From Biglaw to Director of The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice with Heidi Mueller

In this episode, Sarah talks to Heidi Mueller, the director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. They talk about Heidi’s experience working at a big law firm, transitioning from big law to the juvenile justice system, and her incredible work at the Juvenile Justice Department. 

Lawyers who want to work in or advance in the juvenile justice system should listen to gain helpful advice. Also, here’s a reminder for lawyers looking to take the often scary path of leaving the law: Sarah has put together a free guide to help you take your first steps. You can access a detailed guide by signing up on the Former Lawyer website. 

Now, let’s dive into the conversation with Heidi!

Going to Law School

Heidi decided to go to law school because she started studying for the LSAT with her friend and thought it would be fun. At the time, she was a social worker. She was also a social worker and ran programs for kids who got in trouble with the law but didn’t want to go to jail. 

As a social worker, she realized that there was a big divide between how the system worked for poor kids of color versus wealthy white kids and felt that if she was an attorney, she could do something about the injustice. 

With that extra motivation, Heidi went to law school. 

Working at a Big Law Firm

Heidi accepted a job at a large law firm after graduation because she needed to pay off her law school loans and would be paid much more than anyone in her family had ever made. She worked as a mass torts and product liability attorney and was a defense litigator for pharmaceutical companies. 

However, she had doubts, as she knew from the get-go that the path wasn’t for her. Although she was determined to be successful at that firm and enjoyed some of the work done, she felt overwhelmed by the politics of big law firms. She also lost her excitement at work. She wasn’t passionate about it and had a two-year plan. 

Transitioning Out of Big Law

Heidi decided to leave a year after she started working at Biglaw. During that year, she tried to make it work, but after reading an article interviewing Michelle Obama, she knew she had to leave.

In that interview, Michelle, who had worked at the firm that Heidi was working at, talked about waking up one day, coming into work, looking around, and seeing that no one around her seemed all that happy. That epiphany helped Michelle move into something she felt better about. 

Reading that interview helped Heidi see she could leave and do great things like Michelle. A year later, she began to believe that her job at the Biglaw was no longer suitable, and she resigned to begin a new job.

Dealing with Debt Repayment

Like many lawyers servicing student loan debts, leaving a better-paying job at a big firm wasn’t an easy choice for Heidi. It was part of the reason she stayed for about two and a half years at the law firm, even when she knew she wasn’t passionate about her work there.

For those years, Heidi ensured that most of her income, including bonuses, went toward paying down her student loan debts. Since she had experience living on a smaller social worker salary, it was easier to limit her spending and put as much money as possible into paying off her debt. 

Thankfully, her husband was still working at a law firm, giving her more freedom with her finances. She knew that she would survive even after the significant pay cut. She also took advantage of the University of Chicago Hormel Public Interest Support, which helped her pay down a lot of her debt before leaving and assured her that she would be okay.

Taking The Next Steps

After her resignation, Heidi got a job with a community-based, non-profit organization in Chicago. That job combined her previous work as a social worker with law policy and meshed the things she liked about the law with those she liked about social work.

She ran the juvenile justice system and was tasked with getting grants to work with local state attorneys, judges, probation officers, and other folks in Cook County to push the juvenile justice reform agenda forward. Her work was to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system or help them avoid going deeper into the system if they already are in. 

The new job was a 75% pay cut compared to her former job. Weeks before leaving her former job, she panicked and thought herself crazy for jumping out of law practice and the money offered. However, she recognized it as a stepping stone toward her desired path. 

Working in Juvenile Justice

Heidi’s job at the community-based non-profit organization paid off, as she took a job as the executive director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. In that job, she moved from managing programs and practices to a role working for the state, where she acted as a liaison between Illinois and the federal government. 

She administered federal grant funds to county jurisdictions around the state. She oversaw the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, advised the governor and the general assembly about Illinois’s juvenile justice policies and practices, and ensured the state followed federal rules about juvenile justice.

Heidi worked that job for a year and a half before meeting a woman who was the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice in Illinois, which is the juvenile prison system. The woman hired her as her deputy and tasked her with building and running all youth-serving programs in the department of juvenile justice. 

Two and a half years later, she was appointed by Governor Pritzker to be the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, and that’s what she’s still doing today. 

Spearheading a New Mission at The Juvenile Justice Department

When Heidi joined the department of juvenile justice, she was part of a group charged with reforming the department. They had been sued by the ACLU and had the mandate to fix many things. The culture at the time was rigid and didn’t want to move in the direction of the Federal Court rulings. However, she knew it was essential to make a move and committed to the process.

