Second Acts: How One Woman Carefully Orchestrated Her Radical Move from Attorney to Teacher
On a Friday afternoon in 2001, Diane Lidman sat with kindergarteners, helping them learn and practice reading skills. As a working mom, she felt fortunate to volunteer in her daughter’s classroom. Lidman’s enthusiasm with the children prompted the teacher to ask, “You’re so good with kids, why are you a lawyer?”
The experienced attorney had to think hard about the answer.
“This teacher saw something I wasn’t seeing,” said Lidman. “Being around children really fills my cup. So why was I an attorney?”
The answer: That’s what Lidman was trained to do. Although her bachelor’s degree was in elementary education, as a new grad she hadn’t found jobs where she wanted to live. Instead of relocating, she took her father’s advice and went to law school.
“I actually loved it,” said Lidman. She entered the field of intellectual property law, helping clients understand their rights and obligations around trademarks, copyrights and—her particular expertise—nutrition labels. Over 16 years in practice, she gained clout in her firm and her field. Even when she downshifted to three days a week, she earned a healthy salary.
“I was always educating people, and I was respected for my work,” said Lidman. “But I didn’t feel like I was making that big of a difference. When I realized that my spark comes from children, I knew I had to make a change.”
Lidman began a two-year process of retooling her skills. It had been 20 years since she’d studied elementary education.
“I did a mock interview with my daughter’s principal,” she said. “She gave me feedback on the gaps I needed to fill, and I started taking graduate-level courses so I’d be ready to speak intelligently in interviews.”
Alongside parenting and her legal career, going back to school wasn’t easy. “I couldn’t have done it without my husband,” said Lidman. “He had the girls when I went to class at night and when I studied on weekends.”
In the spring of 2003, Lidman attended a career fair and caught the eye of a principal in her own school district. A few interviews later, he offered her a job. That August, she left law and started teaching second grade.
“There wasn’t a huge difference between my clients and second graders. Clients were just taller,” she laughed. “But I was in my element. I found teaching even more intellectually challenging than law and more physically challenging than anything I’ve ever done. I took five leaps forward in terms of my emotional health.”
Still, there were difficulties.
“I went from part time to full time with a $30,000 pay cut,” she said. “Plus I continued taking classes, and I had two really young kids. You have to measure how you’re going to make all that work. We adjusted our housing, our cars and our family budget.”
“I guess I’ve turned into an education junkie,” she said. “As a result, I advanced my learning and my income. I moved forward quickly.”
Lidman went from second grade, to fourth grade, to instructional coaching (training other teachers), to her current role as the district’s assistant director of curriculum. This position draws on her experience in both classrooms and conference rooms.
“It’s good use of my expertise, but I miss being with the kids,” said Lidman. “So I’m working to find more ways to have contact with them.” Because she’s attuned to what matters most, Lidman is confident she’ll find her way back to the children.
If a radical career shift appeals to you, consider borrowing a few tips from Lidman’s journey:
- Take your time. Lidman didn’t run from one job to reach the other. She paced the transition carefully, one step at time. Her deliberate approach helped protect what matters most: her family, her reputation and her sanity.
- Use every resource at your disposal. In addition to taking classes and enlisting help at home, Lidman used her network to get ready for the job she wanted. Her mock interview with the principal helped set her up for success.
- Know your strengths. Also, be open to new ways of using them. A teacher’s honest observation—and Lidman’s honest response—became the catalyst for a new career.
“It’s all about looking for windows,” said Lidman. “There are plenty of doors, and they often get slammed. But if you look for little windows, you can find a way through. You may not end up where you thought you would, and you’ll probably end up somewhere better.”
This post is one in a four-part series on women who have changed their lives through unexpected career moves.