On the latest episode of the Former Lawyer Podcast, Sarah was joined by former attorney Sarah Rutledge Fischer.
Sarah worked in a Biglaw firm before moving into the art world. This conversation is split into two parts, so look for part two next week.
Today, you’ll read about many important themes of the Biglaw world about lots of things including her struggles with depression and the inhumane environment of many Biglaw firms. Are you ready? Keep reading!
Early Art Influence
To start the story, Sarah talked about how she first got into art. She had always been involved in art through childhood and even into college. But she never allowed herself to see it as a possible career.
She also thought that being an artist involved being a specific type of person. A person that Sarah never felt that she could be. In her mind, creativity was a gift bestowed only to a fraction of the population.
In college, she did a little art but focused more on theatre. After graduating, she worked for the regional theatre for several years as a stage manager.
The Winding Path To Law School
Sarah took a very winding path to law school. After working in the theatre, she went through several other jobs before landing in commercial real estate. There, she leased and managed commercial properties.
She had never thought of herself as a future attorney. But, the time she spent in commercial real estate. After five years, Sarah maxed out the potential of that job and decided to look for something else. Her favorite part of this job was working on contract clauses for leases. She had the gift of using language to lay out terms and conditions. This work was a big reason for Sarah going to law school.
Sarah went on to thrive in law school. During her last year of law school, Sarah was the student director of The Duke Law Innocence Project, a chapter of the Innocence Project. She did two externships: one with the Durham County District Attorney’s Office and the other with the Federal Public Defender’s Office.
Sarah was also taking a class in art law, where she created a student-led seminar on the legal aspects of developing awareness of intersex people and the challenges and complications they face.
At this time, she didn’t know which direction her legal path would take her. But law school has a path that is hard to get off. And this path came with a sense of achievement that Sarah was addicted to.
Going Into Biglaw
While in law school, Sarah started interviewing with LA and Orange County firms. Her husband grew up in California, and it had always been their long-term goal to return there. They had moved so that she could attend law school. The deal was that they would move out to California once she graduated.
Not only was she on that track of law school achievement, but Sarah had a real sense of personal obligation to this plan she and her husband had made. Shopping for Biglaw firm jobs in California was the only way they would get there.
She ended up at a top-tier Biglaw firm in California. A high-powered and high-stress work environment. Sarah sensed early on that working in Biglaw was not a good fit. But, she admitted that for the first year, she felt trapped.
She remembers the Biglaw world as always having a lack of support, a lack of guidance, and a lack of mentorship, which is very common for people who have worked in a Biglaw environment. Life at a Biglaw firm began to take its toll on Sarah’s mental and physical health. She fell into a deep depression but didn’t realize it until it affected her work.
Seeking Therapy As A Lawyer
Sarah began to sense that maybe she wasn’t figuring it out or being the right type of person. It didn’t occur to her that perhaps the Biglaw world was the disconnect. Eventually, Sarah found her way to a therapist. Even though it wasn’t groundbreaking, it was helpful for her.
During a session, Sarah and her therapist discussed how she was suffering from her depression. The therapist offered to write her a prescription to start exploring antidepressants, but Sarah was adamant that she didn’t want that. Sarah felt that her depression was situational and that if she felt better, taking an antidepressant would remove any motivation for Sarah to get out of her situation.
Just as a reminder, this isn’t the right path for everyone and only came after a long and careful examination of how Sarah’s depression affected her. There’s no shame in medication when it’s needed.
Sarah encouraged anyone working in a Biglaw firm and struggling with depression to seek help and guidance. If you can’t get yourself to a therapist, then seek out the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Reconnecting With Art
Sometime during her second year of working in Biglaw, Sarah found a Figure Drawing Meetup. It was a Saturday morning figure drawing class. She had done one before and enjoyed it, so she gathered her courage and decided to do it again.
In those few hours, Sarah reconnected with herself, and that morning became a very fond memory. For the next year, whenever she had a Saturday morning to herself, she would show up. This class became a chance for her to breathe.
However, Sarah still didn’t see art as a career. All she knew was that she had to get out of the Biglaw world. She had been researching other jobs in the law, but going to a different firm seemed like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Sarah and her husband took some time to figure things out. At the same time, they decided to start a family. Sarah was still dredging away at the Biglaw firm, trying to find her new path. She was getting by, and then she got pregnant.
Pregnancy In A Biglaw Firm
Many have been warned about the dangers of letting a Biglaw firm know about your pregnancy too early. As a woman, you can get sidelined. You won’t get good assignments, you could get taken off of a trial, all sorts of things like that.
Sarah was still trying to get litigation work. She was still trying to prove that there was a spot for jer somewhere. But, at the same time, she was looking for an escape.
