From Business Litigation to Professional Development for Lawyers with Katie Aldrich [TFLP024]

In this episode, Sarah talks to Katie Aldrich about her experience moving from doing business litigation at a  big law firm to providing professional development and career coaching for lawyers and other professionals. 

They talk about Katie’s realization that, although she was good at her Biglaw job, that didn’t mean it was the right job for her and she should stay. 

Let’s get into this exciting conversation!

Getting into the Legal Practice

Growing up, everyone suggested that Katie should be a lawyer. She often had opinions about everything, and as she got older, many people encouraged her to study law. However, Katie never considered practicing law a real option because she didn’t know much about lawyers or what it meant to be a lawyer. 

After college, she considered attending law school but didn’t find it appealing. Instead, she applied to jobs like working at an art gallery, on political campaigns, and being a marriage counselor. After college, she worked on some political campaigns but was once again faced with a quandary when the elections were over. She worked at a bank for over a year but didn’t stay longer. 

At this time, it looked like her options were to go through the job search process or return to school. While thinking about returning to school, she started considering law school. Katie chose law school based on two things: the chance to study abroad and the knowledge that she could pay back any loans she took out. 

She went to law school and loved it. Katie was introduced to big firms in her first year and was sucked in when she heard what the salaries were for the first year. That was how she ended up working at a big law firm in Boston.

Working at a Boston Law Firm

When she started working at the law firm, Katie thought that she could work at the firm for seven years, become a partner, and then figure out the next steps. She liked the work she was doing there and decided it was better than what she was doing before law school. 

Even if she couldn’t say that she loved the work, she enjoyed working with the people there and assumed that she could make partner if she did a good job. Months into the job, she began to take a close look at mid-level and senior associates and wondered if she would still like what she was doing years later. 

Katie asked herself if she would want to be in the shoes of the firm’s senior associates later on, and her immediate answer was no. However, she still didn’t think she had to be proactive about things, instead choosing to leave things to fate. 

Leaving the Legal Practice

Until a few months before leaving, Katie didn’t think much about leaving. Although she knew she shouldn’t be there and was making plans to leave, she couldn’t bring herself to do so because something good would happen to her at the job whenever she wanted to leave. She also wasn’t sure what else she could do and spent time reviewing job boards and conducting searches while considering returning to school. 

Three years into the job, she realized that the most exciting part of her job was that there was a lot of professional development programming at the firm. That meant they had a great deal of professional skills training on topics like career development, management, and leadership—all of which she loved.

Katie started doing research and reading about leadership, managing performance, and coaching after she came to this realization.  As she thought of the next steps, professional development seemed like an acceptable option to pursue. It was also great that she would still get to do it within the law firm, so she didn’t need to change her career radically. 

She began by speaking with one of her firm’s professional development managers, who was also a trained coach. That helped her gain clarity on the next steps. By the time she felt ready to leave, she had her resume ready, had talked to her connections, and was looking for jobs. 

Then, her firm laid off some of the litigation attorneys, and she was part of the bunch. She took that as a sign that she was going in the right direction, and since she was already talking to people before that time, she got her first professional development job a month after leaving the firm. 

After Leaving the Law

In her first role after working at the law firm, Katie focused on staffing. She was helping partners at the firm figure out the best associates for a position based on their skills. She also worked in performance management and helped partners and senior associates with the performance review. 

Katie was unlike most people in that she did not fear leaving the job. Although she loved the firm and the people she worked with, her work wasn’t an excellent fit for her. It was a tough one because she felt like she had left the law firm and was now working a job she didn’t like, but she learned a lot from that experience and gained specific knowledge about what she liked and disliked about professional development. 

That helped her get ready for her next job, where she had more duties than just managing performance. In the new role, she was doing professional-skills programming, putting together orientations for the associates, coaching associates and partners, and developing a professional development strategy. 

Like many lawyers, Katie had her share of worries about leaving the practice for a job that might be worse than the law. However, she thinks that lawyers who leave will survive; even if they don’t like the next job, they will get information and experience to get something better. 

Choosing to Do What She Wanted

Often, lawyers find it hard to decide what they want to do, are good at, or are passionate about because they don’t have the skills or the training required to figure it out. That is why Katie advises getting a coach, like Sarah and the Former Lawyer Collaborative, or someone who works in professional development and has the training to help attorneys and associates. 

Working with a coach will give lawyers fundamental tools to figure out their pressing questions. Building that relationship will help with thinking about what is next without being overly stressed about making a decision. It will also help streamline job postings, find the courage to reconnect with their center, and find some grounding in their decisions to transition out of the law. 

Katie also advised lawyers who want to leave the law to break free from the false sense of security that working at a firm provides. Like her, getting laid off at any point for any reason is possible. Being realistic about their expectations will help lawyers see that, although leaving seems scary, it is not an impossible thing to do. This is easier when lawyers talk to more people who have left the legal profession and are doing great in their new field. 

