Um, where did you go? (AKA I'm back!)

Um, where did you go?

A completely reasonable question. I abruptly quit posting here at the end of March, leaving you all hanging on the resolution my blog series, Two Truths and a Belief.  That final post, about how law school changed me, is nearly complete and has been stashed in my documents folder gathering digital dust for 3+ months.

So, what happened?  In short - a lot.  Around the time that I quit posting I was entering the final stages of interviewing for a job (gasp) that seemed to fall from the heavens at my feet. A law firm was searching for a former lawyer, coach and instructor to help drive their innovative vision for lawyer professional development. In mid-April, I was offered (and I accepted) the position. You can find out more about this firm if you find me on LinkedIn and follow the breadcrumbs there. I’m super excited about this role. I am coaching, designing training programs, and managing organizational change initiatives designed to support the development of excellent attorneys. It’s a dream.

But wait, there’s more. In May I attended my final week of training with Presence-Based® Coaching outside beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, where I also passed my certification exam! This training has been life-changing. Doug Silsbee, Bebe Hansen and Sarah Halley, my teachers and mentors, walked with me along the path to changing my career and the direction of my life, while also training me to be a highly skilled coach. I am a profoundly different person today because of them. If you are at all interested in coach training, I urge you to explore the offerings at PBC and reach out to Bebe with questions. She would be delighted to hear from you.

These exciting happenings + my first couple of months at a new job took up a lot of space. I’ve learned that during transitions that I do best if I follow a dual-track strategy: simplify & touch back in.

Simplifying my life means making room, clearing space in my mind and in the landscape of my life (time, commitments, etc.) to allow a shift to happen and allow myself room to get a little messy with it.  It gives me room to breathe. One of the unexpected gifts of this process is that I’m beginning to learn that I can trust myself to let go of something for a time and then pick it up again when the time is right (like this blog!).

Even as I let things go, I need to be careful not to slip into a different kind of habit: crisis mode. I learned how to do this well because of acute need in the past. Rather than intentionally creating space by packing things away so that they are ready for me to pick up in the future, in crisis mode I basically burn the house down. It’s slash and run and everything gets hit. This is still my body and mind’s natural coping mechanism in times of high stress (you can see a bit of the evidence of this in my story of how I dealt with stress at a law firm - by withdrawing from everything).  The grip of the habit has loosened with the learning and work I’ve invested. I have more choice now.  But, if I’m not attentive the habit can still create unintended casualties in my life.  So even as I clear space I intentionally “touch back in.” I keep most of my rituals in place for daily self-care, I try to stay connected to what’s going on with my friends (even though I may reduce the number of social engagements I chose to attend) and I hold my center with intention and discernment (as well as practices like centering and breath-work).  How do you manage transitions?

And here we are. In July. It’s now time for me to extend myself here once more. I am going to be posting 2 times per month (rather than 4), but my intention is to make those posts regular and predictable so you can count on them. I expect that I will have a lot of interesting things to share with you due to yet another exciting development in my life. I’ve been accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program - a highly selective 1-year masters where I will have the privilege of studying the science and application of positive psychology (individually and in organizations) from the founder of the discipline (Marty Seligman) and dozens of other major researchers, writers and thinkers in the field. I’m so thrilled to join the community of MAPP students around the world, and I look forward to sharing some my learning with you.

I am also still accepting coaching clients. If you are a professional in a high-intensity field and you’re bumping up against burnout, struggling through a transition of your own, or just feeling like your work-life needs a bit of a tune-up, I’d love to hear from you to see if we are good match to work together.

Spring Break

Happy Spring! Two Truths and a Belief will return next Thursday for the final post in the series, looking at the truth that law school changed me. I can't wait to share this with you! There's a little something for everyone - research, real talk about life in the law, self-care practices and a vision for what's next.

For now, as we head into a weekend, I want to leave you with a poem which is also a bit of a preview to next week's post. I wrote this poem several years ago when I was coming to terms with the fact that during law school and my early law career I'd lost track of pieces of myself that used to be central. But, no matter how far away those pieces seemed at the time, remnants remained, hiding in plain sight.

For those of you celebrating Passover or Easter, or who recently marked Spring's debut on the equinox, I also offer this poem as an invitation to attend to your sense of wonder as you celebrate life's return in spring after the death of winter.  

Wavelength

A chord.

A particular inflection of

verse and rhythm.

Song.

Sometimes, they lead my soul to a 

resting place.

Something opens

up and all is calm.

Expanse of clear water,

Majestic mountains,

quiet

woods, a breath of breeze

and rustling leaves.

The universe 

whispers in my ear,

you are magnificent,

I am magnificent.

Hear me roar

my beauty into silence.

