Moving from Law into Advocacy Work with Francesca Korbas [TFLP201]

In today’s podcast episode, Sarah is joined by Francesca Korbas. Francesca is the COO and a partner in the educational consultancy Vested Academics. Her story follows a unique path than many lawyers who decided to go to law school, and it provides a fascinating perspective on what it’s like to step away from law into advocacy work.

A Drive to Advocate for People Led to Law

Francesca grew up thinking she would become a social worker. She knew that she had this innate drive to advocate for people, particularly children. Many people in her family were educators and social workers. During her undergraduate studies, she tried out multiple majors, including fine arts, but ended up loving the idea of law and theory. She didn’t fully understand what being a lawyer was, but she knew she could fight for people’s rights.

Francesca started taking pre-law classes and then decided to study abroad in Australia. In that country, you get an undergraduate degree in law and then become a lawyer after. The legal courses she took were extremely vigorous and interesting. There were a lot of human rights classes. Learning more about refugees and immigration law helped confirm that she wanted to pursue this field.

After Australia, Francesca went to Germany to be an au pair and took the LSAT there before returning to the United States. She quickly discovered that everyone had a different idea of what being a lawyer would mean. Some people went into law to make money, while others wanted to fight for different causes. 

It was a shock to Francesca, especially after growing up in a home where everyone was very transparent about mental health, emotions, and things like that. Many lawyers aren’t wired that way. Things were very formal and rigid. She knew it didn’t really fit her personality type. She found the courses and information enjoyable but just had an issue with the personality fit.

Charting Her Own Course After Law School

Francesca has always been someone who fights following the norm. She often did the opposite of what she was told or everyone else was doing. She knew that this would be the case with law school. Instead of engaging in many of the programs that law school typically asks for engagement in, she found her own internships and researched on her own. 

A great example of that is Francesca’s first internship. Instead of a big law firm, she got a role at the Children’s Law Center. It’s an organization outside of Boston with some long-term attorneys working with children. The organization visits children at home and in juvenile detention centers, and Francesca was able to be introduced to work that she believed in.

Francesca also worked at a state agency that works with kids dealing with issues at home. She worked at a family law firm and didn’t love it, but she liked being able to help ensure children were in the right environment and act as their advocate.

Success Came from a Strong Support System and Willingness to Learn

Francesca’s family helped provide a strong support system for her during her law school years. She comes from a family of strong-willed women, and her father is also incredibly empowering. She didn’t have to rely on other people’s opinions. The feeling of gaslighting was definitely present in her experience, and law school students are often so young.

Looking back, Francesca is really glad that she made the choices she made. After law school, she went to a government agency doing civil rights enforcement. She learned that even when a specific environment isn’t ideal, she could pull a ton of information from the experience and use it as a learning opportunity. 

The Office for Civil Rights seemed like it would encompass everything Francesca sought. She learned so much while in that position, but she knew it wasn’t the place she would be forever. Once she had her first child, that helped to solidify that. The role there helped her learn about the disability laws and how they could apply to other areas. 

In the back of Francesca’s mind, she was always drawn to education law and special education law. Growing up, she had a lot of personal experiences with people going through the special education experience. She started reading up on federal and state special ed law and worked hard to learn everything she could about this area of law.

Beginning in Special Education Advocacy

Once Francesa moved on from the Office of Civil Rights, she went to work getting trained in special ed advocacy, which is nonlegal. Special education lawyers protect the rights of students with disabilities and their parents or guardians. A lot of the work involves counseling and advising families. 

Advocates aren’t necessarily lawyers, but they need to know the laws to help their clients. Francesca started practicing solo and informally advising families. It was hands-on work where she worked with kids and their families and helped emotionally counsel them through different situations. 

Eventually, a partner who had sent Francesca a bunch of referrals reached out about forming a special education nonlegal advocacy practice at his existing educational consulting company. They formed a sister company that offered special ed advocacy and added special ed testing and then merged after realizing that most families were using both services anyway.

Choosing Advocacy Over Law

When Francesca originally sought out training in special ed advocacy, she asked the women she was learning from if they had ever seen a lawyer switch into advocacy work in this specific area. She was the first, but she was still determined. Having the legal knowledge base is helpful, but she doesn’t legally advise families.