The Former Lawyer Collaborative is home to many lawyers who have chosen to leave. To help lawyers get started, Sarah offers a detailed guide that covers the necessary first steps. The guide is available by signing up to get it on the Former Lawyer website

Struggling With Identity and Value

Like many lawyers, Katie could define herself as an intelligent person who did well in school and succeeded. This translated into her work as a lawyer because clients paid for the product of analytical thought and critical thinking that lawyers were known to provide. 

So, when a person leaves the practice, they are also leaving the constant validation they get from the profession and the good pay that it offers for their intellectual and analytical powers. If they have defined themselves by that, it can be more stressful to define themselves outside the law or find a fitting job. They will also have to constantly redefine themselves without the weight of who they used to be as lawyers. 

For Katie, it took her a while after she started working in professional development to stop referencing her previous role as a lawyer. She felt that she needed to lead with that to prove something about herself or show people that she was worthy somehow. This wouldn’t be necessary if she grew up with some other defining things in her life. 

That is also why it is essential for lawyers struggling with having a sense of value and identity outside of the legal profession to talk to someone like a coach who can help them process these thoughts and deal with the anxiety that comes with making a transition. 

Even if they do not figure it out immediately, they will be taking a mental step in the right direction regarding what they enjoy and want to do. Dealing with that anxiety will also help gain clarity about the next steps. It will also help to highlight some directly relevant skills needed for the next phase. 

Working in Professional Development for Lawyers

Katie spent months running her own private coaching practice after leaving her second job in legal practice before joining Fringe Professional Development as a coach and trainer. Fringe focuses on helping professionals improve their communication skills with other people, have hard conversations, manage people, provide feedback, and communicate with themselves. 

At Fringe. Katie does one-on-one coaching with associates to go through different levels of professional experience. She assists these professionals in preparing for a partnership role or setting goals for their new endeavors. The sessions provide tools to start connecting with and building relationships with colleagues. 

She also runs workshops using tools from neuroscience research to give participants tips they can use in their professional lives. 

Transitioning out of The Law

Like Katie, you can leave the law successfully if you learn professional development skills that will help you in your next step. Be sure to research and read resources that point you in the right direction.

In addition, working with a coach or having a support group can make the process even easier. This is why Sarah founded the Former Lawyer Collaborative to help struggling lawyers find their path in a confusing world outside legal practice. In the collab, you will connect with lawyers like you who have taken the step or are on the path of leaving the law. 

Sarah also offers 1:1 support sessions where she uses the Former Lawyer Framework to help lawyers discover what they love to do, chart a plan, and find the courage to follow through. You can secure your 1:1 session by booking a time slot with Sarah.

Connect with Katie Aldrich:

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.

Hey everyone. This week I'm sharing my conversation with Katie Aldrich. Katie practiced business litigation at a Biglaw firm in Boston for more than five years before transitioning first into professional development for lawyers and then into career coaching for lawyers and other professionals with Fringe Professional Development. I identified with so many parts of Katie's story, especially her realization that just because she was good at her Biglaw job didn't mean it was the right job for her.

We'll get to the interview in just a minute, but if you're following me on social media or you're on my email list, you know that I've just opened enrollment for my first-ever group program designed to help unhappy lawyers make progress toward leaving the law. You can go to for more information and enroll. I'll be sharing more later in the episode, now on to my conversation with Katie Aldrich.

Hi, Katie. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Katie Aldrich: Hi. How are you?

Sarah Cottrell: I'm great. How are you?

Katie Aldrich: I'm excellent. Happy to be here.

Sarah Cottrell: I'm excited to hear your story because I don't know a lot about it. So why don't we start with you just introducing yourself to the listeners?

Katie Aldrich: Sure. My name is Katie Aldrich. I am currently a coach and a trainer at Fringe Professional Development. I took a couple of years off between college and law school and graduated law school in 2009, then I practiced in litigation at a big firm in Boston for a little over five years. Then I made the switch from practice to professional development and I worked in two different law firms doing that and then I started coaching and training with Fringe. That's where I am now.

Sarah Cottrell: Awesome. Let's go all the way back and talk a little bit about how you ended up becoming a lawyer in the first place. Was becoming a lawyer something that you always thought you would do? Was it something that came up later in your schooling? Talk to me about how you ended up in law school.

Katie Aldrich: Sure. When I was very young, I had a lot of opinions, especially a lot of opinions about how my kindergarten and elementary school teachers were teaching things and I would always make those opinions known to them. Of course, lots of people throughout my childhood told me I should be a lawyer. But as I got older and into college, I never really considered practicing law as a real option, probably just because I didn't have a lot of lawyers or any lawyers in my family. I didn't really know any lawyers so I didn't really know what being a lawyer was like.

