Holding Onto Your Passion: The Journey from Law School to Acting with Ruth Kaufman [TFLP177]
On today’s podcast, Sarah talks to Ruth Kaufman, a voice-over and on-camera actor who is also a former lawyer. Law school was never an option that Ruth felt drawn to, but with pressures from her parents, she earned her degree. Her career path has woven in and out of the law, but she’s now a working actor who has done hundreds of on-camera projects and thousands of voice-overs. Learn more about her journey and advice to anyone looking to make a similar shift.
The Importance of Hanging Onto Your Passion While Pleasing Parents
Ruth’s father told her when she was young that acting was not a good way to make a living, and he wasn’t even confident that she had the talent to make it happen. In his eyes, the only three ways to make a good living were owning a business, becoming a doctor, or becoming a lawyer. After completing her undergraduate degree, he told her he would pay for law school. The only stipulation was that she needed to go immediately and not delay trying a different career path.
It has also been important for Ruth to have a creative outlet, but even in law school, she found plenty of ways to keep that side of her alive. She also earned a Master’s in Radio/TV/Film. She joined the National Appellate Team and argued before Sandra Day O’Connor (winning second place nationally.) She wrote for the school newspaper, played the lead in a satirical musical review, was the co-anchor of a comedic cable news show, and sang in the symphony chorus.
The end goal for Ruth wasn’t to land a spot at the top law firm after graduation. This allowed her to enjoy the extracurriculars and keep her creative side active. She got good grades but didn’t need to fight to be at the top of her class.
Avoiding the Typical Attorney Path Had Challenges
After law school, many graduates take a very standard path, but Ruth didn’t want to join a big firm. She wanted to explore the television and radio space. She looked for jobs but didn’t have much luck. A classical radio station offered her a tiny salary, but it was in a location she didn’t want to move.
Eventually, she got a job down South selling advertisement time for a radio station. This job provided some experience for her resume and allowed her to write and perform in some of the commercials, so it was enjoyable. Returning to Chicago, Ruth got a job at Arbitron Radio Ratings, where she stayed for three years. The job was great, but the travel was hard. This eventually led to another job search, but this time, for something in law. Owning a home was a big goal, and this would help.
Ruth sent 100 letters to law firms looking for law clerk positions or anything they had available but didn’t hear back. She eventually found a job listed in the paper for Westlaw, a legal research company. Her skills from Arbitron and her law degree made her an excellent candidate, and she got the job. This allowed her to return to a normal work schedule and freed up her evenings for acting classes and theater work.
Making the Decision to Finally Leave Law for Acting
After working at Westlaw for 13 years, Ruth finally took the leap. She had done a few small films, a commercial, and wrote romance novels that were getting attention. One novel was a finalist in the American Title contest. Being on set and acting takes a lot of energy, and she was able to step back and assess her life and what she wanted to be doing.
Ruth’s on-camera agent also had a voiceover division to help her find voiceover work, but breaking into this industry isn’t easy. There is a lot of competition and many skills you don’t realize you need. Voiceover has specific genres, like commercials, e-learning, and phone messaging. Each type needs a demo tape specific to that type of work.
Many skills Ruth picked up in law school and throughout her career have helped her with this line of work. She’s an excellent communicator. Contracts and rate negotiations are easier for her because she’s had lots of practice. She even picks up some work as a corporate role-player, which has her using her experience to help the activity feel more realistic.
Advice for Those Interested in Voice and On-Camera Acting
So many people have asked for Ruth’s help and advice that she’s begun coaching people who want to break into voiceover work. She did share a few tips on the podcast. You’ll need to assemble a toolkit for this work, including demo tapes, a website to host the files and easily share them, the technology for a quality home recording studio, and knowledge of contracts and marketing to help earn and manage the business.
You’ll need a camera if you also want to land some on-screen roles. Your phone will work, but you will need to know how to record and edit them yourself because many of the auditions are happening virtually now. Shoot in front of a neutral backdrop and recruit a fellow actor to read lines for you during the audition.
Ruth helped remind everyone that you need to understand all the steps in any industry. There is no easy button. You need to be prepared to do the legwork. She loves her work and enjoys being on set with other actors the most. Each day might bring something completely different than the last. But there are challenges with being a freelance entrepreneur as well. Jobs tend to be a feast or famine situation with either a lot of work or none. You have to focus on your pipeline and stay positive. It’s similar to opening a solo law practice.
Final Words on Leaving Law for a Creative Role
At the end of the podcast, Ruth reminds the listeners that we only have one life, so dip your toes into something you’re passionate about. If you can’t afford to switch your career path completely, take a class and find an outlet to try something new. You never know what it might lead to.
