Leaving Biglaw To Become an Author and Writing Coach With Mary Adkins [TFLP155]
In today’s post, you’ll read about Mary Adkins, who followed her dream of leaving Biglaw to become an author. As you’ll read, Mary knew the law wasn’t for her by the second day.
Mary has published three novels: When You Read This, Privilege, and Palm Beach with HarperCollins. And she works as a writer’s coach to help other aspiring others.
There are so many lawyers out there with dreams of being a writer, but they don’t know how or where to begin. If that’s you, you’ll want to stay tuned to learn how you can get help leaving the law and becoming an author too. Let’s get into it.
Going To Law School Out Of Fear
Mary decided to pursue law out of a mix of interest and fear. Her passion was writing. But being a lawyer seemed like a much safer career than becoming an author.
In high school and grad school, Mary loved the concrete goal of checking all of the boxes to get an A. It was neat and tidy, unlike the wild west of the writing world. Plus, she had been interested in law, having majored in public policy, so the law felt like a natural fit. So, in 2007 Mary entered law school with an “all in” attitude and an idea of going into public interest law.
She graduated in 2010 with massive student loans. Paying this debt off was the number one priority, so she took a corporate litigation job.
Deciding To Leave The Law On The Second Day
After all the years of thinking about public interest law, Mary was suddenly in the world of corporate litigation. She knew that she had made a huge mistake on her second day. She wasn’t antagonistic or conflict-diverse, which made litigation uncomfortable for Mary. It just wasn’t part of her personality.
She thought about quitting but was scared of what people would think of her. When she went to others for advice, many told her to stick it out for at least a year, and some told her just to quit.
However, when Mary talked to her favourite professor, she was encouraged to wait just another day to make her decision. She stuck it out for another eight months before leaving the law for good.
Obstacles Of Leaving The Law
Mary struggled with leaving the law. One night, she confided in her best friend, telling her why she couldn’t quit her job. One of those reasons was her lease. She was in an expensive apartment, and quitting would require breaking her lease and moving. Her best friend confronted that notion with the fact that people break their leases and move all the time, which changed Mary’s perspective on that obstacle.
Another huge barrier to leaving was the pride of having a good job. Lawyers are very proud of their careers, and Mary didn’t want to leave the law without having a job she was proud to tell people about.
Many Former Lawyer clients struggle with the pride of being a lawyer. Again, being a lawyer grants a certain sense of pride. So, many people want others to be impressed by their post-legal career choice. Some may say that you shouldn’t care what people think, but as lawyers, it’s ingrained in us to want to impress other people. It’s hardwired in us right from school.
The Turning Point
Mary decided the law wasn’t a good fit on her second day in corporate litigation. But, the turning point came several months later. She experienced a list of health problems that seemed to have no source, and she was working insane hours for her firm.
One night, she was working alone in the office, creating PDFs that were to be sent out to multiple people the next day. Unbeknownst to Mary, the PDF files she created were too large, which caused all of the emails to bounce.
The firm’s partners began getting phone calls, and Mary got yelled at. Her stress caused her to break out into hives. Mary didn’t get home until 4 am, even though the emails were never sent on time. She woke up to an irate email from a partner blaming her for everything. At that point, Mary had reached her limit. That was enough. She was leaving Biglaw to become an author.
This level of unhappiness was too much, not to mention what it was doing to her body. She sought her mother’s advice, who supported her decision to quit. Mary left the law for good one month later and stopped caring about having an impressive career.
Leaving Biglaw To Become an Author
Mary found a job tutoring for the LSAT, which she had done before. Even though she had taken a huge pay cut, broken her lease, and moved to a smaller place, she was happier. She was ecstatic, knowing she would never have to work in the law again. And now, she had time to write, which is what she wanted to do in the first place.
Becoming An Author
When Mary left the law, she knew she would become a published author, whether it was fiction or nonfiction. She told herself to take a year to write a book, and she would live on her book money, which was a very optimistic notion. In reality, it took six years, but they were six happy years.
In the meantime, student debt became a lesser problem for Mary. She was no longer panicked about paying off her loans. She tutored for a few hours in the evenings, and in her spare time, she would write. Eventually, she got a literary agent, who helped her to get a book deal, which led to her first novel. She released two more after that, publishing with HarperCollins. Now, Mary helps other writers with her coaching services.
