How the Hypervigilance in Law Causes Lawyers to Leave the Law with Ed Cottrell [TFLP180]

Sarah talked with Karen Gulde a few months ago as part of the former lawyers turned therapists month. Karen talked about her experience of hypervigilance in law as a lawyer, the experience of her nervous system being constantly activated, and how common that is for lawyers. Sarah’s husband, Ed, posted a reaction to that on LinkedIn and his experiences in the last year since he left law. In this episode, Sarah chats more with her husband about his experience with hypervigilance in law.

First, A Little Background on Ed Cottrell

Ed started his career as a web and software developer with his own consultancy. After negotiating many contracts, he became more interested in law and pursued law school. He spent 13 years as a practicing lawyer before leaving a little more than a year ago to do software implementation for a legal tech company. His company, Ironclad, is an industry leader in contract lifecycle management software (CLM.) He works with similar people in this career but enjoys his job much more.

When Hypervigilance in Law Made Leaving Law an Imperative

Ed knew he needed a new career path because he didn’t love what he was doing anymore. His job was dominating his every thought. His greatest strengths were automating things and reducing billable hours, and he wanted to work somewhere where that strength was seen as an asset. 

Searching for a place where respect is normalized instead of seen as a luxury was critical for Ed. He describes it as being unable to turn off lawyer mode. By nature, the practice of law is something you cannot turn off because you have to be constantly aware of your actions and words to ensure they are consistent with the best interest of your clients.

Hypervigilance in law was a huge factor in Ed’s decision to leave law. His brain needed to escape from it. When he started to talk about leaving, it felt like a giant weight had lifted. Each step in the process felt like more and more weight. He compares it to jetliners and skyscrapers. Everything he did was shrouded in a cloud of pressure where he felt like he couldn’t be himself. 

Ed’s Advice for Lawyers

People who go to law school and successfully finish are usually the kind of people who stick with something to a fault. Being a lawyer means you can never turn it off. You’re afraid of the consequences, and your profession expects you to be perfect. Ed has heard of attorneys that were lectured because it seemed like their families were more important to them than the firm. This makes people lose sight of their own needs and their own selves.

Find yourself a good counselor. Ed benefitted from seeing a counselor and cannot recommend it enough. It might help you recognize these unhealthy thought patterns. If you’re an unhappy or exhausted lawyer, there is hope. Talk to someone and explore your options.

Take your First Steps to Leaving the Law with Sarah’s free guide.

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. A couple of months back, I released a conversation with Karen Gulde. This was during our month of former lawyers turned therapists. One of the things Karen talked about in her episode was the experience of hypervigilance that she had when she was practicing as a lawyer, the experience of her nervous system just being constantly activated, and we talked a bit about how that's very common for lawyers. It's very common for lawyers to not even realize how much they're being impacted by that.

After that episode released, my husband, Ed, who you may have heard in the podcast previously, who left his legal job about a year ago, shared a post on LinkedIn talking about what Karen had to say and a little bit about his own experience of hypervigilance and how that has changed since leaving the law a little bit over a year ago. I was going to share more about that post and then I realized, why not have Ed come on and share with you himself. Today, Ed is here to share a little bit about his own experience with hypervigilance.

I think this is an important conversation to be having because as I talked about with Karen, this is something that comes up for so many of us and it's really important to me that you know first, that you might be experiencing this because often, we don't even realize we're having this experience of nervous system activation when it's happening to us, but also that it isn't just a condition of being an adult or being an adult with a job, that there is something about the legal profession that specifically can impact this experience, and that changing what you're doing can have a huge impact in terms of helping your nervous system to heal and to be less activated.

So, without further ado, here's my husband, Ed Cottrell, to share with you about his experience of hypervigilance in the law.

Ed Cottrell: Hi, everyone, this is Ed, Sarah's husband. If you've listened to episodes 150 and 151, then you've already heard a lot of my story. The short version is that I started my career as a web developer and software developer running my own consultancy. I had to negotiate a lot of contracts and in the process, I got interested in the law, and that's how I ended up going to law school. I spent 13 years as a practicing lawyer before leaving the practice a little over a year ago. I now do software implementation work at a legal tech company.

My company Ironclad is the industry leader and Contract Lifecycle Management software also known as CLM. It is a much better life. Oh, and contrary to what they tell you in big firms that you'll never work with as interesting clients or as big clients or the C-suite or [GCS ad] big clients, yeah, none of that's true. I work with the same kinds of people and I love it because what I'm doing is so much more fun.