She had been put into a workgroup called Financial Services to help a large multinational bank implement the Dodd-Frank regulations as they unrolled time by time. For Sarah, this job was extremely tedious and miserably boring.
A few months later, Sarah’s annual review came up. The partners came into the room and immediately asked if Sarah had anything she’d like to ask or say. Nervously, she admitted that she was expecting.
The partners were kind and generous, even though it didn’t change what they were there to say. She had made an error on a partner’s work, then got blacklisted from working on any of his cases. She was shocked and horrified that one mistake could lead to such a dramatic action.
She still had time to figure out her path before starting maternity leave. So, they gave her some time and still allowed her to do pro-bono work. She also mentored the summer associates. There was nothing else to do.
Connect With Sarah
Mentioned In This Article:
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. On this show, I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let's get right to the show.
Hello everyone. This week on the podcast, I'm sharing the first half of my conversation with Sarah Rutledge Fischer. Look out for part two next week. We covered so many important themes. I've split our conversation into two episodes. Sarah is an artist and art teacher. She spent three and a half years in Biglaw before she left and found her way to her current career as an artist.
In today's episode, we talk about lots of things including her struggles with depression and the inhumane environment of many Biglaw firms. Sarah also sent me a short message after we finished recording following up on our conversation about depression which you'll hear right at the end of this episode. This is an important conversation and I can't wait for you to hear it.
Before we get to the episode, I just want to remind you that as of late last week, The Former Lawyer Collaborative is open for general enrollment. I've had an awesome time this last month working with our founding members and I'm super excited that now we get to have even more incredible women join our growing group. If you're a high achieving woman in law who wants to explore other career options, we'd love to have you join us. Go to formerlawyer.com/collab. Now, on to the first part of my conversation with Sarah.
Hey, Sarah. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: I'm so excited to hear your story. Let's start with you introducing yourself to the listeners.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Okay. Hi, listeners. I am Sarah Rutledge Fischer. I am a 42-year-old former attorney living in the Gulf Coast of Alabama. I am an artist and art teacher, a writer and an activist in the LGBTQ community.
Sarah Cottrell: I'm thinking in my head like, “Oh my goodness. I'm so impressed that you're an artist,” because I used to say I wasn't creative at all and then I realized that was just a story that I told myself that was not really accurate, but I definitely do not have a lot of artistic talent if we're talking about painting, drawing, whatnot, all things like that.
Typically, we go back and talk about how you ended up in law school but I want to ask you first, I assume you were doing various art type things before law school, but is that an accurate assumption? Talk to me a little bit about that interest.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Well, it kind of is and it kind of isn't. I think the way you ask that is so funny because I remember when I was an attorney and I would go to a party or something or even within the art world, now when I tell people that—and I still keep my license so I'm still an attorney by training and profession—that people are so amazed by it and I think yeah, it's really funny that you think that's amazing.
Outside the art world, I get the same reaction. People say, “Oh, it's so amazing that you're an artist. I'm not creative at all.” I feel the same way and I love that you qualified yourself to say that you used to think that you weren't creative because a mentor of mine really taught me that everybody has a form of creative expression. I think it's very apparent that you're creative just in the sense that you have been creating this podcast and this business that you've put out in the world. I think we definitely narrow our definition of creativity too much.
But that is not at all answering what you asked me. I was always very involved in art and writing as a child and in high school and even a little bit in college. But I never allowed myself to think of it as something that I was allowed to pursue with any thought to the future. I think my parents were very supportive of my creative endeavors but they're also the kind of risk averse people that raise a future attorney and they wanted me to also pursue practical options.
I also had this idea in my mind that being an artist was being a type of person and I never felt like I lived up to that type of person. I remember I went to a very small school and there were 52 people in my graduating class. I was the editor of the literary magazine but I was not the artist, the artist was Jenny. Jenny was the artist and so why would I think that I could be an artist? I thought there was some great art fairy that just came down and bestowed a crown upon you and then you got to be an artist and I had never had that designation.
It took me a long time to allow that back into my life. When I was in college, I did a little art and I did a whole lot of theater. I actually took a very winding route to law school. After college, I worked in regional theater for several years as a stage manager and then after that, I went through a series of jobs. I worked for my now former stepmother’s dot-com right after the dot-com bubble burst so her timing was really not very great.
Then I went into commercial real estate for five years and was leasing and managing commercial real estate. During that time, really post college all the way through law school, I did not do any visual art at all. I didn't think that I had any talent or any ability. I didn't have a lot of time that I was dedicating to it.
