Before going to study pastry arts and opening her pastry business, Amy Duvall worked as a lawyer and later as an environmental lobbyist in Washington, DC for 20 years.
In March 2018, she left that behind to study pastry arts and start her pastry business.
Amy talks about her time working as a lawyer in both traditional and nontraditional ways before she did a complete 180 and left the law and a career as a lobbyist to start her own business.
Remember, you too can leave the law to embrace your passion as Amy did. Simply sign up to get the free Former Lawyer Guide that shows you how to take the first step to getting started!
Now, to the conversation with Amy!
Deciding to go to Law School
Amy never had a solid moment when she wanted to go to law school, but she always wanted to study environmental law. She was inspired by her dad, who was a chemical engineer for 35 years and evolved from working in safety and health to doing more traditional environmental work.
He encouraged her to think about studying engineering, and she ended up studying environmental engineering as an undergrad because she wanted to go into environmental law.
While in college, Amy interned as an environmental engineer and then went straight to law school after graduation. After law school, she took an interest in state environmental law and started a private practice.
Although she wasn’t generally interested in being a lawyer, going to law school allowed her to do the environmental policy work that she was interested in.
Experience at Law School
Amy does not regret going to law school, and she would do it again in a heartbeat.
She thinks it was a great decision, although law school was a 180-turn from her undergrad studies for many reasons.
For example, in engineering, she got credit for her thinking process and getting the right answer, but in law school, there was no right answer, and she was rewarded for the quality of her arguments and reasoning.
That wasn’t too stressful because, as an undergraduate, she minored in political science and had worked on her writing and reading skills. She knew that her reading skills were a little behind, so she spent hours reading to catch up with others.
Amy was encouraged when, in her first year, her research and writing professor told her that for someone who studied engineering as an undergrad, her exercise on brief writing was great.
Apart from classes, she also tutored calculus as a first-year law student to make some money. Her law school had a public interest program that allowed her to have two completely different work experiences that she is grateful for, plus a one-and-a-half summer internship in Washington, DC.
Working at a Law Firm
After law school graduation, Amy officially started practicing in New Jersey. During one of her summer internships, she worked in the environmental department of a private law firm in New Jersey, and the firm made her an offer to come back after graduation.
During her first year of practice, she quickly realized that although she wanted to practice environmental law, she didn’t particularly enjoy the defense aspect of environmental litigation.
Instead, Amy was missing the policy aspect of environmental work and wanted to go back to DC, where she had worked with the Environmental Protection Agency. However, she couldn’t go back to the EPA because they were not hiring.
So, she stayed in New Jersey for a year and then used a headhunter to move to another law firm in Washington, DC where she worked for 4 years.
At this new firm, she joined their environmental group and did some environmental regulatory counseling. It was different from litigation in that she provided advice on how the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register affected her clients, who were mainly in the electric utility industry. She did that for about four years.
Amy thinks that the irony of leaving litigation is that she loved the oral argument part of it. 15 years after leaving litigation, the skills she picked up served her well as a lobbyist.
She left litigation because she hated the motions and filings that were required. They were expected to pull off strict deadlines, like producing a brief by Monday at 7:00 AM for papers that were served on Friday at 4:59 PM when work closed.
It was frustrating because, while she understood the game, Amy’s heart was not in it.
Dealing with billable hours as a lawyer and making the shift to lobbyist
For Amy, the concept of billable hours was one of the frustrating parts of being a lawyer.
Although she was good at her job and made solid arguments, that didn’t mean that she enjoyed it. Plus, most cases did not go to litigation or oral arguments as they could be settled in briefs and filings. This leaves a small portion of suits that end up in front of a judge or jury.
After spending four years at the DC firm, she realized that while she enjoyed the firm, worked with amazing partners, and loved the clients, she hated the requirements for billable hours.
Amy noticed that, despite the fact that they were taught to work hard in law school in order to become partners at a law firm, the partners where she worked didn’t seem happy and were struggling to balance their work and family life due to the long hours required.
