those hours are spent, at least to some extent, as I see fit.

2. The hardest thing about being an ex-lawyer is… justifying your resume to your new co-workers.  Oh, and school cafeteria food.

3. The best thing about being an ex-lawyer is… being an EX-lawyer.

4. The primary misconception about ex-lawyers is… we all regret going to law school.  I’m still glad I went, and I plan on using my degree if and when I finally develop that Introduction to the American Legal System elective the seniors have been begging for.  (Taught via the Socratic method, naturally.)

5. The main difference between my life now and my life as a lawyer is… the average age of my clients.  Their average maturity level is largely unchanged.

Above the Law Founder David Lat Takes Five

David Lat takes five with The Ex-Lawyers Club to reflect on his career after the law.  Here’s what he had to say:

1. Life for a lawyer who leaves the law is…a blank slate. This is both a good and a bad thing. An ex-lawyer speaking on a panel about career alternatives once said something like, “The good news is, you can do anything with a law degree. The bad news is, you can do anything with a law degree.”

2. The hardest thing about being an ex-lawyer is…having to explain to your parents’ friends at holiday parties why you left a (relatively) secure, well-paying job for something that offers much less pay and prestige (at least early on).

3. The best thing about being an ex-lawyer is…reduced anxiety. Legal work is difficult, and mistakes can have serious consequences for your clients. It’s so liberating not to have to worry about how some error of yours — a misplaced comma in a contract, a case you left out of your brief — could result in your client being liable for millions of dollars, or going to prison, or worse.

4. The primary misconception of ex-lawyers is…that we weren’t good at the practice of law — that we couldn’t cut it, as some of your past interviewees have written. Many of us were perfectly good (or even very good) lawyers; we just discovered other things we’d rather be doing.

5. The main difference between my life now and my life as a lawyer is…I get to express my individuality. As a lawyer, it’s not about you; it’s about your client. As a writer and a blogger, on the other hand, I’m allowed and even encouraged to bring my personality to bear and to let my creativity shine through.

David, with lawyerly precision, wished to note:  I may not be an “ex-lawyer” in the most technical sense, since I still maintain my law license and handle the occasional legal issue for Breaking Media, the company that publishes Above the Law, the legal blog I founded. But I spend only a small portion of my time on legal work, so I definitely have the ex-lawyer sensibility.

Editor’s response:  It’s okay David, we still love you!  Check out David’s fantastic work at Breaking Media and Above the Law.

This Just in From a Lawyer Turned NY Actress

1. Life for a lawyer who leaves the law is…liberating, courageous, a long, long road, and about being challenged by others.

2. The hardest thing about being an ex-lawyer is…still carrying the “you’re a lawyer” brand on your forehead – not a favorable brand for most.

3. The best thing about being an ex-lawyer is…still carrying the “you’re a lawyer” brand on your forehead – a favorable brand for a select few (particularly friends who need legal help, and most of the time it will be random and unrelated to the kind of law you actually practiced.)

4. The primary misconception about ex-lawyers is…that they are lazy or couldn’t cut life in one of the top law firms in the country.  Not true.  Most of them could cut it.  Most of them would have made partner.  Most of them, however, had half of themselves slowly dying.  In my view, it’s a matter of how powerful that half is in each particular individual.  I have a very powerful rational/reasonable mind half (which made me a consummate lawyer), but I have an even more powerful creative/heart center/gut/viscera half (which makes me a consummate artist).  Ignoring the latter was death to me.  So for me it wasn’t a choice to leave the law.  I had to.

5. The main difference between my life now and my life as a lawyer is…uncertainty.  At a law firm, you know where you stand, you know you are going to make 50k more in 12 months, and after that 50k more, and so forth and so on.  You know that in 7 years, if you work 300-400 hours a month (which you will), you will make partner and can buy a large house in the suburbs or a fancy apartment in New York.  You know you can afford to go to all the top restaurants, buy all the fashionable clothes that you want, get married, have children (that is, if you don’t miscarry from the stress of top law firm life).  There is something to be said for this certainty, I don’t deny this.  These tangible things that law firm life guarantees elude the artist, at least at the beginning stages.  And that’s just it, as an artist, you never know, there is always uncertainty, as to when your beginning stages will develop into something else.  But that’s the sacrifice you make for choosing not to ignore the dictates of your intuitive heart center.