Setting Aside Prestige and Leaving Law for Therapy with Yael Eiserike [TFLP173]
In this episode of the Former Lawyer Podcast, Sarah interviews Yael Eiserike, a former lawyer turned therapist. They talk about the challenges of leaving law for therapy, from deciding to go back to school, why therapy felt like the best fit for Yael, and what advice she has for any current lawyers debating making a big change in their life.
Going into Law to Impress and Earn Prestige
Yael was born in Argentina and moved to the United States as a child. Spanish was her first language, but she quickly learned English and was a fantastic student. While in college, to earn her undergraduate degree, she went to a career counseling service and took all kinds of tests about skill sets. An attorney was one of the top options that came up. She majored in political science and psychology and decided to apply to law school.
Being from an immigrant background, Yael felt pressured to pursue the American dream. Many children from immigrant families put that pressure on themselves. What better way to become an American than to learn the legal system, advocate, and participate? She dreamt of going into immigration law to help other families. Going to law school was prestigious, well-regarded, and provided opportunities to help people.
Yael’s first big red flag should have been the preparation for the LSAT because she hated studying for it. But she powered through and loved being challenged. Law school provided a clear path for a few years instead of having to dive into the messiness of the real world. Another red flag came during one of her first classes. The professor asked a question about who should be sued in a special civil suit, and then he shared that the correct answer is “whoever has the deepest pockets.” So many conversations through school were about who pays the most, it started to turn her off from the entire industry.
Avoiding the Golden Handcuffs and Law School Conveyor Belt
Sarah often refers to law school as a conveyor belt that molds lawyers and influences career decisions. Yael said the system had power over her even before she started law school. She applied to many different schools with the concerns she wouldn’t get in and was pleasantly surprised with the number of acceptance letters. She chose a school she didn’t know much about in an unfamiliar city because it was a top-20 school instead of a law school that was working with migrant farm workers that she had been excited about.
So many students enter school with great intentions to go into public interest and help people. Still, over time, they are exposed to so many conversations about money and prestige that those sound bites can have a big impact.
Yael felt passionate about public interest and did her internships in this area. She had great mentors that she had a lot of respect for. They told her to go to a big firm right out of school for a few years. The training programs are great, and many public interest firms don’t have the resources to provide training. They warned her about the golden handcuffs. This was a big help for her because she knew that the big firm wouldn’t be the end-all, be-all. She found great coworkers and mentors at her firm and really respected them. In fact, if she did it all over again, she would still choose the same firm.
The moment of clarity for Yael happened on a six-hour drive to a trial. This was the pinnacle for lawyers; an employment defense case went to trial, yet she was still miserable. She had to drive from LA to Northern California with very few radio options, which gave her uninterrupted time to think. She had been dealing with the Sunday Scaries so many lawyers deal with. Her connections with coworkers involved tears and commiserations, so it felt normal, but she knew this wasn’t right.
Making the Change from Law to Therapy
Yael knew she no longer wanted to be a lawyer, but what was next? One day, she found herself in a Starbucks, feeling envious of the baristas. They got to make coffee and then leave to go home. Realizing she couldn’t even make a cappuccino, she thought she couldn’t even work at Starbucks and had no skills outside of the law. It’s an easy trap that many lawyers fall into.
Another common thread for former lawyers is looking at the people in jobs you are working towards and realizing that you don’t want that. Yael considered what life would look like in five, ten, and twenty years. She saw how much the women at her firm who got married and started a family struggled personally and professionally, trying to keep up in both parts of life.
Being a lawyer wasn’t about the money for Yael, it was about identity and prestige. She finally allowed herself to sit down, put aside her ego and prestige, and asked what she really wanted to do. It came to her easily, she wanted to get her masters in social work. Her parents were therapists, and she knew a lot about the field.
Returning to school can be a big challenge for others, but Yael loved school. It was a place of comfort for her. She studied for her GRE and took the test in just six days. The social work program was the opposite of law school. There were two years of practical internships, so she got to do the work immediately. She just needed to set the obstacles aside and realize that those were self-imposed.
Helping Other Lawyers as a Therapist and Former Lawyer
Leaving law for therapy was the perfect fit for Yael. She can help people and feels gratitude at work every day. She is in private practice and sees many lawyers. Having a background as a lawyer helps because she understands the professional and cultural piece and speaks directly to it. She understands a billable hour, and clients don’t need to explain EOY stress about hours. Law-informed therapists can benefit current and former lawyers because they understand.
