This week, I’m sharing my conversation with Julie Lythcott-Haims. I first heard Julie share her story on a podcast called The Anxious Achiever Podcast. After listening, I immediately asked her to come onto The Former Lawyer Podcast and share her story.
Julie started her legal career in Biglaw, then she went in-house. But after falling out of love with the law for various reasons, she became an associate dean at Stanford Law School for student affairs. Now, she is an accomplished author and speaker.
I loved having this conversation with Julie, and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you. So, let’s get right into it, shall we?.
About Julie Lythcott-Haims
Before going to law school, Julie was an undergraduate at Stanford, taking political science, American history, and American literature. During this time, she began to understand how powerful a legal career could be at making things better.
She saw the law as a tool that could assist somebody in desperate need. It could transform society and level it up around justice, equality, freedom, and fairness. Julie fell in love with the law. A legal career felt like the right direction. So, she decided to go to law school at Harvard.
Julie’s Experience In Law School
When I asked Julie about her experience in law school, she said that her time there was bewildering and scary. For Julie, law school was very alienating, as it is for a lot of people. She was so concerned about getting it right, that it was really hard to actually get it right. She was shell-shocked by the whole process.
Julie wanted to be a public defender that supported kids in the system and showed up for battered women. But at the same time, she felt a deep need for societal approval. So, she went in the direction of corporate law.
When she graduated from law school, she had an offer to work for a law firm in Silicon Valley as an intellectual property litigator. A legal career that was way different from why she pursued law in the first place.
Falling Out Of Love With The Law
Not long after she started her legal career, Julie grew frustrated and impatient with how the law unfolds, particularly corporate law. As she practiced, she began falling out of love with the law.
Underneath that, she also felt that she had sold out, and because of that, she wasn’t deserving of the career in law that she really wanted. Julie began trying to leave at the start of her second year.
It started after her father passed. Understandably, Julie was disconnected from work and couldn’t focus. She didn’t know what was happening, and like so many others, thought something was wrong with her.
Her partners grew impatient because she wasn’t billing enough hours. And, instead of showing compassion for her loss, they told her how to get her hours up. All of this made Julie want to work in a different environment. So, she sought to leave.
Trying To Find A New Direction
To help find a new potential career, Julie asked herself questions like, “What am I good at? What do I love?” This is what signaled her to get a career working with students. She followed this signal to fashion a career in student affairs.
Julie tried and failed three times to work in this new realm while keeping her legal career. So, she jumped to in-house law. She saw this type of legal career as a middle ground between corporate law and getting out of the law entirely.
Working In Student Affairs
When interviewing at different law firms as a 2L student, Julie became friends with a young lawyer named Sallie Kim. Sallie ended up leaving her legal career to become the Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Stanford Law School.
Julie would hear how amazing Sallie’s new job was and was almost envious of her friend. That’s exactly what she wanted to do. But, unbeknownst to Julie, Sallie was pregnant with her second child and was in the process of convincing the dean to allow Julie to cover her maternity leave.
So, Julie made the leap from law to student affairs in what she thought was just a temporary job. Within days, she knew she loved this job. It wasn’t an easy process, with tragedy striking within the first week.
Julie’s job became to help law students on their path, show them they matter, and show them you care about their journey and their choices. She thrived in this new job in student affairs. And, Sallie never came back from maternity leave, which Julie thinks may have been Sallie’s plan all along.
What Julie’s Doing Now
After leaving the Dean’s office, Julie has become a speaker and an author with three published books:
Even after Julie begain falling out of love with the law, she has remained an active member of the bar. She said that perhaps she may want to get back to her legal career again one day. As for me, I love the open possibility of that.
Her advice to anyone who wants to leave the law is to listen to your body, mind, and nervous system. Your body sends you signals all the time. These are clues from yourself that there’s something you need to pay more attention to.
If you really want out of the law, catch my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!). In this master class, you’ll learn the proven framework that I use with all of my clients to help them identify an alternative career.
You can watch the masterclass right now. All you have to do is sign up, and get the link to watch. Once you’ve watched, message me or email me and let me know what your biggest takeaway was from the class. I would love to know.
Until next time!
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The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)
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.
Today I'm sharing my conversation with Julie Lythcott-Haims. I love this conversation. I heard her share her story on a podcast, The Anxious Achiever Podcast. I listened to it just a couple weeks before we ended up recording our conversation and she had shared her story. It was a couple years old, the episode at the time, and immediately I contacted her and said, “Please, come on The Former Lawyer Podcast and share your story because everything that you're talking about in terms of the themes and what you experienced are things that we're talking about all the time here.
