Recently Sarah sat down with Nicolle Neulist, who worked in the law before becoming a computer programmer turned horse racing writer.
Nicolle practiced law for about a year before being laid off. But surprisingly, this was a great moment. That moment opened many doors for Nicolle to put her legal job in the past.
While her post-legal journey was a bit of a winding road, Nicolle ended up in a non-legal job that she absolutely adores! Keep reading to hear her journey and advice for anyone looking to leave the law!
Nicolle’s Journey In The Law
While she liked law school, Nicolle admitted to having a buttoned-up version of what being a lawyer would be like. By her third year, she was already tired of the law. But at that point, she already had a job lined up at a firm in Chicago, so she decided to take it and stick it out in the law for a while.
Nicolle worked at the firm before as a summer associate in general litigation. Naturally, she assumed that was where she would go. But as it is in law firms, it’s not about what you know. It’s about where you’re needed.
So, Nicolle worked as a bankruptcy attorney, quickly learning The Bankruptcy Code. However, due to the financial crisis of 2008 and lack of management, the department was pretty dead. Not long into her legal career, Nicolle got laid off. But by then, she was overworking in the law and had to contain her excitement to be free of it.
It was clear to Nicolle that a legal career was wrong for her, and that reaction cemented her decision to leave the law for good. It wasn’t a question of finding another legal job, but something else entirely.
Reactions When Leaving A Legal Job
When Nicolle first left the law, she was afraid of the reactions she would get when she told people. Her friends and family understood how she felt and supported her through it.
Her colleagues, on the other hand, were less supportive. Some were even shocked, asking how she could leave a legal career after working for so long to get there. The time or money didn’t matter. It wasn’t what Nicolle wanted to do.
Working With Computers
Nicolle started taking on computer projects in her spare time, which developed into a serious interest. Before long, it became a career possibility. She didn’t have any formal training. But she did have personal experience.
A few months after being laid off, she decided to pursue a career in computers and got a job in a data center doing infrastructure work.
Two years later, Nicolle left the data center for a tech job at a computer security consulting firm. In this role, she sought out security vulnerabilities for clients, sort of like a hacker for hire.
Before moving on from her tech job, Nicolle was on a threat analysis team, where she realized her own pattern of always gravitating to writing.
Writing About Horse Racing
While she grew up watching horse racing, Nicolle didn’t catch the bug until she was 30. She went to The Arlington Million on her own to really soak up the experience.
Immediately, she loved it and wanted more of it in her life, so she started frequenting the track and launched a horse racing blog.
Come 2017, Nicolle was writing full-time for her own blog, doing some freelance work, and as a chart caller for Arlington Park. And she liked it so much that she stayed there.
Nicolle’s Advice For Leaving The Law
Here’s some advice from Nicolle for all of the readers who are either trying to get out or thinking about getting out but are just a bit nervous about embracing the reality that you don’t want to be a lawyer anymore.
The first piece of advice is to listen to yourself. It was difficult for Nicolle to admit that she allowed herself moments of less guarded thinking. All she could think was, “You don’t want to go through the process of looking for another legal job when you’re not actually enthusiastic about it.”
If that voice in your head is saying, “There’s a lot in law that I like, but not in this,” then listen to it and try to put those feelers out there for other legal jobs that the voice in your head is suggesting.
Or, if that voice in your head keeps saying, “No, I want to try doing this,” or “No, I want to get out,” then listen to it and make those plans to get out. It’s not easy. It was tough, but Nicolle got there, and it was worth going through it to try something different and move on.
Don’t Know Where To Start With Leaving Your Legal Job?
There are a lot of unhappy lawyers out there who are overwhelmed at the thought of leaving the law and literally don’t know where to start.
That’s why Sarah created the free guide that takes the guesswork out of leaving your legal job. Download First Steps to Leaving the Law to get started.
Connect With Nicolle
Website (Horse Racing)
Mentioned In This Article
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
Hey, everyone. Today you're going to hear a conversation I had with Nicolle Neulist. Nicolle went from lawyer to information security consultant and analyst, to writing about horse racing. It's a really interesting conversation and I can't wait for you to hear it.
But quickly before we get to that, I just want to remind you that I've created a free guide to take the guesswork out of where to start when you want to leave the law for all you lawyers out there who don't want to be a lawyer anymore but aren't quite sure where to start. Go to formerlawyer.com/guide and you can get started today. All right, that's it for me. Here's my conversation with Nicolle.
