Leveraging Legal Skills to Launch Your Dreams

Leveraging Legal Skills to Launch Your Dreams

Who says you can't use a law degree outside of private practice?  And who says it is not important to keep long-term career goals in mind while making moves towards your ultimate dream?  If today's feature doesn't inspire you to live your dream, then you need bigger dreams!

Leave the desperation behind and move on to inspiration

I recently participated in the mock interview program at my alma mater, University of Maine School of Law - during the interviews and follow-up discussions, I could palpably feel the fear (desperation) of the 2Ls and 3Ls who all know they are coming out into a bad economy and want to secure jobs.  This feeling carries through to associates in firms that are trying to make a lateral move to save their sanity, and recent grads trying to make ends meet to pay student loans.  Few choices made out of desperation are going to turn out well in the long-run.  That is why today's featured attorney interview is so inspiring to me.

Heather Sanborn was 1st in her class graduating from Maine Law, received the highest bar examination score in the State of Maine, continued to clerk with Justice Kermit Lipez in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit before joining the ranks of BigLaw at Ropes & Gray in Boston.  Instead of continuing on the BigLaw path, she made some drastic moves for the goals of her family, and is now business partners with her husband, making beer!  What a change.  Read on for how she leveraged and used her legal education and experience to pay down debt, get experience, and now launch a family business (that is rapidly growing).

After law school, you chose to work for a law firm in Boston, although your family resides in Maine.  Did you have long-term family or career goals in mind when making this decision?  What stresses and good came from this?

After law school, I was very fortunate to clerk for Judge Lipez in the First Circuit.  His chambers are in Portland, but he sits in Boston every month for arguments.  I saw during that experience that it would be possible for me to work in Boston without moving my family there, at least initially.  For me, the opportunity to work at Ropes & Gray was an incredible way to start my legal practice.  I was eager for the challenge of working at a big firm, and also eager to dig us out of the debt that my family had accumulated during law school.  My mentors at Ropes were wonderful; the teamwork that developed among associates when we worked on a big case was energizing.  I was also fortunate that Ropes supported my ability to work from home one or two days a week basically from the very start.  In the end though, I knew that working for a Boston firm long-term would mean that my family would have to move to the Boston area.  We explored the idea of moving for a while.  But ultimately, for us, Maine will always be home.  Once we started the brewery, I knew I needed to find a way to move my work-life back to Maine.  After practicing at Ropes & Gray for about two and a half years, I joined Brann & Isaacson in Lewiston, Maine.

What was the most rewarding experience for you while practicing law at a big firm? 

The most rewarding part of my practice at Ropes was mentoring first year attorneys.  At a big firm, you very often work on large case teams under intense time-pressure.  Every year, another class of junior associates comes on board and, as you move up to being a mid-level associate, you very quickly get the opportunity to take on leadership roles on your case teams.  I really enjoyed working with junior associates on my case teams, passing on what I had learned from my mentors, and organizing big teams to collectively accomplish the task at hand.

Now that you are running a business, how, if at all, do you see your legal background benefiting you?

There are so many ways.  At Ropes, I worked in the securities litigation area and learned a lot about finance.  That demystified the process for me and gave us a leg up when it was time to write the expansion plan for Rising Tide last fall.  I think my experience working with big teams of associates has also helped shape my views about how to manage and communicate with our employees and our distribution partners as we grow.  And, of course, brewing is a highly regulated industry, so being able to navigate the various regulations is very helpful.  Over the past year, I worked on behalf of the Maine Brewer's Guild to pass some changes to Maine's laws that will help us grow the craft beer industry in Maine.  Having a legal background certainly helped in that effort.

What advice would you give law grads who want to use their degrees in more entrepreneurial endeavors?

I think my first piece of advice for any entrepreneur would be to take the time to write a business plan.  The exercise of writing a really detailed business plan is so incredibly useful - even if no one else ever reads the actual document. Writing a plan forces you to really think through what you will do and how you'll do it. The research and interviewing skills that I learned in law school and in legal practice came in very handy in tracking down all the different information I needed to pull our plan together.  Of course, you never actually put the plan in practice as written - every day brings another unexpected challenge - but the process of thinking things through in advance is what's really so critical.

So next time you are in Portland, Maine stop in to Rising Tide Brewing Co. for a taste and tour, and keep your eyes open for taps of their brew in ME, MA and (soon) beyond.

Chelsea Callanan is the founder of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals.  Mrs. Callanan is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.