A Lawyer, Seeking A Cause

John Scanlan coaches gymnastics while looking for a job as a lawyer.

Former mechanical engineer John Scanlan coaches gymnastics while looking for a job as a lawyer. Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine, NPR
John Scanlan with his collection of rejection letters from law firms.

Scanlan with his unenviable collection of rejection letters from law firms. Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine, NPR

As part of our Take Two series on people re-inventing themselves through their work, we visit a man who chose to leave an engineering career in hopes of using a law degree to help others. But all has not gone according to plan.

John Scanlan was a mechanical engineer for 15 years. His last job was designing air-conditioning systems. But he says he longed "to make a difference" in the world, and decided the best way to do that was to become a lawyer. He put himself through night school, and graduated with his Masters of law in December 2001.

The timing of his graduation couldn't have been worse. Denver was already in a recession and law firms were laying people off, even before the attacks of Sept. 11. In the intervening three and a half years, Scanlan, now 43, has amassed hundreds of rejection letters from law firms, and currently makes his living doing occasional legal work, as well as coaching and judging gymnastics.

The job he longs for is in international development and rule of law. He particularly covets work in a developing democracy. Robert Newell, an attorney with the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, does just that kind of work for the international relief agency, Mercy Corps. However, he volunteers his time. His suggestion for John Scanlan is to court non-profits rather than law firms, and emphasize his experience in engineering and project management. In other words, the career he left behind.

While that isn't everything he wants to hear, Scanlan says it's good to have his strengths acknowledged. He remains readily encouraged, slow to despair, and very dogged. As he says, "I'm not settling."

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