Heidi learned the importance of communicating a shared vision and accurately showing everyone where it is going and why. So, Heidi and the rest of the leadership team boiled down the mission statement into one sentence describing the department’s purpose.

After that, they started rolling out their mission statement with activities and events that got everyone working towards the desired outcome. Under Heidi’s leadership, the team worked together with a shared language and idea of what they were working towards.

Missing the Legal Practice

Heidi does not miss practicing law. 

What she misses most about working as a lawyer is the social camaraderie and working with many colleagues at her level. Unlike when she worked with lawyers who knew and understood what she was going through, her current job is more lonely in that no one in the organization understands what her role as the director feels like. 

Although other directors around the country are her colleagues, they do not interact daily. She also has to be careful in her position because she manages everyone else and cannot socialize as she did in the law practice. 

Heidi also misses the fanciness of having a nice office, a Starbucks machine on every floor where she could get coffee, and being able to call someone to fix her computer within 20 minutes. 

She finds her job more fulfilling and exciting than practicing law. 

Favorite Thing About Her job

What Heidi loves most about her job is seeing kids’ lives change and knowing she was a part of creating that growth and change. 

She feels that, in her little way, she is addressing some of the social injustices in the world. That is evident in how their work is helping more kids graduate from high school, get into college, and have opportunities they have never had before. 

With her work, Heidi sees a lot of growth in the kids she works with, and hope is ignited in people’s lives. She also gets the pleasure of working with many committed, awesome people who care about others. 

Her favorite thing is seeing kids who come in hopeless find hope and realize that their lives matter, that they are worth something, and that they can leave the system, go out, and contribute positively to their communities and be healthy, safe, and happy. 

Advice For Those Interested in Juvenile Justice Reform

Heidi tells lawyers who want to try something new to be willing to take risks. They must also be able to sit down and think about what they want from their life or career. 

So, it is not just about the kind of job they want to do or what they want to be when they grow up. It is about the characteristics that will make them satisfied in any job. 

For her, these traits include growing and learning new things on the job all the time. She needed to feel like she had good leaders and mentors to follow and learn from. She also wanted a job that made her feel like she was serving, even if she didn’t know what she was going to do. Knowing these helped her create a checklist she would often visit when looking for jobs and getting interviews. 

Since the juvenile justice system is a small field, lawyers will find that it is not super hard to break into it. It’s also an exciting field with a lot of change and movement. 

However, anyone looking to get into juvenile justice reform must be willing to start somewhere that isn’t necessarily their dream place. Heidi advises that the best approach is to move in the direction of the dream place and be willing to work hard and impress everyone. 

That is important because the juvenile justice world is small and it is possible to get recommendations. Work with people and build relationships to get recommendations for dream positions. Consider every person an opportunity to make a good impression. 

Taking the Big Leap to Leave the Law

If you want to leave the law, you must realize that there are lots of opportunities and different things that your experience as a lawyer is valuable for. However, the first step is to step away from the legal path onto one that positions you for something better than struggling to stay on the legal path. 

Of course, you need support! This is why you should join the Former Lawyer Collaborative. When you join the Collaborative, you will find the support and strength you need to push further on a new path because of all the resources Sarah provides. 

Sarah also offers a limited slot for 1:1 support sessions. In 1:1 sessions, she walks clients who sign up through the Former Lawyer Framework to discover what their heart wants, an exit strategy, and the courage to follow through.  If that sounds like what you need, book a call with Sarah to get one of the available slots and be on your way to the life of your dreams!

Sarah Cottrell: 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.

Hi everyone. Welcome to this week's episode. This week I am releasing my conversation with Heidi Mueller who is the director at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. Heidi and I went to the same law school so you might hear some talk about that in the interview but it's a really interesting interview and the work that she's doing is just incredibly meaningful. I'm really excited for you to hear all about it.

Really quickly, I just want to remind any of our listeners who are lawyers who are ready to leave the law that I have put together a free guide that gives you some direction in terms of the first steps that you need to take because I know that sometimes you know that you want to leave but it's really hard to know even where to start, so go to and you can sign up and get access to it today. Here is my conversation with Heidi.

Hi, Heidi. Welcome to the show.

Heidi Mueller: Hi, Sarah. Thank you.