To connect with Ruth, you can find her on Instagram @ruth.kaufman and online at www.ruthtalks.com. If you want some help putting together a framework to leave your job as a lawyer, make sure to download our free guide.
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
Today I'm sharing my conversation with Ruth Kaufman. Ruth is a voice-over actor and it's really interesting because there are a lot of lawyers, I have learned in my time with former lawyer, who think about pursuing voice-over acting as a career. In fact, we actually had a panel last month, when you're listening to this episode, it was last month in the Collab with Ruth and other voice-over actors who used to be former lawyers talking about how they made the transition, advice that they have for lawyers who are thinking about it, that sort of thing.
There are a bunch of different recordings of panels including this one inside of the Collab along with all the other resources that are available including the framework that I've created to help you figure out what it is that you want to do next, and of course, the community on Circle. If that's something that sounds like it would be interesting to you, you should definitely check out the Collab at formerlawyer.com/collab. But for today, I am very excited to share my conversation with Ruth about her experience leaving law to become a voice-over actor. Here's my conversation with Ruth.
The next Guided Track is coming up and I wanted to let you know that I'm only going to be running two more Guided Tracks this year in 2023. There's going to be a Spring Guided Track and that's going to start on Tuesday, April 18th, and then there will be a Fall Guided Track that starts in the fall and runs until right before Thanksgiving.
If you're someone who's thought about joining the Guided Track, which is a 10-week small group where you come into the Collab, you join the Collab, you have access to all of the resources in the Collab including the framework, etc., and then in addition to that, you're meeting with me and a small group of lawyers once a week and working through an action plan to move you through the framework during the time that we're in the Guided Track, if you are someone who wants to be able to be on live calls or to be able to have calls with me, this is the way to do that if you are not planning to work with me one-on-one.
Quick rundown of details, again, starts on April 17th, runs for 10 weeks in addition to the weekly calls for 10 weeks, we’ll have the action plan. We'll also have a Clifton Strengths Workshop that we'll have on a Saturday, a half-day workshop that specifically focuses on your results from a Clifton Strengths Assessment, which is one of several assessments that I have people use as they're going through this process and gives you some additional analytics as well as some exercises to think through how to use the results to be able to articulate your transferable skills.
You also get a free 30-minute one-on-one call with me that you can use anytime during the Guided Track and you also get included in some of the assessments that otherwise I recommend that people use but that they purchase for themselves separately when they join just the Collab. The Guided Track this time around is going to be capped at seven people max.
If you're interested and you would like to enroll for this spring round starting on April 18th, go to formerlawyer.com/guidedtrack. If you're interested in the fall round and you want to make sure you get a spot in that round, I have that available but you'll have to contact me directly, and again, I want to reiterate that these are the only two rounds of the Guided Track that I'll be doing for the rest of 2023.
If you don't want to have to wait all the way until September and you'd like to get started before then, this is your moment and I would love to see you in the Spring Guided Track. Again, go to formerlawyer.com/guidedtrack and you can see all the information and enroll there.
Hey, Ruth. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Ruth Kaufman: Thank you for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited to hear your story. Can you introduce yourself to the listeners?
Ruth Kaufman: Sure. I'm Ruth Kaufman. I am a former lawyer now an actor and sometimes writer.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Why don't we talk just briefly about in a little bit more detail what you're doing now and then we'll circle all the way back to the beginning and we can talk about why you decided to go to law school in the first place?
Ruth Kaufman: Sure. I'm an on-camera and voice-over actor. I do, for on-camera, film, TV, commercials, industrials. For voice-over, I've done thousands of them now. I do e-learning, commercials, other kinds of narration. My biggest credit to date, I was on She-Hulk: Attorney at Law Marvel Studios that's on Disney Plus.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, yes, I am familiar only because I have younger kids but anyway, my youngest, the picture is like this woman who's walking into a courthouse and has green legs and she's always asking me, “Who is that?” and I'm like, “She-Hulk,” again that's literally all I know about it but it's very famous for that reason in this house.
Well, I'm really excited to talk about some of that more because I think I mentioned this to you when we were talking about you coming on the podcast but there are quite a number of lawyers who I've worked with who have an interest in or are in some way pursuing voice-over work and so generally speaking, based on that, that lets me know that there are probably a lot of listeners who have also thought about it. We'll talk more about that towards the end, but can we start at this point with you just sharing how you end up deciding to become a lawyer?
Ruth Kaufman: I always wanted to be an actor but my father somewhat practically, and maybe somewhat not so practically, was very against it. He not only once told me I didn't have the talent, he was, as many parents might be, convinced I might not be able to earn a living at it, but he did think I was smart and he believed that people should be doctors, which he was, lawyers, or own their own business. Of those three things, I decided to go to law school.