Sometimes, my heart -

like a tuning fork - 

matches the pitch of its

proclamation and I rest in the

wavelength.

p.s. The image for this post is a preview from my recent photo shoot with DFinney Photography. Isn't it great? You can find her here: http://www.dfinneyphoto.co/

Two Truths and a Belief Part 3 - Truth #1

Truth: Most of the work “demands” that I received were actually “requests.”

Many days my job as an associate felt like a marathon session of task “whack-a-mole.” Picture me, perching before my keyboard, intent on my computer screen, batting down each rapid-fire email request that came my way. “This needs to go out immediately!” “Please turn the next draft.” “Please explain your comment to Section 8.6(b) of y-document.” “We need to jump on an all-hands call for this matter to review z-document. I’m only available in the next hour - please coordinate and run the call.” Every request felt urgent, and I registered every request as a “demand.” By this, I mean that while I retained some powers of prioritization, I basically believed that each “demand” must be complied with precisely as the demander communicated it - I had no wiggle room in form, substance or timeline, and I certainly didn’t have the option to decline. Herein lies the key distinction between a demand and a request. There are multiple possible responses to a request (accept, reject, propose an alternative), but a demand is inflexible.

My mindset about work requests left me feeling totally at the mercy of my email inbox (and the phone, and the partners, etc. etc. ad infinitum). Work requests became the tyrannical ruler of my life and I lived in fear of the next “demand” that I would somehow have to figure out a way to accommodate. No joke - my stomach would drop to my feet and my heart would race every time I saw a new email in my inbox that I wasn’t expecting or that came at an odd hour. I lived with the sense that no matter where I was or what I was doing, a work request could always come along and derail it simply by arriving at a particular time. I’ve had clients tell me they also live with this sense, and that it feels “suffocating.”

This mindset also clearly has limits. What happens when the requests are coming in too fast to be dealt with and are piling up in your inbox? Or the requests are in conflict with each other? Or the requests are completely outside of your realm of knowledge or current capacity? Or the request comes at 7pm when you’re putting you kid to bed, at 9pm when you’re enjoying a moment with your spouse, at 11pm when you’re laying down to sleep, at 1am when you wake up to pee, or on your vacation? If all of these requests are “demands,” then you have only one choice, to comply precisely as asked, even if that’s actually bad for the work product, a client, or your mental and physical health.

Working with requests is a fairly common theme in coaching engagements - requests are tricky. But, there are some contextual factors specific to law firms and lawyers that are fertile ground for the particular kind of confusion that I struggled with.

First, lawyers are generally perfectionistic and risk averse. If there is the chance that one in five requests is actually a demand, it is more in keeping with our habits to invent a “legal fiction” and chose to operate as if all requests are actually demands. We take the least risky path (often without a real understanding of the scope of the risk) because we’re always “thinking like a lawyer” and “issue spotting” (i.e. worrying). Then we label it a “best practice” and drill it into associates skulls.

Second, we operate in an professional services context where there is an inherent imbalance of power between the client and the attorney. The client gets what the client wants. Many lawyers also espouse the belief that they simply cannot negotiate with their client’s requests if they want to keep the business. And, as an aside, many associates believe that the quickest way to stop getting good work is to say “no” to a request (any request).

Third, firm lawyers are stressed, over-committed, and under-resourced. They are also not trained to be managers. And, most of the work requests a young lawyer receives are from other lawyers. So, something as simple as framing a request for delivery of work product with enough buffer-time for review and revision often comes out like “I need this ASAP!!” A bit dramatic, no?

And fourth, to this amply-stocked tinder box we add the accelerant of our ethical obligation as lawyers (which I’m in no way criticizing) to zealously represent our clients. And there you have it. Look, Ma! Proof that I must immolate myself upon the pyre of my professional obligations!

Clearly the way I operated, treating each request as a inviolable demand, was reasonable under the circumstances. Ultimately, though, I bumped up against the limits of it’s utility and I had to make a change. Things would fall through the cracks. I’d become entirely overcommitted and then underdeliver. I’d spend evenings doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV and refreshing my email inbox because I was afraid to be too far away from a computer. And I was totally sick of living in fear.

So, I experimented with a new strategy. I hypothesized that most of the asks were true requests and that I had options about how to respond to them. At first my strategy took longer - I had to actually assess my workload, understand the scope of the request, and get clarification from the requester around the nature of any related deadlines and work product. Then I would respond. Sometimes, I would propose an alternative from the initial ask. Sometimes, I simply accepted. And sometimes it was the best response to decline. Soon, this became automatic. Nine times out of ten it was quickly apparent that I was, in fact, dealing with a true request. And, in the tenth instance, a true demand became more immediately obvious.