Julie started out in Biglaw, then she went in-house briefly, and then she was an associate dean at Stanford Law School for student affairs, and did a couple other roles in higher ed. Now she writes books and speaks. I loved this conversation and I'm really looking forward to sharing it with you. Here is my conversation with Julie.
Hey, Julie. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Hi, Sarah. Thanks so much for having me.
Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited to hear your story. I know I told you this before we started recording but for the listeners, I heard Julie share her story on another podcast, I heard it recently, she had shared it a year or two ago, and as soon as I finished listening to the episode, I messaged her and said, “Please, come on my podcast because the things that you are saying are just everything we talk about on this podcast basically every week.” Julie, before we get started, can you introduce yourself to the listeners?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Sure thing. I'm so glad you listened to that podcast and that it resonated and made you want to bring me here. I'm glad to be here and glad to be here for the listeners. I hope they hear something they need to hear, something that facilitates their progress on their own journey. I'm Julie Lythcott-Haims. I care about humans. I'm rooting for all of us to make it. I live in the San Francisco Bay area, specifically Palo Alto. I used to be a lawyer—that's what we'll talk about—but I was also a university dean. I've now written three books and I have the honor and privilege of getting to speak about my books for a living. It's really living the dream at this point. I have two kids, 22 and 20 years old. I have a life partner of 34 years. My 83-year-old mother is a part of my life on a daily basis. Is that enough of an introduction?
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. Do you want to briefly mention the titles of your books?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Oh, yeah, sure. Thank you. My first book How to Raise an Adult is on the harm of helicopter parenting, something I saw as a university dean. My second book is a very vulnerable memoir called Real American about my experiences as a black and biracial person dealing with racism and microaggressions. I grew up in largely white spaces and experienced a lot of that stuff. It really damaged me. My third book, most recent, is Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. This is a compassionate beckoning to anyone who feels “I don't want to adult. I can't adult. Adulting is scary.” I'm here for you in that book. That's the book that's actually coming out in paperback very shortly.
Sarah Cottrell: I think when this episode releases, it will be just maybe two-ish weeks after the paperback version has come out. Just for all of you listeners out there, put that on your radar. Julie, on this podcast, typically with a guest, we start at a very similar place with everyone which is what made you decide to go to law school?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: When I was an undergraduate at Stanford, I began taking classes in political science, American history, and American literature. I began to understand that law was a powerful tool that could make things better. Law was a tool that could assist somebody in desperate need. Law was a tool that could transform a society and level it up around justice, around equality, and freedom and fairness. I think I was falling in love with people like Thurgood Marshall who litigated Brown v. Board, but also became our nation's first Black Supreme Court Justice. Given that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is added right now with the senate hearings, I can't help but reflect on the fact that she would just be the third Black Supreme Court Justice we've ever had and the first Black woman.
Anyway, I fell in love with law, saw myself as capable of doing it. I'd always loved words. I’d always been a theater kid and a student council kid. I am comfortable speaking, comfortable with rhetoric and analysis, and really wanted to be a helper. Law felt like the right direction. That's why I went.
Sarah Cottrell: It's so interesting, Julie, because when I talk with people about their stories—and of course my own story as well—there are so many common themes. One of the things that I've had a lot of conversations with my clients about recently is how so many lawyers go to law school very much for the reasons that you're talking about in terms of wanting to help people, having very deep commitments to justice and concerns about society and the way that the law can be used to better society. Then people hit law school and come out of law school, and often, they find themselves on a very different path than they anticipated on the front end. Can you talk a little bit about your experience in law school and whether it was what you expected it would be and then where you ended up going once you graduated?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. I felt the three years of law school were bewildering and scary. I hardly made any friends. I do have a couple of friends from law school. I'm a person who made friends along the way in life as a child and as a college student. Law school was so alienating and I know that because I just emerged with very little community. I'm not sure why that was. I think I was at a place that was very enamored of the Socratic method, which I found very scary. I can look back and say I was probably riddled with anxiety, which then makes it hard to think clearly. I was so concerned about performing the right way, being called on, and getting it right that it was really hard to get it right because I was just so shell-shocked by the process. Just talking about this brings it all back.
