Finding Your Strengths Using CliftonStrengths Assessment With Vanessa Kuljis [TFLP132]

Today, I’m sharing my conversation with Vanessa Kuljis. Vanessa and I overlapped at the same law school, though we didn’t meet each other while we were there. I connected with Vanessa while looking for someone to come into the Collab and help my clients specifically with the CliftonStrengths assessment. 

CliftonStrengths is an assessment that helps you evaluate your natural talents as you’re thinking about what you want to do in life. I learned more of her story; about working in Biglaw, finding the assessment, and how it helps her realize working as a coach was the right fit. 

I wanted to share Vanessa’s story with you to give you some insight into how understanding your own strengths can be helpful for you in your process of figuring out what you want to do next. So, without further ado, here is my conversation with Vanessa.

Vanessa In Law School

Like a lot of folks, Vanessa went from college straight into law school. Her career path choices were between being an English lit professor, being a therapist/psychologist, or going to law school. Law school was the longest-standing of the three.

She took pre-law programs throughout college, which really helped to open her eyes and the doors to a career in law. One of those programs was the Sponsors For Educational Opportunity program, known as SEO. This program was geared toward future law students from minorities. 

She noted that while she had a good experience in law school, and made a lot of lifelong connections, it was not a nurturing learning environment. When she got to law school, she thought that Biglaw would help her “make her mark” in the legal profession, so that’s where she looked for summer internships.

Working In Biglaw 

After graduating, she started applying to Biglaw firms right away. She got a job at a firm in her hometown of Miami and stayed there for a few years. 

When Vanessa recalled her time in Biglaw, she said her mind was split between being excited to be working in Biglaw and doubt over whether or not this was what she wanted for the rest of her working life. Even though she succeeded, and liked working in Biglaw, she still felt incomplete. 

So, she found opportunities by joining other organizations and doing pro bono work. But still, she didn’t feel like she was growing. Vanessa admitted that it took a while working in Biglaw before she gained clarity about what her growth would feel and look like. 

Moving Out Of Biglaw 

Vanessa had been working in Biglaw for about three and a half years at two different firms before deciding to take some time off. Her husband received a fellowship opportunity in New York, so the couple moved north. 

For the first time, Vanessa had the chance to just pause and be honest with herself about what was next. Oddly enough, she went back to working in the legal profession But this time, she was working for SEO, the same program she had gone through before law school. 

SEO was also Vanessa’s first opportunity to work from home. Vanessa and her husband moved back to Miami, but she was still working for the SEO office in New York. She’d work remotely, and fly back and forth when the program was live.

A very similar opportunity came up at the University of Miami. So, she transitioned there to working as a coach with students. In this role, a big theme for Vanessa was getting students to pause, and really think about what they wanted. 

CliftonStrengths Assessment

The CliftonStrengths assessment evaluates your natural talents. These are 34 natural talents that the Gallup organization has figured out through research that are tied to professional success. 

The results are the 34 talents ranked in order of dominance for you. This assessment helps explain what you’re great at, then demonstrates how you can use that value in your work. 

Vanessa came across CliftonStrengths and realized that it validated so many of the things that made her feel stuck. But it also validated so many of the things that made her feel amazing. It helped her gain the clarity she finally needed to move in a more entrepreneurial direction. 

After taking the CliftonStrengths assessment, she started doing more entrepreneurial things as time went on. She started actually speaking up and doing more things that were creative in her role, and got results. She noted that it was amazing to see herself build the courage to be working as a coach but in her own business, BloomRise.

Vanessa’s Advice For Finding Your Strengths

Vanessa’s advice for former lawyers or those looking to leave the law is to have courage. You are always going to be afraid of what you’re going to do next, whether you’re going to be working in Biglaw or working as a coach. But that’s not a bad thing. 

Courage is not the absence of fear. Have the courage to take that pause and become grounded in the true value that you bring. Have the courage to make the change that you’ve been wanting to make. 

And if you’re serious about making that change, grab my free guide: First Steps To Leaving the Law. You’ll learn the first things you need to do to finally leave the law and find the best career path for your strengths and value. 

Until, next time! 