She had a discussion with her boss at the time about grading her work based on quality instead of increasing her billable hours. She hoped that she could be more than just a number on a spreadsheet based on how many hours she billed, despite winning an award for her pro bono services.
Amy understood that the system made sense from a bookkeeping and billing standpoint, but the execution failed. She realized that making partner wasn’t enough; she needed to rack up hours when she could do the work in less time.
That was not a great idea for her because she didn’t see herself running on that treadmill for years. Making partner did not mean that she could focus on mentoring younger lawyers or business development. It only increased the pressure for more billable hours.
Leaving a Career as an Environmental Lobbyist
When she was turning 30, Amy took time to think long and hard about what she wanted to do in the new decade of her life.
It took her six months to realize that she didn’t want to go to another firm because it didn’t resolve the issue of billable hours. Despite a fantastic salary and loving the substance of her work, her clients, and her colleagues, she knew that practicing at a firm wasn’t for her.
Amy also thought of teaching or going back for an LL.M so she could work with governments. After much thought, she reached out to one of the people she knew at the Office of General Counsel at the American Chemistry Council. She had done an internship there after her first summer of law school and kept in touch with them.
She asked if there was an opening at the office, and when a spot opened up, she applied and got the job. Going back was a sort of homecoming for her.
There, she worked as a lawyer who was theoretically doing traditional legal work but was assigned a client that had a lot of intellectual property and trademark copyright issues they needed help with. Her work didn’t involve litigation or require briefs; it was mainly corresponding with people. She also got to work with the government on some issues.
Following a restructuring at work, she was fully shifted to the policy aspect of work, embedding herself within the company’s client groups that needed advice on such. That meant that she now didn’t have Esq. after her name on business cards, which was interesting.
Although she was still a lawyer and they were paying her bar dues, she wasn’t doing traditional legal work. While her goal was to do more policy work, being stripped of the Esq. title and not having it on her business cards felt strange, and it took a while to get used to it.
She did that job for a few years and learned a lot on the job. Next, she moved to the Regulatory and Technical Affairs Department, where she used her engineering skills and policy skills at work. Like many former lawyers at the office of the general counsel, she was using her legal skills, but not in a traditional way like practicing lawyers.
Amy did that for years and enjoyed it. It was in that process that she started working with some lobbyists in the Federal Affairs Department, and that was how she circled back around to becoming a lobbyist.
For 15 years after graduation, she worked at two law firms before becoming a registered lobbyist. That was despite doing some political work 100% of the time instead of traditional legal practice. She is still barred.
You can catch the rest of Sarah’s conversation with Amy in the next episode. In that episode, they discuss lawyers and their mental health.
First Steps to Leaving a Career as an Environmental Lobbyist
When you don’t have the right community to help you or the right mentor to guide you, it can be scary to leave the law to follow your passion.
However, accessing resources and helpful guidance is as simple as signing up to get the free Former Lawyer Guide, which shows you how to take the first step to getting started!
Connect with Amy DuVall
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. This week on the podcast, I'm sharing my conversation with Amy DuVall. After starting out in private practice, Amy spent 20 years as a lawyer and lobbyist doing environmental work in Washington, DC. In March 2018, she left that behind to study the pastry arts and open her baking business from politics to pastry. Amy and I talked about so many important things including learning that just because people think you're good at something doesn't mean you should keep doing it realizing that you don't want the life the people whose position you've been told you should aspire to, dealing with clinical anxiety, which you know is a subject near and dear to my heart, and so much more. I couldn't bear to cut any of it so I'm sharing the first half of our conversation this week and we'll share the second half next week. So stay tuned for that.
Before we get to the conversation, I want to remind you that I've created a free guide, First Steps to Leaving The Law for anyone out there who's unhappy working as a lawyer and wants to start figuring out what's next. You can get that at formerlawyer.com/guide, and now on to my conversation with Amy.