Anyway, Sarah asked me to come on the podcast today to talk about my experience with hypervigilance and law. For the last few years that I was a lawyer, I knew I needed to find a new path because I didn't love what I was doing. I needed something that didn't require my job to dominate my every thought, something where I could enjoy what I was doing and be challenged by it where my greatest strengths would be seen as assets, such as, for example, automating things which reduces billable hours and is not seen as an asset when you live by the billable hour.

I needed to be somewhere that collegiality and respect are normalized instead of seen as inefficiencies or even luxuries that you don't necessarily deserve if you aren't an equity partner, that kind of thing. I'm happy to say that I've found all of that and more at Ironclad. I have zero regrets about my decision to switch tracks and leave law.

But the first reason I mentioned for leaving, the way that practicing dominated my brain, is a biggie. As you probably know, the practice of law both by its nature and because of how the industry has become an industry and then developed in recent years means you're always on, you can't simply be in the moment and turn off lawyer mode, because you have ethical obligations to ensure that everything you do or say or don't do or don't say is consistent with the best interests of your clients.

Even things like making a joke or telling a story, you have to constantly filter, “Can I say that? Can I say it that way?” An email on the phone are ever-present reminders that being an attorney means being an attorney 24/7, 365. If, like most listeners to this podcast, you've ever been a practicing lawyer, then I'm guessing that this sounds familiar.

Sarah and her guest Karen Gulde talked about this always on this or hypervigilance recently in Episode 172. This hypervigilance was a huge factor in my decision to leave the practice of law. I knew I hated it. I knew that my brain needed to escape from it. But it was only after I'd left practice that I realized just how bad that part of the profession really was for me.

I talked about leaving the law at first as feeling like a weight had been lifted. As time went on, I realized what had been lifted off of me was the weight of a skyscraper. Then a little bit later, more weight came off and I realized, “Oh, there was a jet airliner or something underneath that,” and more weight and more weight.

Then I realized I just had this mountain of pressure on me that had kept me always not being myself, being in that mode where I was focused so much on how I presented myself and whether I could say certain things and whether I could talk in certain ways or even just act in certain ways that I just didn't have room to breathe.

When I was a lawyer, I found myself always in lawyer mode. I was in lawyer mode at work, on vacation, at church, during meals, in the shower, even when I was asleep. I literally had dreams about working through client problems preparing for depositions, examining witnesses, you name it. It was exhausting. Being free from that has been more liberating than I could possibly have imagined a year ago.

If you're the kind of person who goes to law school, then you're probably the kind of person who sticks with problems sometimes to a fault. You're probably the kind of person who always thinks about problems outside of their boundaries. That is you're probably the kind of person who's thinking about important things, yes, even work things when you're supposed to be in a different mode. You'll probably find yourself thinking about anything important you do for work when you're supposed to be in family mode, vacation mode, or just not work mode.

But hypervigilance goes beyond that. It's when you can't turn it off, when it's relentless, and involuntary when you're not thinking about a problem because it's just so darned interesting or it just makes you nerd out. But because you're afraid of letting go, you're afraid of the consequences, and because your profession expects you to be perfect. Hypervigilance is when your work haunts you. It doesn't have to be this way.

If any of what I've said resonates with you, know that there is help out there. I'd encourage you to check out the resources that Sarah offers through the Collaborative, through the Guided Track, or her one on one coaching programs. Above all, as Sarah has said many times on the show, please consider working with a counselor or therapist.

As attorneys, we’re consistently trained to put first the interests of those we represent to the point that it actually is seen as a negative if you even consider your children more important than your clients in some contexts. I've heard of attorneys being lectured because it seems to people like their family is more important than not even the client but the firm. That's not okay. Over time, in that kind of context, we lose sight of our own needs, our own desires, even our own selves entirely.

A good counselor can help with this a lot more than you might realize. I've benefited from counseling. I know many, many lawyers who've benefited from counseling and it is one of those things where until you've given it a shot, you simply can't know how much of a difference it might be able to make, how much it might be able to help you recognize these unhealthy thought patterns and either mitigate them while you're still practicing or recognize like I did, there's no way for me to escape it and I need to find something that doesn't do this to me.

What I want to leave you with is this: if you're an unhappy or exhausted attorney, there is hope. Hang in there. Check out the resources I just mentioned. Talk to a counselor. Hang in there and know that it doesn't have to always be like this. Thanks so much for listening.

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