Under my new strategy, I continued to be “responsive” to work requests in a conscientious way. And I continued to meet deadlines. But I made a shift in my process. Would it serve you to be conscious of your own process for handling work requests? What is your automatic response? And why? Is it appropriate? Always? If not, when and why not?

If you feel like you’re in an un-winnable war with your inbox and want to talk about about coaching on responding to requests, please go to the Schedule a Call page to schedule your call online. Or you can reach me at jen@jenniferoverall.com.

Two Truths and a Belief Part 2 - The Belief

Belief - There is only one right way to be an associate.

Have you ever read you firm’s associate competencies? You know, that list that describes a lawyer that’s a cross between Ruth Bader Ginsburg, WonderWoman and Steve Jobs? Right. Every time I read that list, my mind would go straight to the the words of Elizabeth Bennet, who upon hearing a preposterously long and hyperbolic list describing an “accomplished” woman, simply exclaims “I never saw such a woman.” And truly, have you ever seen such a lawyer? If you, reading this, consistently see yourself reflected in your firm’s description of an "accomplished lawyer” (and you’re happy about it), you should probably stop reading now. I have no wisdom for you. For the rest of you who read those lists and experienced something on a spectrum from mild concern/disdainful eye-roll to full-on panic-induced nausea, you may stay. You are my people.

For most of my legal career, I lived under the shadow of the belief that there was only one right way to be an associate.  That “right way” was that I must at all times adhere to long list of performance indicators/qualities, including: always be available, be immediately responsive to requests or questions, manage up seamlessly, be two steps ahead, spot all the issues before they become “issues,” be ahead of the curve on all of your associate competencies, be super detail oriented but never lose sight of the big picture, and always be “busy.” If I “failed” to hit any one of these markers, or simply chose (out of necessity or otherwise) to deviate from them, I felt awful about myself. I thought it meant I wasn’t “doing my best” and that the people around me would be disappointed with me.

If you’re anything like me, something in the pit of your stomach might be squirming right now, wanting to burst out with, “But Jen, that is actually true, not just a “belief”…right?” Yeah, I see you.

So, where did my belief and the substance of my list actually come from? From everyone who had influence over my young career, and no one in particular. From the firm orientation program, from abovethelaw.com, from a senior associate, from a partner, from the competencies list, from my own type-A, law school educated brain. In short, from a context where all indicator lights are flashing “Perform! Perform! Perform! (and btw, that’s how we’ll judge you)” all of the time. Let’s face it, everyone around you at the firm appears to be marching in lock-step with these dictates, and partners are often not exactly shy about reinforcing “expectations.”

But let me be perfectly clear here: my mistake was not that I had high standards, or that I adopted my firm’s high standards. My mistake was believing that those standards were zero-sum, black and white: I either hit all of them, all of the time, and was therefore a “good associate,” or I didn’t and was therefore and doomed to have my portrait hung in the hall of “They That Could not Hack-eth It.”

Tough right? Do you see how this was catastrophizing my every decision as one between “good” and “failure,” leaving me with the perception that I had no choice in the matter? Ok. Whew. Let’s shake it out a little. Let our reptile brains calm down a bit. This is stressful stuff. Deep breath in, loooong breath out. Ok. Better.

A quick reality check: Just because this belief is not true does not mean that it was not temporarily useful or even reasonable. This was how I got it done. It kept me performing and available and managing up, etc. etc. etc., but it was also making me suuuuper miserable. Eventually, being miserable forced me to consider whether I was entirely correct that I could not possibly deviate from my standards without dire consequences - without being a “bad associate.” It forced me to consider changing a way of operating that I’d used protectively for a long period of time.

So, how did I come to learn that this belief was not entirely true? Well, I first had to identify it, and then I had to test it.

It took awhile to actually figure out what the underlying belief was that was driving me crazy. At first it just felt like a tyranny of endless performance demands and I spent long hours fixated on them as the culprits behind my suffering. If only I didn’t have to bill so many hours. If only the partner would respect my boundaries and not email me after 10pm unless its an emergency. If only the client would make more reasonable demands on my time. If only I had some help. Then, I thought, I might actually be able to live up to my own and the firm’s standards. But, slowly, I began to realize that all of these thoughts had a common root, and that root was my own zero-sum, black and white standards and assessments of myself.

Slowly, I also began to test my belief in the real world. I took small, relatively safe behavioral steps that challenged the belief (i.e. I did something differently). For example, I experimented with responding to partner requests differently. I also tried a different approach to after-hours emails. And then I watched what happened.