As college was winding down, I thought about going to law school but it didn't really seem that appealing to me so I didn't really have much of a plan. I thought about all types of potential jobs. I think I was applying to things as diverse as working at art galleries and working on political campaigns. At one point I considered becoming a marriage counselor, so I was really all over the map.

I ended up working on a couple of political campaigns right after college and then after the election, again back in the same boat, and not for any real reason other than it was convenient, I ended up getting a job at a bank. I worked at the bank for about a year and a half. I knew I didn't want to stay there for that much longer and I saw my options as looking for another job, which at the time seemed like a terrible thing to do to have to go through the job search process again or go back to school.

When I was thinking about going back to school, law school at that point did seem much more appealing. Again, I didn't have much more information about what lawyers actually did. I had it in the back of my mind that maybe I would become a public defender, but when I was thinking about law school, the things that were really important to me, I didn't study abroad when I was in college so I wanted to go someplace where I'd have the opportunity to do that, and having had some experience in the real world paying bills, I wanted to be sure that no matter what, I was paying in loans I would be able to afford no matter what job I had coming out of law school.

Not necessarily the best two factors to use when looking at schools but those really shaped the schools that I applied to. I ended up only applying to a couple, went to law school, ended up loving it, did really well in my first year, learned about the whole big firm situation, figured out what OCI was. My mind was blown when I heard what the salaries were for first years and then a lot of my classmates and my friends just got sucked up into that Biglaw system and that's how I ended up at my firm in Boston.

Sarah Cottrell: It's so interesting because, I know I shared this on the podcast before, but I also went to law school with basically no knowledge about legal salaries, Biglaw. I don't even know that I could have told you before law school or when I was headed to law school what kind of money lawyers make, which in retrospect, I look back and think like, “How did that happen?” It seems like information that would be information that you would want to know when choosing a career.

Similarly to you, I didn't have any lawyers in my family and I very much was going to law school because I was like, “I love the law,” anyway that's me, that's a side note, but just to say that you're talking about your experience of showing up and learning about OCI, I think that's actually really common because I've heard it from a lot of people and I experienced it myself where even that level of detail about what the possible job market would look like was not something that was on the radar before choosing to go to law school.

Though I will say that your plan to keep your student loan debt in check was a very good one and not something that I see necessarily playing a big role. At least in terms of the people that I talk to on the podcast, there tends to be more of—and this was true for me as well—like, “Oh, well, everyone's taking out student loans,” and then you get on the back end of it and you're like, “Oh, maybe that was more important than I realized.”

Katie Aldrich: Yeah. I'm impressed with myself looking back on it because I could tell you, going to college, I did not think about that at all. I think it really was just having those two years in between college and law school where I was making less than $30,000 a year living in Boston and trying to pay my bills and pay my rent and I knew that I didn't have that information about what my career might look like afterward so I really wanted to know that hey, if I leave and I'm only making $35,000 or $40,000, I want to make sure that I can still pay my bills and I'm not putting myself in a much worse situation than I am already.

Sarah Cottrell: So smart, good job, mid-20s you. So you went to law school, you loved it, you graduated, and you got a job with the firm in Boston, talk to me about that. When you got to the firm, were you expecting to really like it? Had you had the summer experience and thought like, “Oh, maybe it's not for me in the long term”? Where was your head at that point?

Katie Aldrich: I think when I first started, I had an experience that I think that many other people have shared where I really considered it as just an extension of my schooling. I thought of it as, “Oh, I'm going to work here, be an associate for seven years, make partner, and then I'll figure out what I want to do after that.” I liked my summer, I liked the work I was doing. I don't know if I loved it but it was better than what I had been doing before law school.

I liked the people I was working with and I just assumed that I would get there if I did well and if I liked it well enough as the years went on. I would make partner, get the gold star, check the box, and then figure out the next phase of my life. It wasn't until I had been practicing for a few months and had a better sense of what the job actually was, and not just the job of a first year, but was able to look at the mid-levels and the senior associates I was working with and look at what they were doing that I really started to think, “Okay, I might like what I'm doing now as a first year, but do I really want to be doing what the sixth year is doing?”

I remember having that distinct thought at one point, we were on these crazy litigation cases, had all these moving parts, and the senior associate was really keeping all the trains running. I remember thinking, “Do I want her job one day?” and my immediate answer was no. But that didn't necessarily lead me to then say, “Okay, well, I need to leave or I need to figure out a new plan.” I just assumed that things would work themselves out along the way. It took me a while to realize that I actually needed to be a little more proactive in working them out.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I remember a very similar conversation with a friend talking about people who are in more senior positions than we were and also partners and this realization dawning of “I don't actually want to do in my day-to-day work what those people are doing, but that's like the brass ring that we're all supposed to be reaching for, so what does that mean?”