Sarah Cottrell: Let's start out for everyone who's listening with you just talking a little bit about how you ended up deciding to go to law school and then where you ended up when you first graduated from law school.

Heidi Mueller: Sure. I decided to go to law school really honestly I think because I started studying for the LSAT with a friend of mine and thought that that was fun, which is a weird thing. There were other reasons too. I was working as a social worker and I started running some juvenile diversion programs which were basically kids would get arrested, they'd get into trouble with the law, and then instead of entering the juvenile justice system, they would come to me and I would do some counseling. We did community service and then we did some groups just about decision making, coping skills, and things like that.

I started to see through that work this really big divide between how the system worked for poor kids of color versus wealthy white kids and so it really struck me. I felt as a social worker, in my mind at the time, I thought I could help kids feel better about this injustice or what they're experiencing. I thought at the time if I was an attorney, I could actually do something about it. I could fight it.

That was motivating for me too, like I said, I liked studying for the LSAT and then when I started researching law schools, I just got really excited about it. That really led me to apply and to go to school. When I first graduated, as I mentioned, I had been a social worker, I didn't really come from any money at all so I had the maximum amount of law-school debt that you can have.

So I took a job first in a biglaw firm mostly to deal with that debt, to pay off the debt, but also because I thought if I happen to really like it, it would be great because that would be more money than anyone in my family had ever made.

Sarah Cottrell: What law did you practice at the firm?

Heidi Mueller: I was a mass torts and products liability, so defense litigation but focusing on mostly defending pharmaceutical companies.

Sarah Cottrell: Got it, got it. When you got to the firm, did you decide you did like it or what was that process for you and how did it progress in terms of how long it took for you to decide “This is for me” or “This is not for me”?

Heidi Mueller: I think if I'm being my most honest self, I think I knew from the get-go that it probably wasn't for me. It wasn't what I knew I was going to be passionate about and in the back of my mind, I had a little bit of a two-year plan in my head anyway. But I got there, I thought I'm going to try my best. I'm going to see if I can be successful here.

I think I did enjoy some of the work. I enjoyed the camaraderie of starting with this cohort of people and all going through this crazy stressful work situation and becoming very close. But pretty quickly, I guess I felt like I just didn't feel like I was understanding the politics of big firms. I also pretty quickly just felt like I really am not all that excited about what I'm doing.

Then over time, my first year I think was I enjoyed it more, I was involved in a smaller case that I got to do a lot of work on so I was learning a lot. But really by my second year, I was really feeling like, “Well, this is definitely not what I should be doing.”

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I had a similar, well not the same background, but a very similar timeline in terms of when I realized this is probably not for me in the long term. How quickly from the time you realize that did you end up transitioning to something else?

Heidi Mueller: I think it was about a year. I think part of that time I was still trying to figure out a way to make myself like it and to make it work. But the funny thing was I actually ended up reading this article, an interview with Michelle Obama who actually had worked at the same law firm that I was working at. She talks about waking up one day, coming into work, looking around, and seeing that no one around her seemed all that happy.

Just having this epiphany and moving into something that she felt better about and it was interesting, I thought, “Well, look at how great she's doing.” It was maybe about a year from the time I started to really think “I don't think this is right for me,” to the point at which I actually resigned and started a different job.

Sarah Cottrell: Got it. Did you move back towards the field that you had worked in previously or what was your next step?

Heidi Mueller: My next step was actually working for a community based, so it was similar in that way, it was a community-based, non-profit organization in Chicago, but the step was actually marrying my previous work as a social worker with law policy. Some of my legal knowledge, it meshed together the things that I liked about law and the things I liked about social work.

I ran a juvenile justice arm of a community non-profit and my job was to get grants to work with local state's attorneys, judges, probation officers, and folks in Cook County to try to move forward a juvenile justice reform agenda and run programs that basically kept kids out of the juvenile justice system or helped them once they touched the juvenile justice system avoid going deeper in.

It merged the things I cared about. It was about a 75% pay cut. It was a big leap. I took the job and I remember maybe two weeks before my last day at the law firm, all of a sudden I had this panic and I was like, “What am I doing? This is crazy.” I was jumping out of law, I was jumping out of practice, I was jumping out all this money. I felt I was being crazy. But at the same time, I clearly saw this as a stepping stone toward a path I really wanted to be on.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. When you said when you started at the firm you had some idea that you might want to be exiting sooner rather than later, did you have any particular plan with respect to your student loan debt? Because you mentioned that you had, as I did, a lot of student loan debt. How big of a factor for you was your student loan debt in terms of your decision-making process?