Hi, Amy. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Amy DuVall: Hi, Sarah. Thanks so much for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited to hear your story, so to start off, let's just have you introduce yourself to the listeners.
Amy DuVall: Okay. Hi, everybody. I'm Amy DuVall. I am what we like to call a recovering lawyer as many of you likely are listening to this. I spent about 20 years as a lawyer and lobbyist doing environmental work in Washington, DC. Prior to that, I was in private legal practice with a couple different firms and I did my undergrad in environmental engineering. I've worn a lot of different hats.
Sarah Cottrell: How long have you been out of the law at this point, Amy?
Amy DuVall: Well, I guess it depends how you define out of the law. I have not been in traditional legal practice for I guess about 12 years now. I spent about the last 10 years of my practice more in the political sphere so I left corporate worlds in general in, I guess it'll be about two years this spring. March of 2018 was the official end of my time in downtown DC. At that point, I left to study the pastry arts which was a total 180.
Sarah Cottrell: I love it. Okay, so let's go back to the beginning and then we will hear all the things about all the things. I'm super excited. Okay, so what made you decide to go to law school in the first place?
Amy DuVall: Yeah. I've been asked this question by a lot of people that I've had the pleasure of mentoring over the years. I wish I had a solid moment in time that I can think of that officially made me want to go to law school, but the best answer I've been able to give people is what I really wanted to do was study environmental law as opposed to just going to law school. My dad was a chemical engineer for about 35 years. That job evolved while I was growing up, it went from doing safety and health work to then doing more traditional environmental work. I think that really inspired me.
He started doing environmental work when I was finishing up middle school and starting high school. I think that just really had a profound effect on me. As an engineer, he encouraged me to also think about studying engineering. Long story short, I ended up studying environmental engineering as an undergrad knowing full well that my plan was to do environmental law straight after college, which is exactly what I did.
I interned as an environmental engineer for a couple different summers in college and then I went straight to law school and state environmental law and then started in private practice. I wasn't necessarily driven by being a lawyer in general, it was just a means to an end to do environmental policy work, which for whatever reason, I knew I wanted to do in high school. Again, I've been asked by a lot of different people why, I grew up in Iowa, it's not like we weren't a political family, there's not really a better explanation than saying at some point, I remember watching the movie The American President. Did you ever see that movie?
Sarah Cottrell: Maybe?
Amy DuVall: I think it actually came out either while I was in college or after I finished college. But it has Annette Benning in it and she's an environmental lobbyist. She ends up marrying Michael Douglas, the president. It's stupid to say that maybe that was what inspired me but I think a combination of my dad being in the environmental sphere and recognizing that I was good in math and science and trying to push me in that direction and then just I guess watching the news and what was going on in the world, I knew I wanted to do environmental policy work. That's how I ended up in law school.
Sarah Cottrell: That is really interesting. I'm curious because often people have very strong reactions to law school. Either they just loved everything about it or they hated it. But typically, that's when they're approaching it less, as you said, as a means to an end and more like they’re on the “I want to be a lawyer” track. Tell me about how you found law school.
Amy DuVall: Well, I guess I'll start by saying I have no regrets about having gone to law school, which is a question I get from all sorts of people younger than me who are looking to consider going to law school, “Should I go? Would I do it again?” I'm like, “Absolutely, I would do it again in a heartbeat.” I think it was a great decision for me. But to answer, I guess specifically your question, I would say that law school was a complete 180 for me from undergrad and that was for a lot of different reasons.
In engineering school, you got partial credit on exams for your thinking process and then, of course, you got bonus credit for the “right answer” because everything was quantitative, and in law school of course, that's not the way it works. There's no specific numerical answer that you can say. You got something right or wrong. It's all about the argument and the reasoning. Luckily for me as an undergrad, I also minored in political science knowing that I wanted to go to law school so I tried to stay up on my reading and my writing skills, which at least back in the mid 90s when I was in undergrad, there wasn't a lot of reading and writing requirements in engineering school, there just wasn't really time for it.