Sarah Cottrell: Tell me a little bit more about how you ended up in law school. Was it you're leasing and managing properties and there was something law related that piqued your interest? Had that been something that you had been thinking about since early on before college? Talk to me a little bit about the process of that and how you ended up there.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Like I said, it was a winding path. I certainly never thought of myself as a future attorney growing up and I was an angsty teenager and an artsy college student and very anti-establishment. If you had told me in college that I would end up going to law school, I would have completely dismissed you.
I spent about five years working in commercial real estate and I worked for a sole proprietor who gave me a lot of autonomy. I did a lot of very simple contract work in that job. That job had a very clear ceiling. I worked for a sole proprietor. I expanded my position as much as I could and in the ways that I wanted to, but after a certain point in time, there was nowhere to progress. I had had enough of the post dot-com stability that I had been seeking.
At the time, I thought that my favorite part of my job, I think my title was leasing specialist, was working on the contract clauses whenever someone would want something added to their lease or something altered in their lease. I would work with the language to make the clause say exactly what we wanted it to say and allow them what they were asking for but be sure to craft the language in a way that it did not grant anything more than we were granting or anything other than we were granting.
I'm sure as I describe that, that sounds pretty lawyerly to me. I think surprisingly, that was one of the things that led me to law school, which I think was probably a really good reason to go to law school. In addition to that, I was just very bored. I had maxed out my potential in my job. At the time, I had also started and was running a chapter of an organization called Drinking Liberally and it was a social-political group that had risen out of the grassroots political involvement in the elections around the 2004 presidential election.
It was a chance for people who lived in predominantly conservative areas, where a more progressive political outlook was maybe not the dominant conversation, to get together in a social setting and just meet other people and have a chance to socialize with people with similar political leanings. I had started and was running that group and it really gave me a window to the extent to which I and most people did not understand the structure on which our country operates legally. I had some real curiosity about understanding the way things work.
Sarah Cottrell: You said something which I thought was really interesting and I'd love for you to explain a little bit more what you meant by it, which is you said that at the time that you were working as a leasing specialist, at the time, you thought that working on the contracts was your favorite part. I have a pretty good idea just based on my own experience but I'd love to know why you qualify that with at the time?
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Sure. I don't think this will be a surprise to you or to your audience but I think I took for granted the human interaction that was built into my job. In the face of what could sometimes be exhausting and chaotic human interaction, the control and precision I got to exercise on the contract work and the confidence I had in my ability to craft the language was really satisfying.
But later on when I got into the work of law, that type of work, that minute crafting of language in isolation separated apart from the human element that was present in my leasing and property management work, it was lacking when it lacked the human element, it was not enough.
Sarah Cottrell: Got it. Yeah, that makes total sense. Tell me about your law school experience, did you get to law school and think like, “This was a great decision. I'm so glad I'm here,” or did you get to law school and was it like, “Ah, not sure how this is going to go,” or was it something else?
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: I loved law school. When I studied for the LSAT, I was 29, I was a non-traditional law student because I was many years out of college. My college grades had been pretty good but not amazing and so I didn't think I had much of a shot. I didn't think about really aiming high. I just wanted to take the LSAT and see how I did, but I have a puzzle loving brain so studying for the LSAT was fun for me, the sense of potential accomplishment was fun. I spent a lot of time at it and then when I took the LSAT, I did really well.
All of a sudden, instead of looking at the local university, I was looking at possibly considering a national field. I got to go to Duke which was a fantastic fit. I visited a couple of law schools. There is a grim despair feeling at a lot of law schools if you walk in and it feels a little institutional and you really worry about the people around you, and as a law school, Duke had really invested a lot in making sure that was not the case.
I'm still a huge fan. I'm sure there are criticisms to be leveled at Duke just like anywhere but down to the structure of the building, they made sure that all of the restrooms in the building were in the center of the heart of the building so the professors had to leave their offices and come into the heart of the building and be part of the whole community. It was very welcoming. It was a very sunlight-filled building. It was a very community focused institution, so when I visited, it felt like a good fit.
But I loved law school and I love school. I love being a student. I love learning. I love the adventure of discovery. I love connections and so even though the first year of law school and even the subsequent years were filled with some of those really harrowing traditional things, I just thrived. I love the clarity of the sense of accomplishment after years of working a job that felt like it didn't have any trajectory, the ability to aim for something as clear as a grade was sometimes terrifying and often unsuccessful but it gave me a sense of control and a real clarity in the role that I was.
My role was to be a student, it was to learn, to try to understand, to try to achieve. I guess the Socratic method which everyone always complains about was not as much of a shock to me. My undergrad was at University of Chicago and University of Chicago's core curriculum, at least when I was there, was still largely Socratically based, so that didn't make dealing with the Socratic method in law school a breeze but it wasn't quite the shock that I think it was for everyone else.
