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Lisa Reep thought she always wanted to be an attorney - until she went to law school. That experience lasted just one night.
She had paid the tuition and bought the textbooks despite nagging doubts. She hadn't taken the LSATs because she planned to attend a night law school in Santa Barbara. Because it wasn't an ABA-approved law school, she didn't need the LSATs.
"I really didn't have a sense of what I was getting myself into," Ms. Reep said. "And the first class just struck me - I don't want to go to law school."
That was that. Soon after, Ms. Reep left her job as a courtroom clerk and Spanish interpreter at the municipal courts in Santa Barbara and moved to San Francisco. She had a bachelor's degree in social sciences and wanted a legal career, but she wasn't interested in going back to school and she didn't want to be a legal secretary.
"I kept my eyes wide open thinking I would get a terrific job," she said. "And I found after looking very hard for a number of months that without a law degree and without a willingness to be support staff as a legal secretary, there really weren't a lot of legal jobs available in the legal field."
Ms. Reep, 45, ran into a friend by chance in San Francisco who told her the American Arbitration Association was looking for a case administrator. Ms. Reep applied for the job and got it. She loved the work, but as in many non-profit organizations, the money was terrible.
She worked a second job at night, running the tanning salon at a 24-hour fitness center while she worked her way up the ladder at the American Arbitration Association from 8 to 5. From 6 to 11, she worked at the gym. Eventually she became the director of education, planning and administrating continuing education classes and she left the tanning salon.
"It was fun, it was social," she said of the tanning salon. "I was young then, in my twenties. I had the energy to have two jobs."
Ms. Reep, who studied Spanish throughout college and completed an immersion course in Mexico, says speaking two languages has helped in her career, particularly with so many people in the United States speaking Spanish as a first language.
Her background in planning continuing education courses at the Arbitration Association helped her land the job as executive director of the Contra Costa County Bar Association, which offers various courses to its 1,650 members.
Ms. Reep said many small and medium sized bar associations are run by non-attorney executive directors and that people interested in a legal career with a bar association should join the association or apply for support positions within the organization.
She has been the executive director of the association for ten years.
"It's very varied, which is probably what keeps me interested," she said. "It's like running a small business. You have all of the personnel and bookkeeping responsibilities. And you also have all of the membership responsibilities. Like a trade association, we have a big service component to what we do as well so I deal with our board of directors, I deal with our committee chairs, section leaders, and staff that handle the different programs that we run. And I deal with committees and sometimes the press."
It's a voluntary bar association and most of the members are solo practitioners or from small firms. The association gives them a chance to network with their colleagues in other firms.
Ms. Reep said the executive director job can be a "lonely position."
"There's nobody other than other executive directors of bar associations who really understand your job," she said.
But the executive directors are a tight knit group and members of Executives of California Legal Associations, or ECLA, gather often to swap stories and advice.
Ms. Reep, who moved to California from Colorado at 17, said networking is a big attraction for the members of the Bar Association and that membership has been growing. The association offers specialized courses in various areas of law.
"We also have a really great relationship with our local bench," she said. "There are a lot of opportunities for our bar members to interact with the judges. I think that for litigators that's pretty important. And also to have an opportunity to socialize with them, to the extent that judges can, so that they build some collegiality."
The association offers online courses, but Ms. Reep says the classroom based classes are more popular. Attorneys in California are required to have 25 hours of continuing education, recently reduced from 36 hours.
"I think people like coming personally to programs, because they like to see people and have some interaction," she said.
Ms. Reep said she was "lucky" to get her job because the opportunity arose at a perfect time in her career when she had the experience and the desire to take on a new challenge. She urged job seekers to keep an open mind and be willing to consider unexpected opportunities.
"You know, the year before I got my job I wouldn't have dreamed of doing what I'm doing now," she said. "And that applies to my position at the American Arbitration Association as well. So just network, network, network and be open to things that you hadn't previously considered."
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