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From Public Defense to Animal Rights – 5 Steps I Took in My Career Transition

A cat sniffing a dog.

I am not sure exactly when my love affair with animals began – somewhere in my toddler years, I suppose. There are numerous photos of me in family albums that bear some resemblance to those we see on Facebook today, of young children engaged with domestic and wild animals. And maybe those animals somehow knew that I was a kindred soul. Every time we went to the zoo and stood by the giraffe enclosure, the same one would come over, stretch his neck out and land his head on my shoulder. I named him Jack.

Growing up, I saw to it that our home was a menagerie. We had the typical dogs and cats, but added to that were ferrets, ducks, cats, birds, and rodents. As a teen, I volunteered at the local Humane Society on weekends. In college, I joined Greenpeace and participated in many demonstrations against laboratory animal testing, circuses, and the treatment of animals we insist upon raising and abusing to fill our bellies. My heart was with those who did not have a voice.

After law school, I joined the public defender’s office of a medium-sized Midwestern city and embarked upon a career of advocating for people who had very little “voice” within the justice system. It was fulfilling work in many ways, and I have friendships within this underclass that will last a lifetime.

Still, I never forgot my “roots.” I volunteered my legal services to animal rights groups, served on the board of an exotic animal rescue, and fell in love with every dog or cat that the local Humane Society promoted on local television. I fostered as many animals as possible, and there were (and still are) a number of stray cats who probably have mixed feelings toward me since I caught them, had them neutered, but then continued to feed and look out for them. Every non-working evening and weekend was spent in some animal-related activity.

Ultimately, I knew I had to make a change.

My Transition

Public defense is, by its very nature, criminal defense. And, the bit of legal work I did for animal rights groups was also criminal defense – violation of property rights, disturbance of the peace, interfering with an officer of the law, etc.

My heart was really in being an advocate for the animals, not for the people who got arrested because of their activism. I needed to be directly involved with these precious creatures, to know that my work would save them from lives of abuse and neglect.

Changing my practice to the area of animal rights advocacy would take some doing – I had absolutely no experience in that niche whatsoever. It took time, research, some real detective work, and a lot of just plain guts. How I did it may give you some ideas, if you are looking for a change within the nonprofit sector.

5 Unique Steps I Took to Get the Position I Wanted

1. Think Big

Rather than go to a local Humane Society or ASPCA chapter, I moved straight up to the ASPCA at the national level. It is often a good idea, actually, to go straight to the top. There are usually lots of “gate keepers,” especially within large non-profits, and getting through each of those can be time-consuming and really laborious. Sometimes, the head honcho is a lot easier to reach through a very direct approach. It certainly can’t hurt to try that first. These introductory steps will be helpful in making your interaction a success:

Do some research: I needed to know how the legal department was structured. In fact, there are a number of sub-departments. For example, one focused on prosecutions, employing local ASPCA attorneys to sit second-chair with prosecutors; another department was responsible for drafting legislation which local attorneys could present to city, county and state makers. Both of these areas interested me, because they related directly to advocating for and protecting my loves.

Take names: I focused on the directors and assistant directors of the two sub-departments that interested me. I also got the names of local attorneys within a 50-mile radius – if I had to go from the bottom up, these people would come in handy. I would suggest this to anyone who wants to move into a different organization.

Establish relationships: A good strategy is to start with people lower on the chain while you’re planning your strategy to get to that person at the top. I did it by finding them on Facebook and LinkedIn, which was surprisingly was easy. I began to join in conversations with them.

Once they knew I was an attorney, they began to share more of their work with me. Developing an online relationship with current staff can get your foot in the door more than you know. One of the things I did was show up at events I discovered they would be at through our online conversations. I always told them ahead of time, because no one wants to feel as if they are being “stalked.” At these events, I was able to introduce myself face-to-face. Even if you have to buy a meal for a fundraising event, do it.

I attended some city council meetings, and sat in a courtroom or two, watching some of the local attorneys in action. Gradually, a few relationships developed, and I found myself making some suggestions regarding legislative drafts they were working on. They were appreciative, and, at that point, I made it known that I really wanted to get into the organization. This meant they would think of me if an opening were to occur.

2. Don’t wait for a position opening to be announced and posted

Find a way to connect with the top people now. Here is what you can do:

Use social media: Once you have names, find these people on social media. Chances are they have a Facebook and/or LinkedIn account just as those down the chain do. Follow the same procedures I suggested earlier in order to get your name “out there.”

Join and participate in online groups: Join the same online groups these people have joined. Start participating in the conversations and comment on the postings of these individuals. Do it often enough so that your name is recognized.The ASPCA has a phenomenal Facebook page, and I began to comment on as many posts as possible. Not only does the Association itself have a presence, but everyone in that legal department did as well. It took some time, but I’m the patient sort. The other big plus was that, as I began to loyally follow and comment, these people were able to get a clear idea of my commitment to animal rights. It also demonstrated my communication skills. Any position in a non-profit, no matter what other skills may be required, will depend heavily on communication skills. The more you can demonstrate that skill and the other skills you have that will be of value to the organization the better. In your online discussions, speak to the hard skills you have too. Are you an IT pro? Talk about some of your projects. Are you a PR person? Talk about events you have planned. Find ways to insert the work you do into those conversations.

3. Get published

Whether it is just an organization’s newsletter or a local or regional publication, try to write about your work and the importance of what your department does to the mission of the organization. Another way to get published is to identify blogs and journals to which you can submit articles. If your organization has a blog, offer to write articles and contribute content. This helps establish your credibility within your niche and demonstrates that you are really up-to-date on your specific area of expertise- potential employers love to see this!

I wrote articles about legal aspects of animal rights and submitted them to journals as a way to establish my credibility within that niche of the law. I linked to them during online conversations.

Find blogs that relate to your niche. Begin to submit posts. Every time one is published, you can link to it on your resume, online profile, and personal webpage.

4. Take the initiative to meet

The boldest step I took was to take a vacation to New York City where the ASPCA headquarters is located. I had finally decided that my area of greatest interest was in legislation, so there had to be some way to make an appointment with the director of that department. Here is what I did to make that happen.

  • I drafted a piece of legislation that further clarified some aspects of animal neglect. It actually came from a journal article I had been working on, and it was a piece that could and should be considered by any city in the country.
  • I ran the piece by a local ASPCA attorney with whom I had a good relationship. And I told him that I was going to New York and would really love to have the chance to propose it to the director. Could he help? We both sent an email to that director. Mine was introductory of course, but I dropped his name, mentioned the piece of legislation, asked for an appointment. His email spoke highly of me and the piece.
  • Three days later I got an email telling me to call the office and make an appointment. Done and done.

If you can come up with something that will be of value to the organization, do not be shy. Maybe you have an idea for a fundraiser or R event. Perhaps you have developed a database system that they could use to streamline some of their processes. Take a look of what you have accomplished in your current position and determine if it will bring value to them. Then use your relationships to get that meeting.

5. Show off soft skills

If you can arrange any type of face-to face meeting, you will have the chance to demonstrate your skills of communication and interpersonal relationships. One of the key things about nonprofits is that staff has to be able to relate to a large diversity of people. Work into the conversation times when you successfully worked with those very different from yourself.

Making connections long before there is a position open can be of huge value. You are a known quality already, and that gives you an edge that others won’t have. Think about the ways you can establish relationships ahead of time – being proactive is a winning strategy.

About the Author: Laura Callisen is a professional journalist, animal lover, and devoted mother. Today she writes all things about career growth and self-fulfillment at GrabMyEssay.

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