Sarah Cottrell: That makes total sense. Tell me how you decided what you wanted to do after law school and then talk to me a little bit about that.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Oh my gosh, this is going to be a cautionary tale and ignoring all of your truths and everything that your mind and body and gut are telling you. It's so ridiculous to look back on it.
Sarah Cottrell: Also known as almost every episode of the podcast.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: That's true. That's true. I've been listening. All right, to set this up, I think all you need to know is that in my final year of law school, I was the student director of The Duke Law Innocence Project, which is a huge chapter of the Innocence Project. I did two externships: one with the Durham County District Attorney's Office, and the other one with the Federal Public Defender's Office.
I took a class in art law. I took a class all about the story of the case that was about crafting the legal case and I created a student-led seminar on the legal aspects of developing awareness of intersex people and the challenges and complications they face. Just the little description, if I were to look at it from the outside, would not, to me, be a recipe for someone who wanted to go into a big firm legal work.
But when you're in law school, there's a real path that is hard to get off and there's a real sense of achievement. I think I was especially primed to be addicted to that sense of achievement after having felt antsy and unable to achieve in my years before law school. That's one aspect of where I was in law school.
I did really well in my grades in my first year of law school and so that meant that the law firms came courting. We all applied for our summer positions after 1L year but then we all went and did OCI, the beginning of 2L year. I had done pretty well. I was getting interviews with firms that it felt very flattering to be getting the interviews.
My husband grew up in California and it had always been our long-term goal to return to California or to return him to California, to move me to California for the first time. But California had always been a long-term goal. Most people who are living outside of California will know that just picking up and moving to California is a shocking cost of living change, it was nothing we could ever manage pre-law.
In law school, when I'm being courted by these Biglaw firms, I immediately started interviewing with LA and Orange County firms with the idea that we would be able to transition to California after law school. That had been a conversation my husband and I had been having since—I'm doing this out of order—but we moved so that I could go to law school at Duke, we didn't live in the Durham Chapel Hill area already.
When we made the decision to move from Tennessee to North Carolina so that I could go to Duke, part of the investment in doing that was the idea that after law school, I would probably be able to get a job in California that would move us to California like we had always planned. Not only was I in that track of law school achievement, but I had this real sense of personal obligation to this plan that we had made. Shopping these big firm jobs in California was really the way to get there.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that a lot of people will identify with that story because I think there are many people who go into law school with a specific idea of what the plan is going to be when they leave and just from my own experience and observation, I have seen many people continue along on that path because it's like, “Well, this is the plan so I'm following the plan,” and maybe not actually ask themselves like, “Is this the plan that's actually going to work for me with the new information that I have based on my law school experience?” or whatever else.
I'm assuming based on what you said that you ended up going to a firm but maybe not, in which case, tell me more.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: I did. I think if I'd known someone closely before law school who'd known my interests, they might have sat me down and said, “You will probably want to go into public service law and so you should choose an inexpensive local law school where you can build the connections and not incur as much debt.” But I didn't have that advice and so I really got on that law firm track and it's intoxicating and it's disorienting.
During September of my 2L year after OCI, I was flying to California once or twice a week taking red-eye flights back because I had professors who would not allow you to miss a single class without a medical excuse. Doing callback interviews in Southern California, I was so exhausted and disoriented that I should not have been trusted with the decision about what shirt to wear that day, much less how I wanted to direct the rest of my life.
But it's very flattering to be flown out for these interviews, it's very flattering to feel like you're part of a very small percentage of people. Like I said, my husband and I had this long-term plan that this path would take us to California, so I ended up accepting a position with a firm in Newport Beach, California which is a crazy place.
We didn't really know anything about it other than that The Real Housewives of Orange County, which was still fairly new back in 2010, was set there and my husband said he just knew it had the word beach in the name and he wanted to be in California and he wanted to be near a beach. That's where we went, a very large, I think what they call a top-tier firm, high-powered, high stress. That's where I went.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Did you say you graduated in 2010?
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: I did. Oh are we about to talk about the market crash?
Sarah Cottrell: Well, if you would like to talk about it, it comes up a lot on this podcast. I graduated in 2008 so my year, as I've said on the podcast many times, was the last year where people got jobs and then a lot of people in my class year ended up getting laid off from jobs but the years after that were, of course, much more difficult.
I'd love to know what your experience was starting at the firm during that time and maybe if you can pinpoint at what point you started to think, “Hey, maybe this is not actually the thing for me.” I'd love to know about that process.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Okay. To talk about that, I have to go back to the post interview job offer time and my summer at the firm. I graduated in 2010, so that means we were doing interviews in 2008, which means that while my classmates and I were flying around the country to do call back interviews, that was when I believe Bear Stearns crashed. I think I was in an airport or something reading that news.