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Former Lawyer Collaborative 




First Steps To Leaving The Law 

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

On today's podcast, I'm sharing my conversation with Vanessa Kuljis. Vanessa and I actually overlapped at the same law school, although we didn't meet each other while we were there and I connected with Vanessa when I was looking for someone who could come into the Collab, and teach and help my clients with specifically the CliftonStrengths assessment, which is an assessment that helps you assess your natural talents as you're thinking about what you want to do in life in general and specifically for the Collab, and for my one-on-one clients, for what they want to do with their career. That's how Vanessa and I connected originally. I learned more of her story and really wanted to share it with you, and especially give you some insight into how understanding your own strengths could be helpful for you in your process of figuring out what it is that you want to do next. With no further ado, here is my conversation with Vanessa.

Hey, Vanessa. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Vanessa Kuljis: Thank you so much for having me, Sarah.

Sarah Cottrell: I can't wait for people to hear your story. Let's start with introducing yourself to the listeners.

Vanessa Kuljis: Hi. I'm Vanessa. I am a Strengths Coach, which means I coach people using the CliftonStrength assessment as a starting point to help folks discover their strengths, own their value, own their worth, and set into authentic goals, which for most of my clients are lawyers is really important. This is how we and I connected. I help people rediscover those things that make you and help you direct those in a direction that feels really good and authentic.

Sarah Cottrell: Vanessa and I connected originally because I learned that she coaches using CliftonStrength, which is something that I was wanting my clients to have access to, then we also discovered that we overlapped at law school, so we have many, many things in common, including both being former practicing lawyers.

Vanessa Kuljis: I love that parallel and I love these full circle moments where we find each other at these other stages of our lives. It's perfect.

Sarah Cottrell: As we do on pretty much every episode of the podcast, let's start at the beginning. Can you tell me what made you decide to go to law school?

Vanessa Kuljis: Like a lot of folks, I was one of the people that went straight through from college straight into law school. It had been something that I had always been brought up with, as with many people like, “You'd be a great lawyer. This would be such a great career path for you.” In college, I had been an English lit and psychology major. In my mind, what I was choosing between was being an English lit professor because I loved writing, being a therapist, a psychologist or going to law school. But law school had been the longest standing of the three. I quickly disposed of the idea of being a therapist, which is not what I wanted. I really saw no future as a writer or as a professor. Law school seemed to fit the bill for what I wanted to do, then I realized it's such a great platform, it's such a great way to be an advocate. So many things seem to fit. I did a lot of pre-law programs throughout my time in college and I give them a lot of credit because it opened my eyes, and opened the doors for me in ways that I just didn't understand, like I didn't know what I was doing. When I started out, I was very much finding my own way.

As a child of immigrants, I was looking for that open door, so I went straight through. I did find a lot of value in some of the programs that I did and decided to go to law school straight out of college at the ripe age of 22. A lot of things at the time felt like they fit because it was the writing and the speaking, and I thought I was going to be a trial lawyer and all these different things. In school that we both went to, I was so excited to get into the school that I wanted. A lot of things aligned in that moment to be able to start off in that realm, but again, I was 22. We get to change our minds. That'll change our minds in life.

Sarah Cottrell: This is a conversation that I have all the time with people. I had another one recently about just the reality of the expectation that many lawyers put on themselves that like, “Well, I chose this path at 22,” or in some cases, 18 or 15 or 7, like from a young age, especially for those of us because I also went straight through from undergrad to law school, then it's like, “Well, I chose this, so clearly, this is just what I should continue doing regardless of any new information that I receive like, hey, maybe this isn't a great fit for me.”

Vanessa Kuljis: I have no ill will towards the younger version of ourselves because they were doing the best they could. This was the right decision at the time. That's okay. It could be the right decision at one time and not be the right decision forever.

Sarah Cottrell: To your point, I think there are so many of us who go to law school without much of a sense of what it is going to involve. I know that I have talked about the fact that I had, this is so embarrassing now but I had no idea what lawyers made, what Biglaw was, which is what I ultimately ended up in. I didn't have any lawyers in my family or circle. I had no real idea of what I was walking into but like you mentioned, the reading and the writing, it was just like, “Oh, that seems like a match.” Again, like you said, to be totally compassionate and kind with our young selves, that is a very prevailing narrative. There's a reason that it comes up over and over, and over and over on the podcast.