Hi, Nicolle. Welcome to the podcast.
Nicolle Neulist: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: Well, let's just start out with you introducing yourself to the listeners and giving a little bit of a background about how you ended up going to law school.
Nicolle Neulist: All right. My name is Nicolle Neulist. I'm 36 and I live in Chicago. I went to law school because I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I did go to law school not right after college but pretty quickly afterwards, I went to undergrad at the University of Chicago and it was while I was in undergrad that I got the idea that, “Hey, I really like public speaking. I really like reasoning and formulating arguments, maybe I should be a lawyer.”
So I took a year off because I was burnt out on school and then I went to law school at WashU in St. Louis, graduated from there in 2008, worked in law for not very long, I ended up being a lawyer for not even a year, and then had the chance to reassess, “Okay, do I keep doing this or move on?” and I decided to move on.
Sarah Cottrell: Tell me more about what kind of law you were practicing and then what about it made you decide you wanted to move on.
Nicolle Neulist: I started actually getting the idea that “Hey, maybe this is not what I want to do” even when I was a third year in law school because there were some things that I really enjoyed about it but I was also getting the feeling that there was still just this very stayed idea of what a good lawyer is, just this very buttoned-up old-school idea about how other lawyer’s clients, judges, etc., expected a lawyer to present themselves and I just did not feel comfortable in that mold and looking myself in the mirror, I wasn't sure I would. It was already making me tired and I was only a 3L. Yet by then, I know right.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I was in law school, and was like, “Maybe this is not.”
Nicolle Neulist: But by that point, I was a 3L and I'd already had my job lined up for after I graduated because I had a job lined up with a law firm in Chicago, I did the summer associate thing the summer after my 2L year, and had told them that I would go back after my 3L year. I'm like, “Okay, school is always different than the working world, I'm not going to quit law school two-thirds of the way, three-quarters of the way in. I'm going to finish this out, start this job, and hope to be a little better fit.”
I show up at the law firm on my first day, and funny story about what kind of law I practiced, most of what I took during the summer that I was a summer associate was general litigation work, but I show up on the first day of my real job after I graduate, after I take the bar, they hand me the manila folder in the conference room with the list of partners that I would be working with and I recognize one of the names as the partner that I'd worked with on that one bankruptcy memo that I took out of the workbox because the summer associate coordinator was like, “This is gathering dust, someone really needs to take this.”
I guess they decided they needed another bankruptcy associate and so despite the fact that I didn't take bankruptcy, I'd never read The Bankruptcy Code, that thing I took out of the workbox wasn't even bankruptcy, it was some UCC insolvency question, I was now the new bankruptcy attorney.
Sarah Cottrell: Surprise.
Nicolle Neulist: Yeah. To be [inaudible] of bringing me up to speed as quickly as possible, the second week I worked there, they sent me out to this bankruptcy workshop where one of the tracks at the workshop was basically a crash course in The Bankruptcy Code. I'm a quick learner and I got up to speed but it was still just not what I would, although to be fair, even if they had put me in general litigations of not really fitting the mold of what a good lawyer is expected to be, probably still would have reared their ugly heads and nowadays I wouldn't be a lawyer even if they had put me in that group.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I did general litigation when I started out. Honestly, I was not much more than one year in and realized yeah, this is not for me, but then it took me a couple more years to figure out “What do I actually want to do? What is my plan?” It's interesting, I think it seems to be a very common story, at least in my experience, that there are a lot of people who graduate law school, start practicing, and pretty much almost right away realize, “Hey, this is maybe not the thing that I should be doing.” But then of course, you spent three years in school, you probably have student loans.
Nicolle Neulist: Oh, I’m going to die with student loans if I just embraced the fact that I'm going to be in law school debt till I die. Does it stink? Sure. I can't undo law school. Is it better than continuing to practice the law and hate it? Yes.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, no totally. It's like a sunk cost fallacy like, “Oh, well, now I'm in this debt. I've gone into debt for this career so therefore I should keep doing this career because then it justifies me having all this debt.” If you're not happy in that career and you're going to have the debt either way, maybe think about doing something else and then you have the debt, not as super exciting but you're also not doing something that you hate with most of your working life.