I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I finished undergraduate because I still wanted to be an actor and he also had said, “If you go to law school now, I will pay for it but if you decide to wait, I will not,” so that led me to law school. Also, while I went to law school, to keep my foot in the creative door, I also got a master's in radio TV film.
Sarah Cottrell: When you went to law school, it sounds like on many different levels for you, it was a very practical decision, it wasn't necessarily the experience that some people have which is really feeling like this is potentially their calling or many people will talk about from a young age being told, “You should be a lawyer because you're good at arguing,” or whatever. Does that mean when you got to law school you weren't necessarily expecting it to be like, “Oh, this is the best thing ever,” does that make sense?
Ruth Kaufman: Yes, right. It definitely wasn't a calling but I loved school and so was happy to continue on to school and some of the topics were more interesting than others for sure. I'm not sure, tax was not so great but I met a lot of great people and I found ways to use my creative skills. I was on the National Appellate Team which is a little bit like acting and we wound up coming in second in the country.
This was a long time ago and I'll never forget this, the National Law Journal reviewed our oral arguments, the main judge was Sandra Day O'Connor, and the finals were in New York. It was myself, I'm a petite woman and my arguing partner was a petite blonde and we were up against these tall strapping men, and again, this was many years ago and they actually commented on her Peter Pan collar on her blouse.
Sarah Cottrell: Ah, well, that is a thing that happens.
Ruth Kaufman: Yes, I digress. But to have that opportunity to argue in front of Sandra Day O'Connor, be second in the country, it was a lot of work but it was very exciting.
I also wrote for the school newspaper, we had a satirical musical review and I was the lead in that for a couple of years. I went to Syracuse for graduate school, the Newhouse School because it's so famous for communications and I was also able to be the female co-anchor of a cable comedy news show. I sang in a symphony chorus so I made sure to find room for my creative outlets and keep a toe in the pool of performing.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It sounds like even when you were in law school, because some people will describe thinking about going two different paths, choosing to go to law school, and dropping the other half and then maybe eventually coming back to it, but it sounds like for you, you were there at law school but you were also doing these other things and it sounds even a little bit maybe you were thinking, “Okay, I'm doing this practical thing but basically, how can I make it support this other stuff that I really want to be doing?”
Ruth Kaufman: That's exactly right. I also didn't want to not have anything, let's say to put on a resume or show that I still cared about it, the creative side, the more that I could find to do. I also worked at a public TV and radio station as a part-time classical announcer for a bit. I was always seeking ways to keep my creative side and performing side developed.
I guess one thing, since I wasn't trying to get into a top law firm, while I still cared about my grades, I didn't care maybe as much as somebody who felt like they needed all As to be in a top law firm. I did well anyway but I made sure to make the time for creative things.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's interesting, I'd love to hear about when you graduated from law school because I think for a lot of us, depending on the person, depending on your level of “I want to be on the Supreme Court” or not, your level of focus, the time that you put into school, and all of the things around that law school like journals and all of these things can be significant, but I think for many of us, being a student even in law school, while it can be time-consuming, there is a lot of flexibility in a way that is not present in the same way when you are working a full-time job.
Can you talk to me about what you decided to do after graduation and what that looked like?
Ruth Kaufman: I was looking for jobs at radio and TV stations and not finding what I wanted. The station I had been working at was going to offer me part-time still and I didn't know when I could get full-time. That is one of my regrets. I feel that I should have stayed there and trusted that I would find a way to support myself even on a part-time position believing that at some point, a full position would open up because I already had experience there, I liked working with the people there.
Syracuse was a pretty big market in terms of market size, which is important if you're going to be in radio or TV news to not start, there are much smaller markets than Syracuse, let's put it that way. That is the one regret that I made. I was afraid I would not be able to support myself so I moved back home and was not finding jobs.
I did find a job at a Pennsylvania classical radio station where they make you take a knowledge test, which I passed, and all that other stuff. The problem was the salary was so low and they even paid me a little bit more because I also had a master's degree but I did not love that location in Pennsylvania enough to live there on that.
I went home and I continued to apply to radio and TV stations in Chicago and that turned out to be disappointing because even though I was getting interviews, people would say my secretary has more experience than you and they just, at the time, didn't seem to be entry-level jobs even for someone with my education and experience.
Sarah Cottrell: You said that your dad played, it sounds like, a somewhat significant role in deciding to go to law school when you did and then you mentioned that you moved back home. I'm wondering, was there an expectation that you would just go get the degree so you would have the degree and that would be some type of security? Or was there this expectation that you would get the degree and also be pursuing legal jobs instead of these other types of jobs?
