Name: Andrew Lee
Location: New York, NY
Career Change: Lawyer to TV Editor
Inside Tip: “Try to ignore the naysayers. I cut my interaction with those people because it’s not helpful. A lot of people will project their own insecurities and failures on you if you let them.”
Whether it’s due to a change of heart or an industry shakeup, lots of people end up rethinking their career choices. Most, however, are deterred from starting over in a new line of work, discouraged by having to go back to school, pay their dues again, and start over on a new pay scale. Andrew Lee is not one of those people. After graduating from NYU Law School in 2000, he was on the path to partner at a prestigious New York law firm. But in 2005, Lee quit practicing law and started to pursue a career as a film editor and media professional. He's since edited and produced for various reality TV and documentary programs, including Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS, and is currently the editor and post-supervisor for PBS's monthly documentary series about the gay experience entitled In the Life. Lee, 35, recently spoke to Made Possible about why he decided to shift careers, how he was able to get through self-doubt, and his advice to anyone thinking of also making the switch.
Made Possible: It seems like you switched between two different careers that are both uniquely difficult and demanding, would you agree?
Andrew Lee: I definitely agree. Law is tough. Being a Producer & Film Editor is also difficult and challenging. I’m an ambitious person, so I think I am often attracted to work that is challenging.
MP: Did you bring any skills or knowledge from your law background that you’ve found essential for working in media?
AL: The best thing I took from my professional legal environment was attention to detail. In a lot of creative fields, new entrants do not have this—film school grads spend their time studying story, not making sure they have cut the exact number of frames off a television segment. Attention to detail sets you apart. Many of the entry-level jobs in film are drudgery, but if you do things well, right, and consistently, you stand out.
MP: A lot of people never make the switch because the thought of having to step back or start over is too tough, intimidating, or just not feasible economically. How were you able to overlook those issues?
AL: I think I am a little tougher than the average bear, or maybe not. You really have one life to live; think about how you will feel if you never make the leap.
MP: Was there a specific moment that inspired you to change careers?
AL: There was no specific moment. It was an accumulation of moments, of events, of thoughts. I had turned 30 and I knew that if I didn’t try to make the leap now, there was very little chance I would have the opportunity to do so in the future. So I did it.
MP: How did your friends and family react when you told them?
AL: They were very supportive. I actually wish that they had given me a bit more push back, just because I think everyone needs someone to give them a reality check. My wife was a good reality check. She asked the right questions. ‘How are you going to get a job?’ ‘How much money are you going to make?’ ‘Will it be just as stressful and tough as being a lawyer?’ You need people to make you question your assumptions about career transition. Not naysayers, but people who will make sure that you have your ducks in a row.
I tried to ignore the naysayers. Most won’t come out directly and say you can’t do it. Rather, they will act as if you are naive or flaky. They will make remarks like “What's next? Snorkel instructor in the Bahamas?” I cut my interaction with those people because it’s not helpful. A lot of people will project their own insecurities and failures on you if you let them.
MP: Did you have to go back for schooling or receive any type of training?
AL: I think school is generally not a good idea for a career change. Too many people who want to change careers see education as an easy ticket to a new life, it’s not. A lot of people end up paying a lot of money for a degree then having to start at the bottom anyway. The good thing about just going for it without additional schooling is that you will be able to tell early on, without significant financial outlay, whether this is the right career or not. If it isn’t, you can back away from the field without thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars of debt.
That’s not to say training or classes aren’t useful. I took classes, but always for specific skills, never for a piece of paper or a degree. If I wanted to learn how to use a certain camera, I read about it or took a class.
MP: Did you skip any steps when you started your second career?
AL: I wish I had skipped steps! I started out at the very bottom. I probably could have started at a higher level, if I had networked and met more people while I was working as an attorney. I could have laid the groundwork better by getting involved in the field earlier, and meeting more people earlier. If I did it over, I would try to position myself earlier in law, by getting to know the media community. Of course, when you are working long hours, it’s hard to take time on the side to do that.
MP: Was it easier or harder starting a career by switching from another industry than just having gone that career track coming out of college ?