There were pockets and moments that were wonderful. I remember an awesome comment I made in an employment law class and I remember thriving in family law and being mentored by Martha Minow in family law, and Charles Ogletree in criminal justice. There were places and spaces where I really felt I could show up and be me. I was part of the inaugural acapella group in my law school called the Scales of Justice and sang and did law school theater. I found ways to create spaces for myself where I could recognize myself. But I did find it to be an alienating experience. There was an intensity to it, a competitiveness.
Of course, as a young black woman who hadn't yet come to terms with all of the impact of racism and microaggressions on me, all of the stereotype threat that I carried—I now know at 54 what I was carrying—but then, I just knew if I open my mouth, I need to be articulate, amazing, correct, profound, and that was a huge burden to carry. I was just trying to perform the part of the black person that they would accept, the amorphous, nameless, faceless people I felt were judging me, I had learned over the years were out there judging me. It sounds like a paranoia—and I don't think in a clinical sense it was—but I just mean I was working to prove my worth and I was really trying to never be called the n-word again, which happened to me in high school.
That meant that I made choices in furtherance of other people's approval. I went to law school to be a public interest lawyer. I think here I am at 54 with a lot of regrets like, “Wow, I wanted to be that public defender. I wanted to support kids in the system. I wanted to show up for battered women. I would have wanted to show up for what we now call Black Lives,” and yet I was so needing the approval of society I went in the direction of corporate law. I went in seeking public interest. I came out with an offer to work for a law firm here in Silicon Valley to be an intellectual property litigator, which was not why I went to law school.
Sarah Cottrell: So many things about your story are so common to the experience of so many people. For the podcast now, it's been going for two and a half years, and I've interviewed quite a few black women who have left the law and many of them talk about their law school experience being very similar to the one that you described just in terms of that pressure, feeling that pressure. Of course, the law school itself is a bit of a pressure cooker anyway and so it does create this environment that is not healthy for pretty much anyone, but in particular, those additional pressures are just so pervasive. In fact, you are not the first person I have interviewed on the podcast to talk about that specific period of time at that school and how rough it was.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: I'm glad to hear that because when we're desperately afraid, we tend not to talk about it. It was a very lonely feeling on top of the fear and the alienation. On top of the fear, I felt very alone.
Sarah Cottrell: I think there's this narrative of you have arrived, this is the thing and everyone wants to be here and aren't you lucky that you're here? Then when lawyers have a negative experience or law students have a negative experience, there's a sense of like, “There must be something wrong with me that I don't think this is just the best thing ever because everyone's telling me it's the best thing ever but it doesn't feel that way at all.”
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Right. I ran for class marshal, which is a class leader position. It's strange that I would go from feeling alienated and lonely and scared to being a leader of the class. I ran for one of four positions as a three all and one. The other three were white males. I think they all identify as white males. One of them may be Latino in his identity, I can't recall. But anyway, I ran with these three guys. We didn't run as a slate, we ran as individuals, so it's them, them, them, and me. I really knew myself in that role. I had been a class president in undergrad, I had been a student body leader in high school, so it's like, “Okay, I know how to make stuff happen. I know how to advocate for others. I know how to try to create a better space.” I think I was trying to do my part to show up as myself even in an environment that felt relatively hostile.
One of my joys, I will say, is Charles Ogletree—our beloved criminal justice professor who is now really struggling with late stage dementia—in his criminal justice class, he brought Justice Blackmun to the class. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun came to our class. It was a small class of maybe 16 or 18 students in maybe winter of our 3L year. He had just announced he was stepping down. So I summoned all my bravery and guts and said, “Justice Blackmun, it's been a delight to meet you. Would you consider being our class day speaker this year?” I knew our group of class marshals had to select a class day speaker. I had a sitting Supreme Court Justice in front of me and I asked him. He said, “That would be delightful, thank you.” I couldn't believe it. Everyone around me was like, “Holy sh*t. You just got Justice Blackmun.”
My three fellow class marshals were really pissed at me because they might not have wanted Blackmun. One of them was pro-life and hated Justice Blackmun for having authored Roe v. Wade. He was incensed, how could you do this? I appreciated that if he had just invited Justice Scalia. I got why he was frustrated and mad but I also felt I had a moment and I seized it. It was the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do all at once. Anyway, I had the privilege of introducing Justice Blackmun at class day and incoming Justice Stephen Breyer who'd been chosen to replace Blackmun was also there.
