On The Former Lawyer Podcast, I interview a different guest each week about getting out of the law and finding an alternative career. These episodes are available to read as a blog. Or, you can listen to it wherever you find your favorite podcasts.
To kick off our first episode, I’ll be answering some of the same questions I’ll be asking future guests. This will give you some background on how I got into the law and then got out.
Let’s get right into it, shall we?
How Sarah Cottrell Got Into The Legal Profession
I can honestly say that I don’t remember a specific moment where the legal profession dawned on me as a potential career, although it was in the background of my mind. When I went to college, I actually thought that I might work in DC.
But, through my four years of undergrad, I eventually realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. As I said, law school had always been a possibility. Eventually, it turned into something that I was planning to do. In fact, I planned to teach law.
Then, I got to law school and realized what a legal scholarship was like. It was just not a good fit for my interests or how I work. It just felt very disconnected from the actual everyday practice of law.
During my first year, I realized I did not want to teach law. But at that point, I was thinking, “What should I do?” I liked writing and editing, so I went into litigation.
When I graduated from law school, I started working at a Biglaw firm. It took me a really long time to realize that I didn’t enjoy it. For a lot of my life, my decision-making process was, “I can, therefore I should.”
Needing A Change
Just over one year into Biglaw, I realized that this is not what I want to be doing in the long term. But then it took me about another year to realize it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to be working in a Biglaw firm, I did not want to be in a law firm at all.
From that point, I had to pivot my job searches, and figure out what my alternatives were. Ultimately, I landed an editing job at a legal publishing company.
After a year with the legal publishing company, I went to a job at a state appellate court. I was there for six years, and it was by far the best legal job that I had. But as time went on, I realized that I just did not want to be in the legal profession at all.
There were things that I really liked about it, such as the research and the writing aspects. But, there were other things that I just did not love. And the latter was just too overbearing.
Deciding To Leave The Law
Before our second child was born, I decided that I was not going to return to court. I was going to stay home with our kids and pursue some other things that I was interested in.
My husband and I paid off all of our law school loans and other debts. That put us in a position to consider making bigger changes.
For a while, I focused on writing and editing. Now, I host The Former Lawyer Podcast, as well as my program The Former Lawyer Collaborative. This is where I help the people who are in the same position I was in.
My Advice For People Who Want Out Of The Law
If you’re unhappy in the legal profession and want to do something else, you should make a plan and make it happen. Here is some more advice on leaving the legal profession:
Don’t Let Time Or Money Stop You From Getting Out Of The Law
Don’t let time or money deter you from leaving the law. Yes, it’s going to take some time. Yes, it’s going to affect you financially for a while.
But, you need to make sustainable decisions that allow you to live your life and support your mental and physical health. Those decisions are not always going to be the financially optimal ones. But, they are extremely important.
You Don’t Have To Regret Being In The Legal Profession
People have asked me whether I regret going to law school or becoming a lawyer. I do not regret those things. In fact, I’m really thankful for them.
I’m extremely thankful for my time in the legal profession. It has given me the ability to do the work that I do now in a way that I would not be able to do if I did not have that experience.
But, if you’re a lawyer and you’re unhappy, you don’t need to stay in that job. If being a lawyer is not the right fit for you, then you should make a plan and do something else.
Want Out Of The Law? Join Sarah Cottrell inside The Former Lawyer Collaborative
Now, you a little bit of background about me, about my experience getting in and out of the law. And, how I came to create The Former Lawyer Collaborative.
I can’t wait to hear from you and see where you end up on your former lawyer journey. Until next time!
Want to get Sarah’s free guide, “First Steps to Leaving the Law,” in your inbox in minutes? You can grab the guide right here.
Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. On this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let's get right to the show.
Hello, everyone. This episode is going to be a little bit different than our usual episodes. Typically, I will be interviewing a different guest each week. But to kick us off with our first official episode, I thought it would be helpful to give you all a little bit of information about me, and so I am going to answer some of the questions that our guests will be answering so that you can learn a little bit more about my journey into the law and out of the law back up to when I first decided to go to law school. To be honest, I don't remember a specific point at which I decided this is definitely what I'm doing. It was always something that was floating around the fringes by the time I went off to undergrad, I was an international studies and the leadership studies double major. Yes, lots of marketable skills. Actually, I went to school in Virginia. A lot of people from that school went to work in DC.