You said you just thought it would work itself out and I think that is really super, super common because I've seen it a ton and I've heard people talk about it a lot in the podcast. It was also my own experience. When I first had this realization of “Yeah, I don't really want the brass ring that is supposed to keep me on this path,” at first it was like, “That's a little bit too much to handle. I'm just going to try to make it work for a while” basically.

Katie Aldrich: Yeah. Now I work a lot with associates who are going through this all right now, and I'm always saying just be more proactive, this is your career, start thinking about what you actually want and whether you can get that at your firm now. It might turn out that you do decide you want to be a partner at your firm, you do want to keep doing that work but start having those conversations with yourself early and often so that you have more control over putting yourself in the places that you're going to want to be and that are going to get you to the next steps you want to be in.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I think a really common theme in the interviews on this podcast is this idea of asking yourself what do you actually want from your career, not what do you think you should want or what does a person who is going to achieve X goal, partner, whatever it is, what does that person want, but what do you actually want from your career, in your career, what do you want your life to look like? Because—again, I'm 100% speaking from personal experience here—it's very easy to think that you're going after what you want when you're really going after what you think you should want which can be two very different things.

Talk to me about your progression from working as a litigation associate to no longer working as a litigation associate. How did that happen? You work as a coach now, did you work with a coach at the time? Tell me how that process worked out for you.

Katie Aldrich: I went through probably from the middle of my first year until a few months before I ended up leaving. I went through this cycle that I think of as a bad relationship cycle where you know you shouldn't be in the relationship, your partner is treating you terribly, you're not feeling good about things, you make plans to leave, you start dreaming about what your next relationship will be like. Then as soon as you're ready to pull the trigger and break up, something amazing happens. They do something wonderfully for you. You realize why you love them and you decide to stay until four, five, or six months later when the cycle starts happening all over again.

I went through that with my job more than a handful of times where I really knew I had to leave, wasn't sure what else I was going to do, but was on job boards and doing job searches, thinking about going back to school really sure that I was going to leave. Then I would get a great new assignment and get sent on some interesting trial or some other interesting work would come along and then I would wonder why I was so miserable and depressed and what I was complaining about because I got to do this fun stuff and I was making a lot of money until three months later when I was crying at my desk again.

I went through that a few times over the years. At some point, probably around my third year, I started noticing that what I was getting really excited about was a lot of the professional development programming that was happening at my firm, so we were lucky enough we had a great PD program so we had a lot of just professional skills trainings. During your third and your fifth year, we went on associate retreats that were all about career development skills, management skills, and leadership skills, and I loved that stuff. I was a total nerd about it.

I thought it was super interesting. I wanted to read all the Harvard Business Review articles on leadership and performance management and coaching, all of that stuff. As I started to think about what I might want to do next, professional development seemed like a logical next step and also seemed a little less risky because it was still in a law firm, still with lawyers, still in an environment I was familiar with. It wasn't like a complete 180 on my career.

Even when I had it in the back of my head that that's what I might want to do next, I still had to go through that cycle of “Am I ready to leave? Have I really gotten everything out of practicing that I wanted to get out of it? Am I sure I don't want to stay for another two years and just see if I make partner?”

I did end up working with a coach. One of the professional development managers at my firm was a trained coach so I had a few conversations with her that were really helpful that helped me just get clear about the fact that maybe I could stay, maybe I could be successful but that wasn't really what I wanted. Then once I finally decided that I was ready to go, had the resume ready, started talking to my connections, and started putting feelers out there to see what jobs were available, the universe intervened and I was actually laid off.

Our firm laid off a bunch of litigation department. Thankfully because I’ve been doing this work, I was actually pretty happy about it. I took it as a sign that I was headed in the right direction and that I wasn't supposed to stay there. Because I had already been talking to people and reaching out, I was able to get hired for my first professional development job about a month after I left the firm practicing.

Sarah Cottrell: That's awesome. Tell me a little bit about that next job and what you did, like what type of professional development role you were in, what that was like, and then where you went from there.

Katie Aldrich: Yeah. The first role I was in, I focused mostly on staffing, so a new deal would come in, the partner would need a mid-level associate to work on it, the partner would reach out to me, I would look at all the associates and how busy they were and figure out which associates would be best equipped, not just based on how busy they were but also based on what skills they had and what skills they were working to develop and then make those connections. Then my other main responsibility was performance management, helping the partners and the senior associates with the performance review process.

An interesting story about that first job, and I think that in some ways is a lot of associates' biggest fear when they think about leaving, I did not have a great experience in that job. I loved the firm I was at. I loved the people I was working with, just the type of work that I was doing was not a great fit for me. It wasn't really what I wanted to be doing. It was tough having that first job out of practice that you've put all this pressure on because it was such a big decision to leave to then have that not be something you're really excited about.

