Validation: An Incredible Tool for Unhappy Lawyers with Kelcey Baker [TFLP216]

On today’s podcast episode, Sarah is chatting with her client, Kelcey Baker. Kelcey joined the Collab and participated in the Guided Track, so she has all kinds of wisdom and insight to share about her decision to become a lawyer and then her decision to stop practicing law. 

From Paralegal to Lawyer – A Common Path

Kelcey’s experience is what Sarah would call a quintessential Biglaw experience. She was working as a paralegal when she decided that she wanted to go to law school. Kelcey’s original dream was to become a pastry chef, but law school was never part of the plan. Her parents didn’t think culinary school was a good use of money. In school, she was an international studies and French major. After college, she got a job as a paralegal at an immigration law firm. 

After working as a paralegal for a few years, Kelcey decided to attend law school and become a lawyer. This isn’t an uncommon path for many paralegals. After working in a law firm, there is a familiarity, so it feels like a standard progressive for many. Paralegals do much of the grunt work in drafting and preparing cases, documents, filings, and more. 

Many paralegals believe that the transition will be more of the same work they are accustomed to. But there is a huge difference in the culture and expectations. How you’re treated as an attorney is entirely different from being a paralegal. You get more prestige and a higher salary, but how you’re treated by your family, colleagues, peers, superiors, and the public is entirely different.

Kelcey’s biggest challenges were the intangibles, which were harder to predict or even describe. There is less control over one’s life. You no longer get overtime for working more; it’s just an expectation of the job. There’s less of a boundary between work and your life. Becoming a lawyer felt like her complete identity. 

Realization of Differences Between Being a Paralegal and a Lawyer

Once Kelcey graduated from law school, she knew she wanted to return to the same type of law she worked in as a paralegal. She thought she’d find a small boutique firm and avoid Biglaw. By focusing on networking, conferences, and clubs, she thought she’d found a loophole in the system to avoid the conveyor belt that sends you right to Biglaw. 

At her midsized firm, Kelcey felt safe from Biglaw. But then, after a year and a half, she realized that she was still working Biglaw hours and not making the salary that others at large firms were. So, she ended up switching to a large law firm and doing corporate immigration work. She figured that if she worked so much and lost so much sleep, she might get compensated for it.

Many lawyers are familiar with this story. If people have to suffer to get the work done, they might as well get paid for it. Misery is so normalized in this profession that people don’t even see it. Money acts as a bandaid because people assume a bigger paycheck will solve some of their problems. 

Kelcey’s experience in Biglaw was not pleasant. There was an initial feeling of success and pride, but things started to take a turn, and it was hard for her even to recognize it. She had bad bosses, long hours, stress, and anxiety. Those are common in Biglaw, and many people find themselves in a situation similar to Kelcey’s.

Kelcey’s Journey Out of Biglaw

Like so many of the guests on this podcast, Kelcey felt that something was wrong with her. So many others worked hard to reach this achievement, and Kelcey was there. So why wasn’t she happy? All her colleagues were drinking the Kool-Aid and said they were grateful to be working there. The environment isn’t as rosy as the firm would like everyone to believe. You’re not supposed to admit being miserable when you’re in the lawyer bubble. Part of the structure of Biglaw is making people feel like there’s something wrong with them if they question the system.

Kelcey started looking for alternative careers for lawyers. She found this podcast and started listening to all the episodes, feeling like she wasn’t alone. She found a group of people who didn’t want to be lawyers anymore, and it felt so validating. Joining the Collab was the first step, but it took more than six months to even look at the materials. Once the Guided Track was presented as an opportunity, she joined. She needed this level of accountability.

The Guided Track was an intimate group of people who offered an incredibly helpful level of support for Kelcey. Seeing the same faces each week was like having a group of friends who shared the same secret. The Framework was set up to help her think about other career options and learn more about herself. It walked her through a values-based approach in a way that was new to Kelcey.

Kelcey worked through the tasks, learning about her strengths, values, and interests. All of these were questions that she had never asked herself while practicing law. One of the people in Kelcey’s group described it as standing in an open field and feeling like this expanse of possibilities was a bit intimidating. Kelcey described it as looking at the ocean at night—vast and open.

