This week, I’m talking all about my conversation with Catherine Zack. Catherine worked in Biglaw in D.C. In this episode she’s sharing more about leaving a legal career to teach yoga and meditation.
Now, she does workshops, teaches classes, and has an online program at The Daily Vinyasa. She’s even gone back to her old firm to teach!
I’m so excited for you to hear all about Catherine’s journey from working in Biglaw to teaching yoga and meditation. So, let’s jump right in!
The Path To A Legal Career
Coming from a family with lawyers and being a high achiever, Catherine feels that law school was an inevitable part of her journey. After going to NYU, Catherine felt that law school was the most natural next step for her.
She had expectations that it would be very challenging and rigorous academically, but she was very excited about that. At the time Catherine had a great sense of some things in her life, but not a deep sense of herself. She got swept up in the wave of the stress of being in an environment like law school. But she soldiered through.
After graduating in 2010, she didn’t apply for clerkships. Instead, she enjoyed her summer. The firm she eventually went to was in DC.
Working In Biglaw
Catherine immersed herself in the experience of working in a Biglaw firm and doing corporate litigation. She was enthusiastic and no stranger to hard work. However, three years into working in Biglaw, Catherine had a really bad breakup with a coworker. Then she had a big case settle around the same time.
Catherine said that these two events allowed her to stop, pick up her head, and look around. She had to confront the fact that she wasn’t happy at the law firm. The sheen of the first few years of working in Biglaw had worn off.
Shortly after, she started feeling physical symptoms of stress and had to make a decision based on her health. When all of these factors converged, Catherine looked at her legal career and judged her likelihood of becoming a partner. Even with good odds, she was still debating whether that’s what she really wanted.
Finding Yoga & Meditation
Through the years, Catherine had a parallel life unfolding. The work she does now, teaching yoga and meditation, is something that goes back further than her decision to pursue a legal career.
She was introduced to yoga during gym class, as a much-needed alternative to playing kickball. It was something private that Catherine kept close to all of the years through law school.
In law school, Catherine quickly realized that she yearned for an alternative narrative to being constantly busy. So, she threw herself into the legal practice and study of yoga simultaneously.
By the time she got to DC, she had found a beautiful, warm home of a yoga studio. During her second year working in Biglaw, Catherine decided to take a yoga teacher training course. Unfortunately, she had to drop out. At the same time, she was put on a case and had to work three months straight in Houston.
Leaving A Legal Career For Yoga & Meditation
After the bad breakup and the big case settled, Catherine decided that she needed some time away. She planned to finish her yoga teacher training. She also started to contemplate a different path.
The entire process of leaving her legal career took a year. But in the end, she had a wonderful community and a spot to land at her yoga studio. It was a complete 180-degree spin from working in Biglaw.
Catherine started managing the yoga studio and teaching classes. This is also where she met her now-husband. They spent the first three years traveling all over the world teaching yoga. Yet, Catherine was always called back to DC.
Her students are high achieving, very successful urban professional types. Being that type herself and knowing that experience, Catherine can connect with her students on a deeper level.
A huge part of Catherine’s work has been providing a counterpoint for people who are very much in that life, whether they’re lawyers or not. She’s even been back to her old law firm to do different meditation and yoga workshops.
Overcoming The Financial Obstacle Of Leaving A Legal Career
The culture of working in Biglaw is relentless on your wallet. People make a lot of money and they spend a lot of money, whether it’s going out to fancy dinners every night or wearing fancy clothes.
At the time she left her legal career, Catherine had to make a lot of changes to her lifestyle to adjust. She moved out of her large apartment to a friend’s basement and cut out all unnecessary spending.
Catherine reflects on this as one of the best and biggest lessons that she ever had. She found the difference between financial wealth and abundance. And because of this, she was able to pay off her loans within a year.
Advice For Leaving Your Legal Career
If you’re struggling, working in Biglaw or you want to leave your legal career entirely, Catherine has some advice for you.
Listen To Yourself
Listen to the voice telling you your truth, because everyone else is going to make you feel like you’re crazy.
If you keep hearing that voice that says, “This is not for me. This is not for me,” trust that. Especially, when people try to lure you back to that safe path of just trotting along to the next right thing.
Try to be with that uncertainty instead of needing to have the answers yesterday. Surround yourself with whatever resonates with you.
Catherine also quoted poet, Mary Oliver, saying, “Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” She also invited anyone struggling to leave their legal career to connect with her. And if you need some extra support and resources to help you leave, join us at Former Lawyer by joining our email list.