Ruth Kaufman: I don't really recall a lot of pressure at that time. I think it was more to have the degree and be prepared but obviously, he wasn't thrilled with my lack of success at finding any job whatsoever. What I ended up doing is following my then-lost boyfriend who I had met at Syracuse who was working in the South. He was a news radio reporter and anchor and I followed him there because I got a job selling advertising time at a radio station.
I moved to the South for a bit and while I did love the people I worked with and they were very nice, because in addition to doing the sales side, they also let me write and perform in radio commercials which was a lot of fun because at the time, they had one only female DJ and she had one of these super deep rich voices and then there was me with my higher voice so I would write commercials for the two of us so we could play off each other. I felt happy to be able to have my own commercials be aired and be in them even in a smaller market.
That was good but then that particular person, long story short, he had gone there to work at a TV station and he was promised a job that didn't come through so they let him go and because of a non-compete clause, he could not get another job in that market.
He got a job quickly in a better market, which was good, but I wound up coming back to Chicago and working at a place I had an internship for in college, Arbitron, it was called then Arbitron Radio Ratings, it was since purchased by Nielsen, but I worked with advertising agencies selling radio ratings.
Sarah Cottrell: Got it. So you move back to Chicago, how far out from law school were you at this point?
Ruth Kaufman: Only about a year.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. What happened next?
Ruth Kaufman: I worked at Arbitron for three years, again, I liked the people, I liked my clients. I did not like how much I had to travel because I was responsible for a 10-state region but I had learned some sales skills from my radio station job and they were very applicable to the Arbitron job in terms of how to market your products, how to sell your products, how to convince people to use your products instead of the competition.
I did gain a lot of useful skills but then I decided after three years, I had saved some money because that job paid pretty well at the time. I was just so tired of traveling, I just couldn't do it anymore. Again, this is many years ago. There were no such thing as laptop, computers, there was no internet, there was no GPS so everything you're doing, you're doing by telephone and there were no cell phones so travel was when you're going to multiple places in a day to call on clients in a strange city or bad weather, it's a lot more challenging if you don't have a cell phone.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, for sure.
Ruth Kaufman: Yes. I did quit that job and I decided to pursue acting at that time. I did find an agent but in my opinion, others may differ, if you went back and talked to some of the people from that time, I looked very young for my age and so instead of getting the young mother auditions and young professionals, I didn't really fit in with that group and I admit that I was still really nervous and everyone seemed to know each other at auditions and I really wasn't even sure what to do at an audition.
In retrospect, maybe I should have taken a couple of classes, more classes first which I did after and so I did that for a few years and I had met a man who became my husband and I decided after we got married, because we wanted to buy a condo and house, things like that, that I would apply for a law job again so that I could help pay for our life.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Tell me about that. How do you decide what type of job to apply for? How was it?
Ruth Kaufman: Well, again, this is a different time, no email really to speak of back then so I sent out 100 letters to different law firms listing my skills. I was even looking for a law clerk job, which of course, wasn't a regular attorney because I was behind the traditional associate class first year, second year, third year, I was out of that loop so I was trying to parlay all of my experience and say I'm willing to start as a clerk kind of a thing.
I got no responses from that. I got a couple of interviews but no bites from all of that work and then I saw a job in the paper for a legal research service Westlaw, which many lawyers know and love, I hope, and it was just an ad in the Tribune back when the employment section used to be a lot thicker than it is now. It was very similar to the skills I had used at my job at Arbitron so I applied and got that.
Sarah Cottrell: At that time, I'm trying to think because I know now, for example, Westlaw and other legal research companies have more remote work type stuff but I know in the past, that hasn't necessarily been the case, tell me a little bit about what that job was like.
Ruth Kaufman: Yeah. I was an account manager and my clients were large law firms. I would have weekly appointments at these large law firms where I would spend a couple of hours there and show the partners, associates, whoever wanted to use Westlaw, how to use it, I would train them other hours besides my weekly visits and I would show them our new features.
I would give department group seminars like a bankruptcy seminar, environmental law seminar, and when I went there each week, the Westlaw usage was free to encourage people to come in and learn how to use it better and learn more skills. I also negotiated the firm's contracts for usage and products so there were some more sales skills and marketing involved as well.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I was going to say I think a lot of people, when they think about potentially taking a job with some company like Westlaw, they think about more of the legal research and writing piece like doing briefs, summaries, or whatnot. Whereas it sounds like for you, it really was this essentially sales and marketing customer support type role and training, which I think is interesting because I think that is something that some people who are lawyers actually do have an affinity for but it might not be something that they think about when they think about one of those types of companies.