Nicolle Neulist: I had so many people when I was considering whether to continue to be a lawyer or not, it sounds weird to say the nice thing, but the nice thing was that I ended up leaving the law firm sooner than I had planned because I figured out a couple months in that oh my goodness, whether I was going to leave the law or just leave the law firm life, I hated it.
Fortunately, I was working at the law firm which means I was making more money than I ever will again and so I switched from paying down my student loans more aggressively to paying them down less aggressively and sucking away more money for the possibility of a period of unemployment. Then, like I said earlier, I graduated law school in 2008. We all know what happened in 2009, right?
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I also graduated ‘08.
Nicolle Neulist: Oh, wow. So you know.
Sarah Cottrell: I do know. I was in a position where I was on this insane case which I started basically right when I started at the law firm in the fall of ‘08. I was absolutely slammed with work, crazy busy. As a result, when the layoffs came, there were two rounds of layoffs at the firm that I was at, I was not laid off because of being crazy busy, which was great in the sense of keeping a job but this was also one of those cases where people were like, “This is the worst thing we've ever seen. You're never going to have a case that's this terrible to work on ever again because of the hours, the stress, and all of this thing.” I was fortunate to keep my job but it was in a circumstance that was basically showing me I probably don't want to keep this job in the long term.
Nicolle Neulist: Yeah, I get that. It was the exact opposite for me. You'd think during a financial crisis that bankruptcy would be hopping, and yet at the law firm that I was at, it was honestly irresponsible for them to add another bankruptcy associate when they did because between the time that I summered there and the time that I came back after my third year, several of the higher up partners of the bankruptcy department had left and it had taken them a while to find a new managing partner of the bankruptcy department and he was having a hard time drumming up new business and bringing in business.
As happened as you would expect bankruptcy to be during the 2008-2009 crash, it was dead. I knew something slightly weird was up. I remember I went to lunch at Harold's Chicken Shack that day, which is delicious, if you're ever in Chicago, get you some Harold's Chicken Shack because it is wonderful.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I went to law school in Chicago so yes.
Nicolle Neulist: Oh, nice. So you know.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, I know. I do know. Anyway, sorry. Side note, carry on.
Nicolle Neulist: So I get back from Harold's and I have a message from the managing partner of the bankruptcy department, the guy who basically never talked to me, and if he did, it was always (a) very brief and (b) I would always have to go to his office. I remember when I call back and I'm like, “Should I come by your office?” He's like, “No. I'll come see you.”
Then I'm just like, “Okay. This is really weird. That never happens.” Then he shows up with another guy in a suit from the Texas office who I’d never seen in my life and they lay me off. I'm sitting there and all I can think of when they're laying me off is “Don't dance a jig until they leave my office. Don't get up and dance a jig right now, that would be rude.”
Sarah Cottrell: You're like, “Oh, I'm devastated. I'm devastated. Where's my devastated face?”
Nicolle Neulist: Yeah, exactly. I'm trying to keep at least a neutral face when I'm thinking to myself, “Ah, you mean I never have to come here again and you're going to pay me not to come here again? Yes!” It was already fairly obvious that I was in the wrong job but that reaction just yep, that cemented it and that was the last day I was ever a lawyer because I then had to think of course, do I want to try to find another legal job or do I want to try to do something else?
The more I thought about it, at that point in time, I was doing a lot of computer projects in my spare time and I was going to a lot of hacker conferences, information security meetups, and stuff like that. I'm like, “I'm a lot more interested in this right now than I am in going back to the law. I don't have that foreboding feeling that's been hanging over my head about law since I've had since I was a 3L. Why don't I try to start doing computer work for a living?”
That wasn't an immediate decision after I was laid off. I probably spent a couple of months fun-employed if you will and just wrestling with those questions. Then I decided that no, I was going to go for computers and ended up getting my first computer job in a data center. What's funny is now I don't work in computers anymore. My career is a long and winding road but I did end up working computers first in the data center and then for an information security consultancy for about seven years before moving on to my current career of writing about horse racing.
Sarah Cottrell: That is amazing. Did you have past experience in programming or was it just something you'd picked up on the side because you were interested in it? How did you end up in that place where you were doing those kinds of projects to the point where you thought like, “Oh, this could be a good career path for me”?
Nicolle Neulist: It was something I was doing for fun. The most recent formal class I had ever taken on computer programming was I took a class in programming BASIC back when I was in eighth grade and I remember having a certain aptitude there. The rest of my class was doing 10 print butts 20 goto 10 and I'm writing programs to pick college best march madness so I guess I even knew in middle school that I wasn't bad at it.