Yael can work with lawyers to create healthy boundaries. She understands big firm culture and environments where breaks aren’t really breaks because you’ll have to make up the work later. Instead, she talks to clients about building their foundation around what brings them joy. Understanding what things replenish you in life is important. Once you have a list, you can prioritize those things. Yael can help clients do just that.
Advice for Anyone Considering Leaving Law for Therapy
If you’re interested in leaving law for therapy, Yael recommends talking to people you trust in the field so you can ask questions and understand more about school and daily routines. Most importantly, check in with yourself emotionally and physically. Understand what makes you excited. Look at where you find joy and get in touch with your feelings.
Yael ends with a moment she clearly remembers when she joined the law firm after school. Someone asked her, “Do you want to be a lawyer who drinks or runs?” She realized over time that lawyers typically choose one of those outlets to help balance out the intensity of work. Do you really want to be in a job that requires that type of counterbalance? Funny enough, when working at the firm, Yael became a runner and ran two marathons, so clearly, she felt she needed to choose one.
Get in touch with Yael Eiserike via email. She’s happy to answer any questions from lawyers wanting to become a therapist or seeking a law-informed therapist. If you’re looking for coaching to devise a practical plan to leave law, check out Sarah’s 1:1 Coaching program.
Connect with Yael Eiserike
UM The Former Lawyer Podcast Episode 173 - Yael Eiserike
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.
Hello everyone. I'm so excited to share another installment in our little mini-series of former lawyers who have decided to become therapists and are working as therapists. Today, I'm sharing my conversation with Yael Eiserike. Yael left her large law firm after three years to go back to school to get her master's in social work and has been working as a therapist for almost 10 years.
She currently works in private practice and many of her clients are lawyers which is unsurprising because as I'm sure you know if you listen to the podcast, there is just something about being able to talk with another lawyer about the experiences that you're having in the law that can be incredibly helpful. Without further ado, let's get to my conversation with Yael.
Hi, Yael, welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Yael Eiserike: Thank you so much for having me. I am really excited to be here.
Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited for you to share your story. I thought I would just briefly tell the listeners how we met virtually. There are a lot of lawyers, including many lawyers in The Former Lawyer Collaborative who are considering becoming therapists as one of their potential new career paths and so I hosted a panel with three former lawyers who I know who are now therapists or on their way to becoming therapists in the Collab maybe a month ago at the time we're recording this, recording right before Thanksgiving in the states.
I literally got off that webinar for the Collab and went and looked at my email and I had an email from you that was like, “I am a former lawyer who's now a therapist and I found your website. We are on the same wavelength,” and so I just think it's so interesting because—and we'll talk about this a bit more as we go along—but that is a part of the reason why I'm doing this series with multiple former lawyers who have now become therapists. All of that to say, why don't you introduce yourself briefly to the listeners and we'll dive into your story?
Yael Eiserike: Great. My name is Yael Eiserike. I am a former lawyer. I worked at a large firm from 2008 to 2011. At that point, I left my firm and went to get my master's in social work, worked in community mental health, and got licensed. I'm now a therapist in a private practice group based in Santa Monica, California.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. We started practicing the same year and we also left our large firms in the same year so we are definitely on the same wavelength. I continued in practice for a number of years after that as a staff attorney at a state appellate court but yes, three years in a large firm was more than enough.
Let's talk a little bit about how you ended up becoming a lawyer in the first place. What made you decide to go to law school?
Yael Eiserike: I think like a lot of people, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I was a good student. I was always a hard worker. A lot of people around me said, “Hey, you go get a law degree. It's a great generalist degree. It's really helpful. You can do so many things with it.” I was like, “Okay, that sounds pretty good.”
It's interesting, when I was in college, I double majored in political science and psychology and I came from a family of therapists and mental health professionals and thought, “Aha, I'm going to rebel. I'm not doing this therapy thing. That's too easy. That feels too intuitive. I shouldn't do that. I should do something prestigious and important and work.”
I will say it's interesting, I was having a bit of a career crisis so to speak when I was about 20 and I remember going to the career counseling services at my university and being given different measures, tests, and things to think about and which I now realize really look at my skill set and I had a great skill set being an attorney even though unfortunately, it brought out a lot of my worst qualities as a human being, but I had the skill set to do it and to be good about it.