Work With Mary
If you’re thinking about leaving Biglaw to become an author like Mary, you can work with her to realize your dream of writing. Her program, The Book Incubator, is a year-long program, where Mary works with people to write, revise, and pitch their novels, memoirs, or self-help books. She also teaches how to find and work with a literary agent who can sell your book.
Whether you choose to work with Mary or not, her advice to any lawyers who have dreams of becoming an author is to start writing. Whatever you want to get into, just do it. You don’t have to start small with short stories. If you want to write a novel, write that novel.
Work With Sarah
If you’re in the beginning stages of leaving the law, Sarah is now offering a limited number of spots to work with her one-on-one.
This is a 12-week package where you and Sarah will work through the Former Lawyer Framework, which is designed to help you figure out what you want to do after leaving the law. Plus, you’ll get help with your cover letters and resumes and figuring out which position is right for you, your values, your personality, and your lifestyle.
If that sounds like something you need, schedule a free consult. You’ll be happy you did! It’s time to find a career you actually love!
Connect With Mary
Mentioned In This Article:
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.
I know there are so many lawyers out there who listen to this podcast who really like to write and have considered becoming a writer in some capacity so I'm really excited to share my conversation with Mary Adkins with you today. Mary graduated from law school in 2010 and she started practicing, and you'll hear her describe how literally on her second day of practice at a Biglaw firm she realized, “I've made a horrible mistake,” and we talked through how she went from that moment to becoming a published author.
She's now published three novels and she runs a program for people who want to work on writing and pitching their first novel or memoir. I'm really excited for you to hear this conversation with Mary. Let's get into it.
Hi, Mary. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Mary Adkins: Hi. I am so happy to be here.
Sarah Cottrell: I am excited for you to share your story so let's start with you introducing yourself to the listeners.
Mary Adkins: Great. Hi. I'm Mary Adkins. I was a lawyer back in 2010 and 2011. It's been a little while and then I left law to launch a writing career which did take some time, which I know we'll get into, but I now have published three novels. My novels are When You Read This, Privilege, and Palm Beach. My publisher is HarperCollins. I'm a writing coach. I work with writers who are working on novels and memoirs and then more prescriptive self-help books as well, but all writers who are working on books.
Sarah Cottrell: I think a very sizable percentage of people who become lawyers do so in part because they like to write. Often, I'll have people come to me, either people I'm working with or listeners to the podcast and one of the things that they're thinking about is pursuing some career involving writing so I'm really excited to talk in more detail about all of those things. But let's start all the way back at the beginning as we do on this podcast. Can you tell me what made you decide to go to law school?
Mary Adkins: Yeah. I think it was fear.
Sarah Cottrell: It's a very typical response actually.
Mary Adkins: Kind of not surprising I guess. I think it was both fear and interest. I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was 12, since 7th grade. I moved to New York after college and started bartending and was going to be a writer but it was difficult. It was especially difficult because I had really liked being a student through high school and college, which I do imagine is pretty typical of people who become lawyers.
I loved the clear concrete goal of fulfilling course requirements and then getting an A. It was so neat and tidy and I had learned how to be good at it. When the real world, particularly in the arts, turned out to be a whole lot messier than that and I didn't know how to navigate it, I started becoming interested in law school.
Now, I had always been interested in the law so it was a natural fit. I majored in public policy in college, I liked talking about law and policy, but I do think being back in school sounded so much, I don't even know if easier is the right word but it just sounded so much more comfortable to me than trying to make it as a writer in the wild west of the actual world. That's why I went.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that is truly so common. I think for a lot of us, it's what feels familiar, and I think for many people who decided to become lawyers, we tended to be those high achieving, good at the things that we decided to put our minds to types, and as a result, when you get out into the “real world” post college or even contemplate it, there's this discomfort there because there isn't a one clear path and a series of obvious check boxes.
I think for a lot of us, I know this was certainly true for me, my undergrad major was a double major in leadership studies and international studies and basically, I was like, “Yeah, law school, that seems like a great option,” I think it is that familiarity, like you said, you had learned to be good at it. I think that is true for so many people who end up in law school, they're like, “Oh, I'm good at this, this must be what I should do next.”
Mary Adkins: Yeah, totally. As you were just talking, I was remembering the feeling of once I got in, just the feeling of relief thinking, “Okay, the next three years of my life are now decided. I don't have to worry about trying to navigate the next three years because it's decided for me. All I have to do is show up and meet these goals that someone else has set.”
