The Three Year Plan: The Inside Scoop On Where CLS Graduates Are After Law School

Heather Stevenson (CLS ’11): The Fearless Founder of Thirst Juice Company

DSC_9491Photo Provided by Heather Stevenson

Law students joke that we’re a neurotic, risk-averse bunch that always wants to see the next thing coming. In our three years here, we apply for internships over six months in advance, gun for grades that will help us get a job two years down the line and build connections that we hope to rely on during the whole of our careers. Most of us have some idea of what our first jobs will look like and how long we’ll stay at them. Most of us, because we are law students, are obsessed with planning. But how much can we foresee?  What does post-graduate life look like with respect to the plans people develop as law students?  The life after law school is long.  Unfortunately, for the law-student psyche, it can’t all go according to plan. 

A Law Degree without Lawyering

These days, Heather Stevenson, a 2011 graduate of Columbia Law School, negotiates terms in contracts, spots issues in proposals and organizes solutions to problems. But not as a lawyer.

While Heather practiced at a white shoe law firm in New York’s financial district for three years, she’s now developing Thirst Juice Company, a healthy juice and food enterprise, with her husband Chris. Heather is planning to open the Thirst storefront to the public in the coming weeks. But for now, she and Chris are shepherding the construction process, transforming what used to be a hair salon into a friendly and attractive juice bar in Boston’s financial district.

So how does one go from CLS student to practicing corporate attorney to juice proprietor, and more importantly, why?

Professional Expectations, Personal Values

Heather certainly didn’t plan for this. Both of her parents are lawyers in the Boston area, and Heather, too, had always thought about becoming a lawyer. But even though law school always seemed to be an option, Heather didn’t hold back from deeply exploring her own personal interests and broadening the scope of her life experiences.

As an undergraduate at Columbia, she pursued an urban studies major in part because it allowed her to take a wide range of classes across her interests. And, as it commonly happens in college, Heather developed new interests outside of school. Formerly a serious soccer and tennis player, Heather wasn’t officially part of the college athletic program at Columbia, but she decided to take up running. What started out as just another way to stay in shape — for “cosmetic” reasons, as Heather put it — became a lifelong passion. Since graduating college, she has run eleven marathons and one ultramarathon – a fifty-mile race held in Northern California.

Heather also thinks that living in New York full time sparked a newfound interest in food. Heather adheres to a vegetarian diet, but she’s pretty indiscriminate when it comes to trying new things. And so, in college, a dedication to fitness and an enjoyment of food melded together to further one of Heather’s core values, which is healthy living.

All Roads Lead to Law School

Though she took the LSAT before graduating and intended on going to law school, Heather first worked for two years as an English and Social Studies teacher in the Bronx through Teach for America. When Heather started law school at Columbia, she imagined she would work for a large firm for an indefinite period of time, in part because of the pay, but more because she saw it as some of the best professional training a young lawyer could get. And then, when the moment felt right, she would transfer to a smaller law firm or perhaps a government position.

Heather spent her 1L summer working with a small boutique litigation firm specializing in white collar crime. During her second year, she had an internship with the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York where she actively participated in litigation by writing briefs and attending arguments. During her 3L year, Heather completed an LLM through the Law School’s program in Amsterdam, where she also remotely served on the staff of the Human Rights Law Review.

And, of course, in between 1L and 2L, Heather participated in EIP. I wanted to know how she reflected on that experience now that she had left the precise thing EIP is designed to secure — a lucrative position as an associate.

Q: As a 2L at CLS, how did you feel about participating in EIP?

Heather: I was really happy to do EIP. I knew I had wanted to work for a law firm going into law school. I had a great experience and had some great interviews. And to be honest, I think we were all just thankful that firms were coming to Columbia and seeking out our students for jobs. I started law school as Lehmann Brothers went under. I think The New York Times called my graduation year one of the worst years ever for prospective lawyers entering the market. So to have all these firms wanting Columbia grads felt good.

Getting to Work

When Heather started at her firm job, it largely met her expectations. She worked mostly on banking cases in the litigation department, all of which were connected, either directly or indirectly, to the mortgage crisis. Of these matters, she liked a particular shareholders derivative litigation the most.

Q: What was it about this particular shareholders derivative dispute that made it so appealing to you?

Heather: It was so procedurally interesting. A lot of these issues were being decided in previous iterations of the matter. There was no doc review, because there were very few relevant documents and many of the arguments centered on figuring out which issues were already determined in previous decisions. Because of that, I was actively involved in drafting the briefs and preparing for oral argument. Also, I got to work quite closely with a small team, and under seniors who were really interested in my professional development.

Despite a very heavy workload, Heather loved her first year as an associate at the firm.  She spent her second year continuing to focus on her job and planning her wedding with Chris. Long-term plans, she says, were put on hold. But toward the end of her three years at the firm, Heather began to hunger for new learning experiences. She notes that senior associates and partners wanted to offer her the broadest possible range of professional experience, but that the caseload at her firm still centered on securities litigation from the mortgage crisis.

And so, she started looking at options outside of Big Law.

Weighing the Options

After Heather and Chris were married, she found herself thinking, “What’s next?”  Though it doesn’t always feel like it to law students, there were many options for a young associate, and Heather considered almost all of them.

Q: What were the different exit options you considered?

Heather: If it had been a year earlier, I would have more seriously considered going to a smaller firm. But having watched some of my friends’ experiences as they made the transition, the idea became less appealing. I thought about going into government. Several years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to find people transferring to the US Attorney’s office after one or two years at a firm. But there was a hiring freeze in EDNY and SDNY and now most people have at least five to six years of experience before transferring. I thought about clerking or looking for a position with a non-profit. But ultimately, Chris and I had always talked about opening up a bar or a restaurant. And we were either going to do it now before we have kids, or wait until our kids are grown.

Breaking New Ground

While juice is ubiquitous in New York, according to Heather, it has yet to take Boston by storm. “Things like Soul Cycle and other fitness enterprises are just coming to Boston. So we knew there would be a market for juice. It was just a matter of filling that gap.”

Heather and Chris left their jobs in May of 2014 and moved to Boston. They financed Thirst through a combination of savings and money from the sale of an apartment they owned in New York. She notes that she didn’t have debts to pay coming out of law school.

Heather and Chris rented a space in downtown Boston that met their size and price requirements. It’s close to the freedom trail, on the same block as a luxury apartment complex and right in the financial district, giving them multiple client bases to tap into. They hired an architect to help transform the place from a hair salon to a juice bar, a graphic designer to develop their brand and even a lawyer to assist with the real estate transactions and permit requirements.

Q: Did you, in the course of all the development for Thirst, find yourself using your legal education?

Heather: Definitely in negotiating the lease. We had a lawyer who knew the Boston market helping us, but we were able to identify loopholes and get through it really quickly because of our training. Law school teaches you how to spot issues, too, and how to prioritize issues when solving a problem. Building Thirst has been all about setting up the pieces in the right order.

A New Plan

After this storefront opens, Heather hopes that Thirst will eventually become a chain of juice bars across Boston. And while she doesn’t plan on returning to law, she says wouldn’t have done anything differently. “If I hadn’t gone to law school or tried practicing, I would have always wondered if that’s the thing I should be doing.”

Ultimately, the time and effort spent getting the J.D. and working as a lawyer were hardly a waste. They are a piece in the picture of figuring out what she wanted to do and what kind of life she wanted to build.

It might feel strange, while in the throes of outlining and note editing, to hear a perspective of law school that allows you to leave it behind. But wouldn’t it also be strange to have a plan that never changes?


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