Because I know for a lot of people who are thinking about making the jump from practicing at a big firm, one of the things that tends to hold them back is the fact that it might be a huge pay cut and they do have a lot of debt. I'm just interested to know what your experience was there.

Heidi Mueller: It was a factor. I was nervous about it. That is part of why I think I ended up staying about two and a half years. In the back of my mind, I thought I had a little bit of this two-year benchmark thing in mind and so even going in, I really focused on paying down the debt. All my bonus went directly to paying down the debt.

I had lived as a law student as I had lived as a social worker. I really didn't spend much money, I just put as much of it back into paying off the debt as I could. But the other thing was at the time that I left, I had gotten married and so my husband was still working at a law firm. We did the math and so it did give me a little bit more freedom than I think some people have because I knew that I would be able to survive even taking the pay cut.

Then I also knew I was able to take advantage of the University of Chicago Hormel Public Interest Support. All that stuff together. I guess at the end of the day, it was a factor but I think by the time I was leaving, I'd really paid down a lot of my debt and I knew I'd be okay.

Sarah Cottrell: That makes total sense. How long were you in that position that you moved to that first position after you left the firm?

Heidi Mueller: I was there about three years.

Sarah Cottrell: Okay, and what did you move on to next from there?

Heidi Mueller: From there, I took a job as the executive director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. Moving from managing programs and practice to a role working for the state where I was a liaison between the state of Illinois and the federal government, I administered federal grant funds to county jurisdictions around the state and managed the state's Juvenile Justice Advisory Board which is authorized in federal statute and basically advised them, managed them, we advised the governor and the general assembly about juvenile justice policy and practice in the state of Illinois and made sure that the state was complying with Federal Regulations regarding juvenile justice.

Sarah Cottrell: That's so interesting. But you talked about it in past tense, so does that mean you moved on to another position? Tell me more.

Heidi Mueller: Yes. I had that job for about a year and a half and from there, through my work in both of those previous jobs, I came into contact with a woman who was appointed as the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice in Illinois which is the deep end, the juvenile prison system. She hired me to be her deputy to work for her and essentially build and run all of the programs, the youth serving programs in the Department of Juvenile Justice.

That's what I did next. I did that for about two and a half years and then she left and then I was appointed by Governor Rauner to be the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice and that's what I'm still doing today. Governor Pritzker reappointed me so I've been doing that for a little over two and a half years.

Sarah Cottrell: That is incredible. When you say two and a half years, you mean from the time you were originally appointed or the time that you were reappointed?

Heidi Mueller: Two and a half years from the time I was originally appointed as director.

Sarah Cottrell: Got it. In terms of your legal background and what you do as the director, is the director position a position that requires a law degree or is it something that is a benefit from having a law degree? Can you talk a little bit about how your work there relates to being a lawyer?

Heidi Mueller: Yeah. It doesn't require a law degree. I think traditionally in corrections in juvenile justice, the folks who are directors who are at the head maybe typically don't have a law degree. But the previous director who brought me on as her deputy and I both had law degrees. It definitely helps. I think it really makes me better at this job for a couple reasons.

I think one is just an overall grasp of the legal issues. As the director of a state agency, there are lots of state statutes that govern what we do, there are a lot of legal issues that come into play because we have kids who are adjudicated and committed to our custody in juvenile courts, and so understanding the court process is important.

It's just really helpful especially coming from where I'm coming from, which is a reform-minded perspective, understanding the lay of the land, having a background, just understanding Supreme Court jurisprudence related to youth culpability, it's important. Even when it comes to part of my job is analyzing legislative proposals that each year our fine legislators in Springfield propose and understanding what that impact is going to be on the ground.

I think having a legal background really helps you translate this language into practice and understand where the pitfalls are going to be and how things are going to impact the kids that we work with and the staff that we work with. It's really helpful there.

Then I just think having honestly worked at a law firm, that level of rigor in your job has really benefited me. Just my expectations for myself and how hard I expect to work and my high expectations for the people around me I think is beneficial. I really learned that from working I think in a biglaw firm, and that's helpful.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I had a very similar experience. I think that having worked as a lawyer and a big firm, you do gain certain skills related to, not even necessarily legal skills, but just skills related to how you work, that can be really helpful in all different kinds of work environments.