Vanessa Kuljis: Exactly. Not just having grace and compassion but acknowledging ways in which you did open doors for yourselves. I 100% am more than okay. I'm excited that I've had the opportunity to change my mind. I give myself a lot of credit, and this took time by the way, but I give myself a lot of credit for being able to open the doors because I didn't know, just like you, I didn't have lawyers in my family. I had one family friend and I asked her dad all the questions like, “You tell me everything.” But aside from that, I had no idea but I'm really grateful that it did open some doors. It showed me what I was capable of and I got to reinvent what that was really about later on. I think it's become truer and truer over time but it wasn't wrong at the beginning. It was just incomplete.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that is such a good word to describe it. I think a lot of people will really relate to that. Talk to me about when you were in law school. You had this vision of what being a lawyer would be like and what law school would be like. When you got to law school and were going through law school, did you have this sense of like, “Yes, this is what I expected. I'm on the path that I expected to be on,” or was it a different kind of experience?

Vanessa Kuljis: Law school was challenging. There were moments where I was really excited to be there like, “How the heck do I get to do this?” because part of me didn't believe that I would get to be in that space. That's the part where I'm just like, “I made it. I'm here somehow,” but the other part of me was really stressed out, really stressed out. It’s not easy as you know and also I think this bears mentioning, I'm from Miami. I've spent most of my upbringing in South Florida. I moved to Chicago for law school and that was a huge, huge change. It was cold and dark all the time.

Sarah Cottrell: For like nine or ten months of the year.

Vanessa Kuljis: Yes. I'm like, “When does this winter end? Are you serious?” It's not like I hadn't lived in cold places but Chicago is on another level, so that was a huge shift. Let's be real, we're human beings, so that does add to the stress when you're spending all of your waking hours in the library. That was a really hard transition. At the same time, I had this sense of getting to exercise my mind and meeting really good people. That's the part that I was really happy about was the lifelong friends that I made and being pushed. I didn't think law school was going to make me a better writer and the way that it did but it did. I'm grateful for those experiences but there was a lot of adjusting, a lot of intensity, and a lot of, I guess, stress at the time. I was not one of the people that was obsessed with my law school experience but I'm grateful for it if that's the good way to put it.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that's a really common experience because there is this narrative out there, and I know I've talked with other people in the podcast about this, where they didn't really like the work that they were doing in law school or enjoy it. You're not saying exactly that but it was challenging but there's this idea of like, “Well, law school is going to feel super hard,” so if it feels really difficult, that's normal and to a certain extent, that's true but then to a certain extent, it prevents you from taking some of the signals from that that you might otherwise. Was that your experience?

Vanessa Kuljis: Yeah. I wouldn't say it was a nurturing learning experience. I think that may be what you mean by some of the signals. It was different from college in that sense but there was something to be said about figuring things out for myself for the first time and learning that self-reliance. I look back and I say that when I was in it, I was not that self-aware. It's really hard.

Sarah Cottrell: Isn't that true for all of us? Thank you therapy. Oh man. You're in law school, it's like, “This is intense,” and you mentioned that you had this idea of ultimately being a trial lawyer on your feet in trial, so when you were looking post law school in terms of getting a job and that thing, were you targeting a particular type of job? Did you have an idea in mind of what you wanted to do? Did it shift over time? Tell me about that.

Vanessa Kuljis: This is where I admit how unaware I was of what actually law practice was like. I feel like I have to back up and give some credit to the program that I did right before law school. Like I said, I did all the programs. I was like, “Tell me all the things I don't know.” SEO was a program that I did right before starting law school. That was my real introduction to what Biglaw was. SEO at the time stood for Sponsors for Educational Opportunity and it was geared towards underrepresented minorities, so African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American students who were about to enter law school in the fall. We all had to be committed to going to law school.

I'm personally Hispanic, so the friends that I made in that program have been friends for life. We've been to each other's weddings but alongside that, a lot of us didn't really know what law practice was even like and here we are, getting these cero al internships at these Biglaw firms in New York City for the first time. It blew my mind that this even existed. I had no idea before that, what the names of some of these firms were, what law practice really looked like, I mean again, just very limited exposure to real life, real life law practice before then.

When I got to law school, I was already thinking, “Well, this is the path, this is the way that you make your mark and you start your career as you go into Biglaw.” Mind you, I had no idea what practice area that really meant for me but I felt like Biglaw was going to be the thing. When I got to law school and after my first year, I said, I refined it in this very small way, “I want to go to Biglaw but I want to go back to Miami because it's really cold here and I also don't want to live in New York.” I then moved to New York but that's a different story for a different day. I then started applying to Biglaw firms and focusing mostly on Miami, and ended up summering twice at the firm that I started at and stayed there for the beginning of my time as a lawyer.

