Many of us have fantasized about leaving the law to do something that excites us, something we’re passionate about, something that may even sound crazy — or at least impractical and farfetched. But few of us have the courage to leave financial security behind and pursue our dreams. Enter Bee Shapiro. Shortly after beginning a corporate law career, Bee realized that she wanted to act, or paint, or write, or go into fashion — anything but practice law — so she gave notice and left. The brilliant thing is that despite the weight of student loans and several false starts along the way, she persevered.
These days, you won’t read about Bee’s corporate machinations in the New York Law Journal, but you can read about her favorite eye creams or her take on celebrity beauty routines in the New York Times. She also recently launched her own line of eco-friendly skincare and fragrance products. In the end, her obituary won’t read, “Bee Shapiro, Lawyer,” as she once feared. But I think she’d agree that “Bee Shapiro, writer/business owner/whatever comes next” has a nice ring to it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bee Shapiro: This is not a very glamorous answer: After graduation, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a job lined up. I went to Barnes & Noble — this was back when people actually went to Barnes & Noble — and said to myself, “Okay, I could take one of the graduate tests.” I looked at the GMAT prep book and the LSAT book. I’m not very good at math and would have had to prep for the GMAT. The LSAT book made more sense to me; I could take that test. It was really the lazy woman’s answer to a post-graduation plan.
I didn’t imagine it was going to be like Law & Order or anything like that, but I definitely imagined discourse and opinions flying around the classroom.
Oh, gosh. It definitely interested me in terms of discourse and reading. I’ve always been an avid reader. But once I got to law school… Let me preface this by saying that I went to Georgetown Law, it’s a big school, with four sections. I signed up for section three, the alternative curriculum, which is philosophy-based. We were the weirdo section, but we were all super close. When I signed up for that section, I envisioned lots of discourse in philosophy and deep thinking, but what I did not expect — or just couldn’t imagine — was the amount of work. The amount of work was incredible. I just thought one couldn’t even do it.
I waited until my first internship to really get a sense of whether or not it was for me. My first-year internship was in São Paulo, at a Brazilian law firm. Honestly, it was so boring. It was wonderful to be in São Paulo, in a different culture, but the work itself was mind-numbing. After returning, I spoke with a career counselor, who convinced me that a Brazilian law firm wasn’t indicative of what practice in the U.S. would be like. The same thing happened after my second year: I had an internship, this time with a New York firm. It was the same story. Even though I don’t regret my degree at all, I think I had hesitations from the beginning. I felt that, throughout law school, I was convinced to stay.
I think I was a little bit naive about it. I did not take out loans for undergrad, and I was in that last group of law school graduates during the boom years. I was still in the, “It’s not hard to get a job as a lawyer” mindset, so I did not think that much about the cost when I signed on. But if you leave corporate law, it becomes a real barrier. Now I know exactly how much I need to pay out to my loans every month. I’m still paying the loans, whereas most of my friends who stayed lawyers have paid theirs off.
A lot of my law school friends’ parents were lawyers, so they had more insight into what the actual lifestyle would be like. It’s hard to see that as a student. If I had seen my parents working every night until 10 p.m. as a corporate lawyer in New York, maybe I would’ve understood that more. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone to law school at all.
My class was one of the last to really be wooed. We had a ball. We went to Yankees games, the lunches were two hours long. I did do a little bit of work, but they weren’t going to give a summer intern much substantive work.
To be totally honest — I hope they don’t get mad because they were great to me — I still thought the legal profession was not for me. I got an offer from Schulte, which I initially declined. After graduation I was puttering around, trying to figure out what to do, when the full weight of the law school loans became clear — they come due the second year out of school. After going all the way through law school, I was going to take the bar, but the bar exam is expensive. I tried a bunch of different options, but nothing panned out. So I went back to Schulte and asked if I could accept their earlier offer. They said yes.
None of them were particularly realistic. One thing I wanted to do was work at Barneys as a buyer. I applied to a bunch of different places, and some were like, “Okay, but you know the starting salary in New York City is $30,000 dollars,” which, to me, was just completely undoable. I’m from Seattle, so I had no family here or anything like that. I thought I wanted to work in fashion or art. And for those jobs, whether it’s working in a gallery or a department store, the starting salaries are super low.