That means that people who had been given offers of a summer associate position, which was assumed to eventually lead to a full associate position with very little change, people's offers were being rescinded, firms were cutting the size of their expected summer class in half, it was just very, very stressful. I knew a lot of people who were left scrambling trying to re-interview after interview season. I'm getting a little derailed but it was very harrowing.
The following summer, I think there were maybe 10 of us in my summer associate class and we got to the firm, and in previous years, this would have been what had, up until then, been a typical big firm summer associate position with a whole lot of eating lavish lunches and dinners out and a little bit of work. We were welcomed to something very different and it was so awkward. They were trying to acknowledge the situation but also not terrify us more than necessary and also probably not show up in the pages of Above the Law. Does that still exist, that legal blog?
Sarah Cottrell: I believe that it does.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Do you know what I'm talking about?
Sarah Cottrell: Oh yes. I feel like maybe this is wrong because it could still be a huge thing but I feel like its peak time was in 2007 to 2011 or 2012, whatever.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: It held a lot of sway then, and to the extent that the firms are marketing themselves to the law students as much as they're marketing themselves to the clients, there was a real risk of some leaked expose “can you believe this firm said this in wake of the--” Everything was in flux and the firms were all very nervous.
We come in for our, I think it was our very first day and they sit us down and they say, “We know that things have changed. We know that everyone's probably anxious but we want you to know that we don't want you to think that you have to earn your offer this summer. We just want you to think that whereas in the past, it might have been a sure thing unless you really screwed up, just this summer, just think of it as something you don't want to lose,” or something like that.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh my goodness.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: It was so bad, they were trying to make us feel better about it and it was just [terrifying]. I'd have to stop and count but I think 6 of the 10 of us received offers at the end of the summer. Looking back, I think I was probably on the cusp. I think it was probably clear to some people even over the summer that it was not a good fit, but I had my blinders firmly in place.
This was the path that I was on, I was trying to do my best to accomplish and achieve and find my place in it and I was just moving forward. I had my offer of employment after law school so that ticked the box and I just kept moving forward. Looking back on it, I was sick the entire summer that I was there as a summer associate which is the beginning of a pattern that continued through my legal career. I was depressed that whole summer too but I don't think I had the language to recognize that at the time.
If I could go back and tap myself on the shoulder, I might say like, “Hey, wake up. This is the wrong path,” but we can't, we can only move forward. I guess to answer your question of when did I realize that I was on the wrong path, it was much later, but looking back, it was very clear from the start.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, I think the idea of not having the language to even understand or express that this is not good for my mental health is very common. It comes up on the podcast all the time. It was part of my own experience. I think it's partially because mental unhealth is so normalized in the legal profession and especially when you're talking about the experience of working at a Biglaw firm.
Tell me how long you spent at the firm and you said at some point in there, you did start to realize like, “Oh, yeah, this really is not for me,” tell me about that realization and what it was like.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Well, I've been thinking back up over it a little bit and preparing for this or just thinking through anticipating this. I think that I had a sense very early on that it was not a good fit but I think I felt trapped, because I remember being very, very aware that I could not leave the firm within the first year or I would have to pay back all the moving expenses.
We’re happy on a positive trajectory, that idea just loomed so large in my mind. Jumping back to the consequences of the financial downturn or the crash, whatever we want to call it, one of the ways I think that most impacted my legal experience was the way that it left my firm with very, very few mid-level associates.
When I started at my firm, it was a smaller office of the firm to begin with, but within the litigation department, I think there were three or four people that I would consider mid-level associates available amongst the five or six of us who were coming in as new associates and the several partners who were demanding all their time. I think the path before that crash would have been that most of us would have found a mid-level associate to be our low-key mentor to help guide us through the terrifying world of being a junior associate at a firm.
But the pickings were slim when I started. These mid levels were even more overworked than they would have been previously because there had been a lot of layoffs. I think about half of the mid-level associates have been laid off in the previous year or two. They were even more overworked than a mid-level associate would have previously been and they were all traumatized by the constant threat of the axe hanging over their head. There just wasn't a lot of room for them to reach out a hand and help us along the way.
I think Biglaw firms of that model have a mentorship issue anyway but I think it was really, really acute that time. I was set up with an official mentor who was not in any department that I had any interest in being in or any background to be in. I don't even remember what she did. It was part of the corporate law wing which I wasn't wanting to be in anyway and then within that was a very specialized niche that she had trouble even explaining to me because I didn't have the background to understand it.
