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.