Alternative Careers – Investigator for Workplace Complaints

Please welcome Joanna Sattler, Law School Toolbox tutor, to discuss her alternative legal career as a workplace investigator.

I’m the child of no fewer than three lawyers (if you count my stepmother, that is). All three practiced law upon graduating from law school and pursued “traditional” legal careers (two at large firms, the third in-house). As such, I had a certain view of what lawyers did and a (fairly) certain path I planned to pursue: work at a large law firm after graduating and then, maybe, try to work in-house. (At the time, I didn’t realize I could go in-house straight from law school; I truly thought there was one path and one path only!)

A planner by nature, I followed my plan. I worked hard in law school. I summered at a large firm and received an offer of post-graduation employment. Although I didn’t take that job (I didn’t love the firm’s satellite office in the city where I planned to live), I took another firm job soon after passing the California bar.

Deviating from the Plan: Big Law Burnout Followed by Stay-At-Home Mom Ennui

Eight years, a marriage, and two kids later, I was burnt out. My husband worked long hours and traveled a lot. I craved more time with him and with my children and also time for myself. My “part time” schedule at the firm (a firm that truly bent over backwards to accommodate working moms like me) still felt like too much. And so, I quit. For more on quitting Big Law, click here.

After about 18 months as a stay-at-home mom, I missed being a lawyer. I missed writing, interacting with colleagues, drinking coffee uninterrupted, and the thrill of winning a motion. But I didn’t miss working for a firm. I didn’t miss the late-night phone calls and emails, litigation’s unrelenting deadlines, ex parte hearings, endless discovery responses, or pandering to partners’ and clients’ sensitive egos. I was at a loss. My best-laid plans simply did not include an alternative that I believed I could stomach.

An Alternative Emerges

Until I got a call one night from a colleague and mentor at my former firm. Did I have any interest in doing investigations? Her friend, she explained, also a mom, had her own business investigating workplace complaints and conducting workplace trainings. The only catch? I had to decide right away, as she needed help immediately. Call her tonight, my friend said.

As a former employment litigator, I knew what workplace investigations were. I had done them for my clients. What I didn’t know was that there were attorneys out there who exclusively worked as independent investigators. Firm lawyers hired them to handle investigations for their clients that were particularly sensitive or messy or involved high-level types.

After talking to my colleague’s friend, who assured me the work would be interesting but not overly stressful and that my schedule would be very manageable and virtually entirely within my control, I agreed to take on my first investigation as an independent attorney investigator. Spoiler alert: I loved it.

Perks (and a Few Downsides) of the New Gig

After almost 3 years (and two more kids), I can say without hesitation that the job has everything I had been lacking in my law firm role:

  • I mostly work from home, except when I go to client sites to interview witnesses.
  • I set my own hours, working around my children’s schedules.
  • I’m able to manage expectations from the get-go, telling clients how my process works (witness interviews, followed by an oral report of my factual findings and conclusions, followed by a written one if requested) and not the other way around.
  • I take only one investigation at a time, so I’m never having to juggle.
  • I have to work around my witnesses’ schedules, so I don’t often work long days, because it’s rare for all the interviewees to be available on the same day.
  • There are no arbitrary deadlines, like I had in litigation.

As with any job, there are aspects I don’t love. I don’t relish spending hours hearing tales of bad behavior in the workplace, especially if it turns out to be true. Although I’m glad from an economic, feed-the-family standpoint that we have more investigations than we can handle, I hate that so many people these days appear to be congenitally unable to comply with basic standards of human decency while at work.

But in those moments, I try to focus on the other piece of my job, which is conducting workplace trainings to try an avoid the complaints that give rise to investigations in the first place. Most commonly I do anti-harassment trainings. I love leading these trainings. Often, they manage to restore my faith that people are inherently good. When an audience seems particularly receptive, I’m even almost able to forget some of the worst stories of my career. (Or at least I can tell myself that maybe, just maybe, one fewer person will get handsy when he hugs his subordinate today or think twice about sharing that racist joke.)

You Too Can Be a Workplace Investigator (or Find Some Other Alternative Career You Like)!

There truly are lots of non-traditional options for lawyers these days. Working as a workplace investigator and trainer is just one. If it sounds interesting to you, try to develop your knowledge of employment law, as well as experience with depositions and witness interviews. There is typically a written component as well, as with all legal jobs, so continue to work on your writing skills. And most importantly, keep your eyes and ears open. Make sure friends and colleagues know what you’re good at and what your interests are, so they can pass leads along when they arise, like my friend did.

But the bottom line is you can find what you’re looking for. It may take a little luck, but if you’re open to the alternatives, you will find them.


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About Joanna Sattler

Joanna is a tutor with the Law School Toolbox and Bar Exam Toolbox. Joanna grew up in southern California, where she now lives with her husband and 4 young boys. Before returning to Los Angeles, however, Joanna spent her undergraduate years in Middlebury, Vermont and then worked in outdoor education for several years in New Hampshire, Maine, Nova Scotia, and throughout the mountains and deserts of California. While at Middlebury College, Joanna served as a Peer Writing Tutor and also tutored students at the local high school in reading and writing.

Joanna graduated cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center in 2005. While in law school, she served as the Executive Editor of the Writing Program for the Georgetown International Environmental Law Review. Joanna began her legal career with a one-year fellowship in the Office of the General Counsel at Johns Hopkins University, where she developed an interest in employment law. Upon completing the fellowship, she took a job with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP in Los Angeles in their Employment Litigation group, where she worked for approximately 8 years. At Manatt, Joanna was active in the Summer Associate Program, serving as a Mentor and as an Assignment Coordinator.

Currently, Joanna works as a neutral investigator, conducting investigations of workplace complaints and helping clients resolve workplace disputes.

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