I think that they set me up with her as a mentor because I was an older new associate, all of my classmates were in their early 20s and I was by that point like 33, which isn't old but it was old for that office to be a new associate. There was just such a lack of support, a lack of guidance, and a lack of mentorship. This is not at all what you asked me. Gosh, I wonder if I'm just avoiding it. It was hard time.
Sarah Cottrell: I think I hear from a lot of people, not just in Biglaw firms but also in Biglaw firms, who are struggling with this issue that you're talking about of having so little mentorship because there's so little time. People are already expected to bill so much that they just don't really have even the bandwidth, it's not a question of like, “Are you a kind person who's willing to mentor people?” It's like, “How many hours do you have in the day?”
It creates this really difficult situation for people where they feel like, “I'm doing this work but I'm not even totally sure that I know what I'm doing,” especially going to a bigger law firm thinking like, “Well, I thought that was part of the deal.” I appreciate you sharing that because I know there are a lot of people who are listening who are probably in similar situations.
It sounds like you were in that kind of position, there was not a lot of mentorship, everyone was afraid of losing their job/had been traumatized by layoffs previously, and etc., which I totally understand.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: You had asked me when I knew.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I was going to say, when in there did it go from like, “Hey, this just sucks,” to “Oh, wait. This isn't just the financial downturn or whatever, this is not for me”?
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Right. I think the reason it's so hard for me to talk about it is I had so lost touch with the ability to see what I wanted. I had so lost touch with my own value system that it was really hard for me to even see that. I was so determined to find a way to get the stamp of approval that I thought I needed and I just couldn't.
I was listening to one of your other episodes and a guest was talking about depression and the way depression will affect the judgment centers of your brain. I was in a deep depression but didn't realize it. It affected my work. I had trouble concentrating and I had trouble doing the fine mental parsing that you have to do when you're researching a minute aspect of arcane civil procedure case law for some hearing.
I wasn't getting great reviews but I was getting good enough reviews. Everyone kept coming along with this message of, “Well, we just have to help you find your place. You just need to figure out where you want to be,” and so I just had the sense of like, “Well, I'm just not figuring it out or I'm just not being the right kind of person. I just haven't found where I click.” It didn't occur to me that maybe this whole world is not where I click.
But I was able to do this pro bono work and I loved my pro bono work. I put way more time into my pro bono work than was acceptable under the unspoken boundaries of big firm practice. I think that was wonderful because it gave me something that I could value but it also helped me keep those blinders on a bit longer.
Eventually I found my way to a therapist, a therapist whose office was half a block from my office because otherwise, I was pretty sure I would never be able to go because I had zero control over my time. That was helpful. She was not the most groundbreaking therapist in the world but I also did not have enough bandwidth to break any ground.
We had this one session where we had this very frank conversation about how I was suffering from depression and she offered to write me a prescription for an antidepressant and start exploring whether we could find something that would work for me. I told her that I did not want to start taking an antidepressant because I felt like my depression was very situational and I was afraid that if I felt better, that I would lose any motivation to get out of the situation. It was so dark. It was awful.
Sarah Cottrell: You say that but I think that is incredibly common. I think there are so many people, and there certainly is a situational aspect, especially if you're in a situation like working at a Biglaw firm, but I really do think that especially if it's not meant for you, there's a part of you that's saying, “Well, I need this misery because otherwise I'm not going to be motivated to leave,” but the problem is that if you are experiencing depression and you're experiencing that level of misery, being able to take positive action is extremely difficult.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: It was. I had also the pressure of family expectations. I was older so I certainly still felt the need to have some approval from my parents, but also I was married to a man who could not have been—I still am married to him, I don't mean to make it sound like that relationship ended—but my husband could not have been happier living in Southern California.
Even though he loves me and he supports me more than I can express in every possible way, he could not let himself see how unhappy I was. He just couldn't. It was too painful and so he just didn't see it. He just thought, “Well, you don't have enough friends. Let's get out and make some friends,” except, as I'm sure you and a lot of people know, it was very hard to get out and make friends because I was always working and I had to cancel plans. I was always tired and stressed.
It felt very trapped not just from the trapped in the legal mindset world but also in the sense that if I made a change, if I left the law, I would shatter this life that my husband was so invested in because I was the breadwinner at the time. My physical health was also deteriorating. I have always had a lot of allergies. When we moved to California, I was diagnosed with some food allergies that I have always had but just never knew. I never knew that it was unusual for your mouth to feel like you'd eaten a bunch of fire ants when you ate a pecan.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, wow.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Right. All through law school, I had been eating what I thought was a healthy diet trying to really stay healthy and I was just always sick. It got worse when I was working at the law firm and my health just got worse and worse. I was spending a lot of time and energy trying to learn how to eat and avoid all of my food allergies.
