Former Copy Editor Becomes Legal Assistant, Takes $20,000-a-Year Pay Cut

While the news industry is frantically searching for solutions and new directions, journalists’ lives have been disrupted by cutbacks and job changes. Poynter Online wants to help by sharing how-they-did-it snapshots from people who overcame employment challenges.

IVY JIGGENS

Age: 41

New job: Legal assistant for an attorney with a solo practice.

Old job: Copy editor at the Ann Arbor News. Before that, copy editor at the Detroit Free Press.

Biggest change so far: The pay. I took a $20,000-a-year cut to start at the bottom in a new field. But as I gain education and experience, my pay should eventually go back to where it was.

I left because: I accepted a buyout. Even without the buyout offer, I was planning to leave the newspaper business eventually because I could see that there were few opportunities for advancement. Every time a mid-level editor quit, the job was eliminated instead of filled. And I could see it was the same at every other newspaper, with no end in sight. After 15 years as a copy editor, I was ready to move up, but there was no place for me to go.

More than a year before the buyout, I was looking around for another way to earn a living and I stumbled across the paralegal field. That job kept showing up on Internet lists of the fastest growing career fields, and when I looked at what paralegals do — researching, writing, interviewing, analyzing — there seemed to be a lot of overlap with journalism.

I just happen to live two miles down the street from Eastern Michigan University, which has an ABA-approved paralegal studies program. So I started taking classes one or two nights a week to earn a second bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. After two years I’m about one-third of the way there.

I know a fair number of journalists end up going to law school. Even the head of EMU’s paralegal program is a journalist-turned-lawyer. But as the mother of two little kids, I don’t have the time, energy or money to go to law school at this stage of my life, so this is a good alternative for someone like me. Plus, because they can do a lot of the same tasks for a lower salary, paralegals are supposedly more in demand than attorneys right now.

I was out of work for: No time at all. I was lucky enough to go straight from one job to the other. I found my new job on Craigslist. Oh, the irony.

I relied on: My buyout money and my husband’s income. He has a relatively secure job at a large corporation, complete with decent health insurance, which my current job doesn’t offer.

This new gig is: A constant learning experience. I learn things in class that I use at work and I learn things at work that I use in class. Some days I feel like my head is going to explode if I try to cram any more new information into it.

One thing I miss about my old job is: The pace. Working at a daily newspaper, things move quickly and the time passes quickly. My days are now much less structured and much slower paced. I’m hoping that will change when I move on to a larger organization. The ink-stained wretch in me would like to find a job that involves criminal law, which I suspect might have more drama, more urgency and a faster pace.

One thing I don’t miss is: The hours. Newspaper copy editors work weekends, holidays, evenings, early mornings, all sorts of weird hours. I like working Monday through Friday and not missing out on holidays, evenings and weekends with my family.

One surprise about my new job is: I’m expected to vacuum.

I’m lucky that: I started planning a new career well ahead of the buyout. That made the decision to accept the buyout a very easy one. I’m lucky that I’m not 10 years older; that would be an even more difficult place to start all over. I’m lucky that I live down the street from a university that offers night classes in the field I want to enter. I’m lucky that I found a suitable transition job quickly. I’m lucky that my spouse has a steady job with decent health insurance. I was very lucky, but I was also very prepared. When opportunities came my way, I was in a position to pounce.

The hardest part was: Starting at the bottom again, and consequently earning much less money and being treated with much less respect than I had grown accustomed to at the age of 40.

I learned that: The ability to adapt to changing circumstances is crucial. I’m still earning a living because I saw changes going on around me and adapted before it was too late. Many newspapers have died because they couldn’t find a way to adapt as the world around them changed.

My advice: Assess the skills you’ve developed by working in journalism, and look for other fields where those abilities will be highly valued. Good copy editors need to know how to write clearly and concisely, dig up information and check facts, pay attention to details to ensure accuracy, meet unforgiving deadlines and work as part of a team. As it turns out, so do good legal assistants. And there’s actually a market for the latter.

If you know of a journalism transition story that might help other Poynter Online readers, please e-mail Joe Grimm at joe.grimm@gmail.com.

Coming Tuesday: Can journalism job fairs move into the virtual world? One university will try it this week.

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