This week on the blog, you’ll read about Sam Vander Wielen. Sam is a former lawyer who works as a legal educator for entrepreneurs. Sam spent her entire time working in law hating every second.
During their conversation, Sarah and Sam spoke about a group of important issues like the lawyer identity issue, the abusive culture of Biglaw firms, and a bit about turning your hobby into a career.
If you hate every second of working in law, or you’re thinking of leaving the law to pursue your hobby, keep reading. Don’t miss out on Sam’s story or her advice for those looking to leave the law!
Sam’s Path To Working In Law
As an opinionated, talkative child who loved to read, Sam was told she should be a lawyer from a young age. By the time she got to college, working in law was a serious option for her.
Sam strived to get the best grades in college because she thought that good grades were all that mattered in terms of admission. However, she soon realized that it is all determined by the LSATs.
She attended Rutgers Law School when the economy was in rough shape. Sam originally thought about working in food policy to reflect her love of cooking. However, there were no available jobs when she graduated. So, she took the opportunity to take the summer to study for the bar exam.
Hating Every Minute Of Working In Law
After passing the bar and taking some time off, she interviewed and got a job working in a Biglaw firm. However, it didn’t take long for Sam to start hating every minute of working in law.
The firm hired her as a junior associate at a quarter of the pay rate that they had before. Sam was also the first associate, acting as an experiment, and she was the only woman in a group competing for one position.
Sam was doing subrogation litigation, and even though she hated every second of the experience, she said it was a great learning experience. She decided to stick it out until she could move on.
Abusive Culture In Biglaw Firms
During her time in this law firm, Sam saw a lot of issues at play. Again, she was the only woman and often pitted against her coworkers. At this time, Sam didn’t know about the abusive culture often present in Biglaw firms. She thought it was a fluke, that this was just not the right firm or type of law.
Another issue in this law firm was the normalization of mistreatment. Sam recalled that when she complained about it, superiors told her that they could find someone to do her job for free.
Another superior laughed in disbelief of how ambitious she was. He said he was surprised she was so enthusiastic about excelling when she was “just going to go off, get married, and have a baby.”
Making Changes And Still Hating Every Second
Sam experienced this more as she went on and changed firms. Everywhere she went, she still hated every second of working in law. As time went on, Sam realized that she was more interested in marketing, which not-so-coincidentally is her full-time job now.
She focused on networking and bringing in clients, building up quite the book as a young attorney. She even won New Jersey’s Attorney Of The Year before she left. However, all of her interest in working in law was gone at this point. Unlike many lawyers, working in law had nothing to do with Sam’s identity.
As an outlet, Sam started a food blog called Barrister Beats. Sam’s colleagues made fun of her for having a life outside of the law. And despite the negativity, Sam started to do more, which exposed her to the world of online entrepreneurship.
Finding A Connection
Sam struggled with thoughts of not being able to leave the law. At a low point, she was blessed to find Simi Botic. Simi is a coach and has been on the podcast before to talk about her journey leaving the law.
Same immediately wrote her an email, and their first conversation was very emotional. Sam never thought she’d find someone who had successfully left the law. Simi and Sam became very close friends, with Simi planting the seed in Sam’s mind that she could leave and it would be okay. She didn’t have to spend her life hating every second of working in law.
After making the connection with Simi, Sam decided that she would leave the law for good. She started by taking a much-needed vacation. However, it wasn’t much of a vacation since Sam’s firm contacted her throughout the trip.
Leaving The Law For Good
Sam had enough of working in law. It was time for something better. Within three days, she formed an LLC, enrolled in a health coaching course, and launched a business.
Sam put a lot of pressure on herself while leaving the law. She started the transition by continuing to work at the firm part-time while building her business. But, this didn’t quite work out as planned. She would still have to respond and dedicate her time to anything that happened in the firm.
After six months, the firm offered an opportunity to stay on, but Sam was not interested. It was time to give her own business a shot. She left worked with a handful of clients in her health coaching business. But she didn’t enjoy it.
Turning Your Hobby Into A Career
Sam had been worried about not liking her first post-legal career option. She loved the content creation part of coaching but not the actual coaching aspect. She realized that what she had done was turn her hobby into a career.
Everyone’s saying “do what you love” or “make your hobby a career.” However, this isn’t ideal for everyone. Often, when you hate every second of working in your job, it’s very tempting to think that you should do something you really love when you leave.
It sounds good in theory. But in reality, anything that becomes your job will take away some flexibility and enjoyment in that hobby or interest.
What Sam’s Doing Now as a Legal Educator for Entrepreneurs
After a while, Sam noticed she wasn’t just getting discovery calls about health coaching. Many people contacting her were asking about the law and online businesses. Sam realized that there was an opportunity to make this a career.
Today, Sam is a legal educator for entrepreneurs. She started by creating templates for female entrepreneurs. Now, she also helps women learn how to legally protect and grow online businesses through legal education programs like The Ultimate Bundle.
Hating Every Second Of Working In The Law? Read This!
When you give up working in law, you go through a shedding process. Sam recalled feeling exposed and alone when she left, even though working in law made her miserable.
Next, pay attention to who you’re surrounding yourself with and who you listen to. It’s important to stop listening to the negative voices and incorporate some positive ones.
You can get that by joining the Former Lawyer Community. And, to kick off your journey of leaving the law, download the free guide, First Steps To Leaving The Law .
Connect With Sam
Mentioned In This Article
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.
Hello, everyone. I am so excited for you to hear the episode this week. I'm sharing my conversation with Sam Vander Wielen. Sam works as a legal educator for women entrepreneurs who have online businesses. There are so many important things that we talk about in this episode including finding your identity in being a lawyer or just in your job in general and ways to break out of that.
