From Book Editor to Lawyer, a Gamble Pays Off

From Book Editor to Lawyer, a Gamble Pays Off

Judith McCarthy graduates from Rutgers School of Law-Newark with a position at a national firm

Judith McCarthy
After nearly two decades as a book editor, Judith McCarthy started to question her future in the industry when digital technology – e-books, Amazon, Kindles – began transforming the publishing landscape.

So the mother of three made a life-changing decision. She applied to law school. 

Three years later, the gamble has paid off. The 47-year-old McCarthy graduates from the School of Law-Newark May 24 as an editor of the Law Review with a job at the New Jersey office of a large national law firm.

“People probably thought I was crazy to take a chance on another field threatened by looming change,” McCarthy says. “But somehow I had the confidence that things would just work out.”

McCarthy had just begun her 10th year at McGraw-Hill when she realized she no longer enjoyed the work that had challenged her for years. Her division had moved from general interest nonfiction to putting out such things as certification materials for professionals. The daily commute from Summit, N.J., to Manhattan was getting to her. She missed spending time with her kids, ages 17, 12 and 7.

“I’d always been so passionate about my work. I didn’t want to become cynical, or feel trapped, because the industry was shrinking, the world changing,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy discussed her “mid-life crisis” with friends, trying to figure out how reinvent herself, when it occurred to her: Why not law school?  After all, she had done well on the LSATs, taking them after graduating from Georgetown with a degree in American Studies. But once she landed her first publishing position and married, thoughts of law school faded. “Plus, I knew so many people who had gone and seemed to hate it,” she says. 

But during her years in publishing she had developed an affinity for the law. “I was surprised how much I enjoyed the business part of the job. Everyone hated contracts, but I found them fascinating. I loved negotiating, combing through the legal language, working with the lawyers, especially when someone tried to sue.”

She recalls a case in which Apple threatened to sue because the company had published a book about Steve Jobs’ presentation style. “I found myself in meetings with attorneys, focusing on strategy so the case wouldn’t escalate. It was really satisfying when we came to a resolution.”   

Judith McCarthy and Michael Walsh with children, from left, Robbie, Harry and Elizabeth.
Nobody but her husband, Michael Walsh, knew when she took the L-SATS in December 2009. She was still working full time. “I told no one,” she says. “I bought a review book.” And 20 years after first taking the exam, she performed just as well. Rutgers School of Law in Newark was the only place she applied. “I wanted to be close to home.” She was accepted, but it wasn’t until she learned she’d won a merit scholarship that she could take the plan seriously. “I think we can afford to do this!” her husband wrote to her in an email that day.  

When McCarthy started school in August 2010, her youngest child was 3, and the logistics weren’t easy. Her husband, who teaches high school history and coaches lacrosse, took over the household, relieving the sitter by 4:30 each afternoon. “Mike did all the cooking, shopping, putting the kids to bed. He curtained off part of the bedroom so that I’d be able to keep the light on to study late at night.”

McCarthy reveled in her new-found pursuits. She was one of the oldest students on campus, but going back to school, she says, made her feel young.  “I worked hard, but I loved being a student again. I was there just to learn. It was very freeing.”

At Rutgers, McCarthy took every opportunity to gain knowledge and experience. She became Research Editor of the Rutgers Law Review and secretary of Rutgers Moot Court. She interned in civil court and at the Institute of Education Law and Policy, where she learned about tenure issues and special education law. But it was a summer associate position at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in Florham Park last year that opened up a new career.

Following a three-month summer training program, she was offered a full-time position – to which she said yes. “I’ve known for a whole year that I’ve had a job, contingent upon my graduating of course,” says McCarthy, who during the next few months will take the New York and New Jersey bar exams and then some time off. She begins her first-year associate position in September.

 McCarthy says she still can’t believe she’s made the transition to lawyer and encourages others in midlife who contemplate a career change to take of the plunge if they can.

 “When you’re older, you have a lot of connections, people in your corner – my whole town was cheering me on,” says McCarthy. “People are giving me a lot of credit. Much more than I deserve.”