Ruth Kaufman: 100%. But it was also perfect for me because it was mostly nine to five and some days, I could even do eight to four so that I could then have my evenings free to take classes or even get a theater subscription, which when I was traveling so much from my Arbitron job, I was out of town a lot and it was hard to really have a life here so an eight to four or nine to five was preferable for me. I didn't have to work evenings or the long hours that some attorneys have to put in.
Sarah Cottrell: I'm curious, one of the things that I was thinking about as you were talking about coming out of law school and essentially pursuing the other career path that you had like at a parallel is a lot of law students are very risk-averse and they're very like, “This is the path and I'm on the path.”
I'm wondering if you had any experiences of being in law school and people like classmates being aware that that was not your mindset, that you were thinking about going in this other direction, and if that felt like it was normal or if people were like, “What's happening?” or like you were graduating and weren't planning to become a lawyer or to practice law immediately?
Ruth Kaufman: Yeah. I don't remember really people caring about that. But what I do remember is that seeing the love of the law that my fellow classmates had really reinforced for me that working as a typical attorney was not for me. They just love to sit in the lounge with coffee, dissect cases, and just talk about rulings. Beyond what I really needed maybe for an exam, it did not interest me at all.
I did not want to, “Well, in Marbury versus Madison,” that just was not me. That just helped me see that finding a way to use the law to help me make money, oh, by the way, I should mention that at the time, I'm not sure if they still do it, Westlaw only hired people with a JD for my job because they wanted you to be able to go into an office, not just as a vendor but as a colleague. Whereas the main competitor at the time did not require that.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, that's interesting.
Ruth Kaufman: Well, because again, I still looked young and I'm going into these partners' offices and so the first thing I learned to do was put my car down and that they would always pick it up, and then they would say, “Oh, you're a lawyer?” and you could instantly see their face change. Because I think it stays out of me just as a vendor who didn't understand what they do or didn't know their vocabulary.
Sarah Cottrell: Right. When it comes to something like legal research in particular, it does really help to know that the person who's potentially guiding or providing advice on how you can conduct it in the most effective way understands not just the software but the reasons why you would be looking for particular things.
Ruth Kaufman: Right. Or even understand the jargon if you will. There was quite a learning curve just to learn about the product of Westlaw itself and all the other ancillary products and materials that we had just to even explain to them. If I'm showing someone how to use statutes and don't even really know what a statute is, that's a whole nother learning curve.
I just feel that that's a lot harder and just having understanding of what a regulation is compared to a statute and why you need the CFR instead of the U.S Code, just already having that ingrained might be too strong but familiar with, whereas a person who did not have a legal degree, you have to have some education on that level as well, which could be a lot.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, for sure. When you were at Westlaw in this role, were there other things that you were doing to continue pursuing the acting piece of things?
Ruth Kaufman: Oh, yes. I took a lot of classes. I took on-camera classes. I took improv classes. I was even on an improv team for a while. I started doing some extra work, which is not acting really at all, but it does give you experience on major sets and also shows you how big stars work with big directors. You can start to learn set behavior and so I would do that on my vacation days.
I started booking little films and things like that so I did start doing some actual performing during that period. I worked there for 13 years.
Sarah Cottrell: I was just going to ask, tell me about that, what ultimately led to deciding that you wanted to move on and what did you do next?
Ruth Kaufman: I looked around at a certain age and realized my life mathematically was maybe more than half over and one does not know when one reaches ”retirement age,” what physical stamina you will have or energy, and even just to be an extra takes a lot more energy and endurance than you would think because the days could be 12 hours and you might have to be somewhere at four in the morning or five in the morning or you might not get out until two in the morning.
It takes a lot of energy to be on set and of course, the more responsibility you have and the more lines you have, the more responsibility and energy it takes. I decided that I had had some training, I had already done my first commercial, I had done, as I said, a couple of short small films. I was ready to start pursuing voice-over more and I just decided some days now I also was pursuing writing romance novels very aggressively at that time.
One of my novels was a finalist in a national contest called American Title. That was like American Idol where you had to get online votes to win a publishing contract. I thought all this was a good time to just quit so I quit in October 2005 and then started up really in 2006 because during the holidays, not much really goes on and I had my first voice-over demo produced.
I already had an on-camera agent and so it was easy then to get them to take me for voice-over once I did a demo because I think my radio station experience had helped. By the way, I guess I should back up, I worked at my high school radio station. I worked at University of Michigan student-run stations.