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I guess you said you practiced in 2010 so you must have started law school around 2007-2008, is that right?
Mary Adkins: Yeah, 2007.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I graduated in 2008 and of course, I was coming out into the very beginning of the Great Recession and the classes behind me were affected much more, but I think that also is something that, even if someone went to law school and was like, “I'm not sure this is the thing,” that was not really the period in time that you wanted to have that kind of realization. Your mind was not really going to allow you to have that kind of realization. Can you tell me when you got to law school, did you have any inkling of, “Maybe this actually isn't a great fit” or were you like, “I'm all in”?
Mary Adkins: No. I was pretty all in. But it's really interesting, just to skip ahead a little bit and then go back, but I feel like I knew on my first day of work as a lawyer that it was a terrible fit. I think I started calling people on day two being like, “What have I done? This is a disaster,” and everybody would be like, “How did you not see this coming? You've been in law school for the past three years, you studied for the bar exam all summer, you took the bar, why is it just now hitting you?”
But I just think practicing was so different than school for me. It's like what we're saying, school for me was like I was a student and my only goal was to just write papers and say smart things and then go have a beer with my friends. I liked grad school, I liked studying, and I liked learning and it was really different for me from the actual practice of law. I didn't realize it. I knew I still wanted to keep writing but in my head, it was delusional, I now realize, but I thought, “Well, I'll be a lawyer and then I'll write creatively on the side at nighttime.”
Sarah Cottrell: With all of your extra mental and emotional energy. It's so funny because I think a lot of people listening who are lawyers completely get how you could go through the entire experience of law school and passing the bar and not really know, “Hey, this actually isn't for me,” because, like you said, it's almost like a completely different skill set.
It's like are you good at taking tests basically, which is just very different from the experience of day-to-day as a lawyer. Basically, law school, you're like, “This feels normal, this feels familiar,” and then you hit actual practice. Can you tell me what it was about the fact that on your second day you were like, “This is not for me, what have I done?”
Mary Adkins: Yeah. I think part of it was, like you said, during this time period, the recession was 2008, 2009, so then I graduated in 2010 and I had, goodness, I'm all over my student loans like $150,000 massive student loans. I had actually gone to law school thinking I would go into public interest law but I just got really scared all of a sudden.
The spring I was graduating, it was like, “I think I need to just pay off all my debt as quickly as possible.” I took the first corporate litigation job, and only corporate litigation job that I was offered, and I was like, “This will be fine. I'm just going to do this. I'm going to pay off all my debt. I'm going to save up some money and then I'll figure it out from there.”
I took this job in litigation in New York and in law school, I had done all public interest stuff, that was my thing. I was in the clinic. I did it. I ran the Domestic Violence Clinic at law school. I'd been sure I wanted to do public interest law so then I was dropped into this corporate litigation world and that's why I think on day two it was like, “Oh, this is a bad fit.” Not only because it wasn't what I had gone to law school for but also because I am really conflict diverse.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Same-same-same.
Mary Adkins: I think speaking of the difference between law school and practicing law, it's so obvious I know, but I think I truly didn't realize that litigation is inherently about conflict until I was in it. I just remember it so vividly on my first day. I was sitting in this partner's office, sitting in on a call with opposing counsel on this case I had just been assigned to. The antagonism was so uncomfortable for me.
I just thought, “Oh, this is what litigation is? I am not cut out for this.” Just the posturing and the verbal sparring, it felt like there could not be something less suited to my personality than that, not that I was the one having to do it, of course, as a first year associate, but I think I was the one doing the research and writing the memos, and so I think the antagonism and the conflict is obviously ever present. It seeped into all of our work even if I wasn't the one on the phone call. I think that was a big red flag for me.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. One million percent. First of all, I think there are so many of us at law school, we've talked about this so many times in the podcast before with so many other guests, who go thinking they want to do one thing and then end up doing something very different. The reason that they went, they might have been suited for that thing, but the thing they end up doing is just not at all suited for them.
For example, I went to law school, people who listen regularly to the podcast, I'm sure, have heard me talk about this before, but I thought I wanted to teach law and then I realized I didn't really like legal scholarship once I was in law school and I was like, “Oh, litigation, research and writing, perfect.” I also am extremely conflict diverse and I can do conflict if I feel like it's necessary, but so much of the conflict in litigation just felt, like you said, posturing.