That was super awkward in the law firm social environment where you're expected to go to these firm social food related events and I was having to pick and choose and scrape the cheese off the pizza and eat just the cheese and not the crust. It was so awkward. Law firm life does not like awkward weirdos and I was so an awkward weirdo. But art life loves awkward weirdos so I'm in a good place now.
Sarah Cottrell: Perfect. I was going to say I think law firms, it's very inconvenient when you are a human person without human foibles and needs.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: You should write that on a T-shirt: It's very inconvenient when you're a human person. I feel like that rings so true to the part of myself that is still in that space.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That's something I already realized but just talking with people for this podcast, it just become more and more clear to me that essentially, it's like, “Well, it's just not convenient for us that you have human needs or limitations so if you could not have those, that would be amazing.” It's like, “Okay, no wonder that environment is not healthy.” That is not going to be a healthy environment, it's literally not possible. But anyway, I digress.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Sometime in the second year, I was at the firm for three years, three and a half, depending on how you count it. Sometime during my second year, I found a Figure Drawing Meetup. Do you remember meetup.com?
Sarah Cottrell: Oh yeah.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Right. There was a Figure Drawing Meetup in Costa Mesa on Saturday mornings. I had taken a figure drawing class with my husband in my third year of law school. That window where you finally have a minute to do one thing that's not related to law school and I loved it. In California, I gathered all my courage and I showed up to this Figure Drawing Meetup. It was just me and the guy who ran the studio and one other artist and the model. I drew, I think it was for like two or three hours and it was this sun dabbled courtyard.
I never got to see the sun because I was always in the office so it was just this magical moment. I had this tiny, tiny little window that Saturday morning. That memory is just golden to me because it was this tiny moment where I felt connected to myself again. For the next year, whenever I could manage to not be working on a Saturday morning, not all that often, but often enough I would show up to this Figure Drawing Meetup. It was like a chance to breathe.
I still didn't make the connection but I knew I had to get out. About that time, my husband and I had started talking, “How do I get out? Where do I go? What do I do?” I had been trying to research other law jobs. Going to a different firm just seemed like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The law jobs that I was drawn to, the public defender positions or the non-profit social justice fellowships, they don't pay the rent in Newport Beach California. We were just now together trying to figure out how to make our way out of this situation. My husband is a theatrical technician, he's a carpenter, a technical director, a theatrical rigger, and a theatrical electrician by trade. He's a lot of other things now as well.
But at the time, the options were to go work for the mouse because we lived near Disney World. He could go work for Disney World and that was pretty much it. Going to work for Disney World would mean he would also be working 80-plus-hour weeks every week and that did not seem like a good solution.
We spent a while we were trying to figure things out. At the same time, we had decided that we wanted to start trying to have a child. All of this is happening at the same time. I'm still going to the law firm and just dredging away where I'm trying to find my path out. I found a small band of other fellow sufferers that I can chat with and other offices over our little inter-office chat. I'm getting by and then I got pregnant. I know you have children, were you working at a big firm when you were pregnant?
Sarah Cottrell: No. We chose not to try to have kids until we weren't both in that environment because we just didn't think it would allow us to have the life that we wanted to have if we ended up having children.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Oh I so agree there. But I was pregnant and working at the firm and feeling terrible. My husband had started taking these traveling rigging jobs, which were great, they were fun for him and they paid well. I was in my first trimester of pregnancy so I was feeling awful. I'm allergic to wheat, that's one of the food allergies. I couldn't even nibble on saltines like most pregnant ladies get to do. I just felt awful nothing tasted good.
My husband was out of town for a month and I was trying to decide when to tell my firm. There's a lot of messaging about the dangers of letting your law firm know about your pregnancy too early. As a woman, you know you can get sidelined, you cannot get good assignments, you could get taken off of a trial, all sorts of things like that.
I was still trying to get interesting litigation work. I was still trying to prove that there was a spot for me somewhere at the same time that I was looking for an escape. I just still hadn't escaped that mindset. I was just really unsure. I had been put into this work group called financial services.
Financial services, the function of this particular work group of financial services was to help a large multinational bank implement the Dodd–Frank regulations as they were unrolled time by time. This was, again, after the financial crash and so Dodd-Frank had been passed and these financial regulations were really poorly written and they were hard to implement. The banks had to try to put them in practice. It was as tedious and miserable and boring as it sounds when I describe it.
I was trying to find my way out of that work. That work felt like I'd been put in a work ghetto and so I didn't want to let them know I was pregnant and then not have the opportunities to get put on other cases. It was a real struggle. I just couldn't decide. Again, I didn't have a close mentor relationship, somebody I could confide in and trust to give me advice on it.