Francesca’s work now is coaching families on mentally preparing for meetings with schools, synthesizing their thoughts, and arming the families with information that will help them for years to come. It’s a long battle to deal with the education system and advocate for your children; Francesca’s work now is more social work than law. 

The legal side of special education is incredibly formal. When lawyers walk into the room, communication is shifted into a negative, adversarial tone, no matter how kind that lawyer is. That wasn’t the space that was right for Francesca. She has been able to partner with some incredible lawyers over the years. She greatly respects the special ed law bar in Massachusetts and their hard work fighting for students’ rights. 

People within the law system are very limited in what they can do. They must operate within the legal constructs and the system that is set up. There’s a perception that lawyers are incredibly powerful, but there really are only a few things that they can do within their position. Francesca is able to partner with lawyers when something is out of her scope, but she can also informally advise people and assist them in ways that a lawyer cannot.

The Role of the Educational Consultancy

Francesca’s company, Vested Academics, is able to do customized learning support for families and educational advocacy. In addition, they offer testing and evaluations, reading therapy, college consulting, and private school consulting. Families that come to them get help understanding what kind of school placement would be best for their child, and then they help the parents and guardians learn to advocate for their needs.

The company works with families all over the country and even some international families for some of its services. Growth is a goal for them, but it requires knowledge of other state special education laws, so there is work to do to expand the advocacy piece to more areas. 

If anyone is interested in advocacy, join organizations in your state that serve students with special needs. Meeting people in the field is the best way to learn more and find openings where you can be of service.

Closing Thoughts with Francesca Korbas

Lawyers interested in leaving law and learning more about the options out there, download the free guide First Steps to Leaving the Law. Connect with Francesca at Vested Academics.

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

Today I'm sharing my conversation with Francesca Korbas. Francesca had a slightly different approach to the way that she approached her legal career than many of us who decided to go to law school did. I think it's really interesting. I also think that her story really clearly demonstrates the ways in which both our legal training can be very helpful and provide particular perspectives and some really compelling reasons why even in an area where you might be able to practice law, you might also choose to do something different because of the different things that you can bring to the table.

Francesca is the COO and a partner in the educational consultancy Vested Academics. She shares a lot more on the episode about what they specifically do through that consultancy, which I found incredibly fascinating. As someone who has quite a bit of neurodiversity in our family, it was really interesting to hear the ways in which Francesca and her partner have carved out this particular niche. I'm excited for you to hear this conversation with Francesca.

A quick reminder before we get to the conversation that the fall Guided Track is starting tomorrow, Tuesday, September 19th. If there are still spots left, you can get them at If you're someone who's been thinking about the Guided Track and there still are spots available, then you should go hop on that today because enrollment will close tonight and we will get started tomorrow. Alright, let's get to my conversation with Francesca Korbas all about her path to Vested Academics.

Hi, Francesca. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Francesca Korbas: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for having me.

Sarah Cottrell: Why don't you introduce yourself to the listeners and then we'll go from there?

Francesca Korbas: My name is Francesca Korbas. I am a former lawyer in the state of Massachusetts. I previously practiced special ed law and now I am the partner at an educational consulting firm.

Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Francesca, we talked a little bit about this before but we start really with the same question with everyone and that is what made you decide that you wanted to become a lawyer?

Francesca Korbas: In a nutshell on a larger scale level, I always had this innate drive to advocate for people both informally and formally, particularly children. Growing up I thought I was going to be a social worker like many people in my family or an educator. I worked primarily in those fields prior to law school.

While I was an undergrad, I tried out a number of different majors including what I started with, fine arts, so a big leap. But I loved the idea of law and theory while I was in undergrad and I loved the idea that you could filter in different areas of thought into a legal position. I really did not fully understand what being a lawyer was. I just knew that I wanted to fight for people's rights and I really had that drive to advocate for people.

Sarah Cottrell: It sounds like you initially thought you would be moving more in the direction of social work or something like that. When did you decide that you wanted to go to law school instead?

Francesca Korbas: I decided I wanted to law school instead after I tried the psychology route for a little while in undergrad and it didn’t work for me. I started to take pre-law classes and I absolutely loved it. I didn't stop taking them. I went to study abroad in Australia and I took legal courses there.

In Australia, you get an undergraduate degree in law so you become a lawyer after. They were really vigorous classes and they were really interesting. There are lots of human rights classes I took, refugee and immigration classes, things that really just confirmed for me that that's what I wanted to do.