The whole conversation about litigation versus transactional was actually a longer one for me. I didn't know the answer, even though I had started out wanting to be a trial lawyer. I think I fell in love with the idea of working with businesses. It's no surprise now again, in hindsight, that I run my own business. That's probably where that poll came from but I had a hard time narrowing it down between litigation and transactional weirdly enough, but I knew I was going to go to Biglaw and I really wanted to be in Miami, and that came true at the time.

Sarah Cottrell: It's so interesting, especially for those of us, like I said, I literally didn't know that Biglaw was a thing when I started in law school, then for you, you had been in the program with SEO, which obviously, like you said, made it seem like this is the thing, then you go to law school and very much the law school environment is like, “This is the path you should take,” like it's the one that's most facilitated in terms of having OCI and all of that, so I think it's very easy to have the experience that you had and that I had, and that so many people have shared about on the podcast of like you just show up and are immediately in this head space of like, “Okay, well, that's the direction that I should be going because I care about having a good career. I care about doing the thing that I'm supposed to do,” is sometimes the underlying thought process, then you end up in Biglaw, then you have other feelings potentially. Talk to me about that. You ended up at this firm that you had summered at. What was that experience like?

Vanessa Kuljis: Again, if I'm putting myself back in the shoes of the person I was then, I would be in my hometown looking at the building and saying, “I wish I could be there,” then I was there. Half of my brain was in that experience and like, “Oh my gosh, I'm in the building and I'm employed by this place. This is crazy.” The positive part of the experience was that and the people that I met. That's been a common thread through everything I've done, like the people that I've met along the way, we're still friends. There were some very difficult people, we are not friends, but for the most part, the people that I worked closely with, I was really grateful. They were good mentors and all of that.

The other half of my brain was like, “Is this really what you're going to do forever? I don't know.” It just feels incomplete. I'm not a very competitive person and I became a litigator, and actually didn't get to see people or do a lot of stand-up work. Oftentimes, it was me, I called the role a desktop litigator. Being at your desk with your research, your writing, your discovery, and all the things, I'm like, “Where are the people? Where is everyone? When do I get to be more of me? Where's the opportunity to grow more in that way?” I would find those opportunities by joining other organizations or doing some pro bono work, but really I didn't see myself growing into the best version of myself, just doing that and there are the things that you and I have talked about in Biglaw that sometimes are really not conducive to health and well-being. I'm happy to say I didn't experience that so much in my first firm but down the line, as I moved along in my career, I think everyone experiences some difficult things. I'll just leave it at that. I think you all know what I'm talking about. You start to wonder, “What else is there, what else is there for me?”

Some of the things that I would do was volunteer to mentor and work with people. I joined these groups about small businesses and startups. I did a startup competition. It was like all the signals were pointing to doing something entrepreneurial but I'm like, “No, I'm an intro-preneur. That's what I do. I'm just a creative person that happens to be a lawyer.” It took a while to gain clarity about what would feel like a more complete expression of my talents, of myself, what would feel like growth but it took several years to find that path. It was a necessary journey if that makes sense, even if it was super uncomfortable many days.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I totally hear and relate to that. It's interesting because so many of the people who I work with, one of their problems with being a lawyer, but it's just one of the things that they don't like about their experience of being a lawyer that is one of the reasons they got into the law in the first place is the piece of working with people that you mentioned. It's one of the most consistent complaints that I find that lawyers experience, that very many people who chose to go to law school and become lawyers had this idea of like, “I'm going to do this because I want to work with people, I want to help people, I want to facilitate various things for people,” and you are doing that in a way as a lawyer but I think the level of interaction with other humans that people envision is very different from the typical experience of the actual lawyer. That sounds exactly what you're describing in terms of your experience.

Vanessa Kuljis: 100% right. That's exactly right. It comes as a shock to other people, non-lawyers, that lawyers can be people persons, people people. It's actually more common than you think. A lot of us, like you said, went into law practice thinking that we were actually going to make a difference for people. For me, when I became further removed from that, that was really what did it for me. It's like, “Now you're just changing at my core something that's really important to me.”

Sarah Cottrell: I think I know there are lots of people who will relate to having that experience. Can you talk to me about, when did you start contemplating leaving your law firm, like how long was your process from the time you started thinking about it to when you did it? How did you decide what you wanted to do next?

