Monthly Archives: June 2013

Seven Suggestions for Faking It At Work

Someone asked me a great question the other day.  “I’m having a hard time staying engaged at the office,” she explained.  “I want to leave, but I’m not sure what to do next.  How do I keep up the appearance that I’m still interested in practicing law while I figure out my next move?”

This in-between stage is hard in so many ways.  It can be hard to force yourself to work on cases when you no longer care about the outcome.  It can be hard to make yourself meet your billable hour minimum when you find the work dull and unrewarding.  It can be hard to act happy, or at least not to growl at people, when you desperately want to do something else.  Here are seven strategies for the summer of your discontent.

  1.  Budget time for your own career search.  Figure out what time you can afford to spend on figuring out your next steps, whether that is an hour a day or a few hours a month.  Then be accountable to yourself for that time.  Put it on your calendar, even if you have to disguise it as an “appointment” in case other people have calendar access.  Not sure where to start with those next steps?  Start here.  Or here.
  2. Start thinking of your law job achievements as potential talking points for your next career, and your clients as potential references.   Will you be able to show the parallels, for example, between your next victory in court and your general success in achieving certain outcomes?  Will your clients be so pleased with the level of customer service they receive that they can speak well of you to future employers?
  3. Connect with online sources of support for leaving the law, including (of course) this one.   Reading about other people’s career changes can be inspiring.  If you’re thinking of starting your own business, you may enjoy reading some of the profiles at The Story ExchangeiRelaunch also has great “success stories” of people who have relaunched their careers after taking time off.
  4. If you don’t yet know what you want to do next, start researching people whose careers you may want to learn more about.  If your law school offers alumni counseling – or if you are still in law school – ask whether the school keeps a database of the growing number of alumni who are in non-traditional legal jobs.  Sharing a law school connection can be a great springboard toward an informational interview.
  5. If you already know what you want to do next, but haven’t left yet, develop a specific benchmark for leaving.  Will it be when you have set aside x dollars for your new business?  Three weeks (or three hours) after you cash your next bonus check?  After you finish the next closing?  Give some thought to the turning point that makes the most sense for you.  Waiting until you just can’t take it any more is not an advisable strategy for many, many reasons.
  6. Be mindful that you are still an Officer of the Court, with an ethical obligation to your clients, etc., until the day you give notice (and maybe after that as well – would ethicists care to opine?).  Nobody wants their legal career to end with disbarment.
  7. On the most frustrating days, start (or continue) drafting your “goodbye cruel firm” departure letter.  On your home computer.  Never send it.

Readers, what helps you cope with the in-between stages of leaving the law?

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From Lawyer to Fashion Entrepreneur

bridgette hyltonIn this installment of the 0.1 Billable Hour Interview, we talk with Bridgette L. Hylton.  Bridgette, an ’09 law school graduate, is a former corporate associate who left law to cofound fashion tech startup ShopRagHouse.com with her Harvard Law School classmate Joana Florez.  ShopRagHouse is the place where Project Runway meets Kickstarter. Everyday fashion enthusiasts and designers can submit their design ideas for a chance to have them produced and sold for a share of the profits.  Let’s get to the questions!

1. Why did you leave law?

The short answer is that I left law because I wasn’t passionate about it. It was a hard choice to make since I was learning so much at my firm, the pay was good, I loved being a part of the hustle and bustle in New York City, and I really admired the partner that I worked with. She was and is a powerhouse, but I could tell that we were different. While the creative structuring of deals was something that really drove her, it didn’t drive me. Doing my job, even doing well at my job, didn’t bring me joy. That should have been a big red flag.

Then there was a question of fit. I started to feel like I didn’t fit in pretty early on. I strolled into the office in sky high red stiletto Stuart Weitzman pumps only to have my secretary tell me that I should try to tone down my fashion choices. At some point you have to be honest with yourself about fit or you will never be happy. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized my dream of becoming a Prada suit wearing M&A partner, wasn’t my dream any more.