After law school, I became an au pair in Germany and I actually took the LSAT in Germany and did that whole process and applied to a couple of schools. Then I ended up going to school in Boston a year after undergrad.

Sarah Cottrell: Okay. After undergrad, you went to Germany, took the LSAT, then came back, and went to law school?

Francesca Korbas: Yep.

Sarah Cottrell: It's interesting because so many people who come on the podcast, and also a lot of the lawyers who I end up working with, one of the main things that drew them to the law was this desire to help other people.

That's also a big part of why they find themselves dissatisfied in their jobs because, for many people, they came to legal practice because one of the primary drivers was to help other people and then they don't feel like they are being able to have the impact they want even when they are in roles that are what I think might traditionally be thought of as you are helping people, whether as a public defender or some non-profit, impact litigation, these sorts of things and part of it is just because of the nature of the legal system which is hard to understand until you are actually in it.

Can you talk to me a little bit about when you got to law school, you'd already taken some classes in undergrad and you thought that they were interesting, I am assuming based on that that when you got to law school, it was potentially more of the same where you were like, “This is great.” Was that correct or was it different?

Francesca Korbas: Somewhat correct, somewhat different. At least, the personalities of a lot of the individuals I went to law school with were very, very professionally ambitious, had different ideas in mind about what being a lawyer would mean. There were people who were definitely fighting for different causes but it was a lot more of people who, to be frank, were going into law school to make money, which obviously, that was a plus but that was not what I went primarily for, it was more to really be able, on the highest level, to again represent people.

It was a little bit of a shock. I also have to say, and I don't know if anyone has talked too much about this, it's really hard if you don't fit the personality type of a lawyer. I grew up in a home of, again, social workers, people who were into more of this counseling and really personal conversations, being really transparent about mental health, emotions, and all that stuff and there weren't a lot of people who had that type of personality.

It was very formal. People were very formal, very black and white, rigid about just being as highly productive as possible whereas I wanted to just be more, I guess, personal with the way I connect with other people. I really did not feel like I fit the personality type. I had a little bit of an identity crisis in law school as well despite actually still really enjoying the courses and especially finding the ones that were interesting to me moving forward and beyond law school. I don't know if that answers your question but yes, more of the personality thing is what I found to be challenging.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's interesting, it definitely has come up on the podcast before and also with many of my clients. But there have been people on the podcast who have shared that, for example, people would basically tell them, “You're too nice to be a lawyer,” or “You don't seem like a lawyer.”

I think one of the things when you were describing your experience, I feel like the word that came to mind is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is not something that has traditionally been valued in either law schools or in legal practice, particularly in large firms. That also explains many things about why the profession is as dysfunctional as it is.

Francesca Korbas: And why people have this idea about lawyers and why they say, “Oh, God, you're a lawyer?”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Well, and also, especially I think you can see the failures of it when you have people who have been trained up in that kind of environment being put in positions like managing positions to manage other people because that's an actual skill set that to do well requires many things including emotional intelligence. That doesn't necessarily exist.

You're definitely not the only one to talk about that as being part of your experience. You said you had a bit of an identity crisis, can you share a little bit about what that was like or what that looked like?

Francesca Korbas: Well, historically in my life, I've always been someone who really fights following the norm. If someone told me to do something, I would do the opposite or if everyone was doing something, I'd want to do it differently. It was guaranteed that I'd feel that way but I think, like I said, I really was determined.

I never thought I was going to not complete my law degree but I did have a feeling early on that either I was going to have to just adjust or do it my own way and it didn't take long for me to decide to do it my own way. I didn't engage in a lot of the programs that law school typically asks people to engage in. I found a lot of my own internships by doing research on my own. I just really self-advocated.

For instance, my first internship in law school was at the Children's Law Center, which is this amazing legal services organization outside of Boston that has these really long-term attorneys who've been there for years who are those unique types of people who must have a lot of freedom to just really do what they want.

They would be going to the houses of families to work with kids. They were going into the school systems to advocate for kids. They were going to juvenile detention centers to talk with kids, things like that that I was just putting myself in the position to be able to experience and really just soak in everything I could.