I was at Schulte for less than a year. Clearly, I had hesitations throughout the whole experience. I had a great situation as far as corporate lawyers are concerned. I was not an M&A lawyer. I was not a litigator who was pulled onto crazy cases and then had nothing to do for a month. I actually had a very regular schedule. And my partners were quite kind to me. They assigned me a great mentor, who I still am in contact with. One of my friends put it best when she said, “Well, you had probably the ideal corporate law situation, yet you still hated it.” I woke up every day thinking, “Why, why do I have to put together the board meeting minutes?” I didn’t want to get up in the morning. I was not excited about work. I kept thinking, and this is probably naive, that this couldn’t be it. Is this it for the rest of my life? Many people have told me that the longer you stay at a firm, the harder it is to leave, because you have the salary. I remember when I was working there, we had two or three different company cars — obviously this was before Uber. If you stayed past 7:30 or 8:00 p.m., dinner was free. Great benefits.
I’ve always been pretty independent. My mom and dad were immigrants and had to work so hard. My dad worked six and a half days a week. But they were not constantly after me. I think I was motivated on my own. I wanted to do better. I think there is an inherent transaction when your parents are immigrants — they left their homeland to give you all these opportunities, so you had better take advantage of them. When I got into the law firm, they were thrilled.
I had two different mentors. Both were woman associates within my group. I think senior associates or associates tend to be far better than partners as mentors. Maybe Schulte recognized that, I’m not sure. One mentor was not so into the law firm — I could be completely honest with her, we could commiserate. Whether or not I was happy wasn’t something I talked much about with the other mentor, but I learned a lot of work habits from her — delegation and such. She was so organized.
Certainly the work ethic. That has been beaten into, or ingrained, into who I am now. When I transitioned to something creative, it was very hard. It’s not an easy transition, but the ability to work harder than some people in this new industry helped.
With the law as a career, I really didn’t see an end game. I didn’t see the female partners looking so happy, so thrilled to be where they were. I did see some happiness in-house, and I knew that even in law school. One of the reasons I went to Schulte was because it had such a high in-house rate — I saw a better work-life balance as far as in-house was concerned. But you had to stick with the firm for five to seven years if you wanted a good in-house position. I just didn’t think I could last that long. I think it’s a personal question, and for me, the work-life equation wasn’t worth it.
And as I said, I had better hours than other lawyers. The hours were shorter, and they were regular. I would work from 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. to anywhere between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. every day. Then maybe work a half day over the weekend. But it’s still a lot of hours to be chained to your desk. I was a corporate lawyer, so I didn’t go out for meetings. I could take everything at my desk.
I couldn’t see where I could find my pockets of happiness, and I think that’s a problem. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Seattle, where work and life are more balanced than in New York. I just didn’t think it was worth it. Not just law. I think any job that requires you to constantly be on a BlackBerry leash is very hard to maintain. I also have heard from Georgetown friends who went to London, Hong Kong, even D.C. — markets other than New York — that the hours are much better and that lawyers can have longer careers because of that. It’s very hard to sustain the New York Big Law hours.
Oh my gosh — I wish it was a strategy. One day I just woke up and thought, “I can’t take this anymore.” Then I gave notice. It was really rough because of that. I should have had a plan. If anybody reading this is thinking about doing that: Have a plan. It will save you a lot of hardship.
I was on a plane, coming back from visiting family in Seattle. There was really bad turbulence. This is so dramatic, but I was 25, and the turbulence was so bad that it was like, “Oh my gosh, when the plane goes down, on the list of passengers I’ll be B. Chang, Lawyer.” (Back then my last name was Chang.) That was it. That would define who I was. I realized how much professions define who we are. And I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I know it sounds silly or trite, but that’s the way it happened.
I had a little bit of savings from those few months I’d worked at the firm. I knew I wanted to do something creative. I made a list of three things that, in my dream of dreams, I thought would be amazing: Being a writer, a fine artist (a painter) or an actress. And then I set out and did all three of those things. I said, “I’m not going to be that typical New Yorker who sits there and tries to be ‘creative.’” I was like, “No, I’m going to go out and do things.” I auditioned. I worked for an art collector. I was in a group show downtown. And then I was writing for blogs.
I didn’t have any money, except for that minimal savings, so I couldn’t really sign up for classes.
I don’t know what I was thinking. I had only acted in middle school and high school. But I auditioned for Broadway, Miss Saigon, for Joe’s Pub, all sorts of things. I was probably god-awful. It was so embarrassing, and that’s when I realized I couldn’t do it. I have so much more respect for actresses now, even bad ones, because going on auditions is awful.
I started hanging out with a bunch of artists and worked for an art collector, so I got to see a lot of great art and meet wonderful painters, and other artists, in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But I realized I wasn’t willing to sacrifice enough for art, and that was a problem. Some of the artists I met were skipping meals just to buy paint. I don’t have that in me. Also, a visual artist needs to visualize something and then be able to execute it fully, and I always thought that something was missing from what I envisioned versus what I executed. But with writing, I can nail it. I think that’s something you have to be honest with yourself about. I love fine art, but I’m not good enough at it.
