Alternative Legal Careers: BigLaw to Admissions to Consulting

Published: Jun 16, 2011

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Anna Ivey—founder of Ivey Consulting—didn't begin law school with dreams that she would lead the admissions office of one of the most prestigious law schools in the country or found her own admissions consulting company. But her interest in business combined with her law degree and legal experience led her down a unique path that covered everything from working as a BigLaw associate to serving as Dean of Admissions at University of Chicago Law School to opening her own business. Now counseling law school, MBA and undergrad candidates on the admissions process, Ivey has melded her varied experiences to launch a successful consulting career. Ivey took some time to answer some of Vault Law's questions on her career path, law school admissions, and nontraditional legal careers. Check out part 1 of our interview below (and stop by tomorrow for the second half of the Q&A).


Vault Law: What drew you to law school?

Anna Ivey: This might sound familiar to some readers:

I was graduating from Columbia with a history degree, and I thought, "OK, I love to read and write and think and learn. Now what?" I had also interned during school for a law firm, and my parents are lawyers, so law school seemed the most obvious choice. When people talk about the "seduction of the law," that can mean different things to different people. For me, it was an intellectual seduction -- law had a reputation as a cerebral profession, one that's good for life-long learners, and that image appealed to me. I didn't explore other options with much seriousness. That was pretty silly in hindsight because law school wasn't going anywhere, and I could have learned a little more about the world (and myself) first. For example, Stanford Business School is also a nice match for lifelong learners (although they require a lot more experience and self-awareness from applicants than law schools do, to their credit). There are many interesting paths out there.

Even though I am no longer practicing law, things worked out nicely for me -- I continue to leverage the value of my legal training and legal experience. Especially in the current job market, though, I'm mindful that the investment in law school doesn't turn out as happily for everyone. Who you are in school can be quite different from who you are in the working world. Learning about yourself and the longer-term options out there makes a lot of sense before you commit to an expensive graduate degree.

VL: From practicing corporate law at a large law firm to working at a top ten law school to running your own admissions consulting firm, your career has been quite diverse. Can you describe your career path?

AI: I took my share of not-so-practical classes in law school (Roman Law!), but somewhere along the way, I discovered a nascent interest in the business world, and so I spent most of my last two years focusing on core classes for a career in transactional law, including some classes at the business school. I was planning on heading into BigLaw, not least because I was going to graduate with a lot of debt.

After law school, I went out to Los Angeles and worked in Century City, next to those triangular towers from Die Hard and across the street from the 20th Century Fox studios. Like many BigLaw associates, however, I decided after a few years that BigLaw life wasn't for me. Part of that malaise resulted from my lack of prior real-world experience and the innate bumpiness of the transition from school to the working world. As a junior associate, I experienced a bit of an intellectual let-down after school. That's not a slight on my old law firm, which is actually very brainiac. My perception at the time says more about my then-unreasonable expectations about the working world than it does about any law firm. I did get wonderful legal and professional training and was introduced to the real business world. I learned about M&A, securities, secured lending, contract drafting, and film finance, but also about professionalism, client relations, intra-firm politics and diplomacy, and business development. I had some great mentors to learn from. I wanted the right opportunity to come along before redirecting my career, so I kept my ear to the ground. I love being around world-class universities -- there's something in the air there -- so when I heard about the chance to join the admissions office at the University of Chicago Law School (where I had also been a law student), I jumped on it and was later promoted to Dean of Admissions. All in all, not a bad transition! Since I had a preexisting and happy connection to the law school, I was able to see myself settling in there for a long time, so the move made all kinds of sense.

Still, life sometimes has other plans for us, and when I moved back out to the West Coast for personal reasons, starting my own business began to make the most sense, and I wanted to preserve the parts that I loved most about my role as an admissions officer. I came away from my admissions experience keenly aware that many applicants were not receiving sound advice, so I founded Ivey Consulting focusing originally on serving law school applicants. Since then, as I built out my team, we've also expanded to college and MBA admissions. Working with a great team has been much more fun and productive for me than being solo. Having smart minds around you is so important, no matter what kind of work you're doing.

So over time, you can see there was a real and ongoing tension between my academic and business-y sides. I think I've ended up in a sweet spot.

VL: What was it like to transition from a practicing attorney in BigLaw to an admissions professional?

AI: There are some similarities. In both roles you're working for large institutions with all of the pluses and minuses a big institution entails. On the other hand, making the transition from a young associate to admissions is also in some ways a big bump in responsibility.

The best parts of my admissions role were interacting with applicants and becoming good at risk analysis: making decisions quickly with a limited amount of information and being accountable for those decisions. I had never been given that kind of responsibility before. I also, by necessity, had to learn management skills very quickly. All of a sudden I was managing people and budgets and reported directly to the dean of the law school, who was basically the "CEO." Chicago Law School is still a lean, mean operating machine -- they don't like to waste money on unnecessary administrative head count -- so I personally talked to a lot of applicants around the country, read a lot of files, conducted a lot of interviews, and obsessed over a lot of spreadsheets. I was also there during a period of change in that admissions office and in law school admissions more generally, and managing change was a learning curve in and of itself. It was a great experience.

In contrast, young associates in BigLaw often complain that they're doing menial work, rightly or wrongly. But the cases and deals they're working on are high stakes, too, and it's tempting for them to undervalue the exposure they're getting in the process.

Every job has elements that aren't fun, and starting at the bottom is always rough, no matter the industry. Being promoted so quickly in my admissions role, though, gave me management experience that I otherwise wouldn't have acquired so soon. Getting really good at something and feeling a sense of mastery is a joy in itself, whether you acquire that expertise through an accelerated trial by fire or at a slower pace.

VL: Do you think your law degree has been valuable in your launching and running Ivey Consulting?

Definitely, although my law firm experience and first-hand admissions experience are also big assets. All three give me credibility and expertise when I'm advising applicants, when I'm educating myself about schools and careers, and when I'm running the business. My legal training also helps when I'm talking to our business lawyers and accountants. There's a fluency and a shorthand we share -- I can speak their language when I need to. I like to say that I'm a "recovering lawyer" because once you have the training, you can never really shake it off, for better or worse. Every once in a while when I'm talking to another lawyer, even in social situations, I'll lapse into a discussion about "cross-collateralization" or "syndicated financing" and then realize that I'm still part of the tribe. We are so much fun at cocktail parties!

Read Part 2 of Anna Ivey's interview with Vault here: Alternative Legal Careers: BigLaw to Admissions to Consulting


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School (as well as a formerly practicing lawyer), Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can read more admissions advice in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book, and connect with Anna on Twitter and Facebook.

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