I worked at a state agency that works with kids who are dealing with all different types of home-based issues. I worked at a family law firm, which wasn't my favorite but I assumed there would be aspects of it that I liked, which I did, which included considering what are the best interests of the children and how to argue that a child is best suited for a certain environment. The identity quest is quickly turned into me just saying I'm going to do it my own way. From the get-go, I have. I never really stopped.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. This is something that some people have described before but it sounds like part of what created it was this sense of if you're here in law school, then these are the things that should be your priorities.

Not everyone actually has those priorities but because of the nature of the environment, even if it's not explicit, the way it just implicitly pushes certain priorities, whether it's getting into a law review or going into a large law firm, the things that are held out as the ultimate achievements can be really hard if you don't have a clear understanding of who you are to not get on the conveyor belt.

But it sounds like, and this is not surprising, especially because you did have that experience in your family of origin of talking about feelings and happiness of who you were.

Francesca Korbas: Teasing out how you feel about things, yeah.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, it sounds like that was protective for you in a way.

Francesca Korbas: It was. Again, I have a strong support system in that way too. I have a lot of very strong-willed women in my family who forged their own paths. My mom created her own profession too. She has a private practice as a therapist that she created while we were growing up. I had a lot of good modeling to be that way and obviously, I have a father who is incredibly empowering too.

I had a really good support system so I didn't rely on other people's opinions too. But that was hard. When I was in law school, I felt that gaslighty thing where you're feeling either I'm crazy or I'm right and people are, like you just said, following a formula that's maybe not necessarily something they would have chosen otherwise and I just didn't want to be disillusioned. I have to say too when you go into law school, there are older students but most people are 23 to 26 when they start. That's so young.

Sarah Cottrell: I was going to say obviously, they know everything about life.

Francesca Korbas: Yeah. No one really knows who they are at that time too. To just say that this is the trajectory you have to follow, that makes sense people are disillusioned three or four years out of law school.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, for sure, I went straight through from undergrad. I think you mentioned before you went to law school, you didn't really know what it looked like to work as a lawyer and that was absolutely true for me as well. Again, for me, I like research, I like writing, I took some classes at the law school during my undergrad. I love constitutional law and then went to law school.

When you mentioned gaslighting, the first thought that popped into my head, because this has come up on the podcast multiple times, it’s something I've talked a lot about recently, in particular, the narcissistic systems that exist in the legal profession and many law firms are themselves a form of narcissistic system, and of course, gaslighting is a huge part of that.

I think there very much is the sense that people have of even if they feel some discordance between themselves and what they're being told in law school is the stuff to pursue, there's also this tendency to feel, “Well, I must be wrong. The way I feel must be wrong.” It sounds like for you, even though you felt that and experienced it, ultimately, you were able to say, “No, actually. Even if the way I feel is different, it's not wrong, different from the norm.”

Francesca Korbas: Yeah, absolutely. I was young enough that it took some time, it’s taken up until the past couple of years for me to be very happy that I did those things. I left law school and I started working for a government agency doing civil rights enforcement, which I really liked, but again, I just wasn't fully sure that's what I wanted.

What I would say, and I will talk about this if you want later too, in terms of things that would encourage anyone to do who's not sure of their identity in the law field, is to try to soak in every piece of the experience they have in a way that they want to take, what they can take from it.

Even though there are certain environments that weren't my favorite to work in, I was like, “I'm going to understand how federal law works in certain systems if it breaks me because I want to know every little piece of this so I can leave this with this type of knowledge.” Basically treating everything as a learning experience and that's what I did. But it did take a while after law school for me to land where I wanted to land and know that it was the right move for me to get a law degree in the first place.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I was going to ask, you mentioned that your first job out of law school was civil rights enforcement. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to pursue that or to go that direction as your first job out of law school? Did you anticipate, “This is going to be a great fit,” or were you already at the point where you were like, “I'm not sure this is going to be an ideal long-term option”?

Francesca Korbas: Oh, I had literally no idea. I'll be fully honest. I had no idea. I just loved the idea of it. The fact that it was the Office for Civil Rights, I was really naive so I was like, “That just means it's going to encompass everything that I care about. There were a lot of really important things that the office does but for me, there was more that I really thought I could do with my skills while there.

That said, I learned so much from that position but to be honest, there was no real deep thought that went into it other than, “Great, civil rights, federal law, working with people who are disempowered, great.” That was my thought process there.

Sarah Cottrell: Okay. So you're in that job and you start to realize eventually, “This is potentially not a great fit for me or there are things about this that are just not going to work long term.” Can you tell me how quickly did you start to come to that realization and then how did you decide what you were going to do next?