I’ve always loved reading and writing, so even though I didn’t major in it, it was always in the curriculum. I started writing for small blogs. I just wrote for whoever would let me write for them. And I focused mostly on art and fashion and the intersection of the two. I had a lot of art connections from the collector I had been working for, so I had some inside news, something to pitch.
I started writing for Style.com and AOL Style, which I believe folded into The Huffington Post. The New York Times didn’t happen right away. Often, I think people want to believe that career transitions are smoother than they really are. When I was starting out as a writer, I took random jobs that could pay the bills. I worked some part-time hours as an attorney. I even worked in marketing for a medical facility. I focused on taking jobs that could pay the bills but also wouldn’t take too much of my time away from finding out what I truly wanted to do.
However, if you’re rolling that snowball, don’t be afraid to pitch higher when you have a good idea. I blind pitched the New York Times. I blind pitched T magazine, which had just launched as an online site. I sent a blind pitch to the general email with a couple of cool ideas. Granted, I had some great information on artists, and they were like, “Great, we love the idea. Will you write it up?” I still remember the day I got the email. That’s how that started.
It can help when you’re covering certain content. I cover mostly celebrity, beauty and fashion/lifestyle. But I also write pieces for More magazine, for their entrepreneurship and finance pages. So, I interview a lot of entrepreneur and CEO types. I think it does help to have a law degree there.
Not really. I’m going to be totally honest: I think the writing skills you learn in law school are very confined. It was just work ethic that I learned.
Networking is super important. There is a part of me that likes networking. It helps in my current profession to have an affinity for it. And I don’t mean just reaching out blindly on LinkedIn and sending an email. That’s not real networking. It is all through your friends, going out to events, going out for coffee. For example, I just ran into a woman who was at AOL Style when I was writing for her. I ran into her at a dinner about a week ago. Now we’re going to grab coffee or tea. It’s constant maintenance of relationships. And the thing is, asking to have coffee or tea with someone you met through somebody else is great. People love it. It’s not just one-sided, so don’t be afraid to ask.
They love it. They love to hear the celebrity stories, who’s nice, who’s not.
It’s changed a little bit recently, because I started a fragrance and body-care company, Ellis Brooklyn. All our products are sustainable, which is close to my heart. I think part of that, being responsible with the resources that you are using, came from growing up in Seattle. I started it when I was pregnant. I was reviewing a ton of products for the New York Times and wanted to create something that was as natural as possible but with an amazing scent. So that’s what I set out to do. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. And then, lo and behold, two years later I had a product. I actually have used my law degree with Ellis Brooklyn, forming an L.L.C., filing trademarks.
Normally, I start my day answering a ton of emails as fast as I can. If possible, I like to preserve my mornings for writing. At lunchtime, I’ll either take a meeting or just work through and then have afternoon meetings or interviews. That’s my ideal world.
Only in the last year or two I have gotten more confident. When you’re a freelancer, there’s a constant state of panic — you are either overloaded or you’re short on assignments. But I would say that in the last two years I’ve really solidified who I work well with, the good places for my byline to be, all of that. The editor-writer relationship is also very important.
I don’t think it’s just about putting your material out there. At the end of the day, it’s about quality. Of course, I have a lot of bylines, but that’s not necessarily because I was trying to put out lots of material; to be perfectly honest, it’s because I have bills and a law school loan to pay off. I think the main thing for somebody working their way up is having quality bylines. You need to have a great piece that you love. Of course, you have to write the silly stuff too, sometimes the editor wants it, and frankly, people read it. But you definitely need to fight for the stories that will drive you forward.
I’ve been writing for the New York Times for five or six years now, and I’m going to try to continue writing there until I die. But as far as some other stuff that I do, maybe it will peter out. It’s hard to tell right now, because it’s a new enterprise. But hopefully it’ll take off.
It’s great, really exciting, but it’s a whole new set of pressures and challenges to navigate. Stuff that I never knew existed on the product side. For example, now I have to pitch my products and I have so much more respect and admiration for what the press people do. Granted, I probably have a leg up because I know some of the editors I’m pitching. But the amount of work is incredible. And working with the retailers is a whole different ballgame.
I did not forecast how much time the company was going to take. I am starting to realize how much time really is taking. The work-life juggling act is hard. Right now, I have my daughter for either two full days or a day and a half during the week, because I just want to spend time with her. Originally, I had a nanny all five days, but I realized I was missing out on all the milestones. It’s the parental guilt, so I was trying to balance it out. Some days are better or worse than others. You try to make one-on-one time with your little girl or little boy, but it’s a constant seesaw. I can’t envision myself as a stay-at-home mom. All respect to them though. I just personally don’t think that I could do it.
Photo at top: Nina Mouritzen