From IP to family law: Professional reinvention during a down economy

Issue February 2011 By Doris M. Fournier

What would you do if you lost your job? For me, the answer was easy: start over. Last year, I was laid off by Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo PC in Boston, where I had spent the first six years of my career. Although the news came as a shock, it had long since become apparent to me that I needed a change. My layoff forced me to confront that need for change, and I did so with enthusiasm and some trepidation.

When the news hit the firm that my job would be eliminated through "economic downsizing," most of my colleagues looked at me like a car-struck animal on the side of the road, hoping for a quick and painless end. I, on the other hand, looked at them the same way.

After all, I was excited about this new opportunity to make a change. It felt both wonderfully liberating and frightening, particularly because my husband had just been laid off only two weeks earlier, and we had two young children depending on us at home.

My tenure at my former firm was an overall fulfilling and positive experience. I worked with inspirational colleagues, received invaluable mentoring and training, and grew tremendously as a professional. I loved it there and will never forget it. But I joined the firm during law school and without a real plan as to what I wanted to do, apart from litigate. Now, six years later, I was tasked with the same question all over again: "What do I want to do when I grow up?" Starting over was an obvious answer.

The first thing I did was contemplate leaving the practice of law altogether. I saw this as my opportunity to accomplish neglected wish list items. After working on endless document productions, drafting mountains of discovery and racking up enough hours on Westlaw to own stock in the company, I decided that I was done with it all.

My second child was only six months old and I was just plain tired. I had been practicing as an intellectual property litigator without any science background whatsoever. Patent law in particular did not come naturally to me and I found it increasingly difficult to find my place in the section. I knew that it would be difficult for me to bring in IP referrals and foster client relationships. Particularly in light of my changing lifestyle and family demands, I doubted my continued allegiance to IP, even if I were to practice at another firm.

So, I did what any insane person would do: I began to check things off my bucket list. When my efforts to join a roller derby team didn't pan out, I volunteered for an unpaid internship at a premier Boston event planning company. My first day consisted of researching bongo music for an upcoming fundraiser. It was fun and easy and a dramatic change from the past six years of my life.

A new, exciting workplace was just what I needed. I spent three months there working as an assistant to event planners. Gradually, however, I found myself thinking and acting like a lawyer again. I realized that I craved legal professional fulfillment, and event planning was not my final destination.

I went back to the drawing board and created a list of my professional and personal strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. I thought about what I set out to do with my law degree in the first place.

My analysis quickly led me to family law. I had enrolled in law school fully expecting that I would become a family lawyer. But in my penultimate year, I reached a crossroads in my studies and decided to take a patent litigation course instead of family law. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Choosing patent litigation opened doors for me and ultimately landed me my big-firm IP job. I never did take that family law course.

Now that my career was in my hands once again, I revisited my original plans. I joined a great family law practice in March 2010, Witmer, Karp, Warner & Ryan LLP. Today, I am facing the challenges of learning the ways of a small firm while at the same time tackling an entirely new practice area. Not even the courtrooms I enter are the same as before.

Although the transition to my new professional life has been humbling and occasionally frustrating, it has also been exciting and extremely rewarding. I now realize that the only reason that I had felt ready to be done with "being a lawyer" was because I was unhappy with my career path. It has been almost a year since I started at Witmer, Karp, Warner & Ryan, and I am finally getting confident enough to call myself a family practitioner.

The economy compelled me to confront the tough professional question of whether to stay at a job for a paycheck or to find professional fulfillment. In the end, I chose to follow through on my original plans of being a family law practitioner, and I have not looked back. It is a decision that I may have never have reached had I not been forced to do so. For that, I am tremendously grateful.

Through the process of starting over, I have learned a great deal about myself, what I can accomplish and how I handle stressful times. I have also found my place as a lawyer and that is extremely rewarding. I encourage every attorney out there to explore this at some point in your career, and now, more than ever, ask yourself what you want to do. Your strength and capabilities may surprise you and may lead you to opportunities you never expected.

Doris M. Fournier practices family law and probate litigation at Witmer, Karp, Warner & Ryan. She has done extensive pro bono work assisting victims of rape and domestic violence. Fournier is admitted to practice in Massachusetts and the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. She serves on the MBA's Civil Litigation Section Council.