But I just never thought of it as something more than something to goof around with in my spare time but I came back to it, it was something I only really did occasionally on and off but then back when I was a 3L, the myriad ways I found to distract myself was there was one night and I was annoyed with how my computer was working and I was in a chat room. I was complaining that my Windows box was being a piece of junk again.
One of the guys in the chat room was like, “Try Ubuntu.” I'm like, “Try what now?” “Ubuntu, it's a kind of Linux.” “Isn't Linux hard?” “No, you'll be fine. You can learn it and it will work a lot better than windows.” So I went and I got myself some 600-page book on how to use Ubuntu and how to use Linux. For a while, I had my computer dual booting because I still needed Windows for school but I started teaching myself and that got me back into computer programming and I did, I really enjoyed it.
That was what put the bug in my head and that was second semester of my 3L year and then through the summer and in what free time I did have when I was working at douchebag and douchebag LLP, that's really what put the bug in my head of, “Oh, maybe I should give this computer stuff a try because it was something I enjoyed, it was something I was reasonably good at. I knew a lot of people who enjoyed it.”
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Programming is very different but there's a certain internal logic that flows when you're doing some programming and so there's a little bit of a parallel.
Nicolle Neulist: Yeah. I wasn't so much a programmer. I did a little bit of programming, I was very much a script [inaudible] coder. If I needed to automate something that was boring or repetitive or extend something that exists a little bit, I did. But now the first two years I worked in computers, I actually did infrastructure. I did a lot of data center infrastructure and then the five years after that, I worked for a computer security consulting firm.
At the various points in my career, there was some point in which I was helping scope out consulting gigs and then after about a year of that, when I'd done more in my personal time, if you will, to make my tech skills sharper, I moved in and I was doing security consulting, so basically looking for security vulnerabilities and exploiting them and then telling the clients, “Hey, this is what I found, this is how it can be broken, and this is how you can fix it.” It was a hacker for hire kind of stuff.
Then I ended up moving on. Tying back into a skill that I worked on a lot back in my legal days, I found out actually in both the data center infrastructure job and the computer security consulting job that I like writing a lot more than most tech employees seem to like writing and I'm better at writing than a lot of people whose focus has been so heavily on tech and not so much on words.
The last maybe year and a half-ish that I worked for the security consultancy, I was actually on a threat intelligence team. A lot of what I was doing was researching and writing bulletins and advisories for clients about various malware strains, that sort of thing.
I enjoyed/started to see a pattern in the fact that even when I was working in tech, I was always eventually at least gravitating towards writing between that, and then even when I was working back at the data center before the security consultancy, what ended up getting me off the overnight shift and into daytime was all the stuff I was doing in the internal wiki and they're like, “Hey, we don't actually have a training manual for data center technicians. If we let you work during the day instead of overnight, can you write us a training manual for the new text?” I'm like, “Yeah, sure, I can.”
Sarah Cottrell: That's awesome. You said that period of the computer programming/information security period was seven years and so now, you are writing about horse racing. Can you talk a little bit about how you made that transition and then what it is that you're doing now?
Nicolle Neulist: Oh, sure. I really didn't catch the horse racing bug until I was 30. It was the summer of 2013 and it was a sport I'd watched a little bit. I grew up watching The Kentucky Derby, that sort of thing. Even before I “caught the bug”, there'd be nights that I'd stay up until four in the morning reading about horse racing trivia because, “Oh, it might come up the pub quiz sometime,” not realizing that that was really the only topic that I was staying up till four in the morning because it might come up at pub quiz sometime.
So I went to The Arlington Million that year and it wasn't my first time at the track but it was my first time without a group of people. I was there alone and could just soak in the horses walking around and soak in the horses running past and I'm like, “This is amazing and I need more of this in my life.”
I started going to the track more and then I started a horse racing blog in January of 2014, not because I ever thought I was going to do horse racing as a career, I was still working in infosec at the time and would be for another couple years, but just something that I started for fun and something that could perhaps keep me engaged with the sport while it was the middle of winter in Chicago and there wasn't a track running locally.
It just snowballed from there. I really liked writing for my blog, I ended up writing a couple of other places, and my Twitter feed became more and more about me following and chatting with people about horse racing. Come 2017 was when I made the jump and I had little bits of freelance work coming in here and there.