Vanessa Kuljis: My trajectory in Biglaw was about three and a half years at two different firms. During that time, honestly, in the back of my mind, there were moments where I'm like, “This is really good.” Those typically were the client facing moments like I did as I committed in that moment, I was like, “Yes, direct service. I like it,” but in the back of my mind, it was just like, “This is incomplete. This isn't fully me.” It was always there, then life happened and gave me the opportunity to say, it was almost like life was testing me like, “What are you going to do now?” My husband got an opportunity to do a fellowship in New York City. He's in the medical field, which sounds great, doctor-lawyer, but that's either awesome or we're both buttons for punishment because they're two really demanding and difficult careers. I was actually born in New York, so I was like, “Okay, this is where I edited myself. I do want to live in New York. Let's go.”

It was an amazing opportunity. I thought, “I'll figure it out, then I'll either go to another firm.” But I can't do that yet because I have to take the bar exam and we're moving in the summer, and the bar exam is basically happening at this moment. I have until February. I actually took some time off. I said, “I'm going to give myself this time, because I realized I had never taken a pause. I went straight through. I felt like I had enough experience at the time that I just needed a break. Frankly, I needed a break. We all need a break at some point, especially if you're in Biglaw. I gave myself the gift of that break. It was the best thing because it allowed me to be honest with myself that I did want something different. What that was, I don't know. That's where you would have been really, really handy back in that time of my life. Collab would have been amazing.

There I was in New York City with lots of friends who were still practicing, a lot of friends who had already pivoted to do something else because by about that time, four years-ish out, people were starting to change. Let's be honest, Biglaw builds in attrition. If you want to stay long term, you can, but a lot of people don't. I had the opportunity to see all these things and all the things that people were doing in New York City, and join different organizations, have a lot of informational interviews, and take a real break. What I ended up doing, this was after some more time to think, was going back to work at SEO oddly enough that I did not go into this exploration thinking, “This is what I think I might want to do.” Now, this happened after some time away from practice.

By the way, the pause was the best thing I had done for myself up until that point. I needed it on so many levels, then I got to go back and say, “You know what, even though I'm not practicing, I am really, really grateful that I have this open door.” I just want to make sure that people have the chance if they want it. I always felt like that's how I honor the opportunity that I had. Most importantly, I got to work directly with the incoming students and manage the program. It was really cool that I ended up in that full circle moment. Like I said, I love those, and ended up doing that, even after we decided to move back to Miami, which was another shift. Like I said, I feel like life gives you opportunities and you only see them as opportunities if you're in the headspace to view them as such. If you are keeping your head down and in the grind, you don't see them as opportunities, you see them as interruptions. Part of what I talk about now is taking that conscious pause because it's so valuable. That was a lot of what happened for me.

Sarah Cottrell: I think for many of us who became lawyers, that interruption, part of why people flail against it so strongly and find it frustrating is because it does introduce that moment to examine, and I think a lot of us have that sense of like, “Maybe I want to be doing something a little bit different.” But because we have trained in this profession that is often so linear and so prestige focused like, “Do the next thing, do the next thing, do the next thing,” there's this sense of like, “Well, I can't stop to reflect because I just need to keep going because that's what I'm supposed to do.” I think that you're so right. It's come up on the podcast so many times, that having that moment to pause or creating that space to pause can be really a game changer in terms of actually being able to figure out what it is that you want to do next. You said that you moved back to Miami but you were still managing the program for SEO, is that right?

Vanessa Kuljis: Yes, that was my first foray into remote work, which is really cool. We moved back to Miami but I was still working for the New York office. There was only one office of SEO, so I'm still working remotely for them and going back and forth whenever the program is live. It was a summer program but planning happened year round so I was still able to do that but after a while, before remote work actually became more of the norm, it was a bit challenging. An opportunity came up at the University of Miami, here where I am, and I transitioned there to a similar role working with students, and basically doing more professional coaching type work but here, where I was local. I think full circle moments are a theme in my life because I went to the University of Miami for undergrad, actually met my husband there and now, here I was at the law school, which I'm not alone of but close enough, the U is still the U and got to work with students in that way, work with law students in that way.