Benefits of the Guided Track and the Collab

One important moment in the Guided Track for Kelsey was the exercise to tell someone that she didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She told her mom, and it felt like an easy thing to say. It would have been a lot scarier if she had picked her colleagues or professional network. Even though Kelcey hadn’t spent her life assuming she’d be a lawyer forever, it was still hard to admit that this change was a challenge. People are impressed when you say you’re an attorney.

When Kelcey completed the Guided Track, she knew she needed to leave her job, but it was all about deciding when. Her therapist told her to pick a date, so she started with a six-month deadline. Then, she kept moving it sooner because the pressure was mounting, and she was getting increasingly stressed. 

By the time Kelcey gave notice, she couldn’t even focus anymore because the toxicity of her environment was so extreme. The Collab members, her therapist, and her family offered her support while she decided what to do next. Not everyone has the luxury of taking some time off. Kelcey had some savings that allowed her to quit without anything else lined up. 

The most important offering from the Collab for Kelcey was the validation. It’s hard to find this anywhere else. The people in the Collab can relate to her feelings and understand her situation. Friends who aren’t lawyers won’t understand, but friends who are lawyers also don’t get it because they are in the lawyer bubble. 

The Guided Track was the right option for Kelcey because she needed the accountability built in, but she would recommend any part of the Collab because it’s helpful to have a community that understands. The financial piece of this program didn’t hold up Kelcey because she knew how badly she needed support and help. She started with the Collab because it was less of an investment, but she knew making a further investment would be helpful once she learned more about the offerings. 

Like with therapy, investing in your mental and emotional well-being is worthwhile. The community and validation can be valuable and provide the support needed to find your next path. 

Final Thoughts From Our Guest

If any of Kelcey’s stories resonate with you, she wants to remind listeners that they are not alone. Money cannot bring you happiness, and it’s not a bandaid for issues impacting your mental health. You’ll struggle to find fulfillment if you’re in a toxic environment. You are not a failure; you’re just a normal person with a real personality.

Download the free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law, if you are considering leaving your law job and listen to more podcast episodes to learn more about the offerings available for former lawyers. Remember, you are not alone.

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

I am so excited for you to hear this conversation today. I'm sharing my conversation with one of my clients, Kelcey Baker. Kelcey, as she shares in the episode, joined the Collab and also participated in a Guided Track and has so much wisdom to share not just from those experiences but also from her experience of deciding to become a lawyer and then deciding that she did not want to be a lawyer anymore. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Kelcey.

If you like the idea of the Collab but would like to do some one-on-one coaching in addition, then you should consider the Collab Plus One-on-One Program. It's a hybrid program which combines the Collab with one-on-one coaching, three months of one-on-one support from me to help you move through The Former Lawyer Framework.

The way that it works is that you get everything you get in the Collab including lifetime access to the Collab, you get four 60-minute one-on-one coaching calls with me that you can schedule anytime over three months. You also get a free video resume review where you send me a copy of your revised resume during those three months and I will send you back a video reviewing it giving suggestions for how to change, add, etc, and then you're also going to get two free assessments that are otherwise paid: one is a strengths assessment and one is a personality assessment.

The goal of the Collab Plus One-on-One Program is to give you access to some one-on-one coaching and also all of the resources of the Collab. So, if you're someone who's thought about the Collab but is also drawn to the idea of one-on-one coaching, then definitely go to the website and check out the information. It's

Hi, Kelcey. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Kelcey Baker: Hi, Sarah. I'm so glad to be here.

Sarah Cottrell: I am so glad that you're here. Let's have you introduce yourself to the listener and we'll go from there.

Kelcey Baker: Sure. My name is Kelcey Baker. I am a member of the Collab. I am an aspiring former lawyer working my way there but I got introduced via listening to the podcast, eventually joined the Collaborative, and then I did the Guided Track.

Sarah Cottrell: Here's the thing that I know since I have been working with Kelcey for a while now. Kelcey, I feel like you have had what I think of as a quintessential Biglaw experience, by which I mostly mean like Biglaw sucks, we all know that that's how I feel about it, we're definitely going to get into that but why don't we start where we usually start with general interviews, can you tell me like what made you decide to go to law school in the first place?

