Robert Parker, described by Baltimore Magazine as “the father of modern wine criticism,” began his career as a corporate lawyer. Before becoming a hugely influential voice in the wine world, Parker developed an obsessive interest in the beverage while visiting his now wife during her college study abroad experience in France. How he translated that interest into a career can serve as a lesson to all lawyers looking to make the switch to other industries.
The road to self-employment as writer and publisher of The Wine Advocate was a long one. After returning from Paris, where he had his first taste of French table wine, Parker got involved with Les Amis du Vin, “the finest wine society in the United States,” which was headquartered conveniently close to his college campus. He pursued an education and a career in law while continuing his participation in wine tastings and his own study of wine journalism.
Parker released the first issue of his independent wine publication in 1978 and did not leave his full-time job as a corporate lawyer until 1984. This was more than fifteen years after a trip to Europe first sparked his love of wine. While the jump from attorney to wine critic may seem exotic, Parker brought skills and knowledge to his new career that he didn’t develop overnight.
The writing style that garnered him attention in wine was a hallmark of his work as a lawyer. As Andrew Jefford put it last year, “Parker’s mark on his own lawyer’s office had been a systematic attempt to render legal documents into plain, comprehensible English and not legalese. When he charged into the wine world, it was with a plain-speaking, Naderite mission.” Having majored in European History as an undergraduate, Parker also came to this career transition with a background in the kind of historical context that should be provided along with sensory descriptions in a wine review.
The 50-100 point system that Parker introduced for rating wines was inspired by the grading system used by his law professors, and it has since come to be used across the globe. His sensitivity to conflicts of interest, which helped to build his brand as an independent critic with the consumer’s best interest in mind, was certainly influenced by his time in the legal profession.
As career coaches for lawyers, we can see that several aspects of Robert Parker’s career transition are textbook. The relevance of your prior experience may not seem obvious at first when it comes to pursuing a career in a totally unrelated field, but that doesn’t mean the transferrable skills and common values aren’t there.
While the transition to being a wine critic may seem idiosyncratic, you can learn important lessons from Parker’s story. He didn’t make a drastic move on a dime. He discovered something he was passionate about, and then he explored that interest over time. Meanwhile, he kept the job he already had so he could build his side project into a lucrative career on his terms. He also found a support network by joining a wine tasting group and strategizing the transition with his spouse. Especially when you’re taking a big leap, it’s invaluable to have people in your corner who can help you find the steps along the way.
Successful career transitions have more in common than most people realize. Parker used many skills and values common to the practice of law and brought them to what was for him a totally new field.
What lawyerly skills, habits, and values could you bring to a new endeavor that interests you?