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For some, switching careers worth the risk

Justin Shanes ditched his lucrative career as a

Justin Shanes ditched his lucrative career as a corporate litigator to pursue comedy writing. He now writes jokes for NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” (Apr. 6, 2012) Credit: Jeremy Bales

Near the end of a Friday in March 2009, Justin Shanes, a third-year law associate at Hogan & Hartson, walked into a senior partner's office. He sat silently in an armchair as he waited for his boss, who was shuffling through some papers and scribbling down notes, to acknowledge him. Finally, Shanes blurted it out.

"I think I'm leaving the firm," he said.

The partner looked up from his papers. "Now you've got my attention," he said.

Shanes, 28, had just announced his intention to leave his $170,000-a-year job at the Manhattan firm. The move was risky, considering the upheaval at the time in U.S. and world financial markets and the fact that U.S. law firms were deferring job offers at a record rate. But none of those things mattered to Shanes, who wanted to ditch his lucrative career as a corporate litigator to pursue what had otherwise been a hobby: comedy writing.

Along with his paycheck, Shanes, who grew up in Plainview, was trading in his Manhattan office and the assistant, the $1,000 ergonomic swivel chair and abundant supply of cherrywood cabinets that came with it -- for open mic nights in comedy clubs in Queens and the East Village. Personally, it meant he had to move out of his doorman building into a rent-stabilized apartment, cut out expensive dinners and start taking the subway more often.

In the end it worked out for Shanes, who writes monologue jokes for NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," where he says he is earning roughly the same salary as when he was at the law firm. But his case is often the exception, not the rule.

 

First, line up a new gig

As the economy has stayed mired in an economic slump, most workers who would like to quit their day job to pursue their passions may opt to stay put and wait for job prospects to improve. Many who do switch careers rely on other family members for financial support. In the first quarter of 2011, according to the New York State Department of Labor, roughly 140,000 Long Islanders were either fired, laid off or quit their jobs. Re-entry is tough: In May there were only 5,145 job openings in Nassau and Suffolk counties registered with the state. Those willing to risk a pay cut or the uncertainty of an industry they are new to need to know the risks and sacrifices involved, and how to turn a hobby into a decent profession.

"What people see as a hobby doesn't always translate into a career," said Jane Cranston, a Manhattan-based career coach.

She advises potential career-changers not to move until they've got a new gig lined up and that they're sure they'll like it.

That wasn't the case with Shanes. "I was so fundamentally unhappy that even if I didn't have this other passion that I wanted to pursue, I would have needed to leave regardless," he said.

Besides the financial security, Shanes said little else kept him at the firm, which was renamed Hogan Lovells after a 2010 merger. He had grown contemptuous of the legal profession, mostly the rigid rules about seniority that formed the basis of the firm's hierarchical culture.

"There wasn't this shared sense of 'Oh, we're all working toward this common goal,' " he said.

Shanes yearned to do something more creative. He remembered writing satirical editorials for the Harvard Law School Record, and -- what he considers his greatest creative achievement -- producing "Finding Nemo Contributory Negligent," a musical comedy that parodied his classmates and professors at Harvard. The projects weren't serious forays into comedy writing, though, just temporary diversions. Law school had always made sense.

"Even though my friends knew I was funny," Shanes said, "I wasn't exactly the class clown of the law firm."

 

The writing was on the wall

Like Shanes, Tom Rizzuto left a full-time job with benefits to pursue a different profession. Rizzuto, 32, lives in Northport with his parents and grandmother. From 2008 to early 2011, he drove a van for News 12 Long Island. Some days, he wrote plays while waiting in the van. He sold one of his scripts to the Bare Bones Theater Company in Northport, where the show premiered in December 2010.

Rizzuto was so thrilled to see it performed that he wrote another one, but this time he was asked to act in it. On the day of the performance, his supervisor phoned him. Rizzuto had forgotten to fill out the necessary paperwork for requesting time off that day, and if he didn't go in, he could lose his job.

"If I don't go into work, they'll fire me," he said he realized. "But if I do go and miss the show, I'll probably be miserable." Rizzuto performed in the play, and sure enough, he was fired the next day.

Since then, he has written a few plays, produced videos for companies on a freelance basis and started directing a feature film that he wrote and for which he is raising funds. In the past year he estimates he's earned a few thousand dollars from various projects -- far less than the nearly $40,000 he was making at News 12. He's given up searching for his own place, and a trip to Sicily has been put on hold. And on dates, he starts, "I'm 32, I live in my parent's house, I don't have a real job," before adding, "Do you want to go out next weekend?"

"It doesn't bother me being poor," Rizzuto said. "A lot of my friends lost their jobs and had to move in with their parents. We sort of have a group therapy thing."

 

Acting was his calling

In 2010, a year after losing his job on Wall Street, where he worked for nearly two decades, first as a runner on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and later as an equity training coordinator, John Dorcic realized his next job had become untenable. For a few months he tried managing a construction company, but business was slow and the work was too strenuous. At the same time he had been taking acting classes. Instead of searching for another job in finance -- the ones he considered paid only on commission -- he figured the time was ripe to give acting a shot.

"Wall Street was supposed to be secure, and it turned out to be very ephemeral," said Dorcic, 46. "Why don't I try something out of the box?"

Like Rizzuto, Dorcic, a voiceover artist and actor who lives in Lindenhurst, earns only a fraction of what he once made since changing careers. Both men can change career gears, said Jeff Bennett, manager of the Bare Bones Theater, because they have families who can support them financially. Dorcic's wife works as a speech therapist at a school in Kings Park.

"They can afford that kind of gamble," said Bennett, whereas others might not.

After nearly 18 months of performing in comedy clubs, Shanes landed at "Fallon." A friend who wrote for the show encouraged him to apply, which he did -- twice. The first time, the writers told Shanes he needed some improvement. The second time was the charm, and Shanes began writing jokes for Fallon's daily monologue in October 2010.

"It was impossible to even process that," he recalled about getting the job. Especially since, for some time, his parents fretted that he had made a mistake by abandoning his legal career, Shanes said.

"It was a typical parents' reaction," Shanes said. "What are you going to do with your life? How are you going to make money?"

Now, Shanes' parents are relieved that he is employed. And if it doesn't work out, they say, it is comforting to know that he has a degree from Harvard Law School to fall back on. But returning to a field you've already left, warn job analysts -- especially law -- might involve lowering expectations. The legal field has shrunk considerably since Shanes left it, even at large firms like his former employer.

"It's a crowded space," said James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Legal Professionals. "Corporations are not spending the same amount on legal services. They cut spending during the recession, and they're not going back to that."

Cranston, the career coach, agrees.

"You can go back to law," she said. "The question is, go back as what? At what level?"

Shanes doesn't seem too keen on returning to the profession. But he did go out of his way to make his mother happy, so it is an option. When his law license expired last year, his mother encouraged him to renew it, and pay a $350 registration fee. That also meant sitting through a four-hour online seminar about animal law, and then mailing in a code displayed in the video to prove he watched it.

"Being at Fallon and watching this conference on animal law was so absurd," Shanes said. "I don't know what point I'll let that stuff expire, but for now it's good to say, technically, that I'm still a lawyer."

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