Francesca Korbas: Full transparency, it was in Boston where my office was and I moved to the suburbs and I had my first child. I knew before that this wasn't going to be long term but having her really solidified that for me. But in the meantime, I knew I had to have some idea of what I wanted to do because I did not want to stop working.

I did want something that I could have more control over. Something that had been always in the back of my mind and always the area of law that I felt like I was most interested in was education law and special ed law. Going back to when I was much younger, I had a lot of personal experiences with people I know and love going through the special ed experience, which can be really challenging.

In law school, when I worked at those programs that I told you about, a lot of it was working with students who have differing needs, who needed either different placements or different services.

One thing that I knew while I was in this job, what I understood was a lot of the disability laws that applied to the entities that I was working to enforce civil rights in were applicable to special ed stuff so I started to read more up on education law, federal special ed law, state special ed law, and I realized this is what I'm going to do. If it takes a while, I'm going to learn everything I can about this area of law.

I started that process just, again, in my spare time just reading everything I could and talking to people who are in that field. Then once I transitioned out of my original job in law school, I moved into getting trained in special ed advocacy, which is nonlegal. Are you familiar with special ed advocacy and special ed law and the difference?

Sarah Cottrell: I have the most passing acquaintance that one could imagine. Why don't you explain some of the specifics?

Francesca Korbas: Sure. Special ed law, at least in Massachusetts, there are federal and state laws that protect students with disabilities. Special ed lawyers protect the rights of those students and their parents or guardians. All of the legal proceedings occur in an administrative environment. A lot of the work that those lawyers have to do involves really counseling and advising families. It's a very rewarding work but it can be very adversarial.

Then there are also nonlegal advocates who get trained in everything including the law. They don't necessarily have to cite it, they don't have to pretend lawyer but they do have to know it in order to help families confidently understand their rights through special education and everything related to it.

I knew, like I had said to you earlier, that I was not sure if I wanted to formally practice law so I did go solo and I practiced for a while. But what I ended up doing was a lot of informal advisement of families. What I loved was just the really hands-on work, talking to the kids, talking to the parents even just emotionally counseling them through the hard stuff.

A really strong referral partner contacted me because he was sending me a number of cases and he pitched the idea of me forming this special ed nonlegal advocacy practice area at his existing educational consulting company.

I had just had my second child, she was two or three months old, and I was like, “I don't know if I can do that,” but again, it was just a really serendipitous time in my life and he's a very progressive, straightforward, and empowering guy who was like, “I think you can do it and I'll help you do it and we'll do it.”

We actually formed a sister company to his existing company that offered special ed advocacy and then we ended up adding special ed testing, which is this testing that is done to get students placed in the right place and gives all the data that's needed to get diagnosed, these all different types of things like that and then different therapies.

Quickly, we learned that families were going to be using both our services and the services at his existing company and it didn't make sense to have separate entities so we merged and I became a partner at Vested Academics, which is now our shared company.

It's full spectrum student needs so both special needs all the way to highly just ambitious students who need coaching on how to get to the next level and their families. Long story short, I just in a short or a summary just gave you a two-year description of what happened after that I left that original position.

Sarah Cottrell: Got it, yeah. I am familiar with some of the timings and the requests because we have a very neurodivergent household over here and we are working through some of that right now ourselves.

Francesca Korbas: Yes, very hard.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Okay, what I heard you say, and I just wanted to make sure that I understood correctly, is that you left the civil rights office and opened your own essentially law firm, specifically practicing special ed law but then ultimately transitioned into doing the more advisory nonlegal work. Is that correct?

Francesca Korbas: Yep. I left that position. I actually, for a short period of time, established a special ed law practice at a local town firm. It was okay, it just wasn't for me. But, again, I learned so much. They didn't offer those services so they just offered that I open the special ed practice area and it just wasn't a good fit.

I ended up going solo soon after that and that's when I took all of the tools that I developed and created that practice. Like I said, I chose to get trained by nonlegal advocates, these two amazing women who practiced special ed advocacy all over the country for 30 years and they just knew the ins and outs of everything that goes along with the process.

The knew different state law, they knew what to look for, how to read certain documents, how to really coach families through all the different aspects of the processes that they're going to have to go through with special education. They were the most inspiring people I'd met throughout everything to that point.