We talk about the abusive culture that often can arise in law firms and some of the factors that contribute to that. We also talk about the challenges with making your hobby your job and some of the things that you should think about when you are considering turning something that you love as a hobby into your job. I'm really excited for you to hear this conversation. I think these are really important issues that need to be discussed.
Before we get to the episode, I just want to remind you of two things. First, if you haven't grabbed my First Steps To Leaving The Law free guide, you can get that at formerlawyer.com/guide. It's free and you can get that in your inbox today. If you're interested, go to formerlawyer.com/guide.
Then later in the episode, you're going to hear a brief description of the Former Lawyer Jumpstart, which as you know if you've been listening or following me on social media, is a mini course that takes you through those very first steps. The price of that is going up on January 1st, so I just wanted to let you know that if you want to save 30% on the price that it will be in a couple of days, or actually when this episode comes out, this is the last day to get it at the current price before the price goes up, go to formerlawyer.com/jumpstart and get it today. Okay, let's get into the episode.
Hey, Sam. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Sam Vander Wielen: Hey, Sarah, how are you?
Sarah Cottrell: I'm great. How are you?
Sam Vander Wielen: I'm doing great. I'm so excited to be here with you today and especially to talk about this topic. It's not one that I get to talk with people about a lot.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. It is a topic that I love, obviously. Let's start with you introducing yourself for anyone who's listening who isn't familiar with you.
Sam Vander Wielen: Sure. I'm Sam Vander Wielen and I'm what I call an attorney turned entrepreneur or legal educator. I actually help women now learn how to legally protect and grow online businesses. I help women who have coaching and creative businesses or they create online courses, all that kind of stuff.
Obviously, I was a lawyer. I always laugh a little bit. I get emails all the time from people being like, “Are you a lawyer?” Like, “Yes. Why would I talk about this stuff if I wasn't a lawyer?” But I was a lawyer as I always say, still am, technically have my license still in two states. But I was a corporate litigator and mostly practiced shareholder disputes, intellectual property disputes, misappropriation of intellectual property.
I hated every second of it and I'm sure we'll talk about it more, but really hated it from day one. I feel like I have a similar story as to so many former lawyers that ended up in it and was like, “Wait, why did I do this? I didn't really plan it out very well or plan it out at all.” I found myself in that place and spent, as I say, the next about five plus years as a corporate litigator being a victim, really being like, “Why did this happen to me? This is terrible. I hate this. Everybody sucks.” I was just really miserable.
I got to the point, if anyone else can relate, where I was actually really sick of hearing myself talk. I would hear myself complaining at work and just be like, “Oh, my god, so you just complain all the time?” I really didn't identify with being that kind of person because in other areas of my life or other times in my life, if I didn't like something or something wasn't working for me, I was always the person who just figured it out and changed things, made things happen, and made plans. I really was like hitting a brick wall with this lawyer thing.
Until I had my moment, my come to moment that made me realize I wanted to leave. I left and I actually started a different kind of business first. I started a health-coaching business, and about three years ago, I started this business where I help women entrepreneurs learn how to run their businesses online.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh my goodness. So many things that you said that I relate to and that I know are such common stories of other lawyers. I'm trying to figure out where I want to go first. Let's talk about, first, you said, you just ended up in your legal job/law school, so tell me about that. How did you decide to go to law school?
Sam Vander Wielen: From an early age, I was opinionated, talkative, and I loved to read. I was sassy. I'm a sassy little Jersey girl. I've got it in me for sure. I'm not shy, all of those things. I feel like from a very young age, I just started hearing, “You should be a lawyer. You should be a lawyer. You should be a lawyer,” which I feel like looking back on it, I probably should be insulted because I don't know that people meant it as nicely.
At the time, I was like, “Oh, lawyers are smart and successful,” and now I'm like, “Oh, they probably thought I was really annoying and way too sassy for a little kid.” This is always the most frustrating part of my story to talk about because I always am like, “I don't know why.” I didn't even have a good reason. I remember just being so laser focused.
I was actually super boring in college. Of course, this is so funny, I didn't know anything about what it took to get into law school so I thought that everything was about your grades. It was a big shock to me to learn that everything relied on LSATs but then I just didn't do anything in college because I was like, “I have to go to law school and I have to get perfect grades.” It was all this perfectionist stuff that would come out to be putting all of these eggs in that basket.
Then I went to law school and I remember being like, “Huh, everybody here,” I went to Rutgers Law School, I remember everybody was, not certain, I would say, I went to law school during a really bad time in the economy, we started in 2009, I graduated in 2012 and so there were a lot of kids there who were also like, “What do I do with my life?” because there were no other jobs for whatever else, they studied in undergrad and so there were a lot of other people there who were just figuring things out.
But then there were also those kids who knew they wanted to take pre-trial and trial ad and they got in clinic and they did all these things because they were so sure about what they wanted to do and I wasn't really sure. What I thought I was going to do naively was that I thought I would work in food policy because I'm obsessed with food and obsessed with cooking. I'm really into food labeling laws, consumer advocacy, and all of these things and I was like, “Well, I'll just go work in food law. That seems simple.”
Then I graduated from law school, I was like, “Wait, what do you mean there are no food jobs, like no one's hiring for this? What are you talking about?” They're like, “There's nowhere to go really to work for that unless you go to DC and you can work in public policy.” I didn't have the experience. I had not planned for it, nothing. I really did no upfront work.
I really had this “What the heck am I doing here?” feeling. I got really lucky when I graduated. I did not have a job when I graduated like a lot of people in 2012, in case anyone else is listening who graduated around there, that was pretty common unfortunately. I actually studied for the bar all summer, took the bar, took about a month off, and when I came back from a trip, I got an interview with a Biglaw firm in Philly and got the job.
