Goldilocks and the Legal Career Coach

You may have heard that you shouldn’t sell therapy short just because the first therapist you chose wasn’t a good fit. The same goes for legal career counselors—the first one, or two, may not be right for you.

You know I’m a fan of career counselors and therapists. But I’ll bet you didn’t know that I had such a bad reaction to the first career advisor-type I paid to see, I was in tears by the time I hit the lobby. He had a JD, wasn’t a bad guy, and he gave what, in hindsight, was decent advice. But he had a curt manner when I needed reassurance and endless hand-holding, and I felt utterly overwhelmed by it all. Like going to see the drill sergeant when you needed the school nurse.

The next guy had a better bedside manner, so to speak, and I saw him several times. He wasn’t an attorney. We worked on interviewing techniques and LOTS of informational interview stuff. I think of him as the informational interview crack dealer. It was, again, decent advice, but I was really too depressed to go out and convincingly sell myself to a bunch of strangers via artificial networking. In hindsight, I’m not sure he understood that most attorneys wanting out of law probably suffer mild to severe depression. He hadn’t worked in law, after all.

Then there was the one who had a kind eye, a soothing voice, and legal credentials that beat mine all to hell. Yet there he was, doing career coaching and counseling. As it turned out, he and I both were INFPs on the good old Meyers-Briggs typology chart, so we really clicked. He was the one whose advice and help (plus my own efforts, of course) got me out of law practice. He was just right.

And that’s the lesson for today: keep going until you find the one that clicks, who gets you. Not that you won’t have to explain yourself, but when you do, this person will say something that makes you think, “Yeah, she gets it. She totally gets it. And I feel comfortable telling her more.”

Friday Files: Lawyers and Carolyn Hax

Here’s another one of my guilty addictions: Carolyn Hax’s Tell Me About It columns and online chat. I’ve been reading her since her very first column appeared in the Washington Post. Strictly coincidentally, her column started about a year before I left law. I remember reading the column in the firm library on Fridays. Good times, good times.

Friday’s chat had a bit of discussion about the plight of lawyers who don’t like their jobs, courtesy of some guy who was thinking of law school, mostly because he didn’t have any better idea of what to do with his life. Apparently, Carolyn got inundated with responses from lawyers shooting down that idea, because she posts one (sadly, not MY pearls of wisdom, but ah well):

 Law School: I’m sure you’ll be inundated with disgruntled-lawyer responses, but please, PLEASE let someone else tell San Francisco that law school is NOT the panacea to career unhappiness. As someone who thought law sounded interesting (wrong, for the most part) and felt pressure to have a “professional” career (needlessly), I can assure you that being trapped at an all-consuming BigLaw firm just to pay my $70K of law school debt is not so great. Please reconsider going, particularly if you’re not super enthusiastic about being a lawyer. Plenty of other careers exist that cause far less debt and ultimate workload.

Carolyn Hax: We are (inundated), and I will (let), so thanks. The rest of you, get back to work–this can’t possibly be billable.

There’s no real lesson here, cause if you’re here you already know that. Just thought I’d share. If for no other reason than to lead you to the bit about bridesmaidzillas and the cosmic justice of making them wear the dress they picked for their bridesmaids, to your wedding.

Friday Files: Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya

Sometimes, you just feel for people. Even though you know that most BigLaw partners are huge pains in the tookus, when one screws up so majorly and publicly, you feel something. Gratitude, if nothing else, that it wasn’t you who did it.

It’s the worst nightmare of every attorney: an email goes astray to a reporter. Sending stuff to a reporter means buh-bye to attorney-client privilege, of course, because reporters, unlike opposing counsel, don’t have clawback agreements.

Without saying who, Portfolio.com reports that a woman partner at Pepper Hamilton accidentally sent an email to Alex Berenson at the New York Time–berenson@– rather than to Brad Berenson–bberenson@–co-counsel at Sidley Austin.

There’s been speculation about why a reporter’s email would even be in the partner’s address book, but I think it’s a red herring: all it would take is one “no comment” reply to a query from Alex Berenson, and boom! there it would be. Speaking as one, reporters send email queries all the time to set up interviews and such.