I had asked them, I was like, “Have you ever met a special ed attorney who decided to go into advocacy?” and they were like, “No.” But I was like, “Well, I'm still going to go for it.” What I do now is advise nonlegal advocates. I work with them to understand how to mediate complicated situations, communicate effectively, all the skills that you learn passively in law school are what I use now.

I don't give them any type of formal legal advisement because it's not ethical and that's not something I do. But that knowledge base is a huge help for everyone. Then I also have a number of other roles in my company. I work with my business partner to really develop strong relationships with the right families who are invested in their kids’ needs.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's interesting I'm just thinking based on the experiences that I've had, I can see how, and I think this is what you're describing, the process of pursuing these kinds of supports for your kids, there are laws and regulations that structure how those things can happen. But you have to know what the law is and you have to be able to advocate in order to make those requests.

I'm just saying this for people who are listening who maybe don't have as much of a connection, you're not having to cite to case law unless ultimately things go awry and you have to bring in a lawyer basically. But the skill set that is involved, I can see how you would definitely be drawing a lot on the things that you learn or that you develop as a lawyer.

Can we go back to you ask these women if they knew of a special ed lawyer who had moved into an advocate role and they were like, “No.” Can you talk a little bit about why you think that is? Then I know you touched on this a little bit but I'd love for people to hear a little bit more about what it was about being a special ed lawyer that felt like it wasn't as good of a fit.

Francesca Korbas: Yeah. The first question, why they don't think that they knew anyone who'd done it, simply put I think money. You make a lot more money practicing special ed law than you do as an advocate. I also think lawyers know how to be lawyers.

It's very hard to go into that mode of families are going to be crying on the phone with you and it has to be part of your job where you walk them through how to, not that special lawyers don't do that but they have to have more of a rigid approach to how they organize their services for families.

Whereas I want to be on the phone with families and in person with families, coaching them through how to mentally prepare for meetings, how to synthesize their thoughts, how to gain the skills emotionally in terms of what they understand educationally, arm them with information that they can go forth with for years to come with their kids because it is a long battle that parents have to fight even if their kids go into higher ed or if they have kids who really need care beyond high school.

Navigating systems, that type of thing, a lot of the stuff, again, that's a little more social worky, that's a little more along the lines of what I originally wanted to do can be done in this field and that's why I like it.

Then that probably spills into your next question in terms of the special ed, why it wasn't for me. When a lawyer enters the room in a special education setting, essentially communications are completely shifted into a really negative adversarial tone no matter how strong, kind, or well-toned the lawyer is. That said, I have some really good referral partners that I have developed over the years for when a case needs to go to a lawyer and they are amazing.

I found my people. To veer for a second too, the special ed law bar in Massachusetts is fantastic. It's a lot of people who are really, really ardently fighting for rights. I don't have that formality in me. I don't have, again, that lawyerly personality that I think is still necessary even in special ed law even though it's a unique area of law to begin with. Does that answer your question?

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think it's something that non-lawyers often don't see when they look at someone who's a lawyer, whether it's a special ed lawyer or a different type of law, that ultimately as a lawyer, yes, you have the ability to do things that other people can't as a barred lawyer.

But on the flip side, you actually are very limited in what you can do. The things that you are able to do within the legal constructs, within the system as it's set up, you can operate there but that is where you're operating. For people who haven't practiced law, I think there is this perception of lawyers as being very powerful in a way that I think is a false impression because it's really more like you can take one of these 10 steps but only those things.

Yes, there are times when that is what the situation calls for but if the situation calls for a screwdriver but you have a hammer, then it's a fundamental mismatch. It's not that the hammer isn't doing what it's supposed to do, it's just not the right situation or the right tool for the job. Because of various things including the particular ethical rules that govern lawyers, you have to have a level of removal from situations.

Francesca Korbas: It also requires an advisement. There's only so much information you can share to a certain point. You have to be very, very careful about what you share, what you tell families to do or people. There are so many limitations. You're nailing it. That's exactly how I feel.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Here's what I think is important for people to hear. It's not like, “Oh, what someone who's a special ed lawyer does, is it important or is it necessary?” It's a question of, “Is this the role that I want to be playing?” Because different people are going to find, even be drawn to things in terms of how they feel about how effective it is.