Connect With Catherine:
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Have You Ever Tried To Enter The Long Black Branches? – From Devotions By Mary Oliver
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. This week, I'm sharing my conversation with Catherine Zack with you. Catherine worked in Biglaw in Washington, D.C, and then she left to teach yoga and meditation. She does workshops, she teaches classes, she has an online program at thedailyvinyasa.com, and she also has done things like going back to her former law firm to do yoga and meditation workshops, which we talk about in the episode along with a bunch of other things. I'm excited for you to hear it, so let's get to it.
Hi, Catherine, welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Catherine Zack: Thank you so much, Sarah. It's such an honor, sweet honor, to be here with you. Thank you.
Sarah Cottrell: Why don't we start with you introducing yourself to the listeners?
Catherine Zack: Sure. My name is Catherine Zack. I am a former lawyer through and through. I've actually been out of the game for almost six years now, which is incredible to say that I've been out for almost twice as long as I was actually practicing law. My story about being a former lawyer has gone through many iterations over the last six years, but I am currently, and have been since the day I left the law, a yoga and meditation teacher based in Washington, D.C. I'm a writer, I'm a mom, and I am very securely at this point inhabiting the role of a proud former lawyer. I'm happy to be here today with you.
Sarah Cottrell: Hooray! So exciting.
Catherine Zack: Yeah, I know. I’m like, “Six years, really?” There was not many of us when I started, when I left, so thank you for bringing us all together.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's been really fun to see how many people there are out there. I do think that there is more public conversation about this type of thing. I still meet a lot of people who say, “I'm so glad you're doing this podcast because I literally thought I was the only one who felt this way.” I'm speaking more about people who are still practicing. Let's start with the beginning of your lawyer story. What drew you to law school in the first place?
Catherine Zack: I was reflecting on that question and I'll tell you this, I was as sure about my decision to go to law school as I was when I made the decision to leave the law. Although I think from the outside in, they seem two totally contradictory decisions for me, just this sense of confidence and both the decision to enter this whole process and to leave it, it's two sides of the same coin for me.
I was always on a path that I think almost inevitably would have led me to law school. If you were to wear a hat growing up, I was certainly an academic rather than an athlete, an artist, or anything like that. I was pretty much a Type A+++ hard-working student and I loved school and I loved learning. I always did well in school. For me, reflecting back on that whole process, I think I just was always compelled to do the next right thing. If an opportunity presented itself and I was capable of doing it, I always just went for it.
At the same time, I was a precocious young girl, again, looking back on it. I always had this sense that I wanted to go to school in New York City. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and I just thought, “I want to go to NYU and I want to live in the village.” While I was this academic straight shooter, I think from the beginning, I could see that there was a dreamer in me still. So I went to NYU and I majored in politics and also gender and sexuality studies. I was through and through liberal arts.
I come from a family that has lawyers in it. My dad was a lawyer. He's now an administrative law judge. My grandfather, my mother's father, was a lawyer who actually graduated from NYU Law School in 1930, which is an interesting side note. I went to NYU and I loved it, and I got into my junior year and thought what's next. Law school seemed a very natural next step and I studied for the LSAT and I did well. I applied and I had a couple of options for law school.
There was a part of me that really wanted to stay in New York City particularly at NYU. I had applied to all the schools that I thought I could potentially land at. I got accepted to NYU but I’ve also gotten acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania. They were about evenly ranked at the time, this is going back to 2006, 2007, and I got a nice scholarship to UPenn, and that sealed the deal. After four years in New York City, I found my way to Philadelphia, to the University of Pennsylvania.
Sarah Cottrell: When you got to law school, was it what you expected you were describing how you sometimes were making decisions based on this rubric of “Am I capable of doing it? I am, therefore, I'll do it”? I'm very familiar with that and I know I've talked on the podcast before about how that essentially was the way I made decisions up until the time I ended up in Biglaw, and then all of a sudden, realized maybe that wasn't the best way to be making all of my life choices. Is that what you were describing, or were you describing something a little bit different?
Catherine Zack: I feel we're probably two peas in the same pod. I think a lot of us are probably this way too. I came from a very lucky background. The fact that I had two professional parents, that was kind of the path that was carved out for me, and because I was “good” at school. I thoroughly enjoyed it too. Having a chance to prepare for this podcast has really given me a moment to reflect on just how much I really enjoyed always being in school, and still to this day learning. I was happy to land in law school.
I think I had expectations that it would be very challenging and rigorous academically, but I was very much excited for that. The idea that I could spend a lot of time in the library surrounded by books reading, writing, and thinking, that to me sounded pretty perfect, especially since I was a liberal arts major and I didn't have a set career path from what I majored in other than this choice to go to law school, which really gave me another three years to think about what I might want for myself in my life. On the one hand, I just thoroughly enjoyed it, but on the other hand, I learned pretty quickly what that culture could potentially mean.