That's something that comes up with my clients all the time. This idea of “I don't like having to put on this persona to be the way you're supposed to be as a lawyer,” even on the corporate side, not necessarily all in the litigation side, “That's not actually who I am.” It's super exhausting. If that's not something that energizes you, I think it's just so physically, mentally, emotionally exhausting and it also completely—well, and the speaking from my own experience—it's very disruptive for your nervous system.
Mary Adkins: Yes. That's such a good way of putting it. My aunt is a litigator and she loves it. It energizes her, it lights her up. We could not be more different and she's been doing it for decades and she's so happy. For me, yes, it was like every day was just interminable and suddenly I had all these health problems that I had never had before. But I think it was like, “Oh, do I have an ulcer? I think I have ADHD. I'm having heart palpitations.” I went to the doctor for all of these things but I think it was really just my nervous system was just shot and it was rippling through my body in all these weird ways.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Your body's like, “Get out. This is not good for you.” I'm curious to know, when you realized two days in “This is not for me,” were you like, “I've accepted it and now I'm ready to do something else,” or did you feel a lot of conflict about, “Well, I just started and I have loans,” and all these kinds of things?
Mary Adkins: Oh, I felt a huge conflict about it. I was way too conscious of what people thought of me to quit that soon. I called friends. I called a couple of former professors. I called my parents just in a panic basically saying, “What do I do?” Pretty much, everyone encouraged me to stick it out for a year, as people say, and not just the legal world but the professional world at large, “Stick with it for a year.”
But a couple of people, my best friend at the time was like, “Quit! Who cares? Quit.” Then my favorite professor in law school actually said, I remember so distinctly, I left the office to go on a walk to talk to her on my phone and I was sitting on this fountain and just telling her how I knew it was just this terrible fit. I remember her saying, “I don't know that I would give this advice to everyone but I think you're going to land on your feet no matter what you do so if you want to quit on your third day, quit on your third day.” Her vote of confidence was just so good to hear and was really reassuring. I didn't end up doing it. I stuck it out for another eight months before I actually left but I did not make it a year.
Sarah Cottrell: I think there are a lot of people listening who will be able to relate to that. Especially in the last couple years, I have heard from a lot of people who are in their first year who are just like, “This is so far from a match for me that I cannot keep doing it.” Tell me what brought you to the point where you're like, “Okay, I'm out of here. I'm not staying a year,” and then what do you do next?
Mary Adkins: Yeah. I started looking for another law job pretty early on. I thought, “Okay, well, I just went through law school. I have all this debt. I passed the bar, I should be a lawyer. I should find a law job that I like,” so I would look for other law jobs and nothing excited me. I would apply for a few things but it would be a sad energy as I was applying. In the meantime, I was just so unhappy that people had encouraged me, like friends and family knew I loved writing, they're like, “Listen, just take a creative writing class. Do something to fulfill yourself. Your life can't just be work and maybe that will be enough.”
So I did. I signed up for a couple of creative writing classes. I loved them so much. I'd run from work to make this creative writing class on Tuesday nights and it just lit me up. It felt so good. Gradually it became clear to me that I really want to be writing. That's what I want to be doing. I was getting enough affirmation too in the creative writing class and people would say, “Oh, we love when you submit, we love your writing,” and I thought, “I think I could actually do this and maybe I want to prioritize it.” But I just had no idea how I would pay bills. It was that thing where it feels so unconquerable.
I remember sitting with my best friend one night and telling her all the reasons why I could not quit my job, and this was months in. I was living in Manhattan, which was and is a very expensive place to live and so I told her, “Well, I would have to move. I would have to break my lease. That made it impossible to quit my job.” She said, “Mary, you realize people move all the time and break their leases. That's a thing that can be done. You can move to a cheaper apartment in a different borough.”
When she said that, it was like, “Huh, I truly had thought moving had felt this unconquerable thing until she said that.” I thought, “Well, I don't know how to pay my bills. I haven't gotten a different job.” It's interesting because for those eight months that I stayed, my ego was very much involved and by that, I mean I didn't want to leave unless I had another job that I could very proudly say to people, “Well, I'm doing this instead.” I didn't want to leave to be a barista or a bartender again, which I was doing before law school because I was embarrassed to tell people that and so I didn't want to leave unless I had a job that I thought people would be impressed by. Then things got real bad.