Ultimately, it's not a question of “Should you or should you not, you, the generic royal you, be a special ed lawyer?” It's like, “Should you, Francesca, with your unique set of skills, strengths, interests, background, all of this stuff, and your values, is that the best role for you to be in, or is there another role that is going to be better suited for you?”

Francesca Korbas: Yes, exactly. Like I said, I have some close colleagues who I really trust and they're so necessary. The reason I have them is because there are times where families come to me and I'm like, “Oh, this is beyond the scope of us just coaching you.”

Sarah Cottrell: Time to lawyer up.

Francesca Korbas: Yes. Then the people that I trust, they walk in a room and they do such a good job still maintaining the relationship between parents and schools while also making sure those parents and families have their voice heard and have their rights upheld. It's such an important but exactly, it's not for me. It's just not for me.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think one of the other things, and this comes up with so many of my clients, so many people became lawyers and really want to help people but do not enjoy conflict or needlessly adversarial situations. Often, by virtue of the fact that you are a lawyer, you were talking about when you walk in the room, the tone immediately changes and I think part of it is that lawyering, at least as it is here in the US, is an inherently adversarial process.

If you're someone who is not suited to being the person who walks in the room and everyone immediately is like, “Oh, we're in adversarial mode,” then it's going to be not a great fit. I think for a lot of people who choose to become lawyers who care a lot about really important causes and issues, because of the need for it, it can be hard to accept that this is a necessary role but I am not suited for this role.

Francesca Korbas: Yes. Especially, I don’t know if you were this way too, a lot of us, we have to strive to help people our whole lives, I had my whole life, actually even previously before undergrad, people have been like, “Oh, you're going to be a lawyer one day,” or people saying, “It was instilled that if you have this personnel advocate personality, that's the right role.”

Like you said, there are times when people are just adversarial to be adversarial and they like it and they like to get into things. Whereas some of us are just really not up for that.

Sarah Cottrell: That's the worst. Please, no.

Francesca Korbas: It kicks my anxiety into high gear. I have to say too, one of the things that really sealed the deal for me in terms of what I realized were my skills is when I got trained in mediation. It's so funny because for anyone who listens or if you have mediation training, it is the antithesis of what we are trained in law school. I really was overconfident going into it and I was like, “I'm going to nail this. It's just resolution.”

Sarah Cottrell: It was just conflict resolution.

Francesca Korbas: The way that you have to train your brain not to do what it's been trained to do, which is just like, “Immediately listen to what someone says and then spit it back out in an adversarial way” to completely neutralize information that's shared in front of you and to immediately come up with language that helps one party understand what the other party is saying is a skill.

Once I figured it out and could do it, it shifted me right out of that mindset, the original adversarial mindset, and put me into the position of really understanding that that is what I do better and that is a lot of what I bring into the advocacy practice.

I train our advocates on a lot of mediation tools, some of them are mediation trained as well but that skill, in and of itself, to de-personalize language and to neutralize it so that everyone in the room can understand it and to keep a certain non-adversarial tone is a big part of being an effective advocate in the nonlegal sense. That's another thing too.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That makes complete sense. I cannot tell you how many people I work with, who have been on the podcast, or myself who got into lawyering, and a huge part of what was problematic about it for them was that they were just like, “This is not the state I want to live in, this adversarial state.” To your point, I talk in the podcast frequently about the fact that I have a clinical anxiety disorder and panic disorder, which I actually didn't know until after I left Biglaw where it would have been really helpful to know.

But that's so true for so many people. So many lawyers have some form of clinical anxiety that they know about or don't know about. So many lawyers have ADHD or some other form of neurodivergence. That environment is just not conducive to mental wellness, frankly, for most people.

Francesca Korbas: Putting yourself in that state of conflict is really hard to shift out of, especially for those who have or decide to have children, that's one of those things that's hard too is to go into that heightened state of conflict and then come back down and parent and be at the level where you want to be for your family. Again, that's a hard part of it too that I don't think I could do either.

Sarah Cottrell: Can you talk a little bit about the consultancy that you have? Are your clients 100% families and parents of students or is there a mix of different types of work that you're doing? Can you talk a little bit about the details?

Francesca Korbas: Yeah. We have I think five main buckets we work within with families. We do customized learning support, which was the original service provided at Vested Academics years ago. Now we offer, obviously, educational advocacy. We do testing and evaluations, which are neuropsych evaluations. If you don't know what those are, they're complex but they're important.