But the big sea change was at that point, I was getting really exhausted with my computer security job. I wouldn't say it's exactly the same kind of cultural thing as why law exhausted me. For law, it really was more just the mold of the lawyer, whereas for computer security, there really wasn't much of a mold as to who works in computer security, so it wasn't like I didn't feel like I could be myself but it was more the expectation that everything you did was supposed to be computer security.
Between my boss sending me emails at 3:00 AM and then being angry that I wasn't finished with whatever he wanted me to do by 8:00 AM despite the fact that I was doing this little thing called sleep, he might have heard of it but probably not, and then just that whole idea that, “Oh, what do you do?” “I work in infosec.” “What do you do in your spare time?” “Oh, I try to find exploits. I bug hunt. I code. I do stuff like that,” whereas I had this whole other life outside of information security where I was writing about horse racing and going to the races.
Then other lives outside of that, I was singing in a chorus, quizzing, or whatever. I was exhausted by that whole ethic and information security of “Your job is your life and your life is your job” and you need a little more variety.
What happened in the summer of 2017 was that a friend of mine who works as a chart caller, which is a super niche job but it's basically you write the Box Scores of horse races. You're there watching the races with binoculars, you note at various points during the race like how far they are away from each other and then write the trip notes. It's just your goal to be as focused and accurate as possible. I had a friend who did that and was like, “The company that does the charts is looking for somebody to work at Arlington Park. Would you like me to refer you?” I'm like, “Sure.”
He referred me and I went through the interview process and ended up getting that job, calling charts at Arlington Park. I was going to have to quit my security job to take that and it was scary because even though it was another job, that was part time and I knew it was going to end at the end of September and I wouldn't be doing that again until the next year when Arlington started up again.
I'm like, “Do I leave this full-time job for this and also have to deal with trying to scrounge together as much freelance work as I possibly could to fill in the gaps?” But it sounded like a job I would really enjoy and it sounded like a really good foot in the door to make a go at this horse racing writing that I was spending basically all of my free time by this point doing turning that into a career, so maybe with that and then no separate career, maybe I would have a little more balance outside of that.
In the balance, I'm just like, “I have to take this risk,” and I'm glad I did. I'm still doing that now. I also have several freelance clients for whom I'm doing just various horse racing writing or handicapping, handicapping being just the art of figuring out how you think a race is going to play out, who you think is going to win, and justify your opinion. It's tough. I feel like I'm always hustling for work or looking for more work, but on the other hand, it's nice because I really enjoy what I do and I feel like I have a lot more flexibility and balance in my life now than I did when I was working computers or even when I was working in law.
Sarah Cottrell: That is awesome. I love that story.
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Sarah Cottrell: I think you touched on this earlier but I just wanted to circle back to it, I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit more about when you were first leaving the law and you mentioned something about the people around you and how they were reacting to your plan to not continue in the law. Because that's something that I think a lot of people experience either they've decided to leave the law and then they're getting reactions from their friends and family that are along the lines of “Are you crazy?”
Or even people who are thinking about leaving the law but one of the things that's holding them back is that concern of “Well, what will my friends think? What will my family think? What will these people in my daily life think about this decision?” I just thought it would be helpful if you could talk a little bit more about your experience with that and any advice you might have for people who are concerned about that or experiencing some pushback from people in their lives.
Nicolle Neulist: Sure. I was certainly afraid of that. But as far as when it happened, my closest, closest friends knew just how exhausted I was and how square peg I felt when I was working in the law and so they were not surprised when I decided that I was going to do something else and were totally supportive.
But there were people who I knew less well or acquaintances, that sort of thing, I say, “Oh, I'm not going to be a lawyer anymore. I'm going to move into computer security,” and they were shocked. It was just like, “Oh, didn't you go to school for three years of that? You passed the bar and everything. Why would you turn your back on it after working so hard to get there?”
It was exhausting to be like over and over again, “Yes, I worked so hard to get there but it's not what I want to do, it's not where I want to be, and I'm not willing to give up the rest of my 20s, give up my 30s, give up all of this time doing something where I don't feel I'm getting enough out of it to justify being there and to justify not liking most of what I do.”
For better or worse, as much as I like to do a bunch of different things, I was talking about that, I'm not one that I can make my job my life, but on the other hand, it still is a lot of time that you're spending doing your job. If it's something that is sucking the life out of you or that just makes you not feel like yourself or not feel like you can look yourself in the mirror on the way to work and be like, “I'm bringing at least some semblance of myself to work,” then it wasn't worth it for me to keep going.