That's changed a little bit as the years have progressed. I think universities have gotten smart to the fact that communication skills are useful in any line of work. As a political science minor, I was doing a lot of reading and writing but I have been, since I was a kid, horribly slow at reading. I'm a good writer but I'm just a horribly slow reader and that was also a huge difference for me in law school was I just was reading 24 hours a day to try to keep up with everybody. I had a research and writing professor tell me first year of law school, I remember we all had to take legal research and writing for the first year and he pulled us all aside one by one without office hours to tell us what he thought of our first couple of papers.
We had written briefs and things like that and he said to me, “What did you do as an undergrad?” I thought, “Oh, God, he must think this paper sucks.” Instead he said, “I remembered you telling me that you were an engineer as an undergrad. I cannot believe for the life of me that that's what you did because your writing is great.” I thought that was really interesting that even the professors had this preconceived notion as to what a law student should be like and that they had all studied history or English. It was a weird experience for me that way too that some of the professors just didn't know what to do with me.
I tutored calculus, for example, as a first year law student to make some money in the undergrad university. The engineering school there had no idea what to do with me when I came to say I was a law student that wanted to tutor calculus but I had done that for three years as an undergrad. That was a big change too, just not feeling like I quite fit in even with the professors. Then another big change for me was I went to a private university for undergrad and I went to a state school for law school, and those are two very different experiences.
In addition to that, my law school is very well known for its public interest program and that is just a very different experience than being in a top 20 private university as an undergrad, but it actually served me really well in the long run because I got these two completely different experiences. I couldn't necessarily appreciate it at the time but I think it really inevitably guided my path to being a lobbyist and being able to communicate with all different types of people. It's like hindsight's always 20/20. I can look back now and say, “Well, I'm really grateful for that experience,” but at the time, I just knew that it seemed really different in law school than it did in undergrad.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I can only imagine because I did not do a major in undergrad that was a hard sciences major. But I can imagine it would be a big change for sure. You said you started practicing environmental law, and I know you're in DC now so did you go to DC right away or did you go somewhere else and then go to DC? Talk to me about once you started practicing law, what the progression was.
Amy DuVall: Yep. I officially started practice in New Jersey actually after law school graduation. But I had interned in DC for one and a half summers, if you will, I split one summer in law school. After my first year of law school, I actually came to DC and worked as a law clerk for the trade association that I ultimately worked for 15 years for, the one that I left a couple of years ago. But that's jumping ahead a little bit. I did that, my first summer of law school and my second summer of law school, I split the summer between being in the Summer Honors Program at EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency in DC, and then at a private law firm in Morris County, New Jersey closer to New York City in their environmental department.
That law firm ultimately made me an offer to come back after graduation which was great because I had an awesome experience there and met a lot of new friends that a lot of them I still keep in touch with. We suffered through the first year of practice together in New Jersey and I pretty quickly realized, even though I knew I wanted to do environmental law, that law firm did a lot of environmental defense work. I very quickly realized that environmental litigation, especially on the defense side of things was not necessarily where I wanted to be long term. I was really missing the policy aspects of environmental work.
Pretty quickly realized I wanted to get back to DC. It wasn't an option to go work for EPA. They just weren't hiring anybody at that point. I'm not sure anybody in our summer class got an offer to stay on at EPA after graduation. It's a government, it's an extremely slow-moving animal. What I ultimately do is I stayed in New Jersey for about a year and then I used a headhunter to come to another law firm in DC, at the time, it was Piper Marbury, they're now DLA Piper.
I think they've gone through two other name iterations since I first started there, but I joined their environmental group and did more environmental regulatory counseling. It wasn't litigation so much as it was advising how the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register affected my client, which was mainly the electric utility industry. I did that for about four years. That's how I got back to DC full-time.
Sarah Cottrell: Got it. It sounds like it was partially the subject matter that you didn't love about the environmental litigation piece and partially just that you weren't interested in litigating, which I understand because I was a litigator and I was like, “Get me out of here.”