I'll break that break that down in the sense that I can distinctly remember that I quickly learned in law school that the only right answer to a question of “How are you?” a totally seemingly innocuous question was, “Oh my god, I'm so swamped. I'm so busy. I've got so many things to do.” It was just the narrative and everyone carried that forward, including me of course, because I was like, “Well, I guess there's only one right answer here.” The competitive nature of it, and certainly, the stress-inducing environment, that was a real part of my being in law school too.
I was 22 when I started law school, which seems forever ago. I had a great sense of some things about my life but not a hugely firmly planted sense of myself. To say that I was swept up in the wave of stress of being in a high achieving, highly competitive environment like law school is an understatement to be sure.
Sarah Cottrell: Basically, when you came to the point in law school where you needed to be making a decision about what you wanted to do next, do you feel like you were just swept along with what was the law school mentality about what to do next? How did you find that experience?
Catherine Zack: I think also, knowing a little bit about your bio, we were a couple years apart in terms of when we graduated but I will back up and say I felt that at least the crowds that I was in Penn, Biglaw was a huge part of where people were going, it was really a dominating path forward for a lot of us, so I was intrigued by it even though I probably had great aspirations of saving the world when I went to law school, but it made good sense in a lot of ways. Also, the financial crisis was unraveling in the midst of being in law school. That I think added a layer of uncertainty to all of us who were balancing literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and contemplating what our options were.
I remember I interviewed for my summer position, it was a summer after my first year and I was in New York City. I was zipping up my navy blue pinstripe pencil skirt suit from J.Crew in a tiny hotel in Times Square about to do all of my interviews with the big corporate law firms. Lehman Brothers was folding and I'm just watching this on the news as I'm getting ready for my interviews. I'm 23 and I'm like, “Well, I know this probably isn't good.” I think that certainly played into the decisions that I made.
There were people in my class who ended up summering and didn't get offers. That was the nature of Biglaw at that time. It was very different from the 10 or 15 years preceding that time in Biglaw. To have a sense of certainty in the offer that I got, and also truly, I enjoyed my summer and I actually enjoyed the first few years that I was practicing in many ways. I think it was a choice that made sense.
It was also one that I was excited about. Would I have made that same choice in a different circumstance? I don't know. If I was in law school today in my mid-30s, I don't necessarily know if I would have made the same choice. But for many reasons, it felt like the right choice at that moment.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. The effect of that period of instability has already come up several times on the podcast. I started law school in ‘05 and I graduated in ‘08. My year was the last year of mostly normalcy, and then we started at firms and then the layoffs started happening in the first two years that the people in my class year were in firms. But for the people coming up one, two, three years behind—and I think you mentioned ‘06 or ‘07—it was grim, it was very grim.
I know that's not news to most people who are listening to this podcast but I can completely understand how that instability plays. In fact, I was just talking to someone who graduated in 2011 I think last week in an interview, and they were saying basically they were just glad to get a job because there were people in their class who were not able to find legal jobs, which makes total sense.
Catherine Zack: It's such a part of our stories, this generation of lawyers. I wonder if we were to run the numbers of how many of us former lawyers there are, how many of us came out of that era. That would be an interesting project for you, Sarah.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I look back the summer, my summer class at the firm that I summered at was a hundred people, and there's nothing close to that now. I've only been out of law school for 11 years. I think there's definitely been a shift that has bounced back in certain ways but I think in other ways, like you said, it's just the profession, at least, when we're talking about the Biglaw firms, it's very different from how it was in the early 2000s, 1990s, in terms of the legal market.
You enjoyed your summer, you started at the firm, and I think you mentioned that you were there for around three years. Tell me about that experience in terms of the process of realizing maybe that wasn't what you wanted to be doing forever. How did that come about? Was that something that you realized really quickly? How did you get to the point where you realized, “Oh, I actually don't want to be doing this”?
Catherine Zack: Good question. I actually graduated in 2010. I was two years on the other side of you in that moment of, “Holy crap, most people didn't get jobs.” But I went right through, I graduated, I didn't even apply for clerkships or anything. Again, it was just this totally uncertain time. I enjoyed my summer and I was excited to go back to the law firm. Actually, the firm that I chose was in DC. Again, funny looking back.
At the time, it didn't quite make a ton of sense why I kept moving from city to city, but hindsight is 20/20 so I can see how all the pieces fit together now. But I ended up in DC in 2010. I didn't know a ton of people in the city. My sister was actually here in undergrad at the time, so that was just a sweet haven of home in an unfamiliar city in a really intense situation. I spent a lot of time working when I first got here.