Here I was, the little old me, and what I chose to do was do my intro by describing the seat that Justice Breyer was now inhabiting, which had been Justice Blackmun's. I traced it back much, much farther, it's a lineage of Supreme Court Justices, many of whom have been so profoundly impactful as progressive justices. I had done all this research and I'm standing there at the podium at my law school, giving one hell of a speech, I might say, and it was so satisfying and such a culmination. It was somehow this lovely purple bow taped to a package that had been hastily wrapped.
Sarah Cottrell: You also mentioned, you have this experience in law school with some of these bright moments but also a lot of anxiety, which I'm sure many of the listeners can relate to, and ultimately, you're graduating and you're going to a large law firm. The reason for that, I think you said, was looking for external validation. This is something we talk about on the podcast all the time. For a number of reasons, I think that people who choose to go to law school often are particularly focused on those outward things. Part of it is the way the profession is. There's like this very strong focus on prestige, which of course is in and of itself, this idea of “Is the thing that you're doing impressive to other people?” But also, an element of so many of us who chose to go to law school are these type-A anxious achievers and learned in our upbringing that doing well and getting the gold stars was what made us valuable.
When we enter law school and are trying to make decisions about what we're going to do after law school, even if it's not understood at the time, this focus on external validation, more than 50% of the people who I work with who are trying to transition out of practice into something else, ultimately identify that one of the main reasons that they chose to go to law school was essentially this external validation piece.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Interesting. I really loved law. I really believed in law. I didn't think then, and I still don't think, that I was doing the law part for external validation. I really wanted to serve. But I think the choices I made, once there, were in furtherance of external validation. It's like I got there and looked around and was like, “Oh, hey, public interest stuff seems to be on the margins on the side.” Don't get me wrong, there were definitely people in that place who cared deeply about public interest law, but it wasn't the place that public interest kids flocked to. It may have changed in the close to 30 years since I was there. I think I chose the place I chose for prestige.
I think I might have been better off at NYU, which is a great school, but considered a little bit farther down in the rankings than Harvard, I think I would have been better off at a place that was more aligned from its faculty to its students, to its work in the community with why I was seeking to be a lawyer because I think then, whatever was hardest about law school—the Socratic method, the performative nature of the ask and answer—I think I might have been pulled through those tough experiences a little bit, I must say, less scathed, I would have been less harmed by the process, I think I would have been less bewildered if my community was one where we're all headed in the same direction. That wasn't the most elegant way of putting it, but I just mean, to answer your question, I chose the place for external validation. It was like “Who turns down Harvard?” But I came to appreciate that brand doesn't really have much to do with the quality of your experience or whether it's a good fit.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I'm sure many people who are listening can appreciate that reality and have had that experience. When you started at this law firm, at that point, did you have this awareness of “I'm choosing a different path and this is why”? Because often when I talk with people, they have one of two experiences, they change over the course of their law school experience, what they're planning to do, and are all in on that and like, “Yes, this is the thing for me.” Other people might be in more of a headspace of like, “I'm going to do this but ultimately, I'm actually planning to do something else,” as opposed to thinking like this path is the path. When you started at the law firm, what were you thinking?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: A couple things come to mind. One is wow, that was so long ago, do I even remember? Two, I believe I think it is correct to say, I told myself “I need to pay down my loans.” I had taken out loans to cover the entirety of my law school experience, which at the time was a huge chunk of money, it'd be so much more now but I think it was about $78,000 was what I owed for the three years. I was like “So I need to go, get that big salary, pay down the loans, and then do what I want.” That's what I told myself.
But here's what happened. I loved law, that's why I went. I grew so frustrated and impatient with how law unfolds with the procedural aspects of litigation, the interrogatories, the document requests. It just felt like such obfuscation. Particularly in corporate, it was like, “How can we delay this further? What tactics can we use to slow this down if we're on the defense?” I just fell out of love. I think as I saw law being practiced in this one sub genre of law, corporate law, I fell out of love with it. I grew to hate it.
When the time might have come with the loans largely paid down, to leap then to the law, I really wanted to practice, I had become disgusted with the law. At least that's what I told myself, I was disgusted with the law. I think underneath that, a feeling I could not come to terms with until my 40s probably, was I felt I had sold out. I was feeling like they wouldn't have me at the legal defense fund. They won't take me at the ACLU. They won't want me at any of these fantastic public interest law places because they will see me as a sellout, someone who didn't have the guts to stand up to the system from the start.