I think at that point in my life, I thought, “Okay, well, this is something I'm going to be good at. It's prestigious. I can help people. It seems to be well-regarded by society at large. Let's do this thing,” and proceeded to try to shove myself into this image of the person I thought I should be.
Sarah Cottrell: I think there are so many lawyers who are listening who will relate because in fact, I was just having a conversation last night with the Guided Track small group that I'm running right now and one of the things we talked about was this idea that I think many of us who became lawyers, you said something about therapy, it felt too intuitive, it felt “Oh, that's too easy. I should do this other thing that's more impressive or prestigious,” and I think a lot of us who decided to become lawyers very much did have this sense of, “Oh, doing something that I enjoy and that comes naturally, that doesn't make sense. I should do this other thing that is difficult but impressive.”
I think that was a huge part of so many lawyer stories and then as they're reflecting back on that, there's this—and this is one of the many reasons why I recommend therapy—but there is this question of “Why did I not see that perhaps the thing that I was intuitively drawn to was a thing that might be a good thing to pursue?” but it's such a common experience for lawyers.
Yael Eiserike: Absolutely. I think one of the things I learned about myself is that I wasn't born in this country. Spanish is my first language, I was born in Argentina, I come from a family of immigrants, and I'm an only child and so I think not because of anything my parents necessarily said to me but also because I saw the reality of them being new immigrants in this country, speaking with accents, and so very much self-imposed put a ton of pressure on myself to justify the American dream, justify all of the sacrifices to be successful on not just my behalf but their behalf, our behalf. That's definitely something I've learned about myself now reflecting back to who I was at the time.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I've had a number of people on the podcast who were children of immigrants and that is a shared theme in all of the stories that there was this sense of becoming a lawyer is something I should do to make all of the struggle worthwhile. It's completely an understandable way to think when you've grown up watching your parents go through this extremely difficult transition and experience.
But when you become a lawyer and you're like, “Wow, this is really not a fit,” I think if you have that as part of your story, it can make it just that much more difficult to really see your experience for what it is because it is such a powerful motivator.
Yael Eiserike: Absolutely. The thing I was also going to add is twofold: one is that what better way to become an American than to learn the legal system, advocate, and participate in it in a professional way? I think that was also brewing in the background.
Then the other part of it is that I thought I wanted to do immigration law, I ultimately ended up doing employment law because all I knew is that I wanted to help people and I was drawn to people, their stories, and relationships because, of course, I should have just actually been a therapist from the outset but I didn't really want to do anything that was divorced from the people part of law.
Sarah Cottrell: That's so interesting because I work with so many people who either went into employment law or immigration law for the reasons that you're talking about. They really want to work with people and ultimately they realize, “Oh, this is a thing I really want to be doing but this career is not really letting me do that in a way that feels fulfilling and meaningful for me.”
Yael Eiserike: Absolutely. I don't want to jump ahead too much but I will just say once I decided, “Okay, I'm going to go to law school,” I felt a sense of relief in the sense that I had a track that was already planned out for me.
I think both my own fear, because I'm assuming many of your listeners and many of your guests probably speak to this kind of fear that is a great motivator to do things, I was scared of the messiness of real-world and so the idea of just being in school for a few more years sounded really appealing, so I thought, “Well, let's do this thing because I don't have to really worry about what being an adult in the working world means just yet. Let's pursue this.” It gave me a sense of relief that there was just uncertainty there.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. That path, the clear path, it's like, “This is what I'm doing and I have a sense of where I'm going and why.” Can you tell me when you got to law school, you said you thought you were going to go into immigration, you ultimately ended up in employment, when you were in law school, how did you feel about it? Were you like, “This is great. This is everything I ever dreamed it would be,” or was it like, “I'm not sure about this,” or something in between?
Yael Eiserike: Yeah, great question. Well, even before that, I will tell you, studying for the LSAT I would say is one of the places where I first noticed that I was gutting it through because I was like, “This is miserable. I don't want to do this, and I'm strong, I can do this. Let me just gut through studying for the LSAT,” which right there should be a red flag.