Heidi Mueller: Absolutely, absolutely. There are plenty of lawyers in state government but not so many, and not so many who have worked in large law firms. Sometimes it reflects well on you if you bring that level of diligence to what you're doing and urgency.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, for people who are curious, what is a typical work week for you, what does it look like?

Heidi Mueller: That's a really good question. It's very varied. I guess I'll give you an example of this week. Typically I am traveling between our facilities throughout the state. I'm spending some time in Springfield meeting with legislators during legislative session. I'll be there probably once a week testifying at a subject-matter hearing or talking about our budget.

I have an office in Chicago and an office in Springfield. I live in Chicago but I try to get to the Springfield office at least every other week because I have staff there. This week I started out my week at my Chicago office, I'll have calls and meetings, I'll be working on policies that we're rolling out, projects that we're implementing.

I'm talking to you right now from a hotel room in Marion, Illinois which is way at the bottom of the state because today I drove down to visit one of our facilities in Harrisburg which is near Paducah, Kentucky. Then tomorrow I will wake up at about five and I will drive to Springfield and shoot a video for our website to help launch our new mission statement. Then I will drive home and spend some time with my seven-year-old as much as I possibly can.

Then Friday, I will drive to one of our facilities that's located in the suburbs of Chicago and I will check in to see how the staff are doing, make sure that kids are getting what they need, make sure we're running our school appropriately, just check in on things. That's my week. It's really different. Some weeks I have to be meeting with folks in the governor's office, some weeks I'm spending more time sitting with staff and kids at our facilities. We're 24/7, 365 operations so every day every week, I am on call in case something bad happens. But that's a sample.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It seems it would be a job that just has a bunch of different facets to it and just different things that you would be doing. You mentioned that you're rolling out a new mission statement. Is that something that you are spearheading or how did that come about?

Heidi Mueller: It is something I'm spearheading. So like I said this, way back five and a half years ago, when I came to DJJ, I was brought on as part of this group that was really charged with reforming the department. We had been sued by the ACLU. We were under this consent decree and really had to fix a lot of stuff. We were coming in butting up against a culture that was pretty entrenched and not necessarily wanting to move in the direction that the Federal Court was saying we had to move. I deeply in my heart felt that we should move, so that has been a process.

One of the things I've learned along the way is that it's really important to articulate a shared vision and to set out a real picture for everybody of where it is that we're going and why. The mission statement is really a way for us to all, we did this, we had a big retreat, I had all of my leadership team there and we just distilled down to one sentence what it is that we really feel is our purpose, what is it that we're doing here.

Then our rolling out this mission statement with a lot of activities and events really to get everybody thinking and oriented toward where are we headed, what is this vision of the future that we are walking toward? This way we all have a shared language and a shared idea of what we're doing.

Sarah Cottrell: That's awesome.

Heidi Mueller: It's not something that I learned in school thing. The importance of communications and mission is that it's more of an organizational leadership thing, not so much a law school thing.

Sarah Cottrell: I was going to say for someone who's listening who has an interest in juvenile justice reform and those sorts of things, and they're a lawyer and they're thinking about this thing, I would imagine they have a couple questions and I would think that one of them would be do you miss working as a lawyer?

Heidi Mueller: My honest answer is no, I do not. I was thinking about this, are there things I miss? I missed the social camaraderie of working as a lawyer, particularly the way I did it in a law firm where I had lots of colleagues that were all at my same level that all knew and understood what I was going through. The job I have now is a lot more lonely in a way because in my organization, there's no one else who understands exactly what this role is like.

There are other directors around the country that are my group of colleagues that I interact with and talk to and former directors but it's not on a day-to-day basis, I just can go get coffee with colleagues and be gossiping about what's going on. It's a different thing.

Sarah Cottrell: There's only one of you in the position that you're in.

Heidi Mueller: Yeah. In the position I'm in, and because I'm responsible for everything ultimately and I'm managing everyone else there, I have to be careful. I can't socialize the way that I did at a law firm. That part I miss.

I miss the fanciness. I miss having a really nice office. I miss when my computer is not working, being able to just call up somebody and they're up in my office within 20 minutes fixing it. I miss having a fancy Starbucks coffee machine on every floor that I can just go get coffee if I want to. Those things I missed but the actual practice, I don't miss at all. My job now is to me way, way more fulfilling and way more interesting.

Sarah Cottrell: What's your favorite thing about your job now that was not part of your work or life as a lawyer?