I think I was in a self-loathing place, frankly. I was mad at myself for selling out so I told myself that those opportunities I really wanted would reject me so I didn't go for them. You can see how I was in this twisted knot, constantly worried about what others thought, but now it wasn't those I was trying to please in corporate white America, it was those I was seeking to join in public interest. I was just twisting and turning in response to how I felt the wind was blowing.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that is such a common experience, especially for lawyers. I think part of that is because the profession often does label you. Once you're like this or that type of lawyer, it's like, “Oh, you're that type of lawyer.” Even lawyers who will talk about trying to move from the litigation side, to the transactional side, and how even that can be somewhat difficult even if it's within the same firm because there's this idea of like, “Well, you're this type of lawyer now.” I think that there are a lot of people who can relate to the experience that you had of one, feeling like “If I'm a lawyer, this is the type of lawyer I am,” but then also having that unnameable sense of some sort of self-betrayal is the experience that many lawyers have, and almost a sense of like, “Well, I don't deserve that dream that I once had because I did this other thing.” I think that can be really hard.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah, you're making the case for a whole class of therapists who can meaningfully engage with unhappy youngish lawyers to help them return to the roots of their desire to be a servant of the law and of the people, and to come back to themselves and pursue the legal opportunities where they might find a sense of purpose and meaning. Wow, that's just big. I'm so glad to know I'm not alone. I don't talk about this a lot. That's why I said yes to your invitation on LinkedIn. I was like, “If there's a whole podcast talking about this, maybe I can learn a thing or two,” and I am. I'm sitting here feeling really seen and heard and less alone, which is beautiful, so I want to just thank you, Sarah, for creating the space.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, well, that makes me so happy because one of the main things that I tell people in terms of why I created the podcast is for lawyers to feel less alone. Because I think it's so common that you have these experiences as a lawyer whether it's just like “I don't like this and I don't know what I want to do,” and this sense of like, “Well, am I the only one who can't hack it? Or I went down this one path and it's not congruent, I realize, with my values, and now I don't know how to change.” Again, this feeling of like, “I'm the only one having this experience.”
Speaking from my experience now in terms of just hearing from so many listeners and working with lawyers in the last couple of years, there is a part of me that feels like this is more common than not amongst lawyers, some aspect of this experience of “Am I the only one who feels this way?”
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. We're not accustomed to, or really praised for, sharing our sh*t in the street, “We're trying to be a lawyer. We're trying to have our sh*t together. We're trying to wear the right outfit and have the right briefcase and give the right argument.” It's very performative. It's a profession that demands, at some point, a degree of performance to win. We're very accustomed to putting that performative face on and we're good at it.
As you're talking, and I know you have a set of questions, I don't know if we'll get to this, but is it okay if I just share two brief stories?
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, yeah, please do.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Two law firm stories are coming to mind. I was at my firm for three years. I went in a house for one year and then I completely left the law. I was at a good firm and kind people for the most part. I had this amazingly successful experience. It wasn't why I went to law school but I was doing the work of the law and excelling wildly at it. It was a trademark case. I think I was a second year associate, maybe a third year. It was me and the partner. We went into, I forget the name of the judge, it was this hearing, it was a federal court up in San Francisco, big fancy courtroom. We're having one of these pre-trial meetings. I can't remember what type of meeting it was, but the partner was answering a question. The judge asked a question, and my partner answered. He was wrong, I knew it because I knew the facts and the law better than he did. I rose next to him, very respectfully whispered in his ear, sat back down, and he said, “Your honor, my brilliant young associate has just reminded me that--”
The Judge, Susan Illston, who was brand new at the time, smiled and said, “Yes, your brilliant young associate is right. Perhaps next time, she'll be permitted to speak under her own behalf.” I was like, “Holy sh*t. I'm doing it.” He turned to me after that hearing and he said, “You're doing the summary judgment argument.” This young black girl got to stand up at a podium in a courtroom in the Northern District of California as maybe a second year, possibly a third year, and do a summary judgment argument facing the judge, not moot court, not mock trial, me, my brain, my intellect, my research, my rhetoric, volleying with this judge. Listen to me, I'm emotional because it was amazing and we won that thing and I did it. The partner was fantastic and he patted me on the back. It was like, “Look what you just did.”
I knew I was capable of that. It was like the me was trying to push through the brambles out into the clearing and do it, advocate for a client, and I did it. The trouble was I hadn't gone to law school to protect trademarks. I had gone to law school to protect humans. The leap from doing this work on behalf of a trademark to doing this work on behalf of a struggling human just felt like too great a chasm to cross.