I think it was around the time I was four or five months pregnant, I was coming up for my annual review, the annual review where the two partners come in your office and sit down and ask you if you have any questions and ask you about what your goals are and then they tell you how you're doing.
Looking back on it now, it's very clear to me that I think that the partners who came to give me my review were coming to give me the “We think it's time you try to find somewhere else to go” speech. I didn't have any idea at the time because I was so hyper focused on “Should I tell them I'm pregnant? Should I not tell them I'm pregnant?” I wasn't even thinking about “Are they going to fire me?”
Big firms have this process. Again, they don't want their reputation tarnished in the eyes of law students who might consider them in the future so they don't fire people, they give you a 90-day window in which to start finding other options. I think that's what was about to happen. But the partners came in and they sat down and they said, “Well, Sarah, before we begin, is there anything you'd like to ask us or anything you'd like to talk about?”
I just very nervously and awkwardly just blurted out that I hadn't been sure whether to say anything or not but since they were here, I thought I should tell them that I was pregnant. Law firms had been under the gun, and maybe they still are, I'm not paying attention.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh yeah. They still are.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Are they? Okay, at the time, there certainly was and I guess they still are--being watched with an eagle eye for negative employment action against their attorneys who are pregnant. This look passed between the two partners that now that I realized they were about to fire me, it was like, “Oh, shoot, I guess we gotta change tactics.”
They were kind and they were generous. They said, “Well, look, that doesn't change anything. We're really glad. Here's what's going to happen, here's how the maternity leave works, and here's who you should talk to and all of that.” They said, “But let's talk about what's going on here. It doesn't really seem like you've found your niche.”
I had made a mistake on some research for the partner who was in there. That's a whole other story about a mid-level associate who may or may not have been not giving me the information I needed in order to do that project, but regardless, that mistake had resulted in essentially me being blacklisted from his work.
He said, “I really like you and I'm so sorry, but I can't put you on any of my work in good conscience because of what happened,” which is like so horrifying to hear and also weird to be in an environment when you're not able to make a single mistake without being blacklisted.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Once again, being inconveniently human.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Oh my gosh. And the shame, the shame I felt. Oh the shame was huge. But really looking back on it, they were as kind as they could be. Maybe I'm being too generous to them here because the shame was huge, but they said, “We think maybe this just isn't a good fit. Do you maybe feel the same way?”
We talked about it. I think I had four months or five months until my maternity leave would start and they said, “Why don't you take this time to really dig in and figure out where you want to go from here?” “Where do you want to go when you leave the firm very soon after your maternity leave?” was the underlying message. That's what I did and it was so weird and so awkward.
It sounds lovely when I describe it, or hopefully it doesn't because it was awful and it was so harrowing and I was so confused, embarrassed, and ashamed. But when it's a done deal, it seems like a path that was already set. I spent the next four months pretending like I was still working.
I had some work still to do and I had some pro bono work that I'm still very proud of that I was working on very hard, but man, I was a great mentor to the summer associates that year. I would do frozen yogurt every after. I had nothing to do, I wasn't getting any new work, and I was doing my best to figure out my path out of there.
Sarah Rutledge Fischer: Hi, Sarah. This is Sarah Rutledge Fischer. I'm sending you some afterthoughts. Since the end of our interview, I've been thinking a lot about what we talked about and about my time as an attorney and my time in law school and the journey I've taken since. But one thing keeps bothering me and I wanted to follow up on it just a little bit.
I know that in our conversation, we talked about my struggle with depression while I was working in the law firm. We talked about how my therapist and I had agreed that medicating my depression was not the path I wanted to take because I was afraid that if I medicated my depression and felt better, I wouldn't have the impetus to leave. That was true for me and that was a decision that my therapist and I came to after a very honest and careful evaluation of exactly how my depression was affecting me.
But I want to note that I have lost friends to a combination of depression and law firm life. I have a very, very dear friend from law school who took her own life after a year working at a very similar firm to mine. She's gone and she can't come back. That is a light that no longer shines in the world except in our memories.
I just want to encourage anyone who is working in a law firm or in law school and struggling with depression to seek help, to seek guidance, if you can't get yourself to a therapist, then memorize the number for the National Suicide hotline. Please don't take my personal decision not to get medication as an indication that I wasn't seriously seeking help, and please, value and take care of yourself even if your surroundings suggest that you shouldn't.
I just wanted to add that on to our conversation. Thank you again for all you're doing and thank you for being such a wonderful advocate for people living in this world or trying to get out of the legal world to take care of their mental and physical health while they're doing so.
Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening today. I absolutely love getting to share these stories with you. If you haven't yet, subscribe to the show, and come on over to formerlawyer.com 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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