The Road to Success May Not Be Linear
By Christina Holder
I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to earn a living doing what I love: using the law to promote the social good. My path toward career success was not linear. Coming out of law school, I was determined to become a human rights lawyer. I quickly learned that jobs in that field are extremely limited and many require working for extended periods without pay. After completing a year-long human rights fellowship in Zambia, I began work as a healthcare attorney at a law firm that allowed me to undertake significant pro bono representation in addition to my billable work. Eventually, I sought to transition to a full-time public interest job. Making this transition proved more difficult than I had imaged. Many public interest positions were geared toward junior attorneys right out of law school, and some prospective employers could not understand why I wanted to switch to a public interest career after so many years at a law firm. Complicating the transition was the fact that I had two children under three years old at home and my husband was changing careers at the same time.
Then a position came open with a medical-legal partnership that I had done pro bono work for. I immediately applied, although I had virtually no experience with the types of law – immigration, housing, disability benefits, estate planning, and guardianship, among others – that I would be practicing. I got an offer and took the job. Practicing in completely new areas of the law required me to step out of my comfort zone and put faith in my legal training and abilities. At first I felt like I had landed in a different universe. At the law firm, I worked quietly behind my desk researching and writing memos on complex legal issues. At the legal services organization, on the other hand, I raced between hospital clinics, home visits, and then back to the office to frantically complete the work generated by my intakes. At times I felt overwhelmed by the volume of cases, my gaps in knowledge, and the dual health and legal crises experienced by my clients. But with the support of colleagues who shared their case management strategies and subject matter expertise, I soon was able to provide high quality legal services to my clients and meaningfully improve their lives. The experience taught me an enormous amount about the law and the human experience. It also allowed me to successfully re-brand myself as a public interest lawyer and transition to my current role. I love that now, as a public interest law firm attorney, I am able to practice public interest law full time and collaborate with my colleagues to develop and implement innovative pro bono projects that address pressing social issues.
My advice to young women is that there is not one path to success in your field, and success does not look the same for everyone. This is especially true for women who often have significant care-giving responsibilities at different times in their lives that may affect their career path. If you remember who you are and what motivates you, then the career steps you take – forward, backward, and sideways – will eventually lead you to where you are supposed to be.
About the author: My name is Christina Holder and I am a corporate public interest attorney at a law firm in New Jersey. In this role, I provide a range of free legal services to nonprofits and low income individuals who need legal help but cannot afford an attorney, and mobilize my colleagues to do the same. I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. As a youth, I was fascinated by the promise of the law to address inequality and injustice. I have been practicing law for over a decade in different forms – first as a human rights lawyer in Zambia, then as a healthcare attorney at a firm in New York City, then as a legal services attorney serving low-income patients in New York City hospitals, and now as a law firm public interest counsel.