I was having all these health problems which had seemed to have no source and I ended up one night in the Biglaw firms, and I'm sure smaller law firms as well, you end up working just insane hours, and of course, just staying so late and being on call 24/7. One night, I was the sole associate left in the office. I'm working on this case responsible for getting all of these interrogatories off by midnight because we had a deadline of that day. We were sending them off by email so just digital delivery of them. Well, this is just a stupid technical part of the story but I think it's important because it just shows I was such a newbie that I just didn't know this.
But the way I had created these PDFs of the interrogatories was by scanning the hard copy. Well, turns out when you scan hard copies to make a PDF, it is a much larger document than it is if you just convert it digitally to a PDF. But I didn't know that. This was a case where they were 40 something plaintiffs and we were representing the defendant and so we had to customize each of these copies of the interrogatory for each plaintiff. We had 40 something plaintiff so it took a really long time. We're really pressing up against our deadline so we tried to start submitting them around 11:00 PM and I thought, “Okay, we have a whole hour for these things to go out.” Well, they all immediately bounced because all of the PDFs were too large.
Then the partners’ got their phones ringing off the hook, all the partners in the case are calling, “We're not going to meet our deadline.” I'm getting yelled at and I ran to the bathroom and I looked in the mirror and my whole body was covered in hives. I had never had that before. A hive's reaction to stress. It was these giant red welts all over my face. We didn't get them served. They were not sent out in time because the files were too big which we didn't figure out until the next day.
But I didn't get home until 4:00 AM. Then I woke up the next morning, just a couple of hours later, to just an irate email from a partner about how this had gone down and I just lost it. I remember calling my mom just sobbing, “I'm done. I'm done. I can't do this anymore. I am so unhappy.” Fortunately, my mom had never seen me like that and so her reaction was, “Yes, quit. Quit today. This is not a good place for you.” She could see it on my face because I think we were facetiming.
It was probably another month before I quit after that. But that day, things shifted for me and I stopped caring about having an impressive job to live for and I just needed a job to live for. I literally was like, “I'll work at Starbucks. Any income is good income.” I went on Craigslist. I found a tutoring job that paid well, and tutoring the LSAT which is what I had done also. I tutored the LSAT a little bit before law school, got the job and the second I got the job, I gave my notice. I just left to tutor, told my landlord I was breaking my lease, and within the next five or six weeks, I was out.
It was so good. I was so much happier. I was so poor and it was so much better just because I just didn't have to go to that job. I don't even know, I must have taken an 80% or 90% pay cut but I was like, “I'm just going to figure it out. I'm just going to tutor a bunch. I'll get a second job if I need to.” I moved to an apartment that was half as much in Brooklyn and then I had time to write which is what I wanted to be doing in the first place.
Sarah Cottrell: I think the ego piece is so important. I can't tell you the number of lawyers who I've worked with who, when they really start to reflect on why they decided to become a lawyer and what is holding them there, so often one of the pieces when they're really, really honest with themselves is “I want other people to be impressed by me.” Some people would be like, “Oh, that's bad. You shouldn't care what people think.”
But the reality is, especially for a lot of us who became lawyers, one, of course, humans care what other humans think of them, and two, I think a lot of us developed an ability to sense what people wanted, needed, or would approve of in our upbringing. Of course, you're like, “Okay, well, now I need to deliver on that,” because it's almost hardwired into us. I think that it's been my observation because I have a similar story in the sense that I was like two and a half years in to Biglaw and I was like, “I will literally take any job,” that means I won't have a gap on my resume, in retrospect, I probably should have just bounced, anyway, but I ended up getting a legal editing job as a legal editorial assistant, which was a great, super chill job.
I've talked on the podcast about it before but I took over a six-figure pay cut. It was a lot. For me part of it was, which I now know because I was diagnosed after I left Biglaw with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, and I now understand part of why it was such a terrible environment for me, but I think there are so many stories, like yours and mine, where it's like people reach this point where you realize, “Oh, I have to choose my own emotional wellness over what other people think about what I'm doing.”
A lot of times, that's what gets people over the hump of being like, “I'm not going to put myself in this box of it has to be a certain type of thing that I do that looks a certain way to people” which should actually be a huge gift even though at the time, it does not feel that way so much.