I worked at this classical radio station in Syracuse so I was familiar with microphone technique and just speaking but voice-over is a little bit different. I learned about the industry business, had a commercial demo made, and I started booking jobs so that helped.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Let's talk a bit more about this because I know that there are some lawyers that consider moving into voice-over work as one of their potential options and I know not very much about the voice-over industry in terms of as a voice-over actor and how you would even go about moving into that space. Can you talk a little bit about just what that process might look like?
Ruth Kaufman: That's a loaded question but I will say for anyone interested, I do offer breaking into voice-overs coaching because so many people, I'll share a couple of tips in a minute, but so many people ask me, “How did you get into voice-overs?” I was meeting people for coffee right and left and I was like, “I need to start monetizing this a little bit and help people navigate all the hurdles and things.” It's a very competitive business. It's just like any industry, you need to understand the different aspects.
If you wanted to be a lawyer, you can't just say, “I want to be a lawyer,” you have to know what kind of lawyer, do you want to be a litigator? Do you want to be a corporate lawyer? Do you want to pick a practice area? Similar with that, voice-over has multiple genres and there are multiple approaches. Do you want to focus on commercials? Do you want to do e-learning? I also do medical narration. I do phone messaging, “I'm sorry, we can't take your call right now,” things like that.
For each one of those genres, you need a separate professionally produced voice-over demo. You might also need a website to host these materials. You might want to try to get a voice-over agent, though most of my work, because it's so competitive now, I do get a lot of my work independently so you need some entrepreneurial skills, sales and marketing, which I have that experience.
You also need now to have a quality home recording studio. Learning the technology or paying someone to set all that up for you and learning how to record and edit all of your own audio.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, which is a thing says the person who started a podcast three years ago and had never edited any sort of audio or did any of that end and learned it all and did it all myself for quite a long time.
Ruth Kaufman: Until then with all that, that's just the framework, you also need to be able to do the job itself and do it well.
Sarah Cottrell: Can you talk a little bit about what it looks like to do, let's say you book a commercial, what is the process from start to finish, how long does it take, that kind of thing, what is the day-to-day experience?
Ruth Kaufman: It really depends. You do auditions and when they come in from your agent or wherever and you submit them by the deadline, obviously, lawyers at least theoretically know how to meet deadlines and provide good client service so in theory, those are good skills to have, being professional, knowing how to create good emails even in cover letters. But if it comes in from my agent, oh, you get the audition, you submit the audition, and then they'll book you for the job.
You might also nowadays need a technology, one popular one is called Source-Connect which is another thing you need to learn so that you can connect your quality recording studio with a recording studio somewhere else in the country or sometimes you do for bigger commercials or even then for some projects, you still go to a recording studio and then you just do that. It usually only takes an hour or so, that's it. Just do what they tell you.
Most commercials that I do are live-directed, like you have a question, why did you decide to go to law school? Let's say that's my line, “Why did you decide to go to law school?” “Can you be more smiley when you say that?” “Why did you decide to go to law school?” They're coaching you for the sound they're looking for because you can't hear what they want to hear in their head.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That makes total sense. Talk to me about your experience with that and has it evolved over time? Are there things that you particularly like doing or don't like doing or don't like as much but do because it's like part of the overall package? I just love to know about some of your experience.
Ruth Kaufman: These are good questions. I really like it all. It is a little harder in some ways now. A lot of voice-over auditions are national because so many people are recording from home and I do them but I personally have never booked one of those and none of my immediate colleagues have either. Some of that, it doesn't take that long once you're good at it to do an audition but it seems a little futile. But the odds are still better than the lottery I guess, so that's a thing.
But also, what you have to do now for on-camera acting, you have to record all of your own self-tapes at home for auditions. That's another technology thing and that mostly started with COVID. There aren't as many in-person auditions as there used to be. While you're acting, you also have to have a reader to say the other lines, you have to have good lighting, good sound.
You can use a good cell phone to record so you don't need a fancy camera. You need a neutral backdrop. You need to know how to edit your video. Technology has really become huge in both kinds of acting.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so interesting. It's such an important thing for people to hear because, and this is a conversation that comes up when talking about all sorts of different potential non-practicing non-legal careers, there's the substance of it, there's the actual doing of the voice-over, and I think when people are sometimes thinking about like, “Oh, I'm potentially interested in this,” that is what they're thinking of but then there are all of these other things that require different types of skills that are all part of it.
Again, this is a conversation that we have over and over on the podcast about different jobs and all different types of industries that it's really important, if you're thinking about doing something different, that you do the work and get the information that you need to know what are the things that maybe I don't think of as being a part of doing this type of work that in many ways is going to be like the actual make or break for whether you're actually well suited for it and actually want to be doing it.