The bad story I want to tell is I was trying to do public interest on the side, my law firm permitted it. I had found this kid—we worked with a local organization—there was a kid in what we call the California Youth Authority where they incarcerate young people and he needed a representative. I was that person. I went and met with him, drove for hours, and did this. I was now sitting down to prepare for my deposition. It was my first ever deposition. I've never done a depo in the corporate context. Now here I am, trying to do it for the first time. The older associate, a patent litigator who had been assigned to “mentor” me, I'm now in the deposition, she had never prepped with me, she was too busy. She stops the deposition about seven minutes in because she thinks I'm handling it so badly. She says in front of opposing counsel and the stenographer, she was so cruel, she was basically like, “You are so bad at this. I need to stop this deposition.” I was humiliated.
I think shortly after that, I was like, “I gotta get the f*ck out of here.” Why aren't these people interested in growing and developing? Look what I'm capable of. Maybe I screwed up a little, didn't quite start my first deposition in the perfect way, was it that bad that you couldn't just say “Can we pause for a minute?” Take me out into a conference room and say, “Let's try this again. Here's what you want to do?” It was the contrast like “Am I that awful?” I'm on the one hand capable of so much, on the other hand, you're so embarrassed by me, you have to shut down this deposition so I don't make a fool out of us?
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. You can't see me but I'm just shaking my head and wishing that was a story that was rare and not common, but I now have just heard countless stories of just totally casual cruelty in the law. I was talking with someone the other day about law firms and layoffs and secret layoffs. They said to me like, “Why do they have to be cruel on top of doing this negative thing?” It's already a negative thing. I'm so sorry that happened. I'm also just marveling at the fact that it's not an isolated incident.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. It made me afraid to pull the trigger. I don't quite know when these stories took place. Both stories happened sometime in my second or third year. I would leave at the end of my third year, year to date. I think it made me more anxious, this bad experience. The good experience made me want to soar and fly, and there were so many ways in which I was, but then there were these experiences that made me afraid to pull the trigger, made me afraid to be the one taking the lead, certainly around the more procedural things.
I knew I could make a good argument. I knew I could stand up in front of a judge and crush it. But it was the mechanics, the procedural side where I really felt there's a lot at stake and it has to be entirely buttoned up correctly. The rules of how to do everything, I had barely practiced them. In the act of doing them, I just found myself afraid. I would watch people in a courtroom and I would pay attention to where does the lawyer stand? Where does the lawyer sit? When does a lawyer get up? There's such formality. It is a performance, it is a theatrical thing. When does the judge say this? All of that had to be learned. If I was ever going to be that courtroom lawyer, that I knew I was capable of being in terms of the argument and the analysis and the connection with a judge or a jury, on behalf of, I knew I could do that part, but there just seemed to be so many gates you had to know how to take your lock and open each gate correctly to be able to be in the arena that I knew I could thrive in if only I could get there.
Sarah Cottrell: It's interesting. The week that we're recording, the episode of the podcast that was released this week is an episode that I recorded by myself. It was reflecting on something, a conversation that I had with someone about essentially the person who said to me—they're a lawyer—“I'm exhausted by the expectation of perfection.” There are 130-ish episodes of the podcast, probably, easily the top five most responded to you, like people emailing me, messaging me on LinkedIn saying, “This episode, this is how I feel. You nailed it. I'm so glad I'm not the only one.” I really think that pressure to be perfect and the added layer of like, “Oh, and you're licensed, and if you don't do everything perfect, then maybe it's malpractice,” it is an environment that can be very psychologically unsafe for people.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: I'm so glad you did that and opened up and that people have resonated with it so beautifully.
Sarah Cottrell: I just think again, people often feel like they're the only ones who feel that way. So many people feel that way. Can we talk about when you left your firm and went in house, at that point, were you already thinking like “I don't know if I'm going to stay in practice”?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah, for sure. In my first year, I began trying to leave, or at the start of my second year to be technical. My father died a year into the practice of law and that really changed everything for me in that I began a lengthy process of grieving that I didn't understand I was going through so I was disconnected from work, I couldn't really focus. I didn't know what was happening to me. I thought something was wrong with me. I was grieving and I came to realize that. But before I realized it, I was just like, “Holy sh*t, what's happening? I don't want to get out of bed. I don't want to make a to-do list. I just keep pushing papers around my desk.” My partners grew impatient with me because I wasn't billing enough hours, obviously. They told me how to get my hours up and I just thought, “I just lost my father, can you be a little bit more compassionate?” All of that made me want to work in a different construct.