I got pretty lucky but it was a terrible job. You would love this story, Sarah, about this job. In 2012, when I graduated and got this first job, the law firm was hiring associates at a quarter of the rate salary that they had hired before. They were calling us junior associates and I was the only woman. There were maybe 10 of us total, I was the first one.
I was the experiment and then after that, they hired several more. I was the only woman with a group of all these guys. It was a total disaster. It was a real abuse of the system. It was a total disaster but that was my first foray into the law. Coupled with this lack of planning and not really knowing why I went to law school, you can probably imagine how I felt that first year.
Sarah Cottrell: I was going to say that sounds horrible.
Sam Vander Wielen: It was. It was really bad.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh my goodness, yeah. You said 2012, I've definitely talked to multiple people on the podcast who graduated in 2011, so right around there about this exact issue of how the downturn in late ‘08, ‘09, and beyond the legal market really affected both the job market for people coming out of law school and then just the legal profession generally.
Unfortunately, there are many unfortunate stories from around that time. Tell me a little bit more about that job. Were you doing litigation? What was the work, how did it go, and what happened next?
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah. I was doing litigation. I was doing subrogation litigation at that time and it was a great learning experience because it's funny, one of the things that happens when people greatly underpay you is that they will give you more and more work to do or give you as much as you're willing to take on.
At that point, I really just considered it an experience no less, it was like a paid internship and so I was like, “I'll just use this experience for as much as I can to go on to the next thing,” but that was one of the toughest years of my life. It was really dark. I got to see the underbelly of what was going on. There were a lot of issues at play, especially with being the only woman amongst a group of other guys who were being pitted against each other to compete for like a last man standing position at the end.
It was really quite a nightmare. I have some traumatizing stories and experiences from working there and I still pretty often have this dream about this one partner I worked for who would scream at me and I'll just have a dream that he's screaming at me and I wake up and I think I have to go back to work there and I'm like, “Oh my god.” It was really disturbing.
It was really a shock to me. I didn't have any lawyers in my family. I didn't have any lawyer friends growing up or anybody around me who had worked at a law firm so I was just like, “This can't be.” That first experience, I thought that I must have just entered into a fluke of a situation. I was like, “Okay, this firm must just not be the right fit for me, or maybe this type of law is not the right fit for me, or maybe it's just a weird department for me.”
I think a couple of the reason I mentioned too when I graduated is I think it was just a terrible storm of circumstances where firms were feeling the pinch, they were also able to grab young attorneys for much less money because people were desperate, it's not like I had other options out there so they were just paying me. From their perspective, it was like, “Well, what else do you want us to do?”
I remember them very specifically telling me when I complained about something about the way I was being treated about something that was going on, they said, “We have people contacting us every day to offer to work here for free, and if you'd rather us work with them, we can do that.” I was like, “Wait, so that's what we're coming to now?” I'm doing real legal work. I was carrying a full caseload of my own and also working for senior partners so it was a really, really difficult year.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's really awful how there seems to be this exacerbating element in legal practice when there's some economic instability, especially where associates or young lawyers are needing to find jobs. I'm not saying this is true everywhere, but there's a level of inhumaneness, inhumanity, I don't know, lack of humanity that I think can often come in.
I don't know that it's specific to law firms as opposed to other things but as you're describing some of the experiences that you had and how traumatic they were and I think you alluded to this, those are not uncommon experiences in the law and that's a huge problem. The things that people tolerate and consider to be okay and typically it's because like, “Oh, well this partner screams but they bring in a lot of money.”
I don't know if you found this, and we've talked about this in the podcast before, but it's like there's this lawyer bubble that you are in where somehow, everyone is acting like that's normal and maybe not okay, but certainly not completely outrageous. I think your feelings as you're experiencing it are like, “This is weird and this is bad. This shouldn't be happening,” but when you step outside of it, you realize how crazy it is that the whole system accepts that kind of behavior.
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah, for sure. This actually reminded me of two things. One was that when I remember was very upset about the way I was being treated and felt that it was very inhumane at the time. I went to speak with someone higher up. He said that he just could not believe how ambitious I was. He thought that was so funny that I cared about accelerating because why was I being so ambitious and so driven to continue to climb there when I would probably just go off and get married and have a baby.
When he said that, he used his hands to make the shape of a woman, the curvature of a woman but to me, mirroring my body and it was just like, “I cannot believe that you think that you can say that. You're an attorney, you understand what that means.” This guy was really high up. I was like, “I don't understand how you have been able to get away with this for so long.”
Then with time, not only being there and just now having so many years away from it, I'm like, “No wonder there were no other women working there.” If this is the attitude that's accepted by not only the culture of our profession but that firm, that department, or whatever, it just is incredible to me.
But also something else you said was really I think important and this is something that my friend Simi and I talk about a lot, who you had on the podcast as well, Simi and I will often talk about how we felt really that there must be something wrong with us because everybody around us seemed to be able to tolerate it.
I had very much like, “Oh, I must be weak because I was crying all the time or I was really sad.” Or I would be like, “I hate this work or I don't like this work,” and I'm like, “But who does love this work?” They seem to be able to manage it so there's obviously something wrong with me. I really internalize that quite a bit.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I think that is so common to have that feeling of, “Oh, well I don't like this.” I think in the law, young lawyers often put this morality on it, like, “Oh, there's something wrong with me in some moral way because I don't like this or this unhealthy environment is not something I'm willing to tolerate,” which it just doesn't seem that kind of thing exists as much outside of the law.