Amy DuVall: Yeah. The funny thing was I actually realized in that year that I was in New Jersey, the firm had a great first-year law practice program that helped us through all of it. New Jersey at the time had a really intense first year out of law school continuing ed program, all these different classes you had to take. The law firm had a really great program in place to allow us the time to take those classes and do the homework, work together, and get to know each other. But they also then had a history of participating in a county mock trial program, a competition, and there was quite a bit of competition between our firm and one other firm that the title of the winner of this competition had gone back and forth for what seemed like decades.
All of the first-year associates had to participate in this program and it was me, all the other associates were rotating through departments except for the environmental department. I think the reason for that is that a lot of the environmental work was pretty technical in nature, pretty scientific, and so I was hired just to be in the environmental department. I didn't rotate. I think when it came time to do this mock trial competition, the litigation department of course completely wrote me off and thought I would be a joke. The former engineer wouldn't possibly know how to do an oral argument. But I don't think they realized that I had been in moot court in law school and actually really loved to talk and really enjoyed oral argument.
It was ironic that it was me, I was paired with another associate who actually had gotten married right before law school graduation and had her first baby during the first year of practice. She was a year ahead of me so she had started a year before me, but she had been out on maternity leave so she had just come back. Even though she was in the litigation department, I think the bottom line was they figured, “Well, she hasn't been here. We're not expecting much from her either. We'll pair her with Amy. The two of them will never go far in this competition.”
The bottom line is we ended up being one of the final two teams in the competition. We were in the final oral argument. Everybody else in the firm had dropped out, had lost. The two of us were left and we ended up drawing the short straw on which side of the argument to be on. I think we were doomed from the start but the firm threw us a big party afterwards and were like, “You guys are great.” The two of us to this day still laugh about the fact that we knew everybody had completely written us off and yet we ended up being the champions for the firm.
The irony with leaving litigation was that I loved the oral argument piece of it, which then again, flash forward 15 years later served me really well as a lobbyist. But I hated the motions and the filing for a change of venue and this, that, and the other. There were so many Friday nights that we would get served with papers from the opposing party at 4:59. Miraculously, you have to have this brief end Monday at 7:00 AM.
I was so frustrated because I really was in it for the substance. While I understood the game, if you will, my heart wasn't in that and I have lots of friends now that are litigators and love it and I'm like, “More power to you, but it just was not for me.” I guess it's funny now I'm sitting here talking about this and I'm like, “If only I had remembered that piece about the game versus the substance,” flash forward 15 years and I found myself in the exact same position with “Do I leave lobbying?” but we can talk about that in a little bit.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I was just going to say that I think that you bring up a really good point, which is that you liked certain aspects of what people traditionally would think of as a litigation job, but there were other pieces that you just didn't like. I think a lot of people, a lot of lawyers in that position, and I speak partially for my own experience and also from talking with other people, is I think a lot of lawyers fall into this idea of, “Oh, well maybe it's my fault. I should like these other things because I like this part of it, and so the fact that I don't like this other part means there's something wrong with me. I should like it,” and just hope that somehow they're going to change who they are to be someone else who actually likes significant portions of the job that they're doing.
I think that it would serve a lot of lawyers, and again, I speak from my own experience, to let themselves be more honest with themselves about what they do and don't like about their jobs and to realize that if you don't like some aspect of it or a significant aspect of the type of job that you're doing as a lawyer, that's okay and you can just admit that you don't like it as opposed to being like, “There's something wrong with me or somehow I'm going to force myself to like this thing that I currently hate.”
Sarah Cottrell: I can't tell you how many people contact me because they hate their job as a lawyer and don't know what to do next. One of the things that drives me nuts is that there are a lot of people out there trying to sell people quick fixes and not telling people what they actually need to know to really figure out what they should be doing and how to get out of the law if that's what they want. The truth is it's a process and anyone who tells you that they can just tell you what you should be doing without you doing the work yourself is doing you no favors.