Again, in a funny maybe seemingly contradictory way, I really enjoyed it. I really immersed myself in a complete way into that experience of being at the firm. I was really enthusiastic, again, a hard worker. But also the firm that I was at was known for being a free-market firm, and I loved that aspect of it. I wasn't just going to be handed my work, or so I thought. I felt I had some agency in what I chose to be a part of, although now looking back, I'm like, “How much flexibility was there really?”
But it was a pretty social firm and I liked the people a lot. I quickly got immersed in a lot of firm activities outside of work. I was on the summer committee, the recruiting committee. The social fabric of the firm was very much a part of my experience there. I found the work to be fun and exciting at first. I loved the travel. I was traveling from the get-go, doing a lot of client-facing stuff, and that felt compelling.
But the sheen wears off and I think, gosh, it was about two years into practicing that I finally for the first time, honestly, picked my head up, I looked, around and I contemplated for the very first time, “Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?” I was in it to win it for the first two or two and a half years to be sure.
Sarah Cottrell: What kind of law were you practicing at that time?
Catherine Zack: I was doing corporate litigation. We were a Biglaw firm that did a lot of corporate defense work, representing big companies. This was huge scale litigation, billion dollar cases. Actually, I was thinking about it in preparation for our talk tonight. No case that I was on actually meaningfully went to trial. Even after three and a half years of practicing law, I never went to trial. The cases that I largely found myself a part of were very much in years-long discovery phases.
I was on a low rung in a very hierarchical situation and so I saw bits and pieces of things. Again, I think I was fortunate and had a lot of amazing opportunities. I got put on big name cases with big name partners, got to go to fun client meetings, and things like that, but at the end of the day, a lot of what I was doing was discovery work; going to collect documents and sometimes even getting to sit down on interviews of employees of the corporation we were defending. I trained teams of 100 contract attorneys to review documents and put together discovery protocol.
I loved writing and research and I actually was a legal writing instructor at Penn when I was there. Writing is such a huge part of my life to this day. Because I didn't clerk, I didn't get a ton of opportunities to do that kind of work when I was actually at the firm. They went to the people who had the clerkships and so I wrote a bit and I loved that. Maybe it might have made a difference if I had, but I definitely found myself in the trenches of discovery for a lot of what I was doing.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, discovery and endless dock review protocols and letters about someone's insufficient production.
Catherine Zack: Yes, those letters I totally forgot, you're right, how nasty were those letters and we just sent them out every day. When I left the law, people would ask me questions, “Well, you're a lawyer?” I’m like, “The stuff I practiced was I should have been a trust in a states or a real estate lawyer or something, I would have gone back and done it differently.”
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I basically tell people, “I have no practical knowledge to share with you about the things that actually affect your day-to-day life.”
Catherine Zack: Yet I value so much the education that I got. It certainly shows up in the way that I approach things or the way that I choose not to approach things. That kind of analytical thinking and the ability to research and think through things logically, that's a skill that I'm just very happy that I was able to get the chance to study and to bring into my life. But yeah, no practical knowledge.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. There are certain skills from being a lawyer that I really appreciate developing but when someone's like, “Well, what do I do in this super practical situation?” I say, “I would hire a lawyer for that.” So two, two and a half years in, it's the first time you pick up your head and have that moment of considering “Is this actually what I want to do with the rest of my life?” Was that prompted by anything specific? Were you unhappy? Was there a lull? What brought that on and then how did you go from there to, I think you said you left around three years, so can you talk to me about how you got from that point to “I'm going to leave”?
Catherine Zack: Yeah. What was it that instigated me picking my head up? It's so funny to say this now, but I had a really bad breakup. I had a really bad breakup and it was with a person who was actually at my firm. We had this really, from the outside looking in, golden situation and then it didn't end well. I think that was definitely a catalyst to being like, “Huh, this picture that I painted for myself in my life, first of all, that specific picture is not going to happen, and second of all, is that actually what I want?”
Then I had a big case settle all around the same time and so I think both of those two things really allowed me to just stop, look up, and look around. I had to confront the fact that I wasn't actually that happy at the law firm. The sheen of the first few years, the honeymoon period, had worn off. I realized that I felt things like the Sunday dread. I felt sick going to work. Stress, even from the point of law school, had literally gotten the better of me. It just impacted my overall sense of well-being.