Ruth Kaufman: But again, it's similar to law, you can't be a lawyer in a void. You have to know where in the legal industry you see yourself fitting in: a small firm, a large firm, government, whatever, professor.
There are so many “more typical” lawyer jobs but if you don't know the voice-over industry, the film industry, or even another thing I do, I wouldn't say quite a bit but frequently, I do corporate role-playing so I do witnesses in trials, mock trials which is a perfect thing for a lawyer if you can get work in that, it doesn't pay quite as well as some of my other acting opportunities but I think it's a lot of fun. I also do other kinds of corporate role-playing too. It's live with their clients to help teach them some kind of skill.
Sarah Cottrell: It's interesting, as you're sharing about all of these different types of things that you do, one of the things that I think can be challenging for some lawyers is that many lawyers chose to go to law school because in their minds, it was this clear guaranteed path and then you get out and then you get a job and it's like you have the one job and gives this perception that that’s the stable way to be.
Ruth Kaufman: And you move up and up and up.
Sarah Cottrell: Right, exactly. I think this is another thing that is so important for people to think through because for some people, booking all of these different gigs, roles, and jobs is exciting, interesting, and keeps it fun. You're not doing the same thing every day. For other people, depending on their makeup, it could feel like if they want to pursue something like this, they need to think through like, “Okay, how do I wrap my head around the fact that I don't necessarily know what things are going to look like exactly X number of months from now and be okay with that as opposed to be racked with anxiety?”
Ruth Kaufman: Yes, 100%. There's no paid vacation days, there's no health insurance. You're basically a freelancer entrepreneur. For me, when auditions and opportunities are coming in, it's super exciting but I tend to have feast-and-famine periods, I'm not really sure why.
During a famine, when there are no auditions from any source or self-submissions I do weren’t even generating anything, you have to keep your belief and faith that, “Well, I just booked this great thing or I have this other thing coming up,” and just always keep feeding the pipeline.
I attribute it a little bit or think it's a little bit maybe like being a solo practitioner because if you set up an office by yourself, you might have one great client. Let's just say my big She-Hulk thing, but that doesn't mean they're going to ask you back or that doesn't mean that they'll refer you to another thing. A lot of projects could be one-offs or you might wind up working for a production company more than once because they like you.
In voice-over, that does tend to be even more true in my experience than with film. I have done a couple of films with a couple of directors and production companies and at some of those, they literally now just offer me a role, I don't even have to audition, they'll just be like, “We're doing this, do you want this part?” That's great because you're not really competing with anybody and you've already proven yourself.
That would be similar to a solo practitioner where you have a client and they come back with a different matter but you can't control when all that will happen and you can't control when an agent, when a casting director will call you in, or even beyond that when a show will have a role that you're suited for.
The one thing about being a lawyer or other corporate jobs, yes, age and appearance can be factors but it's not the same as with actors where you're judged even on your hair color, your height, or your weight, especially for commercials. A lot of commercials can be looks.
I do have a national commercial running right now, which is great but based on what I ended up doing, some things definitely take more skill than others but it's just so interesting why they would choose you, me, or whoever for some of these projects and sometimes it is you and a lot of the times mostly it's not you.
That's a big difference too. It sometimes can be hard just to be judged on how you present yourself to the world, what your headshot looks like, and what your hairstyle is.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think for many of us who became lawyers, there might be a bit of a perfectionist streak and so there is also the reality of if you're going to be in any business where you're doing auditioning, there's going to be a lot of rejection and crickets. That's another piece of experience that people need to think about if they're thinking about potentially pursuing a path like this.
I would love to know what your favorite thing is about doing this type of work.
Ruth Kaufman: Being on set for sure.
Sarah Cottrell: Can you say a bit more about that?
Ruth Kaufman: Yeah. I love doing voice-overs too, but now that I do 90% of them by myself, the one good thing about that is you can do it whenever, obviously, if you're on set, you have to be there when they want you kind of a thing, so the scheduling can be a little more challenging sometimes.
But I like working with other actors, I like rehearsing the scenes, I like working with directors, I like getting into a character and making people laugh or entertaining them and then being able to see my work on the screen, all those things. I like the whole thing.
Sarah Cottrell: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about doing this type of work, particularly voice-over work?
Ruth Kaufman: “Oh, well, I have a voice and I can read so what's the big deal?”
Sarah Cottrell: To be honest, I asked the question, I was like, “I would imagine it's just that people are like, ‘Well, you just read.’”
Ruth Kaufman: Right, that’s it. They think that's all it is. It's so many more things, it really, really is. Also, another thing we didn't really discuss both for acting on camera and voice-over or any gig of any kind you accept is knowing rates. You have to know what good rates are and also, especially for commercials, what is the usage going to be and where is that commercial going to play.