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Amy DuVall: Right now I think that's a completely accurate point. I guess I have two thoughts on that. One of the overarching things that I've learned, if I can give any advice, over the past few years is just because someone else thinks you're good at something doesn't mean that you have to enjoy it. If I can pat myself on the back, I was a really good oral arguer. I did a great job in moot court and I loved that piece of it but if we're really talking about being a successful attorney at the end of the day, most cases, don't go to litigation, they don't go to oral arguments anyways. They should be settled or taken care of in briefs and filings.
It's a very, very small piece of suits that are actually filed that end up in front of a judge or a jury. Also even in those cases, you are not likely right out of law school or not going to be the person arguing it, you're going to be the person doing all the grunt work behind the scenes, filing all the papers, and in my case, going to the middle of nowhere in the United States looking through thousands and thousands of documents for document production.
It's okay to realize that those pieces are not for you, but at the same time, Sarah, when you're a few years out of law school or even just one year out of law school like I was and you've just spent $100,000 to go to law school, it's such a prestigious profession to be in, filled with history, it's really hard to suddenly realize, “Hmm, maybe this isn't quite what I wanted to do.” In my case, the next realization I had was once I got to DC and I practiced for about four years, I had amazing partners that I worked with, I loved the firm, and I loved the client but I absolutely hated the requirement for billable hours.
I suddenly found myself in this place where I was like, “Wait a second. Every success that was taught to us in law school was “You will be a partner in a law firm.” It was like a mantra. It was like, “You're either going to be in the public interest in New York City or you're going to be a partner in a law firm. These are the goals that you should have in life.” When I was just about to turn 30, I suddenly realized, “Hmm, really I'm seeing the partners I work with and they don't necessarily all seem happy and they're going to extraordinary measures to try to balance their lives, their family lives with work .”
I had so many discussions with my boss at that time when I was with DLA Piper and I'm still in touch with him to this day. He was an amazing mentor. I remember talking to him at reviews and he'd be like, “You're doing a great job. Everything is wonderful. Maybe we just need to get your billable hours up a little bit,” and I'm like, “Okay, here's the deal. If I could find a way to do this job where I was being graded on quality and if what the client requires takes me 2700 hours a year, then I'll put it in. But if what the client needs takes 1800 hours a year, why am I sitting in an attic just doing document review for a client I don't even know, thousands of miles away to ‘pad’ my hours?”
I'm not making my hours up but I'm filling that gap between 1800 and 2700. I would sit there and see other partners doing this to get their hours right. I’m like, “I thought all that went away when she made partner, what am I aiming for here?” So that was the next step away from the law for me, I guess I'm jumping ahead here, but a big life question was, “Hmm, I thought I was supposed to want to be a partner and suddenly I just want to do what I need to do for my client whether I'm a partner or not. I don't think this is going to work for me.”
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. There are two things that I want to talk about in what you just said. The first one is the billable hour thing, which is my own personal rant about billable hours which is of all of the terrible things that I think make lawyering needlessly difficult, billables is the number one because I think it's nonsensical. It incentivizes inefficiency. It frankly rewards inefficiency.
Amy DuVall: Right. It encourages you to spend more time so you can get billed or you get more money from your client.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. It discourages innovation. Everything that you would actually want in a business to make the business better, it creates the opposite incentive essentially. Like you said, I think you get into the situation where there's almost this idea of “Oh, well, I don't want to say your work quality doesn't matter because it does,” but especially if you're in a bigger firm at this point, it's like, “Okay, well, you might have the satisfaction of my work quality is good but in terms of upward mobility in the firm, ultimately almost everyone isn't going to make partners.” You could say, “Oh, work quality ultimately will set you apart and you'll make partner. But really is that actually true?” Not necessarily. I just think it is one of the worst parts of being a lawyer.