Here’s a guess: Auto-complete has been disabled in every attorneys’ email program at Pepper Hamilton, and probably a lot of other BigLaw firms. Hell, I would disable it, because I’m just the sort of person who gets ahead of herself and forgets to double-check those autocompleted names. Even without external email to blame, I once managed to fax a document to opposing counsel, rather than a client. Fortunately, it was only a case, and opposing counsel agreed to tear up the fax. All was forgiven. And let’s get real, sending opposing counsel a case is pretty small potatos compared to sending a document detailing the metes and bounds of a settlement agreement.

Eli Lilly has said it’s not firing Pepper Hamilton. No word on whether the partner who goofed is still working on the settlement, or has slept much in the interim. Maybe Eli Lilly gave her some Prozac, Cymbalta, or Darvocet samples to help.

Plunging into the Alternative Legal Career Search

Writing and changing to an alternative legal career have a lot in common. Your mindset going in is all-important.

I started a piece yesterday, a fiction project that may be a short story or a novel. Can’t tell yet. I’d had an idea bugging me for nearly two weeks, and finally confronted the blank screen, intending to dive in. Here’s the rough internal dialogue:

“OK, so I should just start where the story begins. Where does it begin?”

Silence. Then faintly, a sentence runs through my head. I think it’s really dumb, lame, and obvious, and refuse to write it down.

“Come on, you can do better than that.”

Another sentence dares rear its head. Slightly better than the first, so I grudgingly transcribe it into pixels.

More silence. And for the next hour, the same cycle repeats, with occasionally two- or three-sentence spurts. It is painful, and yields a paltry 275 words.

Today, I lectured myself extensively before I sat down.

“Stop wanting perfect first drafts. You know it doesn’t happen that way.”

“But why can’t I just think until I at least get a decent idea?”

“You know why. You’ve come up with some of your best stuff in the midst of writing complete shit. That’s how it works.”

And it’s very true, that is how writing works. With my improved attitude, I wrote more easily, and just more: 475 words in 45 minutes. The truth is, you often have to plunge in bravely, based on little more than a vague idea or two of where you want to go, and just transcribe whatever drivel enters your head. My writing coach calls it a zero draft. Julia Cameron calls it laying track. Anne Lamott calls it shitty first drafts, which in addition to being funny is also very accurate.

The concept here is that you need to put aside your pre-conceived notions of what will work, and just move forward. You can always change course later. It’s only words on paper, and you can cross them out or write better ones later, when they occur to you.

So in exploring alternative legal careers, it pays to enter without many pre-conceived notions. If an ad piques your interest, apply. Even if you think it’s a waste of time to write a cover letter, be brave and just do it. Writing a good cover letter now can give you something to work with later when a stellar opportunity pops up. Meeting somebody for lunch who works in an area you think is interesting, even if you think you would never do it, has its benefits. You can learn something that will serve you later in some unexpected fashion.

Give up the idea that you already know what your perfect post-law job will look like. Already knowing means you will feel stymied when that vision fails to materialize in exactly the form you imagined it. And then you will think that you really can’t find a rewarding job outside law, when the problem is that you wanted to be perfect from the word GO. Be willing to entertain a lot of career ideas that seem silly or far-fetched. Those thoughts and your actions in pursuing them might just be the bridge that gets you to the golden land of career satisfaction.

Remember, those venerable explorers Lewis and Clark did not have the slightest idea how to get to the Pacific. They paddled many miles in wrong directions, lost their baggage overboard more than once, were attacked by various Native American tribes, were helped by others, and eventually, despite their myriad mistakes and lack of map, they made it to the Pacific. They found the Northwest Passage. Most people didn’t think they could succeed, but they did. There are lots of lessons to be drawn from Lewis and Clark, but the one I favor is that they were willing to move forward into an uncertain future. They knew that even if they went down a wrong path, it was the only way they could eliminate it and find the right one.

I like this quote too:

If you always do what you always did —
you’ll always get what you always got.
- Unknown

In other words, be willing to do a shitty first draft of your career. ‘Cause seriously, you already have—what could be shittier than practicing law when you hate it?