AL: Probably a bit harder, because I don’t fit the regular mold. I am little older, and I had a lucrative legal career. People wouldn’t take me seriously at first. The advantage I had was that being older gave me more experience in work environments. I knew what bosses wanted. I knew how to deliver results.
MP: What was your first position working in media?
AL: I started as an intern in the fundraising department of DCTV, which is a community media center. DCTV’s production department is full of award-winning documentaries and film for HBO and other big distributors, but I was working in the administrative area, which was totally separate from production. The best thing about DCTV was exposure to the media process. They offered classes, and that’s where I started to learn how to shoot, how to edit, and how to tell stories. I also met a ton of people, many of whom helped me later in my transition.
MP: How did you get from there to where you are now in your career?
AL: Meeting people. At a DCTV camera class, I met an associate producer for a reality travel show for TLC. I asked for her e-mail, and sent my resume, and I got a production internship with some paid days. When I was working on the travel show, I met another associate producer who gave my name to the production manager of an ice skating show, and they hired me as a production coordinator. After a staff shakeout, I was promoted to production supervisor on that show, and I hired an editor, Alison Amron, who became a mentor to me. After the ice skating show was done, she brought me over to PBS to work with her as an assistant editor on a documentary about net neutrality and the Internet. There is really a chain of people leading from that first internship all the way to my current position as editor and post-supervisor for In the Life Media.
MP: What was the hardest part of the transition?
AL: Swallowing my pride. I went from making $150,000+ and having my own office overlooking Central Park to sharing a desk and making no money and getting absolutely no respect.
MP: What was the easiest?
AL: Meeting people and learning about a new field. Film and media is a fascinating area, and the people who work in it are characters. You meet the craziest and most interesting creative people. And it’s awesome. I once sat in a room with Bill Moyers working through an edit of an interview with Robert Bly, the former poet laureate. I’ll remember that forever.
MP: Did you ever have any moments when you were starting out, where you thought about quitting and going back to practice law?
AL: I still have those moments. It’s only been five years since I left law, so I’m still working through what the endgame is. And when I have doubts, I talk to my wife, who helps me remember how interesting and enjoyable my current work is. I’m still amazed that I get paid to do what I do. I am amazed that the people I work with get paid to do what they do. The best way to keep confident is to look forward—look at what people at the top of your new field are doing and imagine yourself in those roles. That is inspiring.
MP: Did you have any kind of a safety cushion (or what you thought was a safety cushion) or just fly blind?
AL: Yes, I saved a ton of money as an attorney. If you are unhappy in your current job, you need to be frugal, live below your means, and save. That will give you the means to change careers.
MP: Do you still have a bailout plan in case things don’t work out in your current career?
AL: I had some alternate career paths that I was considering. I have an undergraduate degree in Economics, and I was thinking about going into economic or business analysis. If I didn’t make it in film and television, I figured that I could try that. I also maintained my law license, so that I could return to practice. I have several friends who are partners at law firms, who I knew would offer me a staff attorney job if I was in dire straits.
MP: What advice do you have for someone thinking of making a career switch?
- Know yourself. What works for one person doesn’t always work for other people. I jumped off the cliff, and you need nerves for that. Some people would do better with a gradual transition.
- Research the hell out of what you want to do. Know it inside and out. Know how people go into it. Know the pay rates. Know everything there is.
- Act as if you have arrived. From the beginning, I positioned myself as a media person. I had a little speech that I would give about who I was and where I wanted to go. Cheesy, yes, but a lot of the process of transitioning is putting yourself in the right mindset. If you think you still are a lawyer, well you still are a lawyer. Your mindset will lead you where you want to go.
- Live below your means. Financial strains kill many career changers. If you are not willing to save and cut back in order to change careers, then it will be very difficult to complete a transition if there are any speed bumps.
- Meet as many people as you can. Connections help you learn, help you understand the field, and help you get jobs.
MP: What would you say to people who think they’ll never want or need to switch careers?
AL: Each to their own. We all have to decide what is right for each of us. But I think you have to know what is holding you back. Are you really happy? Or are you just scared? And if you are scared, is that how you want to live your life?