I think I lost 30 pounds in law school and into the beginning of practicing law. I'm not a person who has that much weight to stand to lose. My body was starting to shut down from stress and that was something real that I had to make a decision about in terms of my health. All of those factors converging. Looking around at the law firm and being like, “Okay, I see what it would take to be a partner, what's my likelihood.” It was actually quite good odds but I was like, “Is that what I want?”
I think that I felt very old. I left when I was 28 and a half. I felt older then than I do now at 34 and a half. I've got a toddler so my sleep isn't even that great, but I felt so old. A sense of possibility was completely lacking in my life, a sense of excitement or like, “What could be next?” I think that's what did it.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I completely understand. I've talked with many people now about having this experience that it sounds you also had where you look around and you say, “I know what I would need to do to succeed here and I think I could probably do it, but I don't want the brass ring that I'm supposed to be reaching for. If that's what's supposed to be keeping me here, maybe I need to think about doing something else.”
Catherine Zack: Right, which is very much the difference between always doing the next right prescribed thing and saying, “Hey, wait a second, what is it that I really want?” All the while, I have this parallel life that's unfolding because the work that I do now, teaching yoga and meditation, is something that goes back maybe even further and longer and earlier than my decision to go to law school.
I started practicing yoga in high school in the early 2000s for no better reason than I was, again, not an athlete, I was an academic, and gym class was just so painful. One day, our gym teacher was like, “Does anyone want to go in this other room and watch this VHS tape of a yoga class?” It was such old school hippie-dippy yoga. I was like, “Yes, I don't want to play kickball.” That was the beginning of it for me. It was something that I carried with me very private, quiet always practicing around along to these videos and then eventually DVDs.
But when I got to law school in 2007, almost seven years into being around and practicing some yoga and meditation, I finally took my first yoga class with other people in 2007. It was very much part and parcel of it was my first year of law school and I realized pretty quickly, along with that narrative of, “Oh, how are you? Oh my god, I'm so busy. I'm swamped. Blah-blah-blah,” I yearned for and desperately needed an alternative narrative. I also threw myself into the practice and study of yoga at the same time.
By the time I got to DC, I found this beautiful warm, warm home of a yoga studio here in DC. In 2011, when I was a second year associate, I was like, “Oh, I finally have a little bit of money. I'm going to do my yoga teacher training.” It was on the weekends and I was still under this misconception that I could have my weekends to myself. I had to drop out. I was a yoga school drop out. I got put on a case and I worked every day straight for three months in Houston and I was like, “Oh, I'm sorry. I can't finish this.”
But that was very real to me, even picking up at that moment of I feel different being in that space with fresh air, natural light, green plants, and warm people than I do in the cutthroat fast pace, super competitive, fluorescent light, can't even open my window because they're sealed shut, shoe box of an office. They were stark different realities that I was already experiencing when I was practicing law.
By the time I picked my head up at the end of 2012, and the bad breakup, the case settled, I just decided that I was going to stop, take some time, go finish my yoga teacher training, and start to contemplate what could be a different path for myself. But that process, from that moment to the time I left, took about a year to finally leave.
Sarah Cottrell: I want to take a quick break here and talk to all the unhappy lawyers who are listening. It's so easy to complain about how much your job sucks but feel too tired and overwhelmed to do anything about it. The only problem is that means you stay stuck and unhappy with no end in sight. You're not alone. So many lawyers get stuck in this paralyzing cycle. That's why I created The Former Lawyer Jumpstart. It's designed to help you ditch the overwhelm and accelerate your progress towards leaving the law for good. Inside, you'll find a step-by-step process for going from “I don't want to be a lawyer anymore but where do I start?” to confidently moving towards your goal of leaving the law. I've got you covered. Want to stop feeling like you'll never get out? Go to formerlawyer.com/jumpstart and buy it today.
Sarah Cottrell: When you left, was it to go and teach yoga or were you still like “I'm not entirely sure what's next, but I know that this is no longer the place for me”?
Catherine Zack: Yeah. I said at the beginning of our conversation that my decision to go to law school, I made that with as much certainty as I made the decision to leave the practice of law. A more risk averse rational person might have been like, “What other legal jobs could I do that aren't Biglaw to pad the transition away from what I had been doing?” But that apparently is not me. I had this gorgeous community and soft spot to land the yoga studio that was my home that I was already starting to teach at and it's actually the place that I met my now husband. They had an opening.
One of the managers of the yoga studio was moving to Seattle and she was a dear friend of mine by that point. They offered me a job running the yoga studio. The owners of the studio Flow Yoga Center in Washington, D.C—I have to give a shout out, they are dear friends of mine, mentors, brother and sister through and through. It's a married couple—at that time, they were like, “You can come work for us.” It was quite literally the softest spot for me to land after being in a place that felt very harsh for many years, very stark, harsh, and rough.