Friday Files: The Great Font Debate

The thing about so many lawyers is they are very, very knowledgeable about one or two things, but think that means they know everything about everything. Which leads them into trouble when it comes to non-linear things like, say, typography.

In reality, I know precious little about typography, but having edited magazines, I’ve picked up bits here and there. When designers tell me a font does or doesn’t work, I listen. Plus I do own the classic Thinking with Type.

I mention all this because fonts are hot, baby. First, there was the movie last summer Helvetica, about the glories of that ground-breaking font. (Sadly, not living in a major city any longer, I missed it.) And the NYT Magazine published a terrific piece on Clearview, a new font coming to a road near you.

You would think that lawyers and typography are one of those “and ne’er the twain shall meet” kind of things, but you would be wrong. Back in the late 1980s, law firms were dipping their wing-tipped toes into the pool of branding. And at the particular BigLaw place where I was hanging, fonts were a raging debate, the subject of angry meetings and countless memos.

The problem was, essentially, that lawyers think everyone else is dumber than they are. And so the fact that an M and a W were looking mighty similar to each other, with very vertical stems, was keeping some folks up at night. In the proposed new logo, if you flipped one of those letters vertically, you couldn’t tell the difference between them. Flipped, they fit one on top of the other. And this was bad, very bad. A threat to the very fabric of society.

So the compromise was that the extremely vertical W was replaced with one that had some huge kind of angle to the stems. Never mind that it made the Ws as wide as a barge and collectively probably upped the firm’s printer cartridge consumption by 5 percent. The world was safe from interchangeable Ms and Ws, and that is what counted.

Until the firm changed its name. But that’s a different story.

Dress Codes: Been There, Done That

I completely cracked up at the Jan. 31 WSJ article on how unprofessionally Millenial lawyers dress. Seems the Boomers are up in arms over Ugg boots and an appalling lack of suits. The usual wringing of hands over those clueless youngsters.

Ah, dress codes. Many lawyers just love ‘em. Because dress codes are yet another rule lawyers can wrangle over and flaunt about their superior knowledge, I suppose.

I particularly enjoyed these two sentences, deeply contradictory once you dig below the surface. Compare:

Many experienced lawyers see their wardrobe as a tool to win the trust of clients, juries and judges. Legal associates who aren’t sartorially prepared may not be invited along to a new-client pitch or to take a leading role in court, regardless of the office’s stated “business casual” dress code.

With:

Ms. Neels [a consultant of some ilk] notes that business-school grads share law associates’ casual sartorial attitude, and she tries to connect the dots between what they wear and how they come across. When she was coaching M.B.A. graduates at Harvard last weekend, she says only about half came in a suit. One young man showed up in cargo pants . . .

Here’s a newsflash, crusty Boomers: Law has been through the dress code convulsions before. It’s why you get to come to the office in khakis instead of a suit and tie every single day, and why women could finally give up wearing pantyhose in 95-degree weather. I was there, and I remember the endless memos about exactly what was and was not sartorially acceptable, first for the earth-shattering Casual Friday, Only In the Summer, and eventually for the all-casual, all-the-time office many, many law firms have adopted. (One particularly hilarious memo outlined that while khakis were kinda sorta OK, it was highly preferable that they be creased; and let us not forget how titillating toe cleavage used to be.)

What is conveniently forgotten is why law firms and the curmudgeons who run them felt forced to change: the dot-com revolution. The Gen-X geniuses who were starting up all these companies were wearing  jeans (the horror) to law firm dog-and-pony shows  and failing to hire starchy-shirted lawyers for their ventures, because the suit set gave them the heebies. And at the time, these ventures had cash . . .

So now we have Boomers, who all along mistrusted this sartorial sloppiness that they were forced to accept, and who have gleefully pulled back on what they let computer-chained associates wear, v. Millenials, who all dress like their MBA peers, cargo pants, flip-flops, camis and iPods.

Quick, who can predict what is going to happen to suits and ties in law offices in the next several years? Here’s a hint: Those MBAs will get promoted, and will want to hire people who make them feel comfortable . . .