Originally when I went to college, I thought that might be what I wanted to do. I eventually realized through my four years of undergrad that wasn't what I wanted to do. Like I said, law school has always been a possibility. Eventually, it turned into the thing that I was planning to do. In fact, what I envisioned myself doing with a law degree when I applied to law school was teaching law. That's what I thought I wanted to do. That is one of the reasons that I chose the law school that I did. I got to law school and realized what legal scholarship was like. It was just not a good fit for my interests or the way that I like to work. For me it just felt very disconnected from the actual everyday practice of law. I like practical, concrete things, so I realized I did not want to teach law. That was during my first year of law school.
But at that point, there was no real thought of, “Oh, I don't want to teach law. That means I shouldn't be in law school,” it was just, “Oh, I don't want to teach law. What should I do? Well, I like research and writing, so I'm going to go into litigation.” I did not grow up around lawyers. I did not really know that much about what legal practice was like. I had done some internships, a judge, and then at a DA’s office before I went off to law school, but I just did not really have any exposure to the civil side of the law. I graduated from law school, I started working at a big firm, and I really did not enjoy it. I was doing well. It took me a really long time to realize that I didn't enjoy it because for a lot of my life, the decision making process that I went through was, “Is this something I can do? Okay, I can, therefore I should.” I think in some circumstances, for certain things, maybe that's a good metric or litmus test to use for decision, but it is not a great decision making metric for what you should be doing with most of your waking hours.
I realized a little bit over a one year into Biglaw that this is not what I want to be doing for the long term. But then it took me about another year to realize it wasn't just that I didn't want to be working at a Biglaw firm, I did not want to be working at a law firm at all. I did not want to be working as a litigator. Then, from that point, I had to pivot in what I had been looking for in terms of my job search, and figure out what my alternatives were. Ultimately, I landed on an editing job at a legal publishing company. I left Biglaw a little bit less than three years in for the job at the legal publishing company. But again, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize I did not actually want to be practicing law in that way because since things were still going well, I thought that's what I should be doing.
I took a six figure pay cut. Yes, six figures. That is not what any personal finance guru would recommend but I do not regret that decision at all. I will say that I was incredibly fortunate in that my husband was also a lawyer and also worked in Biglaw, understood how the whole thing worked, why I might think that it wasn't a good fit for me, and he was still working in Biglaw when I left. That made that slightly less insane than it might otherwise have been. Although for two people who combined between law school loans and then car loans, but mostly law school loans, we had over $400,000 combined in debt. Six figure pay cut was not ideal, but it was the thing that needed to happen for me to be able to function as a human person. It was the right decision for us.
This episode of The Former Lawyer Podcast is sponsored by The Former Lawyer Community. The Former Lawyer Community has been a longtime dream of mine. It's a group, a totally free membership community that provides support and resources to lawyers who are ready to make a change in their careers and in their lives. Head on over to formerlawyer.com and you'll see the information about how to sign up. If you are ready to make a change and get out of the law, The Former Lawyer Community is here to help. Come join us.
I was at the legal publishing company for a year and then I went to a job at a state appellate court where several other people who I knew also were working as judges and staff attorneys. I was at that job for six years. That was a great job. I learned a ton. It was a great experience. It was by far the best legal job that I had. When people would ask me, I would always say, “This is the only lawyer job that I ever want to do,” that was absolutely true and still is. But as time went on, I realized that I just did not want to be a lawyer in the long term, that there were certain things that I really liked about it, the research and the writing aspects, but there were other things that I just did not love.
I graduated from law school in June of ‘08. In June of 2018, we paid off all of our law school loans and all of our other debts, like car loans and all of that; we still have a mortgage, but other than that. That put us in a position where we could consider making some bigger changes. Last July, one year ago, at the time that I'm recording this, July of 2018, our second child was born and I made the decision before she was born that I was not going to return to the court and that I was going to stay home with our kids and pursue some other things that I was interested in, specifically, writing and editing. That's what I did and that's what I'm doing now. It’s great. That's my story.
I think it's pretty obvious from that story that there are a lot of different factors that go into the decision that someone makes to change jobs, to leave one field and go into another field, and so much of it is dependent upon your own situation, your partner situation if you have one, and a million other factors. What I'm not trying to say with Former Lawyer or with this podcast is just do what I did or just do what our guests have done, and you're going to end up in the same place. That is not what I'm trying to do. What I want to do is say that if you're unhappy being a lawyer and you want to do something else, you should make a plan and make it happen. Don't let the fact that it might take a long time tear you. I think that often is something that can be discouraging, particularly when it comes to the debt and finances piece of lawyering. People have a massive amount of student loan debt. The problem is that a lot of the gurus out there who want to give you advice about how to get out of debt, have plans, advice, strategies that are very not sustainable for long periods of time.