I took a 75% pay cut and I left. But I was like, “Mom and Dad, guess what? I still have health insurance.” That was my transition out. When I finally made the decision at the end of 2012, early 2013, that I was going to leave, I said, “Okay, February 14th, it's a Friday, 2014, that will be my last day. It's a year from now. I can put all these things in place.” My last day ended up being January 31st, 2014. I was two weeks ahead of schedule.
Sarah Cottrell: I love it.
Catherine Zack: But did I know how it would all unfold? No. Did I know I had to do it? Yes.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, which I think is so important for people to hear because I do think there is often—and I speak from my own experience too—this perception that people who leave the law to do something else, especially something very different, somehow have some special insight into what will eventually happen or how things are going to turn out. That really is not the case. In general, it's just taking, like you were saying, whatever the next right step is and knowing that you don't need to know the next 20 steps. I think as lawyers in particular, we are often trained into believing that we need to know all of those steps.
Catherine Zack: Right. Again, thank you for inviting me to chat with you tonight because it's given me such a sense of just getting to reflect on this. My time as a lawyer, my training as a lawyer, my time in the law firm was very much the approach was everything is a problem to be solved and there's a right answer and a wrong answer. There's a winner and a loser. Super analytical, super rational, very logical, very linear. I think at that same moment, I was like, “I'm over it. I actually want to be with uncertainty and this crazy, messy beautiful, unpredictable mystery that is life.”
When I left, I felt immediately younger, immediately, there was again a sense of possibility and dream in my life. That was enough. That was more than enough to just step beyond the bounds of the safety of sameness. That's what I was leaving.
Sarah Cottrell: Let's talk about a couple of things that I know a lot of people deal with when they're in the process of deciding to leave and then leave. One of those things—and you mentioned this early in our conversation—is the student loan finances piece. That's almost always one of the main reasons or the main things people cite as a reason for why they can't make a move. Can you talk a little bit about how you thought about that piece of things and what you would suggest to anyone else who's trying to work through that piece?
Catherine Zack: Yeah, totally. I was listening to one of your episodes. I forget her name but she's a financial planner and guru now, I am not that. That is not me, so take this for what it's worth. But going back to an earlier point in my story when I was devastated to leave my friends and my dream of living a life in New York City for Philadelphia, at the time, there was some angel sitting on my shoulder that was like, “You should take this opportunity even though it's taking you away from what you thought the life you're going to have because it is a substantial amount of money in scholarships.”
I think I had something like a half scholarship to law school and I didn't leave undergrad with any debt. My parents, that was their last will and testament of me and my sisters, was just being able to help us with college. I was on my own for law school but there was some, again, better angel that said, “Take this opportunity at this very comparatively ranked top 10 school and do this.” That gave me a very different starting point than I know a lot of people are starting with.
I was also 28 when I left and I was single and I didn't have children. The funny thing too is—I've heard you talk about this, Sarah—the culture of being in Biglaw is just relentless. People make a lot of money and they spend a lot of money, whether it's going out to fancy dinners every night. I literally owned everything J.Crew made from 2010 to 2014, that was appropriate for work. It was so ridiculous. I completely see now that spending money was an escape hatch for me. It was this instant hit of dopamine because I was still trying to figure out how to right-size my stress and how to be with myself. I just bought a lot of things.
I lived in DC—I live right outside of DC now—and I lived downtown and I had a one-bedroom apartment that, in 2013 or 2014, whenever I moved out of it, was $3,500 a month. I knew that I could not—from an emotional, spiritual energetic standpoint, not probably financial good sense—but I knew I couldn't leave still carrying my law school debt. I knew I would not be able to go still holding on to that.
It took me about a year to put all this stuff in place, but I moved out of my $3,500 square foot one bedroom apartment into my friend's basement. She had just bought a house. She charged me $900 a month for rent. I cold turkey quit all of my shopping habits. Everything that I was spending money on in this free wheeling and dealing way, I just stopped because I knew that would be necessary in order for me to leave.
Honestly, it was probably one of the best and biggest lessons that I've ever had is the sense that now that I know that abundance is so much more than how much money I actually make or how much money I have in the bank or what promissory notes are still out on my head, abundance for me is time, freedom, and feeling at home in my life. It was a big sacrifice in some ways but it felt like an easy thing just to shift. But it took about a year and I left and I had paid off all my loans.
Sarah Cottrell: That's really great. I think I love what you said about realizing that abundance is more than just the money and the things that you have. I think that is so, so important for anyone, lawyer or not, but specifically lawyers who are unhappy to realize. Something you said earlier made me think about this. One of the ways to help yourself get in that headspace is to not only be in the lawyer bubble.