But I learned a lot from that role and I was able to take that experience and take the more specific knowledge I had about what I liked and what I didn't like in the PD world and then use that to get my next role, which was a much better fit for me where I had broader responsibilities. I wasn't just doing the performance-management process but I was also doing professional-skills programming, putting together orientations for the associates, doing coaching for associates and partners, and really putting together a professional-development strategy. Both of those jobs, I'm grateful that I had.

I can totally relate to associates who are so worried that they're going to leave practice and the next job they have might be worse than the job that they left. But I'm here to say that you'll still survive. Even if that next job isn't exactly what you wanted, you're going to take that information and that experience to get you to something that's better for you.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so helpful and it's actually something we've talked about quite a bit here lately on the podcast, which is that it's really easy to put just an extraordinary amount of pressure on the next thing that you're going to do if you're thinking about leaving the law to the point where you sometimes keep yourself working as a lawyer for much longer than you necessarily should because you feel like you need to figure out that one perfect thing that is going to be the thing that you're supposed to be doing since the law is not the thing you're supposed to be doing.

Or, like you said, making that jump and then putting this extraordinary amount of pressure on yourself to just love the first thing that you go to as opposed to seeing it more as, like what you were describing and what I've talked about with some other guests, which is that it's a process, you don't have to know “There is this one thing that I'm supposed to do and I thought it was law but it's not law and it's this other thing. Now I figured it out I'm going to go do that and it's going to be perfect. That's going to prove to me that I made the right decision to leave.”

I think if you approach it that way, you're setting yourself up for, not failure, but needless angst because ultimately, if you're not happy and you want to get out and you go to another job that maybe doesn't necessarily work for you, well, like you said, you still learn things from that process and ultimately you're still moving in the right direction for you. I think that's really important for people to hear and know. Your specific story and example I think is super helpful.

I also wanted to go back to something that you mentioned when you're talking about before you left the firm, which was when you were talking with the woman who was also trained as a coach, getting clear on this whole idea that just because you could do it doesn't mean that you should do it, can you talk about that a little bit more? Because for me, I know that was one of the things that I really had to come to grips with in order to be ready to make a change and leave the law.

Katie Aldrich: Yeah. I remember one of my last days at my firm, I ran into one of the partners that I used to work with and I told him that I was leaving practice and I was going to do professional development. He was so shocked and upset and was like, “But you're such a good lawyer. You're so great at this. You should keep practicing. Go to another litigation firm. Go to litigation boutique. I can help you find a place that works for you.” I was like, “No, just because I'm good at it and I could be successful doesn't mean that I want to.”

I remember he was shocked and he was like, “Well, I don't necessarily want to be doing this either but that's what we're doing.” I was like, “Great. But you're in your 60s and I don't want to be in my 60s saying that I've spent my entire career doing something that I might have been good at but wasn't interested in or wasn't happy doing, so you could keep your life and I'm going to make some different choices in mine.”

But I think that is really important. This ties back to what you were saying before about this concept of there being some right thing or some dream job, and I'm guilty of talking about dream jobs too just because it's easy shorthand, but we can be good at a lot of things, we can be successful at a lot of different things, and we can have a bunch of different careers that are going to be fulfilling to us and that we're going to be happy in, there's no one right path.

Just because you might be really skilled at something doesn't mean that that's going to be the job or the career that's going to be the most fulfilling to you, the most interesting, or bring you the most happiness. I think for lawyers who, for most of us, we did really well in school, we did well in law school, started practicing law, probably did really well at that for some amount of time, and we haven't learned that there's a difference between doing well at something and being happy, being interested, being curious, or being fulfilled by something.

When we were talking earlier about that difference between what you actually want versus what you think you should want, I think that even that concept can be really challenging and intimidating for people because I know if you had asked me when I was a junior mid-level associate “What do you actually want to do?” I didn't have an answer to that question. I didn't have something that I was passionate about. I didn't have this dream of a career that if only I wasn't practicing law I'd be off doing this other thing.

I think that's where a lot of us are, but a lot of the stories we hear are somebody who always wanted to open a bakery and finally got the chance or these people who have these really strong passions. When you don't have that and you're used to succeeding at something and you're on this Biglaw track where you don't necessarily need to make a decision yet, it can be really hard to just start having those conversations with yourself and start realizing, “Wait, I don't actually want to be doing this even if I'm good at it. Even if I'm getting a lot of positive reinforcement from the partners I'm working with, my clients, my friends, or my family, that's not exactly what I want to be doing. But I don't know what else I would be doing, therefore, I'll just stay.”

It's hard to start having those conversations with yourself because we don't have the skills. This wasn't a class in college or law school, like how to figure out what you actually want in your life, and so that's why I think it's super important to find somebody, a coach, if you're at a big firm and you have a professional development department, those people are really trained and really eager to have these conversations with attorneys and associates.