Kelcey Baker: Sure. I have a somewhat typical story, maybe not the same as I always wanted to be a lawyer but I never wanted to be a lawyer and I ended up falling into going to law school because I was a paralegal, which I know is the case for many people who end up going to law school.

I never wanted to go to law school. I originally wanted to be a pastry chef. I wanted to go to culinary school. My parents said, “No way. That's a waste of money,” and so I ended up doing traditional college and I was an international studies and a French major. I wanted to do something international and so I got a job as a paralegal at an immigration law firm.

Then after being a paralegal for a few years, I thought, “Well, I don't want to be a paralegal forever. I know what it's like working in a law firm,” or so I thought at the time and decided to make the jump to go to law school.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's so interesting. I think there is a decent percentage of people who go to law school basically because they've been working as a paralegal, they look at the lawyers around them, they're like, “I am definitely at least as smart as you and I'm making way less and I'm getting way less respect so I'm going to go to law school, I will make more money, and be more respected.” Those things might be true but it almost feels like a bit of a trap. I'm curious what your thought is about that.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. It's definitely a trap and for my law school application, the prompt essay was why do you want to be a lawyer, and I wrote, “Because I already know what it's like because I've been working as a paralegal.” At the time, I felt very confident in that answer and now I look back and think what an idiot I was, I had no idea.

Sarah Cottrell: For someone who's listening to this conversation who hasn't had the experience of working as a paralegal or working as a lawyer, it seems logical, so can you talk a little bit about why it was that having worked as a paralegal did not translate into really knowing what it was going to be like to work as a lawyer?

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. I think being a paralegal, you feel like you're really doing the work because you are. The paralegals do an awful lot of the grunt work in terms of drafting and preparing cases, documents, filings, whatever is needed, and really, they do the vast majority of what I think is the grunt work.

I thought that that's what being a lawyer was but more, just more of that. In reality, the biggest difference is the culture and expectations. For a paralegal, you get to focus on the work and what you're doing and completing those tasks. I think that the biggest difference that nobody tells you is that the expectations, the culture, the way that you're treated as an attorney is entirely different from being a paralegal.

To your point, when you're a paralegal, you think, “I'm already doing the same thing but I'm getting paid a lot less money and so this is a logical jump for me to make so that I can keep doing what I'm doing but get the respect, get the prestige, get the salary of being a lawyer.” Again, the thing I've realized that I learned as a very hard lesson is it's not the same thing at all.

Once you make that transition to being a lawyer, you are not treated the same way in the slightest. Sure, you get the prestige, yes, you get the salary but the way that you're treated by your peers, by your superiors, by your colleagues, by the public, by your family is just entirely different.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, and to be clear, the paralegals that I have worked with have been uniformly incredible, know way more practical things about how to get many parts of the job done, and in general, I mean literally, I could not have functioned without them.

I think it's frankly probably pretty fair if someone's a paralegal and they're looking around and thinking like, “I could do at least as good a job as these jokers,” and yet being a lawyer brings with it, as you're describing, all of these intangibles that are hard to see until you experience them and they aren't necessarily an entirely great bunch of intangibles.

Kelcey Baker: Right. Yeah, the intangibles which are harder to describe, harder to predict but also harder to deal with, it was such a difference for me. My experience as a paralegal and then my experience as an attorney. There are some actual tangibles too that are a little bit worse like when you're an attorney, you don't get overtime. However many hours, that's the hours you have to work and you can't say anything.

You weirdly get a little bit of control over your work life when you are a paralegal, when you have to be paid overtime based on how hard they're working you. You weirdly lose that protection and you lose that boundary when you become an associate at a law firm.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's kind of the flip side of like, “Oh, it's great that I can be flexible and if I have to do something at X time, I can push work until later,” which in theory seems great but in practice, especially when you have an avalanche of work as a lawyer that is never ending, it can, to your point, turn into a situation where it's like, “Oh, I just have basically no control over my schedule or only the illusion of control.”

Kelcey Baker: Exactly. Then when you mix it with those intangibles like your identity, “This is who I am,” most people don't see themselves as a paralegal as their complete identity in the same way that we do when we're lawyers.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. You went to law school and were you basically thinking, “I'm going to go to law school and do some legal practice similar to the practice that I've already been in,” what was your thinking about what you would do once you got your law degree?