It's one thing if you say, “Oh, just cut everything out and work a bajillion jobs for three months, six months, nine months, a year, whatever.” That's one thing. Even if you cut everything down and do everything that you can to hustle, you're still going to be paying off debt for at least five years or more. That's a different situation. You need to be able to make sustainable decisions that allow you to live your life to support your mental and physical health. Those decisions are not always going to be the financially optimal ones in the sense of just from a pure numbers perspective. That's one of the things that I really want to provide encouragement to people about. If you feel like I'm in this situation, and it's terrible for me, and there's no way for me to get out in less than X number of years—with X being greater than three or greater than five, or even potentially greater than ten—that doesn't mean that you can't make a plan and that you're stuck. There is hope. You can do it. That's part of what a Former Lawyer exists to support you in doing. That's the basic story about how I got into the law and then out of the law.
One of the things that I wanted to address in this episode is the question of whether I think that everyone should leave the law, whether I think the law is terrible, and no one should be a lawyer. I received some questions along those lines since launching this project and I wanted to make sure that people understand what the goal of this project is. Here's the deal. I do not think that everyone should leave the law. I do not think there should not be any lawyers. I think there are lots of lawyers who love their work and are satisfied with their work, and that's great. We need really good lawyers in lots of different areas, and I'm very glad for that. But I think there are a lot of lawyers who aren't happy. I think there are a lot of people who became lawyers and then realized, “Oh, I don't want to do this.” But a lot of those people have a lot of debt.
Frankly, a lot of people, I think, feel very alone and feel like, “Am I crazy? I've put all this time in and I've put all this money in,” and often they're surrounded by other people who are saying to them, essentially, “You're crazy. Look at all this time and money you've put into this thing. Why would you want to walk away from that?” Those are the people that I want to reach with Former Lawyer. I'm not saying everyone should not be a lawyer or that everyone should leave their legal job. But I am saying that if you're a lawyer and you're unhappy, you don't like your job, you don't want to be doing it, you don't need to stay in that job. Yes, you probably have a lot of debt. Yes, you spent a lot of time getting where you are now. But if that job is not the right fit for you, if being a lawyer is not the right fit for you, then you should make a plan and do something else. I want you to hear that you're not crazy. You're not crazy for wanting to do that. You're not crazy for thinking that maybe you should be doing something else. Those are the people that I am seeking to serve with Former Lawyer.
The other thing that I wanted to talk a little bit about is that people have also asked me whether I regret going to law school or whether I regret becoming a lawyer. I do not regret those things. I'm really thankful for them. Going to law school and becoming a lawyer, although in certain ways, it trains your brain to be somewhat paranoid, it also trains you to think in a very structured and linear way. For me, in the writing and editing that I do now, it is extremely valuable. I'm extremely thankful for it. It has given me the ability to do the work that I do now in a way that I would not be able to do if I did not have that experience. For me, working as a lawyer for the amount of time that I did has given me the ability to bring a set of skills and abilities to the current jobs that I'm doing that I would not have if I had not had those experiences, and so I'm really thankful for them. I'm thankful for my time as a lawyer.
That gives you a little bit of background about me, about my experience becoming a lawyer, and then leaving the law, and some of the other things around why I am doing this podcast and why I created Former Lawyer. I hope it was helpful. If you have any questions at all, I would love to hear from you. You can reach out to me on social media. You can email me at [email protected]. I am just so looking forward to you hearing all of the interviews that are coming up. There are some really great ones and I think that it will just be so helpful for all of you listeners who are lawyers and are ready to not be lawyers anymore. You can do it. It is possible. I can't wait for you to hear what my guests have to say.
Again, please reach out if you have any questions, if you'd like me to expand on some of the things I talked about in this episode. I'm not necessarily going to do another podcast episode but I will probably be doing some live calls and whatnot inside The Former Lawyer Community. Also, I'm always sending out info to the email list. Get on the list, get into the community, and I can't wait to hear from you and see where you end up on your former lawyer journey. Have a great week.
Thanks so much for listening today. I absolutely love getting to share these stories with you. If you haven't yet, subscribe to the show, and come on over to formerlawyer.com and join our community to get even more support and resources in your journey out of the law. Until next time, have a great week.
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