I know for me, my challenge was I have always been a faster-than-average worker. It's not like I'm a fast reader, it’s nothing like it’s just one of the things that comes easily to me and so I would get into this situation where you're like, “Okay, I want to hit my billables. Well, to hit my billables, I need to hit a certain number of hours and I'm not going to pad my hours in some shady nefarious way. That means I need to have that many more cases running in order to be able to get the hours that I need.” But the more cases that you have as a litigator, the greater the possibility of something blowing up and being crazy. It just introduces that much more instability into your work situation. Anyway, billables are the actual worst.
Amy DuVall: Yeah. You're absolutely right. It's a debate that's been going on since the dawn of law firms essentially. I'd like to think that and the bar exam set up, it’s like, “Well, everybody before you suffered through this so you will too.” How long has it been since I graduated law school now? It's been over 20 years. I can remember in law school people talking about what an unfortunate setup the bar exam is that you're sitting there to take an exam on everything that you studied the first year of law school, not the second or third year and it's backwards that way. But at the same time, you have to have the building blocks the first year of law school to then study more specific things in your second and third year.
There's that problem and then the other one that everybody cites is billable hours. I've racked my brain with my friends, “Well, how do you resolve this problem?” because in another example of irony, Piper still to this day has an excellent pro bono program and I ended up taking over from someone who left the firm I managed, I guess it was a mentoring tutoring program with one of the DC City schools in elementary school and we would go at our lunch hour every week as a group and the firm would pay for the cabs to go over there. We would tutor the kids in whatever they needed.
Most of the time, it was reading sometimes math, that kind of thing. We got to build great relationships with these kids. The firm every year did pro bono awards that they would give out and they'd have a nice dinner off-site, so take everybody out for a nice dinner that was involved in the pro bono program. One year I won the pro bono award for the year, best use of pro bono hours in the firm or whatever. I got a really cool crystal acrylic thing to set on my plaque to sit on my desk. It was lovely and I thought, “Well, this is great,” and it brought me a lot of satisfaction to do it.
But I remember sitting down again with my boss saying, “I know the firm encourages all of us to have X number of pro bono hours and I've well exceeded that. I just got this award, but at the same time, no one ever said to me you're not going to make partner, you've got to build X number more hours.” But I also was a year or two out from the partner track at that point but I could see the writing on the wall. When you're in a firm that large, you become a number on a spreadsheet. The firm was based in Chicago by the time I left, instead of Baltimore which is where they were when I started. It gotten much bigger and the people sitting in Chicago didn't know me from Adam.
They just knew me on a spreadsheet with how many hours I had billed, not that I had won the pro bono award that year. Unless your boss goes to bat for you, which luckily, mine did, it's a system that's broken. It's good from a bookkeeping standpoint and a billing standpoint, the concept is solid, but the execution fails. I wish I knew the answer on how to fix that one but it was definitely the straw that broke the camel's back when I left law firm life.
I don't see myself continuing to be aiming for a number year after year and watching partners be in the same position. I thought that you do this, you run the treadmill until you become partner, and then it’s not like it becomes easy but then you can focus on business development and mentoring those younger than you in the firm. The reality was the pressure for more and more billable hours as the firm got bigger and bigger made those observations disappear. I saw the partners in the same position I was in with the hours.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that piece of things is also something that we've talked about on the podcast a couple of times, but it's this idea that you need to look at the people who are doing the job that you're aspiring to or supposed to be aspiring to, and you need to ask yourself, “Do I actually want the life that they have?” Not just like, “Would it be cool to have that title or the salary?” But “Do I actually want to do what they're doing?” What you're saying, and I think this is so right and I had a very similar experience, is that you looked at what they were doing and you were actually like, “I don't think that is what I want to do.”
I think that's a pretty common experience, although I think it's easier for some people to accept than others because as you said, there is an element I think of denial that comes in when you've spent a lot of time and money getting to where you are as a lawyer and actually looking in the face the possibility that “Hey, maybe I don't want to be doing this,” it's a lot. You've already alluded to it several times but when you got to that point where you were like, “Okay, this billables thing for the rest of my life is just not going to fly,” when was that and what did you do?