People change jobs all the time or decide like, “Hey, this field isn't working for me. I'm going to do something else,” and it's not this commentary on their worth and value. It's just like, “Oh, I have preferences. This job does not align with my preferences or my needs.” But for in the legal profession, or at least in certain segments, it gets flipped on its head.
I think many people, I've talked to many people already on the podcast but also just in my “real life”, do experience this shame and I know that I did where it was like, “Well, I'm doing well so I should like this. There's something wrong with me that I don't like it.”
Sam Vander Wielen: I experienced that more and more as I went on and I kept changing firms, tried different firms and different areas of law, different bosses, different sizes, and all that. As I kept going on, I realized that I was really into the marketing side, big surprise, that's my full-time job now essentially.
I was really into being out networking and bringing in clients. I started to build up quite a little book as a young attorney. I started winning awards and all of this stuff. Then I would be like, “I don't even want this.” Right before I left, I won New Jersey's Attorney of the Year award and I didn't want to go to the ceremony. That was one of the times that I was like, “Maybe I should not be in this.” Because I made them mail me the award and told them I wasn't coming and made up some excuse for why I couldn't go and didn't even want to participate.
I wasn't proud of it. I never wanted to stand up there and say, “Look at me. I'm an attorney.” Now with a lot of time, I realize, I think a part of it is that a lot of the people that I was working with completely identified with being an attorney, everything about their being was the fact that they were an attorney and got to scream at people and make people afraid and whatever else they did, but that wasn't me. I didn't really identify with it. This whole being really excited about that, it didn't do it for me.
Now it's funny when people ask, “What do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself” or something, my instinct is not to tell them I'm an attorney. I don't really care whether they think I'm an attorney or not or know about it, I’d probably rather that they don't.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that this issue of people being a lawyer taking over their whole life and identity is extremely common. I think it can make people difficult to work with if you're a lawyer who doesn't want to be just a lawyer. But I think also it can sometimes trap people in the law because if it's not just your job but your whole life and your identity, then the thought of leaving is not just leaving a job, it's doing all of the work to deal with the identity issues and everything else.
Talk to me about at what point in your progression through the firms when you were trying to figure out how to make it work for you did you start to realize like, “Hey, maybe this is just not a firm thing. Maybe this is just I don't want to be a lawyer”? How did you get to that place and end up leaving?
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah. I kept changing because I would identify the symptom of like, “Okay, this firm is too big so let me go try to a little smaller,” or “Okay, now I tried smaller but I see that the problem is I'm working in this area of law,” so I just kept changing based on these external symptoms of what was going on and always blaming whatever was around me or the person, the boss, the department, or whatever it was and so I kept making these switches.
I feel like it was after maybe I got to the third firm or something like that where I was like, “Hmm, I seem to just not like this. I think I don't enjoy this whole thing.” I think what was confusing to me, and I feel like I've heard this a lot, so many say this too, it's not that I didn't like the work technically speaking. I enjoy doing research, I enjoy writing, I enjoy reading, and I enjoy talking to other people.
There were elements of the job and so I think that that would confuse me and what I didn't understand at the time was that you could take those same elements like reading, writing, and speaking and go do something different. It didn't have to be in the law. But it was through enough iterations I think of changing jobs that I finally realized like, “I'm doing a little bit of Goldilocks Hopscotching here and this just doesn't seem to click.”
All this stuff was falling into place mentally. I've always been into food and cooking and health. I love to work out. I played volleyball my whole life. I started like, “Okay, maybe I should just be doing more of these things. Maybe I should be doing a little bit more of this on the side,” so I actually started a little food blog called Barrister Beats when I was still working in a firm.
One of the things that actually started to accelerate this was that when I started all of that and then started to incorporate a lot of what I was writing about and talking about online, my colleagues would make fun of me. They were just joking and all that good stuff but I would bring in food that I'd make and they'd be like, “Oh, what are you having? Salad again? What's this stupid thing that you do? Why do you go to yoga?”
I don't even remember the jokes. They were so terrible. None of them even made sense. It was all just really stupid stuff about how basically that I was weak because I was into other things, like what you were talking about earlier. It was just like the fact that I had other interests and hobbies I think were really threatening to them and then they thought that they were all stupid.
The more that that would happen at work, the more I would integrate myself online and be like, “Oh, I see that there are these people who are food bloggers,” for example, food blogging was getting really popular. I was finding all these health and fitness pros online and all this stuff. I was just like, “This is so cool.” It's just so refreshing for me to find other people who share similar interests and hobbies to me.
So I started doing that more and more online. That's when I started to get exposed to the fact that there were all these online entrepreneurs. I was like, “This is crazy. There's a whole world going on here that I didn't even know about because I'm dealing with all these corporate people and business owners on a different scale that are more like old school local service provider type of people.”
To find out that there was this whole world going on I think just got some wheels turning in the background of like, “Oh, wow, there's this other stuff happening.” I was really sad about my career. I was feeling really, really down but I still didn't know what to do. I wasn't putting this together. I really still struggled with the idea of like, “You can't just leave being a lawyer. Then what? Everyone's going to think you're such a loser.” I couldn't imagine this idea.
Then one day when I was feeling really, really sad and terrible, I googled something, I think I googled like attorney turned held something or an attorney leaving the law, attorney something, and Simi came up. Simi came up and it was like the heavens parted and I found an angel online.
I wrote Simi an email, this was like five years ago, wrote her an email and it was a very desperate and sad email like, “I am so sad and I don't know what to do. I feel like I'm stuck here forever. I hate this career and I found you online and I saw that you left and you seemed to be still breathing and I can't believe it. Would you be so kind as to ever talk to me?”