The good news is when I explained it that way, then people tended to be understanding, which is good. That might not be the same way for everybody. There are probably a lot of people who are a lot better at compartmentalizing their work self and their out-of-work self, or can treat it as “Okay, this is how people are expecting me to be for this job or that job so it's going to be another day of play acting, yay.” That's just not me.
Once I explained it in those more personal terms, they got it. Some were still just like, “Oh, it's such a shame that you did that,” and I'm like “Well, yeah, so I had it to do all over again. It's not like I would have gone to law school if I knew that this was how it was going to turn out but that's not an option. We live in the real world.”
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that's really insightful because I think that often, it seems people who are really unhappy in their career, part of what keeps them there is almost this thought process of “I should be like this other person who interacts with their job differently or experiences their job differently. I should just keep going” even though their own internal experience, their own emotional experience, their own life is unique and maybe they aren't able to compartmentalize in the same way.
For me, one of my challenges with being a lawyer was I really, really want to do a good job and I'm not very good at having boundaries at work and so if you're working at a big firm, it will just take and take and take. Some people are better at putting up work boundaries in those circumstances, but for me, I had to ultimately come to the realization that I'm not one of those people. I need a job that has some boundaries of its own and it's not just going to take and take.
Nicolle Neulist: Yes. Both in law and in information security, I'm right there with you. I had a lot of take and take and take. I think I felt it more acutely in infosec than I did in law only because like I was telling you, the bankruptcy department was a little short on work so I may have not had as many late nights as some other people but same.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that is very common, especially if you're someone who's gone to law school, passed the bar, you've achieved all these things, not necessarily that everyone who goes to law school is super achievement focused per se, but they tend to be people who get things done.
I think often, people get stuck in this idea of, “Well, I'm a person who gets things done so I'm going to get these things done,” these things being working as a lawyer, the things you have to do working as a lawyer, and don't necessarily think about like “Is this actually aligned with who I am as a person? Is this actually good for me based on who I am?”
Nicolle Neulist: I went to law school to be a lawyer, the goal is to be a lawyer. Now I'm a lawyer, so the goal is to have a successful career as a lawyer.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, exactly, which is totally understandable but I think there's sometimes this perception of “Oh, admitting to myself that this is not working for me on some level is a failure because I'm not achieving the goal,” the goal being “being a lawyer” and that's a mindset that I've noticed a lot of people have to shift themselves out of in order to think about “Maybe I don't want to be doing this with my life. Maybe I want to be doing something else.” Or at least that was true for me.
Nicolle Neulist: Yeah. I had a little bit less of that only because maybe it would have been difficult had I wanted to be a lawyer for longer. I don't really know. Law was really not an idea that I got in my head that this is what I was going to do until I was in college. When I started college, I figured I was going to be a physicist. I started college thinking I was going to double major in physics and music and then go to grad school and be a physicist, a physics professor.
My first summer working in a physics lab the summer after my first year of college washed me away of that illusion. It was only during my second year of college that I decided, “You know what career might actually suit me? Law.” So I ended up with a political science degree. My second year, my third year, and my fourth year in college, I competed on the mock trial team which was amazing. I loved it.
I still go back and judge mock trial whenever I can because it's amazing. But the one thing that I wish I had done before going to law school—I know it sounds so simple now but it didn't even occur to me—was work in a law office, work in something legally adjacent, do some administrative work in a law office or some public entity that is adjacent to the law. I'm thinking of that because really the best law experience that I had was my second year at WashU. I did a clinic with the public defender's office in St. Louis County.
There were parts of that that I loved. But even after having done that, it was still coming together that as much as there were parts of that that I loved, I absolutely loved being there to help people who were, in a lot of respects, getting screwed by the system to at least make sure that all of their ducks were in a row and make sure that if the clients were being charged with something, the prosecutors, the cops, they were going to have to do everything by the book, and if they were going to have a case, they were going to have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, darn it, because otherwise, they're not getting past me.
I loved that about it but it was still, that was my first working law experience really, I did have a job my first year summer but it was a little more academic in the sense that it was a legal clinic through the school. We were doing real work, we had a couple of clemency cases that we were working on but the office was based at the school and I wasn't really having any contact with other lawyers, the opposing party, or anything like that.