After leaving practice, I almost immediately fell back into the things I had cared about in law school and still care about now, politics and startups.  I spent some time exploring what my next move would be and in the meantime became a mother. I knew after having my child that I wanted a career that would allow me the flexibility to be hands on with my son, but would also still challenge me. The idea for ShopRagHouse was born while I was doing some major soul searching about what I wanted to do next – a rough and tumble time where my career dreams swerved between politics, writing, and fashion (I even tried to launch my own dress line!). When my business partner called me with the idea for ShopRagHouse, something just clicked. It fit. I could use my legal education and still wear red stilettos?! Sign me up! We’ve been full steam ahead on trying to launch our startup since then.

2. What was the hardest part of your career change?

One big change is not having the internal structure that lets you know if you are doing a good job or the right thing. At a firm if you do well, you keep your job and if you do really well, you get praised for it; if you do poorly, ultimately, you probably don’t get to keep your job. It’s pretty straightforward. In the startup world, there is no easy validation and when you are your own boss, there isn’t always someone there to pat you on your shoulder and say, “good work, Hylton.” We rely a lot more on intuition now than we do on praise: Does it seem like our idea is building traction? Do people seem excited to talk about ShopRagHouse? The answers to those questions have to motivate us on a daily basis to keep plugging. Luckily we’ve had some great feedback so far and the buzz continues to grow so we are optimistic.

Adjusting to being more flexible about deadlines and timelines was another big change for both of us. We have to remind each other that we don’t have to freak out if we don’t get a pattern back on time every single time, but I’m grateful that we both know how to push things forward when we need to – chalk that up to our legal educations!

3. What advice do you have for other lawyers who are thinking of changing careers?

Be brave! Be confident! A lot of people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I left big law to start a startup – especially so because we’re still just getting off the ground. If I weren’t confident that this was the best decision for me and that this business can and will succeed, I might have run back to a law firm begging for forgiveness. I haven’t yet and I look forward to ShopRagHouse being a huge success soon so that I can prove that following your joy to the ends of the earth is 100% worth it.

Readers, have you thought about starting your own business?  Are you doing it now?  Why or why not?

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The Relevance of Storytelling To Leaving the Law

As I was listening to the TED Radio Hour on storytelling this weekend, I started thinking more about the value of telling stories to changing careers.  Everyone loves a good story.  As the show underscored, stories help us make meaning of our lives.  Stories help us understand not only who we are, but who we might become.  For that reason, stories about lawyers who have taken the road less traveled can have a powerful impact on people who are still at the fork.   

When I was thinking about leaving my law firm, I was hungry for examples of lawyers who had successfully changed careers.  I was casting around for what else I could do that might offer a similar sense of intellectual satisfaction as my law practice, but would be a better fit for who I had become.  Generic lists of alternative job titles did not help; hearing stories about happy ex-lawyers did.  In Life After Law, it was important to me to focus on real examples of people who had left law to do interesting, unexpected things because I lacked those role models myself.   Learning and retelling the stories of thirty ex-lawyers, who have gone into fields as varied as nursing, biotech recruiting, directing clinical trials, psychotherapy and writing a fashion blog was the most fun part of writing the book.

Role models have a powerful effect on our conscious and subconscious ideas of what we can do with our lives.  When I was in law school in the mid-1990s, the fact that every classroom and hallway was decorated almost exclusively with portraits of older white men was not lost on me.  I wasn’t optimistic about my future in the legal profession for the simple reason that I saw no models of success who looked like me.   As the wonderful Liz O’Donnell says, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” 

Associates often find the same lack of attractive role models in law firms.  Most partners, who are implicitly held up as examples of success, work around the clock under constant pressure to bill and generate business.   While some of them are happy with their lives overall, many more of them just look miserable.  Those partners aren’t viable role models because junior lawyers don’t want to be them someday.  The problem is exacerbated for women associates, who see very few women in leadership full stop (only 15% of equity partners being women), let alone women whose lives they want to emulate.  That tension between what success looks like to the firm and what success looks like to the associate can cause a lot of emotional turmoil and doubt as to whether law firm practice is the right route after all.

I think that what the legal profession needs is more stories.  Unhappy lawyers – and there are a lot of them out there – need a wider range of role models than they have now.  They need more stories about people who have put their skills and talents to use in non-traditional ways.   My goal is to collect and share as wide a range of these post-law stories as I can, so that more people can find the inspiration they need to make a change – and in doing so, to become role models for someone else.   

Readers, how do you think stories can help (or hurt) lawyers making a change?  Which stories helped you?

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