Heidi Mueller: Well, probably it's going to sound all cheesy and bleeding hearty, but that's who I am. My favorite part is really I get to see kids' lives change, I get to see growth and change, and know that I'm moving us. I feel like in my way, in this small way, I'm addressing some of the social injustice that I see in the world, especially because of how we're doing it. I have kids coming in and we're really working hard to help them graduate from high school, get into college, and have opportunities that they haven't had before.

I get to see a lot of growth in the kids that I work with. I get to see a lot of hope ignited in people's lives. I get to see a lot of people that work in my agency who are really committed, really awesome people who really care about other people. That's front and center every single day, but especially I guess, my favorite thing is seeing kids who come in hopeless and see them find hope and start to realize that their lives matter, that they are worth something, and realize that they can leave us, go out, and contribute positively to their communities and be healthy, be safe, and be happy. That's the best.

Sarah Cottrell: I love that so, so much. I love it.

This episode of The Former Lawyer Podcast is sponsored by my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law. Look, I know that 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. You can grab this guide and take the guesswork out of it. Go to and start your journey out of the law today. Seriously, you can get it and start today. Back to the conversation.

Okay, so for people who are listening and they either are about to graduate from law school and are thinking they're not totally sure they're going to love the firm job they're going to, or for people who are working as lawyers and are unhappy, I have a two-part question. One is just what is your best piece of advice for people who are thinking they might want to leave the law generically, and then specifically, if there are people who have an interest in the juvenile justice reform space, do you have any specific advice for those people in terms of what they might be thinking about or doing?

Heidi Mueller: Sure. Generally, generically, I would say, I think the best piece of advice I can give is moving into, it's totally possible and I think many, many people move out of the practice of law into other fields really successfully and really happily, but it requires taking a little risk. I think to find yourself in the place you really want to be, you have to be willing to take a little bit of risk. I think that's generic advice.

I think another generic thing I would say, one thing I did when I was really certain that I wasn't happy but not quite sure where I wanted to be was to take some time to sit down and really think about not so much what job do I want to do, what do I want to be when I grow up, but really what sorts of things do I want out of my life or career, what are some characteristics that will make me feel satisfied, things I knew I wanted, something that allowed me to grow and learn.

I knew I wanted something where I felt I had good leaders and mentors to follow and learn from. I knew I wanted to be of service and so not so much did I know exactly what I was going to do but I knew those were components that I needed to have in whatever it was I was going to do next. I think that really helped me because then when I started to look for jobs and interview, I was able to go back to that, I actually wrote a list, go back to the list of things that I knew I would need and checked these potential opportunities against that list. That's generic advice.

I think for someone who wants to go into juvenile justice, juvenile justice is in this weird small field. I think it's really possible to break into it. It's a really exciting time in the field right now. There's a lot of change and movement. It's really not super hard to break into it but I would say the reality is you probably are going to have to start at a place that isn't necessarily the place that you really hope to end up.

My advice is to step onto a path that you can see moving in the direction you want it to go and then just be willing to work hard and impress everybody you get a chance to impress because it's a small field. After my first leap out of the law firm and to this community-based job, after that, I haven't applied for a job since then.

After that, you start working with people, you build relationships, and from there, it's essentially folks calling you up and saying, “I need somebody to do XYZ.” That's been my experience and I think that's how it seems to happen in this field. I guess don't be afraid to start small but also consider every person an opportunity to make an impression.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that is some really helpful insight, both the things that you were talking about before in terms of taking a risk and how, in order to get to some place you really want to be, that's pretty much necessary. Also, that's really helpful to know specifically about the juvenile justice space and I will say on the risk piece, it's been my experience that that can sometimes be particularly hard for lawyers because you're essentially trained to be extremely risk averse, and evaluate all the possible risks and try to protect against them.

When you're talking about leaving the law to do something else, you're basically asking someone to start operating against their training, which I think can cause some difficulties.

Heidi Mueller: Yes, absolutely. It's funny, I think for me, I'm actually not a risk-averse person at all and so it's funny, I think that's probably why I probably would have been a terrible lawyer. I'm not super into rules but I think it's funny because it's another way that I feel law school actually really helped me in my work because I learned to be more conscientious about risk and able to protect against risk better which in the work that I do, you really have to be able to do too.

If I hadn't gone to law school, I probably wouldn't have managed some of the situations that I have to manage as well. I probably would have screwed things up more royally than some of the things that I've screwed up.

