How I did it: Transitioned from the military to a private sector career

March 29, 2023

Changing careers can be daunting for anyone, but there are special circumstances for people leaving the military. Alison Atkins spent 20 years in the Army and today she’s a successful lawyer for U.S. Bank. She shares her journey. 

Growing up I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I even dressed up as one for Halloween one year. But it wasn’t until I had been in the military for a few years that I decided to pursue a law degree.  

I joined the Army in 2000 after attending West Point. I served four years as a military police officer, and after 9/11 and two deployments to combat zones, I attended law school at Temple University in Philadelphia as part of the Army’s Funded Legal Education Program. I became a Judge Advocate (JAG) focusing on sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse prosecutions. After 20 years, I transitioned out of the military to start my career in the private sector. Today I’m the Chief Cyber Counsel for U.S. Bank.

Starting the job search 

I started seriously thinking about a retirement date 24 months prior to when I wanted to start my second career in the private sector. As a military officer with many job transitions over 20 years, I was accustomed to knowing about my next role well in advance of my start date. I quickly learned that the private sector was different, and I would be most successful applying for jobs about 90 days from when I wanted to start working. Early in my job search one recruiter cut our phone call short when they found out I couldn’t start the job right away, so keep that in mind. 

Starting my career search two years ahead of time was very helpful. I was able to explore different fields and career opportunities and start building my network from the ground up. I would say the two most important things for people to consider when they’re making the transition out of the military is to build your network and to be confident — don’t be afraid to try new things and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something new.  

Grow your network 

A few years before I retired, I was working in the Pentagon, and I attended a seminar where the speaker discussed networking. I had been bouncing around the world in the military for the past 20 years and I had no professional contacts. I didn’t even have a LinkedIn page. So, I started building my connections slowly. 

First, I asked myself where I wanted to live, what companies were in those areas and what fields interested me. Next, I searched for employees and reached out to them. It was intimidating at first, because I didn’t want to seem disingenuous, but I spoke with my brother-in-law, who is an architect, and he lovingly said, “get over yourself,” everyone networks and I need to do it too. The first email I drafted I rewrote for hours before I hit send.  

Networking became easier over time. I reached out to others with experience in the private sector and asked them how to phrase things. They gave me good insights and provided an extra set of eyes. I was amazed that nearly everyone I contacted was willing to speak with me. I made a tracker of everyone I talked to and why I reached out to them — whether as someone in an interesting field, a fellow Academy grad, or someone working in a location that interested me. I also kept track of when I followed up with that person. I still keep in touch with some of them! 

My networking success story is that the second person I contacted on LinkedIn was a Naval Academy graduate and a lawyer at another financial institution. I asked her very open-ended questions about her transition from the Navy and what she does as in-house counsel. She was incredibly generous with her time. A year and a half later, when a job came up at her company that I found interesting, I asked if she could put me in touch with the hiring manager and she encouraged me to apply. I ended up getting that job. 

Build your confidence 

Many servicemembers transition to the civilian federal workforce, but I was seeking a total career pivot. Through my network, I heard that finance and banking was a good fit for veterans and I found that to be true. Both the military and financial institutions are heavily regulated, which makes for a smooth transition from the military to the private sector. I also found out that my peer leadership, time management and communications skills were highly valued in the industry. So even though my resume was “non-traditional,” I was able to articulate those skills that any large organization values.    

It was a valuable lesson to not be discouraged by those who say you’re wasting your time trying to do something outside the box. Many people shook their heads and said I was crazy trying to transition straight from the military to the private sector, especially as an attorney. Fortunately, my optimistic nature won out and I kept applying, and after many rejections, I received a terrific offer. The rest is history.  

My goal is to help other veterans have that same confidence in their ability. Very few candidates are 100% qualified for every part of a job. It's important to believe in yourself and trust that you can sell your skills and your potential, and if the company doesn't see those values, perhaps that is not a company where you want to work. 

Live your best life 

Because my husband and I both work remotely, we were able to pick where we wanted to live — for the first time in 20 years! We chose to move to Colorado, where my husband grew up. Each morning I look out my window at the mountains and I feel joy. 

Being a remote worker does impact your ability to form relationships with your colleagues, so you have to be intentional with your engagements. For me, I joined our military business resource group, Proud to Serve, first as a member and now as a board member. Being in a leadership role is more time intensive than membership at large but it gives me an opportunity to have input at the organizational level. I want the veterans at U.S. Bank to feel supported and I’m happy to help with that.  

I also do quite a bit of pro bono and volunteer work. This is something I couldn’t do in the Army for a few reasons, but U.S. Bank has volunteer hours that I can use, and our law division encourages pro bono work. Right now, I’m helping a 4-year-old girl as her Court Appointed Special Advocate and helping a mentally ill former Airman with his application before the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records. 

It’s important to find time for the fun stuff too. Since moving to Colorado, I’ve been able to chaperone during my child’s “Ski Wednesday” program. It’s wonderful (and crazy) to be able to supervise a group of 4th graders for the afternoon on the slopes and know that it is fully supported by my employer. 

As for my own time, I love to walk, hike and snowshoe in the mountains. I enjoy the solitude and quiet, and just being by myself. And sometimes I dream of owning a bakery — like the ones my husband and I would frequent when we were stationed in Germany — where I make my own sourdough bread and serve sliced baguettes with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. And a good cup of coffee. 


Looking to make a career switch? Read our tips for transitioning from the military to the civilian workforce and explore Financial IQ for more stories about choosing your career.  

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