Because so many people, in my experience, are desperate for acting work and they don't know how to read contracts because they aren't lawyers so that's another benefit that I have that many actors do not, I've seen people sign contracts without even looking at them, for example, and they might be different than what you were told you were going to do.
That's a whole sidebar but it's just so easy because you're pretty maybe, you have an athletic build for a guy maybe, or that you have a good voice but there's so much more to it and you have to understand what you're getting paid for and is that a fair rate.
A lot of people just see, let's say, “Oh, I'm going to make $50 for one hour, that's amazing,” well, it might be depending on what you're doing and it might not be so you really have to also understand the rates and the going rates are what you're worth of every single thing you agree to do, whether it's an independent film, a commercial, a voice-over, anything.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's interesting because I think that there are all of these elements, it's an information gap situation. People need to actually go and get that information. I am curious, one way that you might get some of that information could be via an agent but I imagine there are other ways.
Ruth Kaufman: No, agents don't educate you. No, that's not their job.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh. Tell me more.
Ruth Kaufman: There's a couple who are a little more helpful onboarding people than others in my experience but most agents want you to already know all this stuff and they're hiring professionals who are ready to go. Now, if they need some really obscure thing for some random part and they have to reach out to “real” people, they might help them for that purpose but they expect you to come in with a headshot, some resume, and knowing how to behave yourself on set.
Most agents, in my understanding now, before you get a meeting with them, they send you a self-tape to do so they won't even meet with you. Again, unless you have some look or feature in a gap in their roster that they desperately need you for something, which is really rare, but for most even moderately talented people, you have to be the full package and be prepared because the better prepared you are, the more they want to work with you. They need to know that you're going to make them money.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. For you, you have this whole history going back to college radio stations and all of these work experiences that you accumulated over the years as you were moving along that gave you a lot of this experience. For someone who is thinking about doing something like this and doesn't have that type of experience--
Ruth Kaufman: there are tons of classes, some are better than others, of course. There are virtual ones, there are in-person ones again. There are many, many coaches but there are also different kinds of coaches so you have to think, “Do I need a craft coach? Do I need a business coach?” that whole thing.
There definitely is a learning curve if you want to hit the ground running. You can also just try to find, there are sites online where you can go ahead and some sites will let you join for a membership. You can try to go ahead and submit your own auditions for things by yourself and see if you get anything.
You might get a small film or something out of that, that doesn't really pay but again, you're competing with people who already have all their tools in place. It would be like trying to go to a law firm interview without a resume.
Sarah Cottrell: Right. What I'm hearing from you and what I think that listeners should take away is if it's something that you're interested in, then that's great but you need to be willing to put in the leg work to actually position yourself.
Ruth Kaufman: And prepare, right. What I had found in some of my coaching with people is once I tell them everything, it's definitely doable. I don't mean to be discouraging but most people think it's just going to be so easy and they'll be snapped up by an agent and the jobs will come rolling in. It takes a lot of outgoing effort and marketing. If you're not willing to do that, it might not be for you.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that's really helpful for people who might be thinking about something like this. Okay, Ruth, as we're getting towards the end of our conversation, is there anything else that you'd like to share that we haven't touched on yet?
Ruth Kaufman: Oh, so many things. One hour is not enough but I just do want to share that if you feel that you can swing it financially, you only have one life to live, at least, dip your toes into the water of whatever you do want to pursue. Maybe you can't quit your job right now but maybe you could take a class in whatever it is, painting, music, acting, whatever, just get started and start taking baby steps.
With each step, you can take a little bigger step or maybe you'll meet more people who can help you to other things. It's a networking process, it's a learning curve. Just try to do something every day to move your passions forward.
Sarah Cottrell: I love that. Okay, Ruth, for people who would like to connect with you, where can they find you online?
Ruth Kaufman: My main website is ruthtalks.com and I have an email there. I'm on LinkedIn as Ruth Kaufman. I'm on Instagram as @ruth.kaufman. I also still have my author website up. I did self-published six novels and do one audiobook of my novels, that's ruthkaufman.com. I would be happy to connect with people and perhaps, do some beginning coaching of how to break into either writing books, voice-overs, or on-camera work.
Sarah Cottrell: Awesome. Thank you so much. We'll put all those links in the show notes. For people who are listening, you can just go there and all the links to all of the things will be there. Ruth, thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your story.
Ruth Kaufman: Well, thank you, Sarah, for having me and I hope that it helps people to learn, if they want to, that there is more to life than the law.
Sarah Cottrell: Hooray! I agree.
Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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