I sought to leave. I did this little exercise with myself about like, “What am I good at? What do I love?” I'm clearly good at some aspects of this. I'm being praised and groomed for more opportunity, but I don't love it. I need to get out. What do I love and I'm also good at? That's what signaled to me that maybe I should try to get a job working with students, with people, helping people on their path make better choices than I made. That's what led me to fashion a career in student affairs, which would become my second career. I tried not once, not twice, not three times—I tried and failed three times is what I'm trying to say—to get work in this new realm and kept practicing law along the way.
I was trying to leave from about 15 months in. I jumped to in-house because I saw it as a way station, an in-between space between the corporate law practice and a law firm and getting out of the law entirely because at least, in-house, you had one client as opposed to all these different clients. I felt a lack of belonging. Having so many clients, it was like, even if I am on the team that helps this client win some amazing thing, I'm not a part of that amazing thing. I'm just here on the sidelines arguing “I want to belong.” I've learned that about myself. I want to wear the hat and the t-shirt. I want to join. I want to belong and contribute. Having one client, which turned out to be Intel, was good for me. The pay was lower but the hours were better and there was more of a sense of belonging. Even though Intel is hardly a touchy-feely place, there was still something to feel you belong to. But I was still trying to leave, and I ultimately did. I spent one year at Intel before the opportunity I was hoping for finally presented itself.
Sarah Cottrell: Talk to me a little bit about that process and what it was and how you ended up actually making the jump.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: I was at a law firm called Cooley Godward here in Palo Alto, a great law firm. Right across the street is Wilson Sonsini, another great law firm. As a 2L law student, I had interviewed at both places. At Wilson, there was this amazing young lawyer named Sallie Kim who I just really hit it off with. As you remember back, when you're interviewing with firms, you meet with like seven lawyers across the day. Sallie was one of them. I loved her and we'd really hit it off. I didn't choose Wilson. I chose Cooley, its competitor, right across the courtyard, but I kept in touch with Sallie Kim. She was about four years ahead of me.
Sallie ended up leaving Wilson to become the associate dean for student affairs at Stanford Law School. She had gone to Stanford Law School. She loved the place. She had had a child, wanted a better quality of life, better hours, more meaningful work. We would have lunch occasionally and I would hear how amazing her job was. I felt so envious like, “Wow, that's what I want to do.” She was in a role that former Judge LaDoris Cordell had played before becoming a judge, before former Judge Thelton Henderson had played, I'm naming two black folks who ended up becoming judges in California, but who were in this role of assistant dean for student affairs at Stanford Law School prior.
The role had great lineage. Sallie was doing a great job. I would salivate when she told me about it. Lo and behold, Sallie's pregnant with her second child and she convinces the dean, Paul Brest, an amazing guy, to hire somebody to cover her maternity leave. Twelve weeks was what was allowed at the time. She said, “Instead of farming my student affairs job out to all these other administrators, can we just hire somebody to cover my job?” She then encouraged me to apply. Now she was designing a way for me to succeed her. I didn't know it. She didn't tell me her full plan. She just said, “Julie, I think you'd be really good at this. I've convinced them to hire somebody for this interim period. Do you want to go for it?” I was like, “Heck, yes.”
I did the work and pulled together the cover letter, the resume, the references, and I got the job. Then I had to go to my boss at Intel, Anne Gundelfinger, and say, “Anne, hi. I'm not sure I want to do this anymore, this law stuff. I think I might want to do student affairs. I have the opportunity to test drive a new career. I think I'd like to. It's 12 weeks. Will you hold my job?” She looked at me and my god, that tells you how desperate I was, like who says that to their boss? Like “I might not want to do this work.” She looked at me and she said, “Julie, for your sake, I hope you love it. For my sake, I hope you don't because you're one of my top people. So yes, I will hold your job.”
Off I went, took a pay cut, further now to go into student affairs, for the temporary job. I took a huge leap. Within a day and a half I knew I loved the work. A student took their own life within the week I was training. I got to see how in the wake of the horrendous loss and atrocity of a student taking their life, that organization circled around and brought people together with compassion, comfort, humility, and help, to help a family and a community heal. I was like, “Jesus Christ, look these people are human f*cking beings. I want this.” My job became to help law students on their path, show them they matter, show them you care about their journey and their choices. I thrived.