If you can start building those types of relationships so that somebody can ask you these questions, so that you can start to think about them and percolate on them in a way that's taken not just sitting at your desk stressed out because you're miserable and you don't know what else to do and you're manically scrolling through job postings that are just making you feel more and more depressed because you don't feel qualified for any of it, finding somebody that can take you out of your head, reconnect you with some centering and some grounding, give you some real tools that you can start using to figure these questions out, I think it's super important.

Sarah Cottrell: This episode of The Former Lawyer Podcast is sponsored by my eight-week small group program for unhappy lawyers who are ready to make progress on a plan to leave the law behind for good. Since the podcast launched, so many people have asked if there's a way to work with me to figure out what their next step should be if they want to leave the law. Believe me, I have heard you. That's why I've created this small group program. It's a mixture of one-on-one and group coaching, community accountability, and customized exercises to move you forward toward the life you want outside of the law. The group is open for enrollment now. We’ll be starting in February and enrollment is capped at eight members. If you want to leave the law, let's figure out your next steps together with the support and accountability you need to make real progress. You can learn more and enroll at I hope to see you inside.

I think that's so true and I think that, like you said, it can be really easy to get trapped in this headspace of essentially “I don't have this clear vision for what I would do if I wasn't a lawyer, and yes I went to law school and passed the bar and I'm working as a lawyer, so clearly I am capable of achieving things.” But because I don't have a specific idea of what to do, it's so overwhelming that you just shrink back and are like, “Well, I'm just going to stay where I am because it's the known path.”

I do think, particularly if you're working in a big firm, you've experienced so much of the college, law school, firm, stepping up in seniority, that moving on to a path where there isn't a clear trajectory can seem extra daunting.

Katie Aldrich: Definitely. I also think that we lull ourselves into this false sense of security that being at a big firm is a secure path up until a certain point when really it's not. I was laid off, firms lay people off, whether they call them layoffs or whether people are being let go for “performance reasons,” things change all the time at firms and you can't convince yourself that “Oh, well, I'm good at least until partnership decisions come,” because that's not necessarily true. The partner that you work with might leave and all of your work dries up and then what does that mean for you?

I think we build up this sense of security in firms which then keeps us there and keeps us really paralyzed from leaving, when in reality, that sense of security isn't as secure as we want it to be. I think being a little bit more realistic about that can help you see that “Oh, maybe it's not so scary to leave and to do something else.” I think talking to talking to people outside of the law and people who have left the law is the number one thing you can do to help make that transition less scary and make that unknown path less scary.

Because I think when you talk to your friends and other people that you know who have never been lawyers or never been in Biglaw, this is how just life is. You have a job for a couple of years, then you move to another job for a couple of years, and another job and another job. Every move isn't this huge referendum on your career and who you are as a person and whether you're worthy. It's just what you do to build a career and to build a life. I think really being intentional about having those conversations with other people can be super helpful.

Sarah Cottrell: I'm so glad that you brought that up because this is something that we talked about quite a bit early on in the podcast and I don't think we've talked about it a lot recently, but this idea of the illusion of security that we can find ourselves in certain positions that we perceive to be very secure and we perceive other things as much less secure. But the reality is that most of that is in our own minds. It's how we perceive one thing to be more secure than another, when in fact, they're not.

I'm not trying to say that there's no security anywhere, but exactly what you were saying, is that if we think we're making this safe choice by staying even though we deep down know it's the wrong thing for us to be doing, it's not necessarily actually the safe choice. I think that is something that is important to see but can be difficult to see.

Katie Aldrich: Yeah, and it's how our brains are wired, it’s evolutionary, biology, and neuroscience. We are wired to want security and we're wired to think that what we know is the safest option. I think the more that you can start to see that a little bit more objectively, like, “Oh, this is what my brain is doing, my brain is telling me that this is safe because I know it,” then it's not, “Oh my gosh, everything else is terrifying. I need to stay here and everything else is overwhelming,” you can start to take some of that emotion and separate out your own personal investment from it a little bit, it becomes a lot less personal.

Because you can say, “Oh, my brain is playing a trick on me here by telling me that this is the secure option. Let me look around at other options and see objectively, collect the evidence, do the research, have the conversations, and is it really that overwhelming to leave? Would it be that scary to take another job?” Of course, these are really personal decisions that have big impacts on our lives, but I think it's important to keep that perspective that our brains are doing some really old cave people-type stuff in the background where we're really operating on a fight or flight basis, looking for that safety, and looking for that security. That's not necessarily where we should be for our careers and for what we want.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. The other thing I wanted to highlight from what you said a little bit ago was this thing that we've talked about several times now on the podcast which is how somehow in law, there tends to be this thinking that leaving your job is some referendum on who you are as a person, your value, and your worth and then you get outside of the law and you realize that people change jobs all the time and no one is like, “Oh, you went from this job to that job, that must mean all of these things that you tell yourself in your head it might mean.” Can you talk a little bit about why you think that is the case in the legal profession, and why you think it is treated often or thought about as something that has a lot more significance in terms of your moral worth as a person than it actually does?