I think that having a community that includes people who are not lawyers, especially if you're in Biglaw for whom the Biglaw lifestyle is not the norm, is so eye-opening because there are things that are treated as necessary, normal, whatever, that aren't actually necessary, but it can be hard to see that if you're living inside an environment where everyone is holding on to those kinds of beliefs.
I've talked about this recently with several other guests, just how helpful being in relationship with people who are not in that lawyer bubble can be to giving you a broader perspective on the world and life.
Catherine Zack: Yeah, I know. It's so true. I'm honestly thinking about my husband in that circumstance because I knew my now husband when I was practicing law and he was this mid-20s, total free spirit yoga teacher who barely wore shoes and he was not worshipping at the altar of how much money I could make, he very much led with “This is the work that I love to do and this is how I love to be in the world.” I also know that it would not have been possible for me to ever be with him while I was still in Biglaw. I dated guys that were the complete opposite of that.
That decision to get to a truer version of what a good life meant to me is what even made it possible for me to be with my now husband. We got together quickly after I left the law firm and so I'll take that over any multi-six figure paycheck any day. Surround yourself with people with different priorities for sure is just inspiring and necessary.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It is really one of the best things that you can do. Talk to me about the last six years. You left the law firm, you're managing the yoga studio, and here we are today. What can you tell me about what your non-lawyer life has looked like in the last six years?
Catherine Zack: I started managing the yoga studio, teaching classes, got together with my husband. Our second date was a yoga retreat to Costa Rica and we basically never came back for the first few years. In this very dreamy and beautiful way, again, I was feeling younger than I had in any of the years that I was in law school and practicing law. The sense of possibility and freedom was very much a part of my life then.
We got together, we fell in love, we spent the first probably three years, we traveled all over the world teaching yoga. We always came back to DC but we led yoga retreats in Costa Rica and Mexico. We moved to Sydney, Australia for a couple months one summer and taught yoga in Bondi Beach. It was such a 180 from my life as a corporate lawyer. Yet, I was always called back to this community in DC. To this day still, I’m very much a part of that community.
My students, the people that I think tend to find me are the high achieving, very successful DC urban professional types. From the beginning, that's who I had in my classes. I knew that type. I knew those people so well already because I was that person for so long. A huge part of my work has been providing a counterpoint for people who are very much in that life, whether they're lawyers or not, although a lot of my clients are lawyers.
I've actually gone back to my law firm a few times to do different meditation and yoga workshops and offerings. That's always been very rewarding. I left on great terms. But these are my people. These Washingtonians are my people and it's who I have made community with, broken bread with, and spent the last six years sharing the practices of yoga and meditation with. It's been such inspiring work.
I think one of the things that I felt as a corporate litigator in Biglaw was I didn't ever really get to see the fruits of my work. I was so far removed from the outcome. Now, every day, I actually get to be in a room with people together doing the work and experiencing transformation in real life in the first instance together. That, in and of itself, has just been all I could hope for in terms of what I could get up to for work in the world.
I'm a mom. We have a two-year-old, Louis, and he's already spent thousands of hours in the yoga studio. We were able to be with him for the first 14 months of his life without any formal child care. He just rolled with us. He went on yoga retreats. He did several yoga teacher trainings that we led. He's in the mix. I hope that the imprint of being around this way of moving through the world will be something that is a part of his way of growing up. For that, I'm very grateful. I feel very lucky for that.
Sarah Cottrell: I love that. Tell me a little bit more about going back to your law firm to do meditation and yoga teaching. How did that come about? Do you do that thing for other organizations or was it specifically because you had that relationship? How did that start?
Catherine Zack: I left on great terms. I think this is a part of the story that is funny for me to reflect on now. The day that I had to go into all the partners offices and tell them, “Thank you so much for every single opportunity but I am going to leave and teach yoga.” That day I will never forget. To say more about that experience, because I think it's very interesting, I felt I got two very different reactions—I'm sure there were many more but these stood out to me the most—two different sets of reactions, one was like people saying, “Wow, that's really cool.”
Actually meaning it, thinking for a second what would their alternative career path be, would they be a rock star or an astronaut or whatever it is, if they had done something different. In that way, I felt very much still welcome and a part of everything and almost an interesting reference point for people who saw it that way. But another dominant narrative that I got from people was like, “Oh, well, I can totally see why you're leaving. This is a very high pressure, high-stakes situation, and not everyone can hack it.”
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, rolls eyes seriously.