Law school was this very dichotomous experience but part of it, I loved constantly being challenged, I love having really intellectually curious peers. I love the constant thinking that was part of my law school experience which was wonderful. At the same time, there were red flags all throughout.
I remember my very first class, my very first day of law school was a Torts class and our professor asked the class, “Class, in a civil wrong, who do you sue?” and one of the gunners raised his hand, and said, “The tortfeasor,” and the professor looked him in the eye, gave him a little smile, a little wink, and said, “Whoever has the deepest pockets.”
At that point, I should have known, “This is not for me. This is not my place. These are not my people.” When everybody was talking about working, even in that first summer between 1L and 2L year, everyone was talking about how much the firm is paying, which of the firms, and all of this. For me, I was like, “But doesn't anybody else want to help people?” It was just this very unabashed open greed that was normal. Again, I’m very naive in saying this but I was really surprised.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's so interesting, I relate a lot because—I've said this on the podcast before and it's so embarrassing to think about now—but I literally didn't know what Biglaw was, what lawyers made out of law school with the salary. I knew basically nothing about actually being a lawyer when I went to law school.
I think a lot of us do go for the reasons that you're talking about in terms of “I want to help improve people's lives. I like this idea of the law as this thing that can be that better society,” and then the reality of law school and the way that it's designed tends to funnel everyone in this direction for many different reasons, including things like student loans, private practice, and there's a lot of pushing of the prestige basically being connected to how much money you make.
I think it can be even if you go in for very different reasons, it's very easy to, as we've said on the podcast before, you end up on that conveyor belt. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with that and how you ended up doing what you ended up doing when you graduated?
Yael Eiserike: Absolutely. It’s funny, it even happened before I started law school because I applied to far too many law schools because I was so afraid that none of them would accept me and then ended up actually having to choose, which was a lovely position to be in.
The school that I most wanted in my heart of hearts was one that worked with migrant farm workers that had a clinic, that seemed a little bit more public interest focused but was ranked less than the one I went to. I ultimately wanted to go to a higher-ranked school that I really knew very little about that was in a different city, in a different part of the country simply because that was more prestigious, at the time it was a top 20 law school, I should go there.
It even started for me before I actually even started law school. While I was there, I did work in public interest in that space both in the summer and even volunteered during the school year a bit and have really lovely mentors that took the time to talk to me and give me good advice and counsel.
Pretty much they all said, “Listen, if you want to do public interest work, especially any kind of impact litigation, go to a big firm, get good training, and then come back because a lot of public interest places don't have the resources or time to train you as early as a big firm. Plus you're going to have some law school loans. Just go and beware of the golden handcuffs.”
For all of that, I'm very thankful that they said the “beware of the golden handcuffs” piece because I really took that to heart so that I could make a graceful exit in the future without feeling stuck where I was.
Sarah Cottrell: It sounds like when you graduated and started practicing at a big firm, you weren't going into it thinking, “This is going to be the be-all and end-all.” There was some sense of this is the first stop on a trajectory that is ultimately going to go somewhere else. Is that a fair characterization?
Yael Eiserike: Absolutely. Then I started and then I just put on the blinders and was all in. I had colleagues that I really respected, that I really admired professionally, and who were kind to me. I worked, all things considered, at a really wonderful firm and it's interesting, if I had to do it all over again, I probably would have ended up at the same place. A lot of them really took the time to mentor me and take me under their wing. That was also part of why it was so confusing, why I wasn't happy.
Sarah Cottrell: Can you talk a little bit more about that confusion? Because I know there are so many lawyers who are listening and they're experiencing that type of confusion, that feeling of all of “The things are aligning, at least to some extent, and I should feel a certain way and I don't feel that way. Why?” Can you talk about your experience with that?
Yael Eiserike: Yeah, absolutely. Let me also add in all of this in terms of my life, while I was in law school, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away. I think that also made me go into this disconnected focused drive, which is certainly part of it in that there were a lot of places I could ask more questions and look at things, but it was like, “Just get to this point and all will be good, all will be well. This will lead you to happiness.”
I remember I got the job at the firm that I wanted. I lived in a nice apartment, in the part of town that I wanted to live in. Many of my friends were attorneys and lived nearby, on paper, I had the things that I was supposed to have to have a successful happy life and yet on more than one occasion, I found myself crying as I would drive into work.