What do you know with Simi, and you know this now, you've spoken to her, she's the kindest human in the world and she was like, “Of course, I will talk to you.” I literally called Simi underneath my desk in my law office and just cried with her for hours. That was our first conversation ever.
We're really, really close friends now. She really planted that seed in my mind that this was a possibility, that you could leave, you will be okay, and it doesn't really matter what anybody thinks/everybody forgets about it and goes back to their own thing. There might be some temporary judgment but everybody moves on and don't worry about it.
Right after I spoke with Simi, I went on a trip to the Netherlands, and my husband, Ryan and I spent 10 days there. My firm had gotten me a phone, an iPhone that would work in Europe while I was on vacation just so that they could reach me while I was gone. The entire time I was there, I was just getting emails like, “Where did you put that file?” or “Where's this thing?” or “Where's this other thing that clearly could be handled when you got back from vacation?”
That was my entire trip there. I just kept telling Ryan like, “I don't understand. If you would have told me that you could become an attorney and not have vacation time, that would have blown my mind. I don't have vacation time. I have buying time.” I was just buying time until I got back and had to make up all the billable hours when I got back. There's no slot in your billable hours for vacation time, at least not where I was, and I don't know anybody else who had that.
This really started to bother me while I was on this trip. We got on the plane to come home and halfway across the Atlantic, the plane dropped significantly. It experienced a really turbulent event, a violent turbulent event, and it dropped and it rolled to the left, it rolled really, really hard. The bins flew open and the stuff went everywhere. We had actually just gotten coffee and tea service and our coffee and tea went everywhere. It spilled all over poor Ryan and it was really hot.
Everybody was screaming and I was bawling crying. I for sure thought I was going to die. As I always say I'm sure that everything was absolutely fine in terms of the plane because I know now that planes are much more resilient than I give them credit, but at the time, I for sure was plotting my death in my head and thought, “This is it. You're going to go down as a girl who just complained all the time about being a lawyer and didn't do a darn thing about it. That is not you. You need to f*ck up and do something about it.”
It was at that moment that it was just resolved for me. That was it. I was done. Within three days, I formed an LLC, and I started a health-coaching business. I enrolled in a health-coaching program that took me through to the summer, this was in May, it took me through to the summer and I left the firm on August 19th. That's that.
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: That is amazing. Yes. Having a near death or perceived near-death experience is not necessarily something I recommend but I've talked to multiple people who had these very significant experiences or moments that they similarly basically considered their mortality and they were like, “What am I doing? What am I doing?” Was that the summer of 2015 you said?
Sam Vander Wielen: That was 2016.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay, so that was a little three years ago.
Sam Vander Wielen: About three years ago almost, yeah, in the spring, it was three years.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. I don't even know where to begin because there are so many amazing things about that story. We haven't actually talked about this a lot on the podcast, but I think the rise of the cell phone and having access like iPhones, smartphones, being able to see documents on your phone, and all of this, and I know I'm certainly not the first person to make this observation because there are all sorts of articles out there about it related to the legal profession, but the constant accessibility, the always having to be on, not being able to get away and get a vacation, those things are so damaging I think to our psyches.
But again, it's something that isn't so normalized in the law that people don't even really think about whether there could be another way. I know for me, that was a big part of what made legal practice so personally unpleasant because I just felt like I never could get a break. Even when I had a break, there was always the possibility of something coming through. I know that there are a lot of people out there who struggle with that as well.
And as you said, the billable hour and the reality that yeah, you can take a vacation but you just need to make up those hours, which someday, I want to have a whole separate conversation about all of the terrible incentives created by billing your time. But we can leave that to the side for now.
Talk to me about what happened with the health coaching, where you are now, how you made that change, and maybe a little bit about what lessons you think that might have for other people who are thinking about leaving the law and aren't necessarily sure what they want to do next.
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah. I love this topic because I put a lot of pressure on myself when I left the law to have that be my thing. It's like, “Okay, well, if you make this change, whatever you change into, it has to be it because otherwise, people are going to think you're wishy-washy. You made one change, you can't just go and make another change.” I spent a lot of time really beating myself up about that.
Part of why I share my story about this part is just because I want other lawyers to know you can leave and then leave again and leave somewhere else and then keep evolving. It's okay to keep evolving. I left that law firm August 19th and actually negotiated to stay part-time for six months.
I was like, “Okay, I'll build my business, my health-coaching business at that time on the side, I'll do the part-time thing,” that was an awful decision because being a lawyer part-time, when you do litigation, it just doesn't work. It wasn't their fault, they were trying to be accommodating but it just doesn't work because court systems and other and adversaries don't work on part-time schedules or on your schedule in general.
We would just all of a sudden get an emergency motion hearing or something would happen that would have to come up and be responded to and all that. It was a tough six months. At the end of it, they had said I could keep going, I was like, “I think I'm good. I'm going to go give this a go now.” I had started the health-coaching business. I had started getting some clients. Probably not surprising, the first handful of clients I got were people who knew me or knew someone who knew me and it kept going like that.
I didn't really love it. I was starting to do the health-coaching sessions with people and something about it didn't really click with me. I loved marketing the business. I loved writing. I loved doing all my website stuff and social media, but I didn't feel like I was very effective as a health coach. I realized that what I had done was take my personal hobbies and made them my job.
I feel like I still had not learned that lesson from being a lawyer where it was like, “My job doesn't have to be me and vice versa.” I was just really having trouble separating that stuff. It happened naturally over time in working with people and just not really loving it.