Katie Aldrich: Yeah. I think there are a lot of reasons and I think there are variations of them for different people. I think just based on my own experience, I have found that, as I look back, a lot of my life, I would define myself by being a smart person, I did well in school, I was smart, and I succeeded. The practice of law, your output is your analysis, it's your thinking. That's what clients are paying for. They're paying for that analytical thought work product.

When you leave, not only are you leaving a profession where there's constant external validation about how smart you are or how well you're doing but you're also leaving a profession where you were paid and valued for your intellect and your analytical powers. If you've always defined yourself by that and that's the main thing you're bringing to the table, if you then leave a job that is so defined by that and you look at other jobs where obviously you need to be smart and you need to be able to analyze things and problem solve in a bunch of other jobs, but the law for whatever reason is just in this very insular place where there's so much import placed on how well you do, how smart you are, and how successful you are in the practice, and if that's how you've defined yourself for most of your life, to leave that, it's like, “Well, who are you now? How do you define yourself now?”

I can tell you when I started practicing professional development, it took me a while before I stopped introducing myself at cocktail parties as “Oh, I'm Katie,” “Oh, what do you do?” “Oh, well, I used to practice law,” or “Oh, I'm a lawyer but I don't practice anymore,” I felt like I needed to lead with that to prove something about myself or show people that I was worthy somehow. Whereas I think had I grown up and been smart but also been great at sports or had some other important defining things in my life, maybe I would have had a different perspective.

This isn't to say that all lawyers aren't good at sports or don't have any other defining characteristics. We know that's not true. But I think that you're taking a bunch of people, whether they're self-selecting into law school or whether the competitive environment of law school is also playing on these tendencies and bringing them to the surface, and then you're in a profession where it is so much on you and your mind and your ability, it's hard to separate out who I am versus the work that I do. Even when you're practicing, you get that feedback that the brief you wrote needed some work or maybe you didn't handle that conference call the way that you should have and it feels really personal because it's hard to say like, “Oh, well, that was just the work and that wasn't me.”

I think most of us, as we were growing up, there weren't a lot of people, at least in my life, and I think other people's lives just from conversations I've had with colleagues and friends, there aren't a lot of people reminding you like, “Oh, this is just the work you're putting out. This is your work product. This isn't you.” Even if we intellectually know that, we're not reminding ourselves of that as much, so then when we decide to leave, it really does feel like you're building a new identity, you're leaving behind this identity of being a smart, successful, important, worthy attorney and you have to find something else with no guarantee that it's going to work out for you. It's really hard to take that personal piece out of it.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so true. What advice would you have, Katie, for someone who's in that position and is looking to leave but is maybe struggling with that identity piece?

Katie Aldrich: As I said, I think first, it's really important to just be able to talk to somebody about this because hearing yourself say things, getting them out, even if you're just journaling about it, and getting it out on paper I think is really important because I think most people haven't done that. It's just floating around in our minds maybe unconsciously so we feel this anxiety about leaving, but we can't really put a name to it or we can't really explain what it is. Either being able to talk about it or just writing it down I think is a really helpful first step and then starting to get clear about what you want.

It doesn't need to be, “Oh, what I want means I want X next job or X next career,” but what do you want the experience of your work life to be and what do you want the experience of your life outside of work to be? Get specific about that. Make a list of your ideal day at work, what does that look like, what types of skills are you using, what types of tasks are you doing, what type of office environment are you in, what are your hours, who are you talking to every day, what do you want your life outside of work to look like? Get specific about that and think about what you're good at, what you like doing, and what you're good at, the things that really light you up.

I don't mean the things that you're good at because you have to move into a job that you're good at, we already talked about that, but it's helpful to know when you're making a big step like this, it might be a little bit easier for you mentally to make a step into something that's not super scary right away, that you know that you are going to be able to be successful, that you know that you have some really directly relevant experience. Then when you have that first next job under your belt, you're going to have the confidence to then make an even bigger jump, and maybe that bigger jump is to something that you've really never done before that seems a little bit scary that you wouldn't have been able to do right out of the practice.

But I think really thinking critically about what you want your day to look like, what you want your life to look like, and what you want your long term to look like, what are things when you're 90 years old and looking back, what do you want to say that you've achieved, what do you want to say that you've contributed, and then when you have all of that information, I think it starts to give you that mental distance so that you can think about this as your career and a job search, and not this big referendum on your life.

But it also gives you a ton of information that you can then take out into the world as you're researching, as you're having conversations with people to start figuring out what the actual job is, what that job title is, what that industry is, or what that organization is. I think you need to do that internal process either with a coach, with someone else, or on your own to get your mindset right, to help divorce this job search and this job decision from your worth as a person, and also to give you the practical information you need to then find what the next right job is for you.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that's great advice. Tell me a little bit more about your role that you're in now at Fringe and how you ended up there from the second professional development job.