Sarah Cottrell: So relatable, truly. I can't remember if we talked about this before when we previously spoke but one of the most popular episodes of the podcast is an episode called Your Job Should Not Make You Cry because it's so common that lawyers have that experience. Often, they think it's normal.
They don't necessarily think that it means something or it takes them a while to realize, “This means something more than just I'm having some off days.” Can you talk about that process for you? At what point did you start to say, “Oh, this doesn't just not fit. This really, really doesn't fit and I need to think about doing something else”?
Yael Eiserike: Yeah. I'm sure this comes up with a lot of your other guests as well, I was having all of these digestive issues and GI stuff and I realized, I was like, “Oh, this only happens to me on Sundays. Huh? That's really interesting. That's curious.”
It was very much the Sunday scaries, it was that feeling of dread of what the week would bring, and noticing that when I was working, I was unhappy and when I wasn't working, I was dreading or fearing not working, feeling unhappy, and unable to be present in the other parts of my life that I wanted to really enjoy.
When I would talk to my colleagues, the other junior associates, that was relatively normal. It was strangely a way to bond. It was not entirely uncommon for me to cry in a friend's office or have people come into my office and cry for us to talk about what the escape plan would look like. Again, let me add, this wasn't a bad firm. I worked with really nice people and many of whom I still have in my life in different ways. It was just the nature of the work.
For me, I think it really crystallized when I was on a case, I did employment defense litigation and I had a case that went to trial and it was about a six-hour drive from where I was living in Los Angeles, it was in Northern California, and I spent that time driving just thinking, forced thinking.
It was before the time of podcasts and the Central Valley in California, there are not a whole lot of radio stations and so I just really took the time to think and question: “Is this what I want? Is this who I want to be? Is this what I want my life to look like?”
In large part because trial was the pinnacle of everything as a litigator is to get a case that goes to trial to do the things and just feeling this emptiness of “Is this all there is? Is this it?”
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, I relate to that so much. This is the thing that's supposed to be like, “Well, you do the other stuff because then you get to do this.” Once you get to that point and you're getting to do the thing that's supposed to make it all worthwhile and you're like, “Yikes, this does not make it worthwhile for me,” it's very clarifying.
Yael Eiserike: Absolutely. I think there was a certain amount of blinders that I was able to put on because there was always a next thing that I could push towards that would make the enduring of all of it worthwhile. I would just gut it through to take the LSAT, gut it through to apply to law school, gut it through law school, and gut it through the bar.
It was a lot of gutting it through. I've certainly reflected back and seen that about myself and a lot of just sheer willpower—and this was about, like I said, a year and a half in—and I said, “Okay, well, this is the top of the top. I'm supposed to be elated at this point,” and I'm clearly not. If not this, then what?
That was the beginning of really seriously thinking about other options. Because like probably most attorneys, I'm fairly pragmatic. Of course, I went to a good law school, I came from a good firm, I wasn't just going to throw it away to do something different. My first thought was, “Why would I go to a different firm?” Then I very quickly realized, “No, no, that's not going to change this.”
I considered, “Hey, do I want to do that public interest thing?” which is the reason I did this in the first place, and I was like, “No, no. I don't want to do that.” That's what I realized, “I just didn't really want to be a lawyer.” That was a big realization for me because that was such a big part of my identity and who I thought I should be versus who I authentically really was and where did that leave me if I wasn't going to be a lawyer?
Sarah Cottrell: Yes. That is such a huge part of the process for so many people. I was just interviewing for the podcast yesterday one of the women who's in the Collab and she was talking about how she was planning to leave the law and she was thinking, “Oh, well, I'll pay off my student loans and then I'll do something else,” and then she did that and found herself a year later still there, still in the law, and the reason for it was because, for many of us, the money piece looms the largest in our minds. But actually, the thing that is hardest I think to really work through is the identity piece, is this feeling of “I am a lawyer. Who am I if I am not this?”
Yael Eiserike: Absolutely. I will add, I remember quite clearly during this time being in one of these big office buildings in Los Angeles, going downstairs to the Starbucks in my building, and looking at the baristas thinking, “They really got it good. They get to do their job, make people coffee, and leave. Then they get to be done for the day.”
Certainly a lot of different thoughts about if not this and that, and I also remember thinking to myself, “I don't even know how to make a cappuccino. I couldn't even work at Starbucks. What skills can I possibly possess to do anything but this?”