My first real experience with that was in that clinic my second year. That was when it started to at least form in my brain that, “I don't know if this is a face I can always put on”, and then that just kept being the case through my third year and into legal practice. It's not like there were no good things about the law or nothing that I liked, but as time went on, in the balance, it wasn't enough.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That makes total sense. I had a very similar experience and it seems to me, just based on talking with other people who've left the law, that this tends to be a common experience for them also.
For people who are listening and either are actively trying to get out of the law or maybe just they're a lawyer and they're not happy but they haven't quite gotten to the point where they are saying, “Okay, I want to make a change,” what advice would you have for those people who are listening and are either trying to get out or thinking about getting out but just maybe a little bit nervous about actually embracing the reality that they don't want to be a lawyer anymore?
Nicolle Neulist: I think the biggest advice I have is listen to yourself. When I was laid off from the law firm and stared at that question in the face of “Do I want to try to find another legal job or do I want to find something completely different?” it was so difficult to admit to myself that whenever it was late at night and I was too tired to really have my guard up about what I was thinking or what I'd allow myself to think, or even if it wasn't late at night and I was just allowing myself those rare moments of less guarded thinking, all my brain ever seemed to wander to was “You don't want to go through the process of looking for another legal job when you're not actually enthusiastic about working in another legal job.”
The thing that I was really looking forward to giving a shot was the whole computer thing. Once I admitted to myself that that's where my brain was going when I wasn't actually forcing it to go anywhere, that made me decide that “Okay, there's probably something to that.” I knew I wasn't happy in my previous job. I knew these were feelings that were bubbling up since I was in school. I did what I promised myself I would do, which is to say give it a try in the working world after graduation and it's not where I need to be.
It felt like the best decision for my long-term happiness and my long-term sanity was to get out. If that voice in your head is saying, “Okay, there's a lot in law that I like but not in this,” then listen to it and try to put those feelers out there and talk to people for other legal jobs that that voice in your head is suggesting that you're going to like.
If that voice in your head keeps saying, “No, I want to try doing this. No, I want to get out,” then listen to it and make those plans to get out. It's not easy. It was certainly a little weird being 26 or 27 and interviewing for computer jobs and there are all these people who've been working in data centers or working 18 years old or 21 years old and I'm like, “Nope, I've gone to law school. I've done this complete other thing,” and getting asked by the hiring people, “Are you just going to leave this job and go back to being a lawyer at some point?” I'm like, “No.” It was weird, it was tough, but I got there and it was worth going through it to try something different and move on.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's great. I think that's really good advice. I think that'll be really helpful to people. Do you have any last things that you would want to say about either your experience getting out of the law or to other people who are thinking about moving into a place where they're not a lawyer anymore?
Nicolle Neulist: What I just said about listening to yourself is really the crux of it. There is so much societal pressure to stay in the law either just from people who say it, stay in the law, or just because law is one of those careers that has such a name in the public consciousness, you say, “Oh, I'm a lawyer,” and people may not get exactly what you do because of course there are as many kinds of lawyers as there are lawyers probably.
I still get asked questions like, “Oh, you were a lawyer. Can you answer this legal question?” I'm like, “No. One, I never practiced that law in the first place and two, I went inactive 10 years ago because I had people asking me ‘We'll let you do a little tech work if you do the law for our startup’ and I'm like, ‘No, absolutely not.’ So I'm also not legally allowed to give you legal advice anymore.”
But that's the biggest thing I have though is just listen to yourself and don't let that feeling of “Oh, it's going to be such a disappointment if I've made it to this successful career to leave it.” No, life is short. I'm still not 100% sure what “success” is but at least for me, the best description I have of it so far is that I'm doing something that I find fulfilling and it's not necessarily always easy but it's something that in the balance is worth it for me between keeping a roof over my head and being satisfied with my job and satisfied with what I'm doing.
That calculation was not working out for me in the law so I'm glad I moved on to a career and then another career where that calculation was working out for me. It's really it, just listen to yourself.
Sarah Cottrell: I love that. I think that is just really good advice in general and especially good for people who are in that kind of situation. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today. I really appreciate you sharing your story and I know that it's going to be really helpful for a lot of people.
Nicolle Neulist: Thank you so much for having me on here, Sarah. It was a lot of fun. I'm happy to talk about it and I'm looking forward to hearing everyone else's stories as well.
Sarah Cottrell: 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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