Katie Aldrich: Yeah. When I left my most recent professional development job at a firm, I did so to start my own coaching practice. I did that for a few months and then I joined Fringe as a coach and a trainer. At Fringe, we focus on communications. That's really communications with other people, hard conversations with colleagues, managing other people, providing feedback, and also communications with yourself.

All of the mindset things that we were talking about, career development, and communications with anybody that you're really encountering in your work, if you're still practicing, your clients, and so I do a lot of one-on-one coaching, working with associates, going through the types of things that we've been talking about now, working with other attorneys on different workplace challenges, working with attorneys, helping them prepare for partnership or prepare for the next job if they know what that is but want to go into it with some goals set out, with some tools under their tool belt, to start making connections and building good relationships with their new colleagues.

I also do trainings and workshops on all of these same topics, and everything we do, we have a really strong research base so everything is based on neuroscience, as I was talking about before, it can be really helpful when you're thinking about mindset, when you're thinking about communicating with somebody else, trying to figure out where they might be coming from to have an understanding of what's actually happening in the brain so that you understand, “Oh, this is just our natural brain functioning happening, this isn't anything weird or impersonal about me. This is just the brain doing what the brain does.”

Everything we do is really science-backed and we want to make sure that everything is really practical, so whether we're coaching or giving a workshop, we want to make sure that people are leaving with super practical tips that they can then implement in their lives. It's great to get a bunch of information. But I always found it frustrating and still find it frustrating when I leave things and have maybe learned a lot but it's like that's great, how does it impact my life? So we make sure that everything is super practical so you can really implement these things and make a difference in how you're communicating and make a difference in how you're experiencing your work and how other people are experiencing working with you.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so great and I think it's so true that understanding how your brain is working can help sometimes alleviate some of the struggles that you might otherwise feel just because you are able to see and name what's happening. I love that. That's really cool. Is there anything else, Katie, as we're getting to the end of our time, that you would like to share or any other advice you have for people that we just haven't had a chance to talk about yet?

Katie Aldrich: I'm always filled with a ton of advice, but I really think that one of the most important things that attorneys can do that I think is super underappreciated, if you're at a firm and if you're at a bigger firm that has a professional development department and puts resources into professional development, really take advantage of that. Even if it's going to a business development training and you're thinking, “Oh, I know I don't want to be a partner at this firm. I'm never going to develop business. I'm not going to go to that,” if you think of it from a different perspective, a business development training is a training on how to network, it's a training on how to build relationships with people outside of your immediate work community, it's a training about how to talk about the type of work that you do and the type of work that you want to do.

That's a great training. That's great skills as you’re setting out on a job search. Really look at the resources that are already available to you at your firm. As I said, people who work in professional development want to have these conversations with associates. Some firms have in-house coaches, firms generally have either resources to hire external coaches to work individually with associates or lists of coaches that associates can hire individually. I completely understand that it can be scary if you're thinking about leaving to then go talk to somebody at the firm about leaving because you don't want to be blacklisted, or there's this feeling you'll won't get any work again. I completely understand that.

You want to be smart about it. You don't want to announce to the scariest partner in the firm that you're thinking about leaving, but there are a lot of resources already in the firm that you're at, and if you can access those and take advantage of those, you're going to be really well-equipped to start to answer some of these questions for yourself and head out onto the market for your job search in a really strong position. It always saddens me, and even when I was practicing, my colleagues and my friends who didn't realize the resources that were available to us, I'm always like, “This stuff is here for you. Go, take advantage of it. You don't have to figure this stuff out by yourself.”

Even if it's just talking to other attorneys that you're friends with, talking to attorneys that you might have worked for that have now moved on, just find people you can have these real conversations with and see what resources are already available to you at your firm and how that can help you. I think that's an underrated and underutilized resource.

Sarah Cottrell: I love that. I think that's great advice. Okay, Katie, if people are interested in connecting with you or learning more about Fringe, where can they find you online?

Katie Aldrich: I feel like a really big nerd/old person when I say this, but honestly the best place to find me is LinkedIn. You can look up Katie Aldrich or Fringe Professional Development on LinkedIn and find me. Please send me a message. I will definitely respond to it. Even if it's just a question or anything that you're struggling with, please reach out, I would love to hear from you. You can also find Fringe on Instagram @fringeprofessional. That's a good way to see what we're up to and keep up with the latest.

Sarah Cottrell: Awesome. Katie, thank you so much for joining me today. I really loved this conversation and getting to talk through all these things with you.

Katie Aldrich: Thanks so much. I really enjoyed it as well.

Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening today. I absolutely love getting to share these stories with you. If you haven't yet, subscribe to the show, and come on over to 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.