You're right. It is a profound sense of identity and it is really scary when it doesn't line up and it doesn't fit the way that I thought it would. The other thing I wanted to add too so that I didn't forget was that part of this calculation of what I wanted to do and what I wanted in my life to look like as I was now driving back and forth for this trial was that I looked ahead in terms of what 5 years, 10 years, 20 years down the road would look like, in particular for the women at my firm and I really saw how much the women who had chosen to get married, have families, how much they really struggle to do all of the things that they needed to do to be successful personally and professionally.
It seemed as if they were often disappointing one part of their life at the expense of the other. Again, that didn't really resonate with me because I'm now married, I now have children, and it's something that I've always wanted for myself that I never thought I would want to sacrifice for a career.
Sarah Cottrell: It's so common for people to tell me some variation of the story that you just shared where they look at people who are ahead of them, who are in the place that they're supposed to want to be going, and they look at that and think, “I don't want that,” and that's a big moment for a lot of people in terms of realizing, “Oh, this actually is not for me.”
Can you tell me a little bit about how you ultimately decided “I don't want to do this. What I want to do is be a therapist”? Can you specifically talk about the whole going back to school aspect? Because that is the thing that for many lawyers is the hardest thing to face.
Yael Eiserike: Yeah. I think in this regard, I'm very, very lucky because law was never about money for me. It was a sense of identity, it was a sense of prestige. But I was always surprised when I got my paycheck. I was like, “Whoa, this is nice,” so it wasn't this huge incentive for me.
In terms of my process, when I discarded other law things, I gave myself the exercise of I remember vividly, I'm sitting on my orange couch in my really nice apartment and thinking to myself, “If I put my ego, I put prestige to the side, what is it that I really want to do?”
Then it became so clear, of course, I wanted to get my masters in social work because at the time I wasn't sure if I wanted to do maybe more macro policy type work or if I wanted to do more direct clinical work. What I loved about my experience getting my degree but also just in practice is that I've gotten to do bits and pieces of both.
Once I had that realization and made the decision, it actually was very easy moving forward. I started saving aggressively so that I could have some money in the bank, I took the GRE, which was fun. I had I think six days to do it to make sure that I meet the deadlines to apply on time. I didn't really study much but it's okay, it was fine.
Then I remember I was traveling, I was on vacation and I finalized my applications and submitted them while I was in Australia, of all places, and then I sent everything in and felt excited and believed like there was a plan.
I know that for a lot of people, the idea of going back to school probably seems really daunting but again, for me, school was always a place of comfort, I was always a good student. If nothing else, I know how to be a student because that is something I know. The idea of being back in school felt really easy for me. It felt like a place that I knew and a world that I understood.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That makes sense. I think sometimes lawyers have this concern that school feels too comfortable for them so they don't necessarily trust themselves when they end up in a place like the one that you did where going back to school is going to have to be part of it to get to where they want to go.
Some people struggle with “Is this actually what I want or am I just pursuing this because there's school involved in school?” Like you said, for many of us who became lawyers it was like, “I can do school. School is the gold stars and all of that. That is comfortable.” Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
Yael Eiserike: Yeah, definitely. I think I shared that I came from a family of therapists. My mother's now retired but she worked in community mental health as a marriage and family therapist. I saw it firsthand. It wasn't something I didn't know or didn't understand. Then the other reason that I was excited about going into an MSW program is that there are two years of practical internships during the program.
Sarah Cottrell: It's like the opposite of law school.
Yael Eiserike: Exactly, in so many ways. I really did pick the opposite. It was a really nurturing, kind, supportive place, the fact that there were two years of internship as part of the curriculum and it was so much more focused on the practical training than the theoretical training, at least that was my experience.
It's funny you mentioned that, the night before I started my first day of full-time social work life, and I worked at a wonderful community mental health agency for a while, the night before I remember, I was having dinner with my husband and I was telling him, “I'm so nervous. What if I don't like this?” and he thankfully reminded me, “You've been doing this for two years. You've been doing the work. You've been seeing clients. You've been working in this field. This isn't new.”