Kelcey Baker: I was I guess more of an exception in that I came in knowing I wanted to stick with the same field of law and really didn't want to deviate. I tried other areas. I took other classes I had vaguely considered doing other areas of law but the immigration aspect of the practice, the law itself was always really interesting to me and I just decided that's what I wanted to stick with.

Additionally, I always told myself I never wanted to go to Biglaw and so it seemed to make sense because it's an area of law where there are a lot of smaller firms, there are a lot of boutique firms, and I wouldn't have to worry about some of the same big corporate Biglaw nonsense that ultimately I ended up doing anyway.

Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Let's talk about that because I know we talk on the podcast a lot, many different guests have talked about this experience of going to law school and ending up on like a conveyor belt where you're just repeatedly told over and over that Biglaw is the pinnacle of what you should be aiming for.

Can you talk a little bit about for you, the evolution of how you decided to go where you went when you graduated and then how you ultimately decided to end up making a move into Biglaw?

Kelcey Baker: Sure. I was always the person in law school who said, “I don't want to do the traditional thing,” and the career counselors, professors, advisors, everybody in law school tells you, like you said, there's this conveyor belt, there's a very prescribed method to things, you want to get on a journal, you want to be on the mock trial team, you want to do moot court, and I told myself, “No, I don't want to do any of that. That's not for me. I'm going to be different. I don't need any of these things.”

Part of it is I felt like I had this protection by saying “I don't want to go to Biglaw.” I was able to take this, I don't want to say non-traditional but I focused on clubs, I focused on organizations, I focused on networking, I focused on going to conferences, and meeting people that way, and figured I had found a loophole in the system to avoid that traditional conveyor belt.

After I graduated, I had gone to a boutique firm that was, I would say, small to midsized and felt like I was safe from Biglaw. I was in the aspect that the law firm itself was not a big firm and I was certainly not getting paid Biglaw money but then I was working Biglaw hours anyway, which is another thing they don't tell you is you think that Biglaw is the only place where you're going to be working insane hours and have insane expectations.

The trick, the trap is that any law firm can try to make you work that hard and any law firm can make you have that kind of lifestyle and you still won't get paid Biglaw money. Eventually, after doing that for a year and a half, I thought, “Well, if I'm going to be working these hours anyway, maybe I will just bite the bullet and go into Biglaw and do corporate immigration work for an [Amlong 20] Law Firm because I think I can make it in the big leagues.

I wanted to prove myself that if I was already working this hard, if I was already losing this much sleep, if I was already crying every day of my job, I might as well cry into my paycheck.

Sarah Cottrell: I'm laughing not because it's funny but just because it's just the things that are normalized. I know we talk about this in the podcast all the time but for example, talking about crying related to your job, it's such a lawyerly thing to be like, “This is happening and I'm just going to assume it's going to continue to happen so why don't I go do that and also get a bigger paycheck,” as opposed to like, “Hey, this is happening and this really seems problematic and maybe it should push in a different direction.”

I think your response is such the common lawyer way of thinking, in part because this misery in the profession is so normalized that people don't even see it as, “Oh, this should maybe indicate to me that something else might be better.” Did you have any thoughts along those lines or were you just focused on, “Well, I'm a lawyer and I'm going to be lawyering”?

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. It's so classic. I think for me especially, I had been a paralegal for quite a number of years. I worked as a paralegal throughout law school and then having worked as a lawyer for a year and a half, two years, it still seemed like this was my only option, that there was no other way of thinking about what I was going to do.

I was clearly in the legal profession. That was my career, that was my identity, and you're right, I did the most textbook lawyer thing to do which was “Well, maybe I can use money as a Band-Aid. Maybe I'll just feel better if I'm getting paid a lot more rather than to address the underlying issues of why am I crying every day, why don't I like living like this, why don't I ever see my family,” and I just figured, “Well, heavy paycheck solves everything.”