Right now, you’re probably desperate for me to just tell you what I did differently so that you can go ahead and do it and fix yourself already. But, if fixing this problem is that simple, wouldn’t you have already figured it out? How many people have given you advice about how to be good at this job? Dozens, I’d bet. You don’t really need any more advice like that. If I gave you a prescription here it would just be adding one more item to your “accomplished lawyer” definition - the same one that’s probably already making you miserable.

Ultimately, through this work, I was able to refine and re-define my perspective on what it meant to be doing my job well. And damn, let me just tell you, when I touched into that new perspective, one where I had choice, where there were more options available than the “right one” and total failure, it was fucking liberating.

If you’re interested in getting started on this work for yourself, I’d love to talk to you. You can reach me at jen@jenniferoverall.com, or use the Schedule a Call link to schedule an initial consultation.

What's Next: A Fork in the Road

This weekend, I ran into a law school friend who I’ve not seen for awhile in the grocery store. It was one of those sweet moments where I witnessed my old friend as if in a double-exposed polaroid, simultaneously fully inhabiting his current moment - standing in the checkout line with his wife and infant son - and yet somehow still standing for the memory of all those prior shared experiences - 1L year, exam cramming, and study-abroad summers.  

“Hey! Jen! Congratulations! I’ve been meaning to reach out and talk about your career move!  So…what exactly are you doing?”  We hugged, and as I greeted his little boy and reintroduced myself to his wife, I realized that the moment was more than just a nice coincidental meeting - it was instructive.  There’s a story to tell to all of you out there.  And it’s time to tell it.

Three years ago, I was three years into my career as a lawyer and I was coming apart at the seams.  You might not have known it to look at me, but I was.  I was working with a wonderful group of humans (who happened to be lawyers) in a very small office of a national firm that specialized in finance and danced opposite the Biglaw players on major deals.  I had just clocked my busiest year yet in a roller-coaster practice area that tended to rise and fall with the markets.  I was getting excellent experience, running deals as a third year associate that many senior associates would kill for, and there wasn’t a single “ogre” in group.  So why, then, did I feel like a desperate caged animal?  

Some of you reading this who are attorneys may just intuitively “know” the answer to that question, even if you don’t know my particular circumstances.  Law firm life is really hard.  And I am by no means the first, second, or third person to say so.  In my efforts to be the “perfect associate,” as measured by work-quality, relentless issue spotting, responsiveness, and productivity (read, hours billed), I’d backed into a way of living and working that was slowly choking me to death.  I do not mean to suggest that one cannot be a “good associate” and, you know, survive to old age.  Just the opposite really.  But, unfortunately for me, I didn’t then know how to do that.  Why?  Well, that’s another blog post entirely, but I’ll say this: Because, early in my career, no one taught me or showed me what that would look like.

Now, I also don’t mean to suggest that I, Jen Overall, am in possession of the single, magical piece of knowledge that can transform a nightmarish work situation into a generative, life-giving one.  I am not.  But, I will tell you that with some time, focused attention, and excellent outside support from my therapist/coach, I learned a new way.  And, as a result, my lot as a lawyer improved.  I didn’t change the profession as a whole, but I learned to navigate it more effectively and healthfully.  

This change also created the mental space (which honestly, felt miraculous in and of itself) for me to reconnect with what really mattered to me. My favorite aspects of practicing law have always been 1) the never-ending learning, and 2) the never-ending teaching.  Really, at a basic level, this polarity forms the “what” of the job description of an attorney.  Learning/teaching is what we do as counselors for our clients and what we do as employees and leaders within a firm.  In my daily practice, I found that I could take or leave the actual subject of this learning/teaching (i.e. the law…please don’t tell my law professors, it’s not their fault), but the process - now that lit me up.  So, it’s perhaps not surprising that once I caught wind of a profession where learning is both the subject and the object of the job, I was hooked.  In pursuing a coaching certification, I dived deeply into the “how” and they “why” of adult learning and development, into the evidence-based techniques that can support transformational growth and learning in service of both meaningful real-world goals (making partner, finding “whole-life” balance, learning to delegate, learning to lead an effective team, or building a book of business) and profounds shift toward generative ways of living and working and increased mental complexity. 

So, here I am.  The rest of this story is as yet unwritten.  I’m accepting clients, some of whom I expect will be standing precisely where I stood three years ago and looking for the outside support that a coach can offer.  I’m also designing a course for on-ramping first-year associates to teach what I wish someone had taught/showed me at the outset: how to crush a legal career without (accidentally) crushing your soul. I am also joining, through my writing, my research, and my daily work as coach and consultant, the growing chorus of voices calling for creative and systemic changes in the legal profession that support growth and profitability alongside improved well-being of attorneys and staff, meaningful growth in diversity and inclusion, and reclamation of the professions’ innate duty to embody ethical leadership.  

I’m thrilled to share all of this with you. Let’s roll.