He's right because part of what it means to be an accredited social work program is to have these approved rigorous internships. It wasn't different than what I'd been doing, it was just doing that full-time.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that's so interesting, and I could go on a whole sidebar about law school and how that could be helpful but anyway, we'll just leave that to the side for now, I know that now you're in private practice and a lot of the people who you see are lawyers. Can you talk a little bit about how you got to that point and what it is like? Often lawyers have some unique struggles and I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the experience of being a former lawyer working with lawyers.
Yael Eiserike: Yeah, absolutely. I will say that for a long time, I always felt like here's this huge part of my identity, and while I'm no longer active with the California bar, I can’t undo my training, my experience, and my knowledge, it just is a part of who I am and so I was always looking for a way to integrate that into what I was doing.
Now in private practice, it seems like, of course, this is what I end up doing which of course there's no way that I would plan for this but now it makes perfect sense the way I got here and what this looks like for me, but it's so wonderful to work with lawyers because there is a professional cultural piece that I understand and I can speak to directly.
It's really helpful for them that they don't need to explain to me what a billable hour is, how it works, or why December and end of year can be really stressful to hit your hours. I understand all of those things and so the fact that there's already this common language really facilitates the work.
I think the work that I do with lawyers is very, very pragmatic because I have been there, I speak that language, I can help them identify ways to, for example, set appropriate and healthy boundaries with work because I think that a lot of people struggle with, at least the clients I work with, a lot of them struggle with the people pleasing, it's hard for them to say no.
It's a lot of anxiety, a lot of panic attacks, a lot of insomnia, which by the way, those are the things that I love working with and I'm trained to work with, and so it's almost as if I hand-picked my interest areas to really be working with versions of me in the sense of where I was at when I was working at a big firm.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, that makes total sense. On the boundaries piece, I think you said realistic boundaries, especially if someone isn't a lawyer and hasn't had experience with the way large law firms operate, I think there can sometimes be a little bit of a flip like “Well, just don't do X or Y. Don't answer emails after 5:00 PM,” and it's like, “Okay, here in the real world, that is not going to happen. If that's what I want to be doing, I need to not work here.”
But then I think a lot of lawyers feel a lot of shame. They're like, “I'm not setting good boundaries. I'm not doing what I should be doing,” and part of it is maybe a mismatch in the understanding of the environment that these lawyers are existing in.
I also think that there is, and I know you and I talked about this a bit before, when you have lawyers, especially in environments that are extremely toxic, there's this trauma piece that is in the mix. When you're telling people, “Set boundaries and do all of these things,” it assumes a level of psychological safety that doesn't actually exist. I would love to hear your thoughts about that and just some of the ways that trauma could be showing up for people who are listening.
Yael Eiserike: Absolutely. Well, I think you're right in that for starters, just even in the somatic physiological experience that people have, their nervous systems are all wired and so it's a lack of safety. You're right in that just the general idea of “Hey, just set a boundary or just don't do that,” it doesn’t really seem appropriate given the culture and environment in some of these especially larger law firms.
I think when I work with clients, sometimes we do get in the nitty-gritty details of what do you say to which partner, at what time, or for example things like taking a day off means that nobody is covering your cases and so really, what that ends up meaning is that the time that you're “taking off,” you're just going to be working at some later point the week before or the after.
If you want to take a break, what does that look like? What does that mean? One of the things I've worked with clients to identify is what are the things in your life that replenish you, that fills you with joy, and how do we make those, in some ways, necessary parts of your weekly schedule that forces you to have a boundary?
For example, if you have a rock climbing club that you really enjoy meeting with and they meet on Saturday mornings and that's the only time you meet with them, you will make your work work around with that so that you can do that, you can find parts of your life that give you joy.
Rather than work being the first layer of your weekly schedule, having other parts of your life really be that foundational layer, so again, whether it's physical activity, whether it's time with family, whether it's spiritual connection, whatever it might be, and really helping people identify those things for themselves so that they're feeling joy in, if nothing else, other parts of their life.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, I think it's so easy for all of that to just get crowded out when you are in many of these work environments as a lawyer. It definitely makes a difference if you're not able to participate in things that are not your work and that bring you joy.
Okay, I know there are people listening who are like, “I really like the idea of becoming a therapist,” I have had experience with therapy but maybe for many people, a lot of people did do a double major in undergrad and it was poli-sci and psychology, international studies and psychology, or history and psychology, these sorts of things but they're feeling like, “I don't know for sure. How do I know for sure,” what advice do you have for people who are thinking about leaving law to become therapists and wrestling with that question?