Mary Adkins: Yeah. I love that. I was just thinking that too, I was thinking, “Wow, if it hadn't gotten that bad, I might not have actually left when I did,” but because it got that bad, it was almost like not a choice, my self-preservation streak kicked in. It felt dire like, “Okay, I have to save myself. I cannot keep doing this job so something's got to give.”
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Part one of the many reasons that I do this podcast is because I think that people who aren't lawyers and hear us talking in this way might be like, “Wow, that sounds really dramatic,” but people who are lawyers, even if they haven't already gotten out, they 100% get it because this feeling when you were telling the story about the interrogatories, the 40 plaintiffs, the PDFs, the scanning, and the partners, I could feel it, even though that experience never happened to me, my whole nervous system was like, “I know what that was like.” I could just sympathy, empathy, whatever.
But I think that a lot of us as lawyers are trained to be like, “Well, I'm just being dramatic. I'm just overreacting. Objectively this isn't life-threatening so why do I feel this way?” There's so many ways that lawyers look at their own experience and are like, “Oh, but it's not legitimate, something about how I feel isn't legitimate. I shouldn't feel this way so it's bad so I'm just going to pretend that I don't.”
Mary Adkins: Yes. We gaslight ourselves so much. I remember doing that so much just thinking, “Why are you so unhappy? You're lucky.” I would tell myself, “You're lucky. Look at your life, you're making so much money, you're making so much more money than your parents ever made. You get to do research that you don't find uninteresting.” The legal research part I didn't actually mind, but it was the context of all of it. With the PDF story, it's like the fake stakes of everything being this thing that you can just royally screw up if you do one tiny thing wrong, just the pressure of that and being inundated with that all the time is just not a good way to live.
Sarah Cottrell: No, it is not.
Hey, it's Sarah. I want to remind you that I am now working with a very limited number of lawyers one-on-one who are trying to figure out what it is that they want to do that isn't practicing law. What we'll do when we work together one-on-one is we will meet for 12 weeks and you and I will walk through the framework that I've created to help lawyers do exactly that. On top of personalizing that and making individualized choices about which pieces of that you need to focus on, spend more time on, spend less time on, I also have the capacity to lend my brain to your situation.
When we're working together one-on-one, I'm able to look at cover letters, resumes, and other things that you may be putting together, cold outreach emails, figuring out whom you might want to reach out to, figuring out, “Okay, I have all this information about who I am, values, personality, strengths, etc., from these various assessments, but how do I put that together into a picture of what it is that I actually want to be doing? How do I figure out what I actually want my life and career to look like?” all of those things.
If that sounds like something that would be helpful to you, I would love to talk with you about whether or not working with me one-on-one is the right fit for you. Go to the website, the Work With Me drop-down, there's a link to information about working with me one-on-one. You can see more details and the price as well as the button to book a free consult with me so that we can talk through whether working with me in this capacity would be the right fit for you. I onboard one new one-on-one client per month so if this is something that you're interested in, definitely schedule that call as soon as you can because I fill the spots on a first-come-first-served basis. I look forward to talking with you about whether working together one-on-one could be a good fit.
Okay. Let's talk about, you’re tutoring and you’re writing. That was what you basically knew you always wanted to do but hadn't pursued for various reasons. I know you've published three books now so can you talk a little bit about how you went from tutoring and writing to publishing those books?
Mary Adkins: Yeah. When I left my job and I thought I'm going to become a published author, I didn't know whether I wanted to write fiction or nonfiction but I knew I wanted to publish books and I thought, “Oh, it'll take me about a year. I'll write a book and maybe it'll be a year before it comes out. I'll tutor for a year and then I'll just live on my book money,” which now I think is very cute.
Sarah Cottrell: It's very admirable, it's a level of self-confidence.
Mary Adkins: Yeah, it was optimistic. I think part of it too is a year to me still sounded a long time but it ended up taking me more six to actually write a good enough book, to get a literary agent, and then sell my first book. That took me about six years but those six years were still such happy years.
When you said six-figure pay cut, I did the math and I was like, “Oh, me too.” To this day, I still have law school debt. I still haven't paid it off but leaving law, not a day has gone by when I have regretted it because for the longest time, I would wake up in the morning with this panicky feeling and then I would remember, I didn't have to go to a law job and just ah, it didn't matter what else I had to do that day. I was just like, “But I don't have to do that and that is what matters.”