I think where people started to book my free call, they called it a discovery call, that would have been for someone to work with me as a health coach, who would be a business owner, and the person would get on this free call and I would think that they were here to talk to me about health stuff and then they'd say like, “Oh, I just thought you used to be a lawyer and now you're a health coach, I'm a health coach so I thought for sure you must understand what do I have to do to start my business and how do I cover myself online. Am I allowed to say this? Am I allowed to sell that? Am I allowed to do this?” I was like, “Wait, no, that's not what I do. I used to be a lawyer.”
I was really working hard to kill that part of myself and I didn't identify with it, I didn't want to tell anyone that I was a lawyer. I went to an event here in Philadelphia where I live and where I'm from, called Goodfest, and it was a huge, it was the first one ever but it was huge and it turned out that although the audience was not intended just to be health and wellness entrepreneurs, it predominantly was that most health coaches and wellness people showed up.
The entire day I spent at this Goodfest, I was just there to hang out and I was a health coach so I showed up for it too, and the whole day, I basically had a little line from my seat of women who were lining up to ask questions like, “Hey, are you the girl who used to be a lawyer and now you're a health coach? Can I ask you this? Can I ask you that? What about this?” I was just like, “Wow, I cannot believe that people have this many questions.”
But the more that I listen to them, and I'm just so glad that I took the time, I did it unintentionally but it was really good market research, and just listen to what they were confused about and what they were struggling with and what they couldn't get access to, why they felt intimidated to go in and talk to an attorney, why they felt like they went and talked to an attorney and the attorney didn't understand what they did, and they didn't take any time to figure it out, they just treated them like they were a blogger or a yoga teacher or whatever other thing because they didn't really understand what they were doing online, or they were honest with them sometimes and said, “I don't get how you're doing this. I don't get how you Zoom call with people and get paid for it. This doesn't make sense.”
I listened to them and I feel like this is really when my healing process with the law started to begin because I realized that one of the things that made me most angry about the law was the way I was treated as a woman, the way that I saw other women being treated, not only who were attorneys but clients too.
When I started to put all this together and I was like, “Yeah, if I wasn't a lawyer now, I wouldn't have known how to start this business and I would not have wanted to work with anybody, I would not have wanted to hire anyone who I worked for basically.” First of all, it would have been insanely expensive and I wouldn't be able to afford it, and they also wouldn't understand what I do, and they would have thought it was stupid.
I remember how they made fun of me for what I was eating so I can only imagine if I would have told them this is what I want to do and they thought self-care was stupid, selfish, and all that stuff, so all of a sudden, this stuff clicked. I was like, “Yeah, I could understand why these women don't feel comfortable asking questions. I understand why they feel like everything they have to say is stupid. I get why it would be so frustrating that an attorney is charging you by the hour to literally do research on what you do. What an inefficient system. This is insane.”
I also understood the fact that attorneys were pulling from contract banks to create documents for them and then charging them like they wrote it for a long, long time. I knew that there had to be a better way. I wasn't really sure how but I talked to my husband about it, I talked to Simi about it, I thought about it for a little while, and I was like, “I really think that there's a way to get out and do this. I do not want to practice law, I'm not going to be anybody's lawyer, I will not give legal advice, but I think that there's a way to just educate people in a way because I feel like the information that I'm sharing every day and then I share inside of my program and all that stuff, I feel like should just be publicly available knowledge.”
I don't think that you should have to pay attorneys for it the way that attorneys have set it up. I also started to realize that even if you hired an attorney to draft you a contract, for example, for a group program or for coaching, they don't sit you down and teach you about it afterwards, they draft it for you and email it to you and then send you a bill.
There's no like, “Okay, now here's what you do when someone stops paying you. Here's what you can say and here's how you send it and sign it. Here's how you need to keep a copy of it. Here's how you CYA to back up a copy of it. Here are all these things that you do.”
There's all this knowledge that attorneys have behind the scenes that they're not sharing. It's not like they're withholding it, it's just not part of the profession. You just draft a contract and you send it off and that's it. I realized there was a real opportunity here to give women a better way, a more affordable product that also comes with that information, and a real sense of empowerment.
Sarah Cottrell: I love everything that you just said. Here's one thing that I think lawyers who are listening will be interested to know, can you talk a little bit more about how it works in terms of like you're an entrepreneur, you are coaching women with respect to certain aspects of it but you're not actually practicing as a lawyer?
Sam Vander Wielen: I actually don't coach anybody, so that's one of the ways that I maintain a really clear boundary. I sell products essentially. I sell downloadable legal templates which are like fill in the blank contracts and website policies. Then they come with a video training which is like me teaching you about this document.
But to me, after a lot of research, a lot of time, a lot of speaking to people, and doing all the things, that I needed to do to feel comfortable starting this business and to sleep at night and continue sleeping at night, that is what separates me. I don't do any coaching. There's no one-on-one. I don't talk to anybody.
They can email me with a question like a tech question or a clarification question, but they can email me and say, “Here's my situation. Should I get an LLC or a sole proprietorship?” I can't tell them that. I can teach them, “This is what an LLC is, this is what a sole proprietorship is, now you go decide what's best for you.” That's okay to do. You're just educating. You're not telling anybody anything specific about what's okay for them personally. I won't guide them, I won't give them advice.
If something comes up like they use a contract and then somebody sues them or someone doesn't pay them, they understand that they have to go work with an attorney or hire an attorney to represent them.
Sarah Cottrell: Got it. In terms of the trainings, how do you deliver them? Just talk a little bit more about the technical aspects of that for the people out there who aren't super familiar with the online space.
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah, sure. I recorded videos that are trainings on different topics. I didn't offer any trainings by the way for the first two years of my business so all I offered were the legal templates and that's it. After working with a few thousand women in the first two years, I realized that there was a lot beyond the templates that people didn't understand.