Sarah Cottrell: That's amazing. Your path from law school to law firm to getting out of the law and into juvenile justice, is there anything along that path that you wished that you had done differently in terms of moving into and then out of the law?

Heidi Mueller: Huh, I feel like I'm a pathologically positive person so it's hard for me to, I look back and I really value all of the path of my life, and the process I went through, I feel like I learned a lot of good stuff from all of it. I guess the one thing I wish I had done a little differently was really when I started to feel the law firm wasn't for me, I felt really bad about it.

I really felt I was a failure at some points and I had a lot of anxiety about essentially thinking, “Well, I'm just not good enough. The reason that I am not enjoying this is because I just am not somehow tough enough or good enough or I can't find the joy in endless doc review the way some other people can. There's something wrong with me.” I felt really critical of myself about it.

Now in the work that I'm doing, I'm like, “Oh, I like this is so much better. I think I'm better at it. It's where I'm meant to be.” I think I wish that at the time, I had been a little bit kinder to myself about it. I wish I hadn't been so hard on myself for really just realizing that I wasn't on the exact right path.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. Oh my goodness, yes. I think a lot of people will identify with that because I had a very similar experience. There was definitely this period where I was at the firm and things were going well but I just hated it. Instead of saying, “Oh, that's because this isn't the right job for me,” there was a significant period of time where I was like, “What's wrong with me? I should like this. I'm doing well,” and all of the things that you were describing, those exact same thoughts of feeling guilty, feeling like I should like it.

It wasn't until I realized “Oh, I'm allowed to just not like this job and want to do something else” that I was able to move forward. I think that happens with a lot of people because I think, like you said, there is this a little bit of magical thinking of, “Well, everyone else must just love every moment of doc review and everyone else must love writing angry letters about how your interrogatory response was totally insufficient, or whatever,” and I must be the only one who's like, “Oh, this is not what I want to do with my life.” In fact, I think there are lots of people who feel that way and that's fine. That probably just means that they shouldn't be lawyers, they should be doing something else.

Heidi Mueller: Yeah, I know. I remember very vividly I had this moment, there was a senior associate and we were in a group of other associates my year and up. In front of the group, he turned to me and he was like, “Ugh, Heidi, you're too nice to be a lawyer.” At the time I was humiliated. It was this humiliating, crushing experience in front of all these people. I felt he was saying I was not worthy and I was weak or whatever. I felt awful about it and now I'm looking back and I'm like, “That's a compliment.” I should have been like, “Yeah, d*mn straight, I'm too nice to be defending a bunch of big pharma companies. I want to go back to the world,” whatever.

Not that there's plenty of really nice lawyers and plenty of really nice people who work at biglaw firms but it's just funny, like you said, your thinking gets a little bit distorted. It was just funny that something that I think ordinarily could be a compliment, I was crushed. Although I don't think he meant it totally nice either.

Sarah Cottrell: Right. There is that aspect. When you said that, it just made me think, we didn't talk about this too much but when you were originally thinking about making the jump from the law firm, I know you said you discussed it with your husband and obviously, he was supportive, but in terms of friends and family, did you feel like you had support? Did you feel like people were like, “Ah, what are you doing?”

Then also related to that, now when you talk to other lawyers that you might run across, do they have any reaction to the fact that you've made this move?

Heidi Mueller: Yeah, it's funny, actually when I was first telling some of my friends at the law firm when I was talking to them about thinking of leaving, I remember I had a couple friends, I had one friend who cried, so that's not quite the same thing. I became the de facto counselor, especially in my group, when people were upset or sad, they would come into my office, cry, and tell me how they were feeling and stuff.

I had a couple friends who were like, “I don't know if I can stay here,” but it was weird. The head of our group, I remember when I told him I was leaving, he's like, “Yep, I get it. I see you on that path,” it just made a lot of sense to him. My parents, I was worried that they would be upset because I spent all that time in law school and was taking this pay cut, but my mom was super supportive, I think partly because she just saw how really unhappy I was and she felt this was really the right thing for me to do.

I think the only person, my best friend, had this weird reaction to it and I think it's like what you said before, she worked in the corporate world and she was like, “Well, aren't you a high performer?” and I'm like, “Well, yeah. I work hard,” and she's like, “Well, why would you take such a big pay cut? Why would you move on to this different path after you spent all this time at school?” She didn't get it, but most people around me totally did and were like, “Well, we were just waiting for you to do something else.”