Amy DuVall: Yeah. It was right around the time that I was looking to turn 30. Every time you go into a new decade, I get, I guess, momentous for a lot of different reasons. It got me thinking long and hard about what I wanted to do next, and it probably took me a good six months to a year to sort out, “Well, do I want to go to another firm? Well, no. That doesn't really resolve the problem because the firm itself isn't the issue.” I love the client. Everything that I have no control over aside from the billable hours, I love the substance. I like the client. I like my colleagues. I could walk to work. The salary was fantastic. So I thought, “Well, another firm isn't going to resolve this issue.”
I thought about seeing if I could somehow teach, if I needed to take a back for an LL.M to do that, do I go work for the governments? I met with various people. I have met over the years other attorneys in different lines of work to talk about different options. One thing led to another. One of the people I had kept in touch with was in the Office of General Counsel at the American Chemistry Council, which is where I had been an intern after my first year at the end of first summer of law school and I kept in touch with them. I had traded some messages and said, “Are you looking to hire anybody, and would you be willing to talk to me just in general about life outside of a law firm?” kind of thing.
One thing led to another and they had an opening in their Office of General Counsel. I applied for it and got it. It took a lot more time than I'm alluding to right now but that's what ended up happening. I went over there and it was a homecoming of sorts. That was cool. I was in the Office of General Counsel, I was still a lawyer still doing, in theory, traditional legal work but it just so happened that the client that I was assigned to within the organization had a lot of, I guess, more intellectual property issues, a lot of trademark copyright type stuff, and they needed someone to help them police that. It ended up being that the work I was doing was not so much traditional legal work as it was. There was not litigation. It was not briefs, that kind of thing. It was a lot of correspondence with people.
Then that turned into also working with the government on some of the issues that we had and ultimately the trade association did a restructuring a couple of years after I started. They were very heavy in the number of attorneys that were in the Office of General Counsel at the time. When they broke down the work that all of us were doing, they realized that they had two groups of attorneys. They had the ones that were doing the traditional legal work, actually writing briefs, and participating in amicus briefs and litigation for our member companies, and then they had others like me that were doing a tiny little bit of that, but most of it was policy work.
They ended up restructuring and moving all of us who are doing policy work, embedding us within our client groups essentially. The Office of General Counsel became a tiny little piece of what it previously had been. I ended up no longer having Esq after my name on my business cards. So that was interesting. Still a lawyer, they were still paying for my bar dues but I wasn't doing traditional legal work. It's weird because, of course, as we talked about earlier, my goal was always to do more policy work but it was very strange to be stripped of the title to not have it on your business cards anymore. It was a little strange at first so that took a while to get used to.
I wasn't in it by myself. There were several of us who are like we hadn't gone to law school but we had gone to law school. So it was weird. It was a strange place to be in. I did that for a few years. I learned a lot in that job and then I ultimately moved on to what was called our Regulatory and Technical Affairs Department where I started to use my engineering skills actually and then policy skills at the same time. There were actually a number of former lawyers from the office of general counsel in this department. Using their legal skills but not officially as lawyers if you will. I did that for several years and enjoyed that a lot.
In the process of doing that, I started to work with some of the lobbyists in the Federal Affairs Department, started to tag team with them on various issues, and that was my extremely circuitous way to become a lobbyist. I was in four different departments at the American Chemistry Council. I was at two different law firms and then finally, 15 years after graduation I became a registered lobbyist. I'm still barred today and I was still barred when I was a lobbyist but I was doing political work pretty much 100% of the time as opposed to traditional legal work, so it was a journey.
Hello lovely people. So much good stuff, right? I absolutely loved this conversation with Amy. There's still so much goodness to come, so tune in next week to hear the rest of the conversation, in particular, our conversation about lawyers and mental health.
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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