Interestingly, as I started working in that capacity of coaching people, a lot of the theme would be like, “Take a moment to pause and really think about what you really want. You are spending so much time, energy, and money being in law school. Do you even know what you want from it?” Let's take that conscious pause, even if you get to change your mind later, even if you came in with a certain idea. I feel like a lot of my experience has been refining that conversation for myself and others. By the way, this does translate also for happy lawyers. I have a lot of friends who are really happy lawyers and practicing lawyers. That's great. You still need time to pause, you still need time to see, “Okay, well, what version of law practice of my career do I want to be in today? How do I keep refining what I'm doing to be a truer expression of myself?” That's what ended up happening for me. It was not like I had this grand plan as I was transitioning and how life was throwing me opportunities to move. It's just that I discovered it one day at a time, one pause at a time. That's the long-winded story of how I moved around and did basically legal practice, then law adjacent roles for the past, it was about 10 years in total.

Sarah Cottrell: One of the things that you mentioned, I just think to your point about whether you are a lawyer who likes being a lawyer and wants to continue being a lawyer or you're a lawyer who's like, “I do not like this. I do not want to continue,” either way, I think feeling like you have some agency in that decision making is so crucial and feeling like you can take that pause, and actually assess, I just think it's so important, again, because of the fact that for many of us, we ended up on a conveyor belt of sorts and I think that is just so important, like you said, for being happy with your career, whether you are someone who is going to stay in the law or not.

Vanessa Kuljis: You can't see me but I'm nodding bigger. That's the part that really now gets me amped up. We are by and large a group of really intelligent, self-directed, hard-working people. Somehow, the conveyor belt has convinced us that we no longer have any agency. That's crazy because you exercised, I exercised a lot of agency to get to be a lawyer, and I have to hold two opposing things at the same time. I was super proud of that and I got to change my mind.

Sarah Cottrell: Now you can't see me and I'm vigorously nodding. Here's where I think it would be really interesting to talk some about your work with CliftonStrengths because what I was going to observe is that one of the challenges that I find that lawyers have, especially lawyers who went straight through or lawyers who had this idea of like, “I want to be a lawyer from a really young age,” is that they come to this place where they either are contemplating taking a pause or actually are trying to take a conscious pause and they feel like, “I don't know who I am apart from the person I have made myself to be to pursue this path,” and it can be very hard, it can feel very weird as an adult person who's gone to law school, graduated, taken the bar, practiced law to have this sense of like, “Wait, do I not know who I am? Do I not know how to figure out who I am?” It can be very disconcerting. Can you talk a little bit about, for you, how you first discovered CliftonStrengths and how that can play a role for lawyers who are in that phase of like, “Wait, shouldn't I know who I am, what I'm like, and why don't I?”

Vanessa Kuljis: There are so many things to say here. I'm trying to think of where I want to start. There are many opportunities in life to rediscover your sense of self. I want to normalize this. This is a good thing. It means that you're growing. It means that whatever version of yourself you were growing into, you've grown into that and you want to grow in a different way. If you're at this inflection point, and I know everyone in the Collab or who's thinking of joining has this idea that I don't want to be a lawyer anymore, you get to rediscover who you are so that you make the next best move for you. You may make another one and another one. That's a great thing. If we're not growing, what's the alternative? We're stagnant. We don't want that.

I want to normalize the idea that as you evolve in life, there's always the necessary pause so that you can rediscover who you are and what you want next. This is a good thing. It's just that it's uncomfortable sometimes and even painful because you have to look at things that maybe you missed or that may seem inconvenient where you are now. I'm a self-professed assessment junkie. I've always loved diving into this and maybe this is where my interest in psychology came up in the past, and still, like you, I'm a huge fan of therapy, coaching, and all of the modalities, they're very different modalities, but all the modalities that we use to find a healthy and whole sense of ourselves. I came across the CliftonStrengths and realized for me that it validated so many of the things that made me feel stuck, and also so many of the things that made me feel amazing like, “I wanted to do next. I am not crazy.” This explains why I don't want to keep doing this particular thing and why I do want to go, in my case, in the direction of entrepreneurship.

Things happened in increments but I started doing more entrepreneurial things, started actually speaking up and doing more things that were creative in the role that I was in at the time, and actually got results. That was really amazing to see and slowly gave me the courage to finally start my own business, which is something I had been dancing around for a really, really long time. That's where I think the power of being able to see yourself when a new light comes in. I don't know if you want me to explain the assessment but I can do that and how it helps people to imagine this for themselves.