Guess what, Sallie didn't come back from maternity leave. I believe all along she knew she would not. She was laying the pathway so that Paul Brest would pick up the phone and say, “Julie, Sallie's not coming back. I want to hire you. I don't want to do a search. You're tested and proven over these 12 weeks. Will you work for me as the real associate dean for student affairs?” I said, “Paul, nothing would delight me more but you're going to have to pay me a lot more money.” I won that battle and everyone at my level, their salaries went up. A rising tide lifts all boats. I was never more gutsy, I think we are never more gutsy than when we are so freaking, I'm at the edge, I am miserable, all I have is my own ability to activate my own advocacy for myself in this moment.
I think we seize our power in those moments, those moments when our hair is falling out or our blood pressure is astronomically high, or in some other way our body is saying, “Help, get me out of here. That's when we become able to advocate for ourselves.” I think my point in saying all of this, Sarah, is for example, in my new book, which is for young adults struggling, I'm saying, “I'm trying to get you to advocate for your own wants and needs before your body is telling you that you are in a desperately unhappy situation.”
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. Literally yes. One of the things we talk about a lot on the podcast is your body and your nervous system knows if the situation that you're in is a good situation for you. Unfortunately, as lawyers, I think we often are taught to ignore that, to imagine ourselves as just like brains walking around, but your body knows. The thing that I love about your book, I feel like for me, the work that I'm doing is with people who are in a similar position to the one that I was where I went to law school, I used to practice law, I realized I don't want to do this and I have no idea how to even figure out what it is that I do want to do because I basically have been on the path for so long and discovering maybe for the first time like, “How do I figure out what it is that I actually want to be doing with my life?” But your book, to me, is almost like putting that in the hands of people who need it before they end up in that place. I just think that that's brilliant.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: I love that. I definitely tried to do that. This book is long and because adulting is long, adulthood is long, but that chapter, chapter five is called Stop Pleasing Others. They Have No Idea Who You Are. This is me, as a former college dean, with that voice saying, “Look, this is your one wild and precious life. It's yours. Don't let anyone else bully you into living a different life. I'm here to root for you to live the life you want to live and to figure out what that might be to the extent you don't already know, which is normal.”
Sarah Cottrell: I just think that's so good. I think that is honestly a message that everyone needs to hear. Julie, as we're getting towards the end of our conversation, is there anything else that you would like to share from your story, advice, or anything at all?
Julie Lythcott-Haims: All I want to say to the listeners is I'm glad you were here, whatever came up for you, as Sarah and I chatted, is relevant and valid. Take an interest in what your body, mind, and nervous system are signaling to you. These are clues from you that there's something that you might want to pay more attention to, or maybe you just felt really validated. Whatever it was, listener, pay attention to how you responded to this conversation.
Sarah Cottrell: That's so good. Okay, Julie, where can people find you online, where can they buy your books? Tell me all the things.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Awesome. Thank you. I'm online everywhere @jlythcotthaims. My website is julielythcotthaims.com. Those are the two best places. I blog weekly at a place called Julie's Pod. If you're interested in my very frank thoughts in response to what's happening in my life or the world more broadly, that's a free newsletter you can subscribe to. If you Google Julie's Pod, you should get to it and then subscribe once you get there. It's free.
Sarah Cottrell: Thank you so much, Julie, for sharing your story with me today. It really was such a privilege to talk with you.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: So validating, Sarah. Keep doing this important work. Lawyers need love. Look, I held on to my California bar membership, I should have said that. I've been an active member of the bar for close to 20 years now. I think it's because I might want to go back out there again and be a lawyer on behalf of those I all along wanted to serve. There's still a piece of me that thinks I might do that and I don't want to have to take the bar exam all over again. Although obviously, I have to do a lot of continuing legal education to get up to speed but I just make that point to say I'm still a lawyer and I may find my way back to that kind of work one day. Who knows?
Sarah Cottrell: I love that. I just love the possibility. Thank you so much, Julie.
Julie Lythcott-Haims: Absolutely, Sarah. Take care. Thanks.
Sarah Cottrell: Have you watched my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? In this master class, you'll learn the proven framework that I use with all of my clients to help them identify an alternative career. You can watch the masterclass right now, just go to formerlawyer.com/masterclass, sign up, and get the link to watch. Once you've watched, message me or email me and let me know what your biggest takeaway was from the class. I would love to know.
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