Yael Eiserike: Yeah. It's a good question. I would say certainly talking to people who work in the field, people that they respect, people that they can trust, they can ask, all holds barred, honest questions of I think are really helpful, I think it is asking yourself again checking in with both emotionally but also physically with yourself where do you find yourself feeling joy and excitement in your life? Where do you find yourself feeling dread and fear in your life?
For me, I was always interested in people and human relationships. If I could have been a lawyer who just [talked] to clients all day on the phone, I would probably still be a lawyer. I didn't like being alone, reading, writing, and researching. I could do it. I love being around human beings, learning from them, and asking them questions.
I think it's really just taking the time to observe what are the things that you feel most excited about even in the work that you're currently doing and then it's starting to talk to people and really give a sense of “Could this be something I could do? What might it look like?”
One of the things that's great is that there are different settings for therapists. I find that it is work that is exceptionally rewarding, in the same way as I would say I felt very depleted as an attorney, I felt very full and I feel very full as a therapist.
The other thing too that I'm reflecting on that I could not have anticipated at the time but really made it clear for me as to why this was the right decision for me was that when I was working at a firm, I always felt behind, less than, or there were people who had more, who knew more, who were further along than me and felt this, again, fear, drive, or motivation, what have you to just keep moving forward, and not necessarily towards anything but just forward.
When I first started in my very first internship, I just remember being pleasantly surprised about the gratitude that I was experiencing in that one, I could really sit and hold space for people who may not have otherwise had that in their lives, but two, that I was getting to do something that was making me fulfilled and that I had so many things in my life that I could now start to enjoy as a result.
For me, it really is looking at where those places are for joy, what that might look like for everybody, and being in touch with, again, one's own emotional and physical experience in those different sides of things.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, that's such good advice. Yael, as we're getting to the end of our conversation, is there anything else that you would like to share from your story or any other thoughts that we just haven't had a chance to touch on yet?
Yael Eiserike: There's one other thing I just thought would be an amusing anecdote and when I’ve said this to other lawyers, they're like, “Oh, yeah, that totally makes sense,” when I first started at my firm, I remember a very friendly well-meaning, she must have been either senior associate or junior partner, asked me, “Hey do you want to be a lawyer that drinks or runs?”
At the time, I was like, “What does she mean by this?” and then I realized, and all the lawyer friends that I've now spoken to, that people do fall into one of those two categories because of the intensity of the work of either drinking and/or running as a means of balancing out that intensity.
Unsurprisingly, I did pick up running, never having been a runner before. I did two marathons while I was still at my old firm because it did feel like, “Okay, this is a place to balance out the intensity of this world.” I just thought that was funny and I think that if you're in a position where it's normal to create this dichotomy in the world of “Do you drink or do you run?” as a means of coping with the intensity of this work, you should really pause and think to yourself “Is this really for me? Is this really what I want to do with my life?”
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, co-sign. Okay, where can people find you online if they're interested in working with you? Share whatever you would like to share.
Yael Eiserike: Sure. I work in a private practice group, like I said, based in Santa Monica, California called Pacific MFT Network. If people want to contact me, the best way to do so is to email me. I am [email protected] If people have questions about leaving law and becoming a therapist or are just looking for a law-informed therapist, feel free to reach out to me.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, I'm just remembering, did you tell me that you are licensed in California and also DC?
Yael Eiserike: And also Maryland [inaudible]. I'm licensed in all of the jurisdictions.
Sarah Cottrell: Got it. Okay, great. Well, all of that information will be in the show notes for anyone who wants to find it. I really appreciate you joining me today and sharing your story because I know that so many people are interested in this path. It's going to be really helpful to a lot of people so thank you very much.
Yael Eiserike: Well, thank you so much for doing this, Sarah. I wish this had existed when I was working because it's lovely to hear other guests share their stories and feel so identified by them. So thank you so much for what you're doing.
Sarah Cottrell: Oh, thank you.
Thank you so much for listening today. If these stories are making you go, “I think the Collab is something that would be a good fit for me or would be helpful for me,” we would love to have you join us. You can go to formerlawyer.com/collab and see all the information and the enrollment information, and you can enroll there and join us in the Collab today. I'll see you there and I hope you have a great week.
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