Sarah Cottrell: You're like, I have won today.
Mary Adkins: Yes. I would tutor from anywhere from three to five hours in the evenings, which even on those longer days, again, I think that experience in my law job gave me such a healthy and grateful perspective going forward because even if it was like, “Oh, I have five hours of tutoring ahead and it's all just tutoring the LSAT. I'm so sick of the LSAT,” I was still just like, “Ugh, but just glad I get to do this.” It was just such lower stakes than someone biting my head off for scanning a PDF instead of doing it another way. In the daytime, I would write and take writing classes. It was great.
I actually look back, it's like that La bohème type Bohemian, I look back now on my poor days as a tutor without any kind of book deal or anything but just quietly, solitarily working on this novel in my apartment in Brooklyn. I feel really nostalgic for it because I was like figuring it out and I think I was having a lot of fun too. It did take a while. I eventually did get a literary agent which is if you want to traditionally publish instead of self-publish, that's how you get a book deal. I got a literary agent and she sold my first novel.
That was really the hardest part from there. I sold my next two novels to my same editor at HarperCollins and so after that, things were a lot easier. It was really getting the agent that was the hardest part and figuring out how to write that first novel.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that there are pieces of the process of getting published traditionally that if people aren't familiar with it, they might not know, for example, like you said that it's not just getting a publishing house or a publisher to publish your book, it's finding an agent and doing all of these other things, writing the proposal. There are all these different pieces that go into the ultimate getting of a book deal.
Mary Adkins: Yeah, exactly. You have to learn what those are. Then the next thing I did, I mentioned earlier that I'm a writing coach now, so once I figured out how to do all of this, which I really did have to hobble together, there wasn't one writing class or program that taught me how to do this, I had to figure a lot of it out on my own, but once I figured out what was the best process of actually writing a novel, how do you get a literary agent, because I did everything the wrong way first naturally and then learned from my own mistakes, once my first novel came out, that's when I thought, “Maybe I'll create a writing program, teaching people what I've learned about how to write a book and get it published.”
Because also by that point, I had tutored this whole time for that same company and I had risen through the ranks of the company, it was this little education company, to become their curriculum designer and to teach some other tasks. I had actually learned a lot. Since quitting my law job, I had learned a lot about pedagogy, about how to teach and how to teach in a way that people actually learn and how to teach them to set goals and reach them. It seemed like, “Oh, I've actually learned a lot in the context of standardized testing that I could apply to the realm of writing, to actually teach people how to write their novels and get them published.” I started that service right after my first novel came out in 2019.
Sarah Cottrell: So 2019, I'm doing math, three years, you've been working with people for about three years in addition to the book writing. Can you talk to me a little bit about what that looks like, how that has evolved? I think also it's just really helpful for people to hear if there are things that you apply from your experience as a lawyer/law student that help you in the running of the coaching or even the process of getting published.
Mary Adkins: Yeah. It's interesting because I'm asked that question a lot, how having gone to law school and then briefly being a lawyer helped me with my writing and with running my small business. I think it's more the intangible stuff of, first of all, back when we were law students and we wrote those law exams, we had to write so much in such a short amount of time, you just had to spill words onto a page. Same with the bar exam, you just had to dump all of these words onto the page.
I remember [being] like, “Just write a lot,” and that is a huge asset when it comes to writing because so many writers are just really precious about even a first draft, they really struggle with that. It's not that lawyers don't struggle with that, but I find they struggle less I think because we've undergone this training where we have to just be really verbose, we have to just ramble.
Sarah Cottrell: Just put words on the page.
Mary Adkins: Yeah. I think it really helps because ultimately with the first draft, that's what you want to be doing is just getting words on a page. If you're too precious about it, you don't get anything there in the first place, which means you can't revise it later, you have nothing to work with. That's been really helpful for me because that's one thing that I do think I've mastered, is not being too precious about the first draft. I just have very low standards for a first draft and it's really helpful.
I think I've seen that for other lawyers, for lawyers or former lawyers, I've worked with both. That's one. Then two is the volume of work involved. Law school was so hard, it's just the amount of reading, just the workload. I think everything in retrospect, writing has never seemed for me as difficult as law school was, even if I do try to read all the time, I try to write pretty prolifically, I revise and revise and revise again. But I know some people come to that and that's what it takes if you want to be a professional author.