Since then, I do encounter a fair number of practicing lawyers and former lawyers in my work now and so they never have a weird reaction to it. I don't meet too many people who are practicing now who have much of a reaction to it, I think some people are like, “That's cool.”

I think the only negative, I was getting my hair done at a place a couple years ago and a lady who said her husband was a partner at a law firm seemed disturbed that I didn't work at a law firm anymore, but that's it.

Sarah Cottrell: That's so interesting. The main reaction that I get from other lawyers when I tell them that I'm not practicing anymore is honestly basically like “That's really cool. I wish I could do that,” basically. Not every single one obviously, but to the extent that people have any reaction that they share, it's often something along those lines, essentially like “I wish I had the guts to do that”, which, like you said, I do think that making the jump from the being a lawyer to not being a lawyer does require a willingness to accept some amount of risk. I think that's part of maybe what's playing into that reaction.

The last question I have for you is when you were in that period where you were at the law firm but you pretty much knew you wanted to leave and then at the law firm and you definitely knew you wanted to leave, were there things that helped to inspire you to keep going/keep moving towards that goal? Was there anything in particular that helped you in that period where you were still a lawyer and looking towards not wanting to be doing that anymore?

Heidi Mueller: Yeah. I mentioned earlier, weirdly, I guess I read this interview with Michelle Obama and really identified with how she felt about being at the law firm and thought, “Wow, she can do it,” not so much like, “Hey, I'm just her, I can,” whatever. But more like there are people who do this and they can be successful. Just because this isn't the path for you doesn't mean that you're not valuable. That was helpful.

I think quite frankly at one point, I was so anxious and unhappy there that I started seeing a therapist and I talked to her about it. She also helped and I think maybe for me because actually I worked and did something different before I went to law school, I had had this experience already of pivoting in my life and so I think I drew on that too. I drew on “Well, I've done this before. I've switched course and I think it'll be okay.” I think those were things that I drew on.

Sarah Cottrell: That's great. I think you mentioned the Michelle Obama article again, well let me backup, there's sometimes this culture, particularly amongst lawyers and in law firms, where there tends to be almost this “how could you do anything else but this” mindset or “if you do anything else but this, it must be inferior to this.”

I think part of that is that the work can be so difficult and draining that you have to maintain a somewhat protective mindset of “This is the thing that I should be doing,” which is not to say that some people shouldn't be doing it. I think that you can get into this mindset of every other job is beneath this job and every other job is less stable than this job or less secure than this job.

When you were describing seeing that article, it made me think of the fact that I think part of what can be helpful about something like that—and this is part of why I'm doing this podcast—is hearing the stories of people who went and did something else and it wasn't the worst thing ever, which is not to say they didn't have hard times, and not to say it wasn't a big change, like you said, you took a 75% pay cut so it's not like, “Oh, it was all unicorns, hearts, and bunnies.”

But I think it can be easy in that lawyer and law firm mentality to slip into this belief that doing anything else would just be so inferior or so risky that to see someone who did that and is having success, it lifts up your head and you're like, “Oh, there's a whole world out there of people who aren't lawyers who are living their lives and are not having some horrible time,” which again is not to say that people don't have difficult times but I think that it's giving back some of that imagination about what is possible.

Heidi Mueller: That's totally true. Especially our experience at University of Chicago, you get on this path, it's a lot of people who are type A maybe and want to do well and who are competitive, and then you're on this path and you go through the on-campus interview process and it's like you have your pick, but it's really like you just have your pick between law firms, nobody's really talking or at least when I would, nobody was really talking about other options but you get on this path where I guess, like you said, you have blinders and you just think “This is the course.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, like “I'm on the path and now I just need to continue on the path.”

Heidi Mueller: Yeah. If you're straying from the path, something's wrong with you because you have this path. It's definitely true. I think what you said is exactly right. That's why I wanted to do this because I think what I'm doing now, I didn't even really know this thing existed, this path of policy reform. I like it so much. I think that's exactly it.

I want other people who are feeling how I felt to know that there are lots of opportunities, there are a lot of different things you can do and your experience will be valuable and it will help you in what you do next. But stepping off the path is sometimes the best thing and is going to put you in a way better position than you would have been if you try to struggle and stay on the path.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that that is a great note for us to end on. That's so good. Thank you so much, Heidi, for being on the podcast today.

Heidi Mueller: Oh, no problem. Thanks for having me. It's really nice to talk to you. I appreciate it.

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 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.