Someone would buy a template from me and then they would send me a question, not about the template, they would have a really good and legitimate question beyond that like, “How do I send in sign stuff so that the signature is enforceable? Are e-signatures okay? How do I run an online group program? What do I do if somebody on my podcast says something really bad about somebody else, is that my problem?”
People started asking really good questions and I would be like, “This is not a templatable thing so I have to figure out,” at first I was just giving out all this information for free because I didn't have anything to offer and then after a while I realized I could basically just turn this into a course which I label as the course that you would have taken in college if you knew that you were going to become an entrepreneur.
It's no different than if these people went to their local college or university and took a business law course, which you can do, you don't have to be a lawyer, and so it's the same stuff that I'm teaching essentially. I'm like, “This is what a business entity is. This is what a business bank account is. This is why it's important to keep things separate. This is how you work with people online,” all that stuff.
I'm not making any judgment calls or telling them like, “This is how you make sure you get safe or whatever.” I'm overly and abundantly clear that I'm not their lawyer. I turn away a ton of business because of it because I'm just so clear and I'm very comfortable in my boundaries about saying, “I am not going to give you this other information. I'm just teaching as if I was teaching in a class.” I deliver it to them in these video lessons essentially and they can go in and pick which ones they want to watch.
Sarah Cottrell: That's really cool. I want to circle back to something that you said a while ago that I think is really important. In fact, literally just before we got on to record, I was messaging Shinah Chang who was on a previous episode, she had some discussion in her Insta stories today about this whole idea of turning your hobby into a business and how there's a lot of language out there around just find what you love and then do that for your job and blah-blah.
There needs to be an additional conversation of “Do you really want your hobby to be your job or do you want your hobby to be your hobby and find a job that facilitates the life that you want, that allows you to be able to spend time on hobbies and pastimes that you enjoy?” which I think is really important, especially in the space of career transition when we're talking about leaving the law.
Because I think often, people think like, “Well, I hate working as a lawyer so I just need to find the thing that I love, then I need to make money doing the thing that I love, and then everything will be great.” I just wanted to mention that because you touched on that and I think you would agree that you really need to give some thought, that is to say the listeners who are thinking about making a career change to whether or not you actually want your hobby to be your job.
Because I think it sounds really good in theory, but in practice, anything that becomes your job is going to take away some of the flexibility and enjoyment and those kinds of things. I think that's a really important conversation that we were just messaging about earlier. I think that people should definitely give that some thought. What are your thoughts about that?
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah. I've softened on this issue and been like, “Give yourself some grace that it's probably only natural that when you leave the law, you want to run towards something that you love.” Me wanting to go out and start my food stuff, be a health coach, or whatever, I just needed some time to get as far the heck away from being a lawyer and the law and all that nonsense and wearing suits as much as possible.
I needed that experience. If I hadn't gotten that experience, then I wouldn't have started this business because I wouldn't understand what the women that I work with now or my customers, I wouldn't understand what they do. (a) give yourself some grace that it's only natural that you probably want to get away from this nonsense, (b) remember that every experience leads to something really helpful.
Even being a lawyer, as much as I complain about it now, I also know that so much of what I did as a lawyer was so, so helpful to what I do now. It's made me a better person. That's that whole thing. But I also think that as we go on, there has to be some deeper inner work. I feel that's more the phase that I'm in now.
Now that I've been able to look back and say, “Okay, great, that was a valuable experience,” and I am able to give myself that grace that I needed that space and that time away, I'm now in the phase I think of saying, “Oh, so what I do is not who I am.” I have a saying that I tell customers all the time in what I do, I say, “You are not your revenue.” Because it's so true, if you do great, you're not your revenue. If you do terrible, you're not your revenue.
It's really important for us to know and to start self identifying with something outside of this stuff. My business has grown so much and I can't believe where it is today. This year especially, it got to the point where it's such a well-oiled machine at this point that I don't have to work very much, which is a very, very, very uncomfortable position for somebody who used to be a lawyer and who literally tracked six-minute increments of her time.
It's a really uncomfortable position because I think we often associate having downtime as laziness and then laziness is lack of self-worthiness, like there's something wrong with you, you must be lazy, you're not working hard enough, like you've got to fill your time with something.
This has really been the first time in my life where I've just started to be like, “Huh, so if I have free time, I don't have to keep working, I don't need to write anything else for a while, I don't need to create another video, I don't need to create another product. I actually just need to figure out what I like to do.”
Then there was this real moment where I was like, “What do I like to do?” I think that's a lot of what attorneys who leave the law go through is because we were in an industry that just self-identifies as being lawyers and loves talking about it and thinking about it, whatever else, it's very then uncomfortable to realize that you don't actually know who you really are at your core.
I just challenged a friend the other day who was struggling with this idea and so maybe this will be helpful for someone. I told her, “I want you to write a little bio for yourself as if you were submitting an article to someone and write a bio for yourself that doesn't have anything to do with what you do for a living. Just tell me about who you are as a person.
“Because it doesn't actually have anything to do with being a lawyer, being an entrepreneur, being a coach, being a podcaster, or anything else, I want to know who you are at your core. Because if I got up and spoke at your funeral, I wouldn't be talking about what you did for a living. That would not be the first thing I think of. I'd think about how incredible you are as a person and all these amazing quirks and things about you that I love.”
This year has been a real year of self-exploration, turns out I love gardening. I have nine million plants in my house now and I had quite the garden going all spring and summer in the back of my house. I'm obsessed with coffee and I've tried to explore my creativity. One tip I want to give people too is that one thing I thought about when I started my business and when I left the law was I always associated being creative with being an artist, I'm not that kind of creative, but I like writing and I like doing Instagram stories and I like doing videos and now a YouTube channel, I like that kind of stuff.