Some people come to that and they are like, “Oh, this is so much more work than I thought it was going to be.” Then other people come to it, again, often lawyers, and they're like, “No, this is not as much work as what I've done in the past,” so it's all about the perspective.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I can definitely see that. It's so interesting because this is a conversation I've had with multiple people in the last couple of weeks, multiple clients, it's so easy as a lawyer, especially if you're working in an environment that's all lawyers, to totally discount any skills, abilities, or qualities you've developed because of your job and your training. One of those with lawyers is just a lot of grit and a lot of, like you said, just doing the work even when the work is endless.
I think that people just don't really think of that often as a quality, a skill, or something they bring to the table or that they would bring to a different type of role because it's so expected. It's like, “Well, of course, I do the things that need to get done. That's literally my job,” but it actually is a super helpful skill or quality to have developed, especially in something like what you're talking about with writing where it's a lot of self-directed work.
Mary Adkins: Yeah. I love that. Grit is the word. That's a great word for it, the grit. Then also another skill that I think lawyers will take for granted but that's huge is both being a close reader and being a structural reader. Lawyers are so—we had to be, that was all of our education and then passing whatever bar we took—but we read very closely, we're looking at language carefully in order to decipher its meaning and possible interpretations.
We're also reading structurally. It's like, “Okay, how is this brief laid out? How is it organized? What are the pieces of it? How does it fit together?” Both of those skills are just massively helpful for writing creatively and things that, again, people who haven't been practiced in that, it's harder for them. There's a more of a learning curve because you have to learn how to do that, but lawyers already know how to do that.
They could look at a chapter. For example, using my former legal skills, if someone sends me a chapter that they wrote, as I read it, I can very quickly create a road map of it in my head. It starts here, it goes here, and it ends here. Then I can think about whether the shape of that works or not. I think that's really valuable as well.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I can see how that would be really helpful and I imagine that a lot of the lawyers listening will be like, “Oh, yeah. I see how I do that in other contexts.” We're getting close to the end of our time, but I just wanted to ask you, I'm sure that there are lawyers who are listening who are like, “I want to write this novel that I haven't written and I don't know where to start,” so if someone, lawyer or not, is interested in working with you, how does that work? What is the process? Just if you'd like to share a little bit about that, I think that would be interesting.
Mary Adkins: Yeah, sure. I started this program called The Book Incubator. It's a year-long program, it's 12 months, and I work with people to write, revise, and pitch if they want to traditionally publish their novels, memoirs, or their self-help prescriptive books like Quiet, the book about introverts as an example, a Malcolm Gladwell style book, but I have fewer clients who are working on that.
Most of my clients are working on novels or memoirs. I just teach you my process for writing, revising, and pitching, meaning getting a literary agent to sell your book for you. It's an application-based program so they can just go to thebookincubator.com and apply. It's a short application. I just ask people to tell me a little bit about their book idea and what they're struggling with or what they want help with just because we keep it a pretty intimate, just curated community of serious writers. That's the reason I just have a two-question application.
But I do want to say, whether people end up looking into that program or not, I do find a lot of times, when I talk to friends, it's funny, a few of my friends who I went to law school with secretly have written novels or talk about the novels that they secretly want to write. I had never written any fiction, not even a short story that I was proud of when I started writing my first novel. I went from zero fiction to writing a novel. That became my first novel.
I just want people to know that if you have a novel idea, if you're curious about it, you don't have to start small, you don't have to think, “Oh, I should write short stories first.” I've also now known a number of novelists who have said the same thing. They went from writing no fiction to writing a novel. A novel is just completely different than a short story. A short story is not a stepping stone so if you have an idea, just here's a permission slip to go for it because I did and I'm glad I did.
Sarah Cottrell: I love that. Is there anything else, as we're getting to the end of our conversation, that you'd like to share that we haven't touched on yet?
Mary Adkins: No. I guess the only other thing is if they do want to check out my own podcast or read my blog, they can go to maryadkinswriter.com and I have a bunch of stuff there. They can read more about my story and blog posts. I have blog posts with just writing tips, strategies, and stuff too.
Sarah Cottrell: Perfect. Thank you so much, Mary, for sharing your story. It was really fun to talk to you today.
Mary Adkins: My pleasure. Thank you. So good to be on the podcast.
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 formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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