Sarah Cottrell: I was just going to say before you dive into that, so I've taken the CliftonStrengths assessment recently and talked through it with Vanessa, and I think it often can sound like, “How can that be true?” But it really is true that there are things about yourself that you don't notice or think of as talents or strengths because they're so inherent to who you are, so one, there's that, then also, obviously, I am no longer a lawyer or a practicing lawyer but when I saw my Strengths results, I was like, “Oh yes, I never should have been a Biglaw litigator, just really because I think my number one talent is harmony. Anyway, Vanessa, I would love for you to talk a little bit about how it works and how people have the experience, like I had, where it's like, “Oh, this is identifying things that I know to be true about myself,” but also just see as, “This is just how humans are.”

Vanessa Kuljis: I love what you said by the way. I also found it super validating. It should feel that way. None of what you see on this assessment is going to be necessarily a surprise but you have that laugh of like, “Oh, that makes so much sense now. All of mine have to do with not doing things the way they've always been done,” and thinking about things differently and coming up with new ideas, I'm like, “Why does this not have entrepreneurship written all over it? How did I not see this as clearly but I knew, I knew this about myself?” What the CliftonStrengths assessment does is it evaluates your natural talents. These are 34 natural talents that the Gallup organization has figured out through research that are tied to professional success, then the way that you get your results is these 34 talents are ranked in order of dominance for you.

Your 1 through 10 or maybe even just the top five are the talents that show up most often without you even thinking about it. Like you said, harmony was one of yours. These are ways of being, basically ways of thinking, behaving, believing that are just natural to you that you don't see as talent because it's too obvious to you. What the assessment helps you do is A, give language to explain what you're great at, like, “What does this even mean? Where is the value that I bring?” then also helps you articulate it so that you can own that value and do something with it. It translates into, “Okay, here's how I operate. This is going to transition to the work that I do.” For the folks that I work with that are really happy litigators, just to use your example, they tend to have things like competition in their top talents. Competition is a talent because in the context of lawyering and of litigating, if you actually enjoy the adversarial process, when you realize that's not part of your top talents, it may provide a sense of validation, like what you just said like, “Oh, that's not how I operate actually and maybe this is the reason why the practice that I did or practicing at all was not the truest most authentic version of myself.”

I'm not saying this is a prescription. If you have this order, this is the job that you should be looking at, but it should provide a sense of validation. This is how I know that I operate. I didn't see it as a talent. Part of what I'll do with people is I would say, “Your results are as important as your reaction to the results. What are your reactions? How did you feel about this? Is this validating? Is this something that you felt some discomfort around, maybe even shame?” Like I know that I'm an outside the box thinker and I've always felt like that was a liability. I've been told this is a problem, especially in Biglaw, that's one of the things that is a sticking point. You don't get to be the boss. There's a lot of conversations that happen. The assessment is a really good anchor to start to give language and color to what you're feeling, and to give you tools to turn it into something successful.

Sarah Cottrell: One of the things that I really love about that approach is I think as lawyers, whether it's the personality of many of us who choose to become lawyers or because of the way we're trained or some combination, we tend to focus a lot on our deficiencies, like what we perceive as our deficiencies, the things that we need to do better at, the things that we should improve on, etc., etc. As a result, you can end up in a situation in your career where you're basically just looking at all the things that you think you should do better and expending all of your energy on those things as opposed to what I think can often be a much healthier approach, which is, “Okay, but what are the things that I'm naturally good at, my talents that have developed into strengths? How can I find something that actually plays to my strengths?” because it's not like, “Oh, don't ever pursue personal improvement.” I'm not saying that, but there is an element of like, “Hey, maybe it makes sense to find something that fits who you are instead of trying to fit yourself into a mold of someone who you don't even really want to be and you aren't.” You're going to end up having to focus on all the things that you don't necessarily do naturally well and maybe don't even care about doing it particularly well but you have to because that's what the job is requiring.

Vanessa Kuljis: That is everything. Oh man, there's so much I could say about this. There is something really powerful that happens when you become grounded in your values and what you actually want. I think what happens is we get tricked into believing that I have to shape-shift and become whatever this role requires so that I can get out or be happy. But there's a very big difference between the energy of, “I don't want this. I want to get out,” and “I do want this. I affirmatively want this as my next step.” That's where it is the most productive place to be when you can see those things about yourself and see how their value adds. Like you said, I think we're just Tired, Tired of being told over and over all the things that are wrong with us. I think in the legal profession especially, there's an epidemic of being starved for praise. We're just not told ever that what we do is valuable, who we are is valuable. We're tired. We don't want that anymore. It's not productive. It's not generative, anything good. It just wears you down and you stop seeing, and believing all the things that you have to offer in whatever way you want to offer that.