We do reading therapy, college consulting, and private school consulting. Then we have other services that are intertwined in there as test prep. But everything is academic or education-focused and we design services to meet the needs of what the family has going on.

For instance, if a family comes to us and they want some private school placement consulting, we get information up front on how that student learns. For instance, if a student is on an IEP, we take that into consideration. We help them package up their student and to understand what they really need in whatever placement they go in.

College consulting is the same thing. If there's a learning-based need, we help them plan ahead for how that student might learn how to advocate for their needs and get the services they need made in school. Advocacy, we do pretty much everything, educational advocacy.

A lot of our students, just by reason of us having an academic focus, have learning-based needs, are on the autism spectrum, a lot of them actually have literacy needs but all of our consultants have graduate degrees and are higher in education or psychology and different certifications, whether it be reading certifications, like I said, mediation training, all different types of skills but very, very dedicated collaborative team and we work to build programs for families based on their needs.

Sarah Cottrell: Are you working with clients only based in Massachusetts or are you working with clients in different locations?

Francesca Korbas: We work throughout the country. We actually work internationally for some services. Educational advocacy, I would like to grow further into the Northeast. That is a goal. But like I said earlier, it does require a solid understanding of the culture of special ed law in different states. That's just going to be a growing pain but we plan to.

Then neuropsych evaluations, people would have to understand that they have to come to Massachusetts to get them but that said, we've had people from the Northeast to New Hampshire and Connecticut who have traveled our way to get testing done.

Sarah Cottrell: Got it. If someone's listening and they're thinking, “This actually sounds really interesting. This is something that I think that I could be well suited for, I have an interest in,” what we would recommend to someone who is thinking, “This might be something that's interesting to me” but they have no idea where to start?

Francesca Korbas: With advocacy, in general, I say join organizations in your state that serve students with special needs. There are a lot of them. There's especially an education advocacy network. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates is a national organization (COPAA), become part of that. That's where you get connected with so many different professionals in this field.

That's how I developed my knowledge base and got surrounded by my people who helped me build this profession on my own too into this world. In educational consulting, in general, again, if you're trying to connect with people who are in education field, it's as simple as joining organizations and meeting people, asking a ton of questions about what they do.

But there are a lot of state and national organizations that serve educational needs of students and that's a really great way to build your community, get some trainings, and move forward, or they connect with me.

Sarah Cottrell: I was going to say. Before I ask you where people can find you online, is there anything else that you would like to share that we haven't had a chance to talk about yet?

Francesca Korbas: This is a random one and it's the one that I had the time to write down but it was something we talked about earlier and it's in front of me. One thing that we talked about in terms of skills that are hard to understand are important when you're in law school, one of them you described early on was management supervisory roles.

I never perceived myself to be in a role like that because I didn't like adversarial stuff, I was like, “There's no way I'm going to be able to manage.” I have to say, not to toot my own horn, that is one thing that I have really comfortably fallen into and I think it's because of that non-traditional skill that I have, which is that I do like to avoid conflict and I do like to work with people to resolve things and make them comfortable and to build a creative environment for people to be in.

I have to say don't rule that out if you're someone who is conflict-avoidant because to a certain degree, that can be a really great skill to have when you're in a supervisory role.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that's really helpful. A corollary to that is being an empathetic person and not enjoying conflict, you can be made to feel like it's a weakness but it's actually a strength. In the right environment, it will actually be valued.

Francesca Korbas: Exactly. I completely agree.

Sarah Cottrell: Okay, Francesca, where can people find you and your company online?

Francesca Korbas: Sure. You can find us at our home website You can also contact me via email. I have no issues contacting people via email at [email protected].

Sarah Cottrell: Okay, and we will put those links in the show notes and the blog post for the episode so people can go there to find them. Otherwise, thank you so much for sharing your story today. I really appreciate it.

Francesca Korbas: Yeah. This was fun and I'm going to continue listening because it gives me more fuel every week to do this stuff.

Sarah Cottrell: Yay! it's my life goal.

Francesca Korbas: Yeah, I didn't mention that by the way. That was one of the things I did when my transition period was just literally go on walks with my dog and listen to this podcast and it really was helpful.

Sarah Cottrell: Oh, my goodness. Amazing. Thank you.

Francesca Korbas: Yeah.

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.