Catherine Zack: I was like, “Okay, I'll just leave you with that. I'll let you keep telling yourself that story.” For the most part, I just had a really nice relationship when I left. I think one of the best parts about my experience at the firm was just I met some wonderful people; people who today are still dear friends. I really got along with the people that I worked with, including and especially the administrators and the support staff. Those were my people.
I left and they knew what I was doing. Within three months, I was back leading a meditation workshop for the women's leadership initiative, the women's group at my firm. I came back and did that about once a year and then I had my baby. I think the last time I was back was last September, but I've done that with many firms around town and work with a lot of lawyers as private clients, including my 6:30 AM client today who was a 50-something male partner at a law firm. It's very much a theme of my work to this day.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so neat just because combining that I think for people coming from that life feeling like you know something about what their experience is but then also being able to bring this totally different experience to the table, now I just think that's really cool.
For people who are listening and are maybe in that period of their legal career where they are picking up their head for the first time and looking around and thinking, “Oh, do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?” or for people who for a while have been thinking, “I don't want to do this for the rest of my life,” but haven't really known how to move from there, what advice would you have for people in those situations?
Catherine Zack: Wow. It's funny too, because I have these conversations all the time, whether they're students of mine or friends, family friends. I find myself in a mentorship or advising role to a lot of people embarking at the beginning of their legal career right now like, “Oh my gosh, I'm starting Biglaw tomorrow. Help, I already know it.”
I think that's so awesome too, because I came in, you came in at a time when it was all the perks of being a lawyer and the narrative around—there was no narrative around workplace wellness or work-life balance—it was like the perks of being in Biglaw was you have a $100 summer lunch budget every day, black car service. Now, it's changing and I love being able to show up with people in those law firms and being like, “Okay, people need different things.”
That's not the answer to your question, but what I would say to people, what I do say to people is number one, trust yourself, absolutely listen to this voice that is telling you what your truth is because everyone else is going to make you feel like you're crazy. The story line or the script for success that we've been given our whole lives is so watertight. We just recite it back to each other again and again and again and so it's very convincing and the grip of it is real. But if you keep hearing that voice again and again that says, “This is not for me. This is not for me,” trust that even, and especially, when people try to lure you back to that safe path of just trotting along to the next right thing.
There's a little bit of just accepting of uncertainty. Try to be with that uncertainty instead of needing to have the answers yesterday. Very informative to me at the time that I was leaving the law, I was reading a lot of [Rumi] and a lot of poetry and just people who had a very different perspective and ones that embraced the mystery of it all. Surround yourself with whatever that is that resonates with you, that's different than what you've been hearing.
I remember carrying around this line with me for a while, this poem, Mary Oliver, she's a beautiful poet. I don't even know what poem this is from but the line is “Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I have heard that line before.
Catherine Zack: That's what I left Biglaw trusting, that I didn't just want to breathe a little and call it a life. Did I have it all figured out? No. But that was so much more compelling to me. Trust yourself. Look one of us up. I'm happy to chat.
Sarah Cottrell: DM me on Instagram.
Catherine Zack: Right. I talk to people all the time. It's amazing. We need each other. I got you.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, absolutely. It's so true. I think that's great advice. Catherine, is there anything else that you would like to share or talk about about your story or other things that you think people should think about before we wrap up our conversation?
Catherine Zack: Oh my goodness. Well, thank you again, Sarah, it's been such a pleasure to just chat with you. I said at the beginning of our conversation that it's been six years almost since I left Biglaw and so my story has unfolded in many different ways. My husband, at the beginning, after leaving the law, when we were first together, he gently pointed out to me, he's like, “You know, every time you meet somebody new, you always introduce yourself as ‘Oh, well, I'm a recovering lawyer, but now I teach yoga.’” That was very much a dominant way that I told that story for many years, and then it dropped out completely.
I was so immersed in this new chapter of my life. We started our family and I stopped referencing this piece of my story. Now it's coming back in this big, big wave. I think it's important, whatever your journey has looked like, let it all be part of the story. It's these moments of seeming contradiction but real transformation when we can share those stories with each other. I think it's a beautiful way to connect. Thank you so much.
If you need to DM me and you're on the verge of trying to leave, you can find me. You'll have all the things in the show notes, but The Daily Vinyasa is where I am, @thedailyvinyasa on Instagram, thedailyvinyasa.com. Seriously, reach out. I'm here and happy to chat.
Sarah Cottrell: I will put all those things in the show notes. I just want to say thank you so much, Catherine, for joining me today. This has been such a great conversation and I know that people will really benefit from it.
Catherine Zack: Thank you, Sarah, and thank you to everyone who's listening. It's really been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening. 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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