I thought, “Okay, I'm creative, how can I express this creativity in my business?” Now, I've gotten to the point where I'm like, “Oh, how can I explore that creative part of myself outside of the business?” I just signed up for a book club meeting in Philly the other night, this amazing group that everybody should check out called Girl’s Night In, I'm going to that.
I've been doing all the gardening stuff, going to workshops, and doing all these different things that have nothing to do with business and have no end goal for my career, it's just personal. I would really encourage everyone to think about that as much as you can.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's really good advice. I know this is something that I've talked with several guests recently about which is this idea that yes, working as a lawyer, if you're unhappy, I strongly, strongly support people leaving and doing something that works better for them, but if you think that working as a lawyer is the only thing that is negative about your life or that all of the negative things in your life flow out of that alone and that once you leave the law, everything will be magically better, that is not true.
You are going to have to do additional work to get to a place in life that you are happy with. There's also the reality that life is life and it's not like, “Well, if I'm a lawyer, I'm going to be miserable. If I'm anything else, then everything will be happy and perfect all the time.” It's avoiding that magical thinking of “Everything in my life sucks right now because I'm a lawyer and everything would be great if I wasn't.”
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah. It's so true. Looking back on it now, I wish that when I was an attorney, I wish that I would have started to develop myself and figure out what I really liked outside of the law because I was so miserable in my career. I see this and hear this so often, it's like we hate our jobs as attorneys and then our job means everything about us. We don't have other stuff. If we hate it so much, why have we made it our entire life?
I didn't have a ton of other friends who weren't in the law. I didn't have other hobbies. I wasn't going to classes. I wasn't reading for fun. I wasn't doing all these things. I was literally just miserable and then the thing that was making me miserable is my entire world. It doesn't really make any sense. I wish that, looking back on it, I could have explored this a bit more and taken a little bit more responsibility for my role in it and for how I was choosing to be there. I was choosing to get into the car every single day and go to the firm and be miserable.
I went to a bodywork session when I was an attorney. I went to get some work done on my shoulders because I was always tense from being on the computer and being all stressed. The guy that I went to is a Chinese medicine expert and he was like, “How are things going?” I was just like, “Oh, I just hate being a lawyer and it's so terrible and everyone's so nasty. Everything's so negative and everyone's always yelling. It's terrible and whatever.”
I got done talking and he goes, “That's okay. It's your choice.” I was like, “How dare he say that it's my choice? This is happening to me. These people are all terrible. This all sucks and this is this.” Then it's so funny, when all the stuff started to come together for me, he was the first person I thought of. I was like, “Man, he was so right. It was my choice. I was choosing to do that.”
Of course, sometimes we have life circumstances where we have to choose to stay there a little longer to save up or whatever and I did all those things. I stayed in longer than I wanted so I could save up and I sold stuff and got rid of things. I pared down and I did all those things, but it was my choice to do that because I didn't want to live hand to mouth, so I did that. But I often think back about his comments and how funny it is, how different my reaction would be now than it was then.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I totally agree that we often are choosing much more than we realize. Like you said, certainly there are situations where you are forced into a very difficult decision or the alternatives to not choosing to work as a lawyer are not something that you're willing to accept at that point. But it is definitely something that I think is important to think about in terms of what choices can you make and where can they take you.
As we're coming to the end of our conversation, is there anything else that you would like to share about your story or that you think listeners should be thinking about before we wrap up?
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah. I just want to encourage anyone who is thinking about leaving or in the process of leaving, one thing that we didn't talk about was just how much I feel like there's a shedding process that goes on. I always tell my friends that when I left, I often felt like I was standing in the middle of a field naked. I felt like very exposed and alone because like I said earlier, even though I was miserable, I made that career my life and I surrounded myself with people who were the same and I didn't realize how much that was all contributing to everything I felt and all that good stuff.
I remember going through a period when I first left where I really felt alone and very exposed. I didn't know who I was and I had to make new friends and all that. I just want people to know that, first and foremost, it gets better, it gets way better in the sense that my life now looks so much different and more fulfilled than it did then because now I actually have people surrounding me and who I'm in constant contact with, who have similar values and are more aligned with the way I'm living my life or want to live my life.
I want you to pay attention to who you're surrounding yourself with, who you're spending time with, who you're listening to, all that kind of stuff. I'm so glad that you're here and listening to Sarah and all her incredible guests because it's really important in this time in your life, and I hope that this message just lands on the right person, but it's really important that you stop listening to the voices that you shouldn't be listening to and start incorporating some positive ones that are speaking the language of where you're going. I just want people to know that it gets better, that's for sure.
Sarah Cottrell: I love that. I think that's really really good advice. Sam, if people want to connect with you, where can they find you online?
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah, please do. In terms of social media, I'm most active on Instagram. I'm just @samvanderwielen on Instagram. Then my website is samvanderwielen.com. As of just yesterday, I just launched my new YouTube channel where I'll be giving legal tips, not that any of you guys need those, but if you're on YouTube, you could definitely come and hang out there and say hi.
Sarah Cottrell: Cool. I will put all those links in the show notes. If anyone wants to check out Sam or connect with her, you can just go to the show notes and the links will be there.
Sam Vander Wielen: Yeah, please send me a message, anything. I'm always happy to chat.
Sarah Cottrell: Thank you so much, Sam, for joining me today. I really appreciate you sharing so much of your story and I hope that it is really helpful for a lot of our listeners.
Sam Vander Wielen: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening today. I absolutely love getting to share these stories with you. If you haven't yet, subscribe to the show, and come on over to formerlawyer.com and join our community to get even more support and resources in your journey out of the law. Until next time. Have a great week.
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