It's giving you that, not so much praise but that validation of, “Yes, I know you live with yourself and you don't think this is exceptional but it is.” Not everybody thinks like that, not everybody knows intuitively how to come up with lots of ideas or how to host a podcast and finds this exciting or how to run a business or how to gather a lot of information, and create something digestible out of it? Not everybody does that. You do. You just haven't seen it for so long because excellence is just expected. You only ever hear feedback when something goes wrong. That's the cycle that we want to break. You can stop being tired and start being inspired about what you can do next.

Sarah Cottrell: Literally, all of the yeses. One of the things I talk about with my clients in the Collab, one-on-one all the time, is what you said, this idea of like there's a big difference between running away from something and moving towards something that you want. Realistically, some of us are in workplaces where we need to run away before we can actually be in a place to be able to move towards something we want. There isn't a place for that but the reality is, like you said, in terms of finding something that's truly a fit, that comes from moving towards something. Not just trying to get away from something else.

Vanessa Kuljis: Yes, I want to just agree wholeheartedly with that. There is a place for, “I don't want this,” and “I need a pause,” or “I need a recovery,” or “I need some help.” That is really important. Then when you're in a good and healthy place or healthier place, you can start thinking, “Okay, what do I do next? Where do I go?”

Sarah Cottrell: I love that. Okay, Vanessa, as we're getting towards the end of our conversation, is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched on yet?

Vanessa Kuljis: I think the elephant in the room when it comes to changing your career, and especially for lawyers, because I don't know about you but there's a lot of career change info out there that I used to subscribe to. It doesn't really target lawyers the way that you do, Sarah, targets lawyers because our experience is different, our indoctrination is a little bit different. I think the elephant in the room, particularly with lawyer career changers who want to leave the law, is fear. I want to say it because I think it helps you move through it. Sometimes, you're going to be afraid to even look at yourself and see with new eyes how you have so much to offer that you didn't even remember was true about you. The fact that you're even willing to listen to this podcast, entertain the idea of doing something different, of changing, of joining the Collab, of anything that you're going to do for yourself to move in a direction that feels healthier and more whole for you, is going to be laced with fear. That is not a bad thing.

It's one of the things that I wish people talked more about when I was going through lots of my changes. While it seems organic in hindsight, there was a lot of thoughtfulness that went into each version of what I was doing. There was always a sense of fear. I actually had a conversation relatively recently with a former law student. They said, “Does it get easier? Do you feel less afraid?” Honestly, the answer is no. It just feels more doable. You are always going to be afraid in the next version of what you're going to do. That's not a bad thing. Actually, I've come to view it as a signal that you're onto something. If you don't feel a healthy level of fear, of trepidation like, “Is this really okay?” you're not on to anything important for you. It's just a signal that it matters. Again, as long as it's a healthy level.

But what you want to focus on is taking the steps, being nurtured by the right people and meeting that fear with courage. I say this as often as I can, courage is not the absence of fear. Have the courage to take that pause. Have the courage to be grounded in the value that you bring. It's okay. It's going to create something valuable. Have the courage to make the change that you've been wanting to make. Don't keep looping back. We've all looped in many ways. I think that's a common experience too, but have the courage to do what you said you wanted because you're worth that. Once you get that, you'll actually do it.

Sarah Cottrell: I love that and literally could not agree more. Vanessa, for people who want to find you, connect with you, hire you, learn more about you and the work you do with CliftonStrengths, where can they find you online?

Vanessa Kuljis: You can check me out on my website. My company is called BloomRise. The website is Then you can follow me on Instagram @bloomriseco, also on Instagram and on LinkedIn through my name. I'm always posting and you can feel free to reach out over DM or message on LinkedIn. I would love to connect. I work with folks one on one. Also, I often put together groups, so I'll offer a special group for those that are in the Collab. You can reach out to me for more details. I'll explain that all to you there. I also work with organizations and leaders, like you, that already have these amazing resources for people because I think we grow in a relationship with each other. The more that you're able to be in that group setting with other people who validate your experience, the better. Feel free to reach out. I love to hear from my fellow lawyers and former lawyers. Here's to a lot more development and happy, happy career success in the future.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, for sure. Thank you so much, Vanessa. I really enjoyed talking with you today.

Vanessa Kuljis: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it so much. I'm so excited that we're connected at this stage in life and career.

Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at Until next time, have a great week.