Sarah Cottrell: Well, I think it's really interesting too because you weren't someone who had wanted to be a lawyer forever. You weren't someone who like when you were five, someone was like, “You're great at arguing, you should be a lawyer,” and you decided that you'd be a lawyer and had been on the path for like decades and decades, and yet still this identity piece that so many of us deal with of feeling like “Who would I even be if I wasn't a lawyer?” was still in play for you.

Because I think sometimes people think, “Oh, if I hadn't had this idea that I was going to be a lawyer forever and ever, then I wouldn't struggle with this casting off my identity as a lawyer,” but I think it's pretty pervasive regardless of how long you've been thinking about being a lawyer and clearly, your experience shows that.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. I think it's extremely pervasive. I had even told myself, in response to other people who had said, “Oh, you know what, maybe you should go to law school,” I had said, “No, never. I'm not a lawyer. I have a more creative personality than that,” I had even resisted the idea of going to law school. I still ended up in that trap where it became my identity.

I saw that as synonymous with success and it was one of those classic traditional “successful” careers. You're a doctor, you're a lawyer, and so I fell right into the same trap after actively trying to resist it. So for other people out there who say how did I get here, I get it, how did I get here? I had even told myself, “No way am I going to law school,” and somehow I ended up in Biglaw.

Sarah Cottrell: What do you think the good listeners need to know about your experience in Biglaw?

Kelcey Baker: Ooh, that's a large question. For me, the experience in Biglaw was not a pleasant one. It started out great. You're making a lot of money. You feel like you're in the big leagues now. You're successful, you can do this. I think everybody's experience starts out with this elation and feeling of achievement and everybody's very proud and impressed, and then I think a lot of the typical things start to rear their ugly heads.

You realize, “Oh, I'm not sleeping anymore. I'm not seeing anybody anymore. I don't see the sun because I'm staring at a computer screen from dawn to dusk,” and all of these things that I know so many of the guests who have come on to this podcast have said about Biglaw, I feel like, as you alluded to before, I could identify with all of them.

I'm not going to say that I had the worst Biglaw experience but I certainly would say that I had a pretty typical bad one in that I had the bad bosses, I had the long hours, I had just the corporate cog feeling, all of the stress and anxiety that I think people who get into Biglaw realize that it's just so hard to thrive in that environment end up experiencing. I was not thriving at all.

Sarah Cottrell: I'm curious, Kelcey, and I know we've talked about this before but I think this is such a common experience for so many people, when you were working in Biglaw and it was like, “This is terrible,” can you talk about that sense that so many of us have of like, “Well, there must be something wrong with me. There must be something wrong with me because this feels so bad,” was that your experience? If so, tell us about it.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, that was definitely my experience. I felt like this was supposed to be a success. Even though I originally tried to avoid it, this is what most lawyers are trying to work for, I had somehow been able to lateral my way into Biglaw and I felt like I should have been thrilled and also when you're making that level of money, it's really hard to feel like why aren't you happy? If you're making this much, if you've hit this achievement, if you've done the thing that everybody says you should try to be doing, why aren't you happy? What is wrong with you and why don't you want to keep doing this every day?

I think so many of my colleagues, even ones that I liked, were all still part of this organization and how often we said how grateful we are to be working in this type of environment with this amount of prestige, but that's the Kool-Aid. That's what everybody is too afraid to disagree with I think.

There are far more people in Biglaw I think that are willing to admit to themselves or others that it's not nearly as rosy an environment as the Firm wants everybody to realize. I think it's easy to feel like there's something wrong with you because nobody talks about it.

When you're in Biglaw, I know that in other episodes, you've used the word the lawyer bubble, when you're in the lawyer bubble, you're not supposed to talk about it. This is supposed to be what you're meant to do, this is supposed to be what success looks like, and therefore, you're supposed to be happy with it.

So if you are saying, “There's something wrong here. I don't like doing this. I'm not happy. I don't want to be working this hard,” it feels shameful to say something like that. You feel like there's something wrong with you because again, there's this myth of if you don't want to work this way, you're lazy.

If you “can't” hack it, you're a failure. Nobody in Biglaw addresses these kinds of things with each other or if they do, it's in very whispered tones, nobody really wants to bear their soul because also there's this strange sense of competitiveness in Biglaw that no one can show weakness, no one can show vulnerability, no one can show a side of humanness to you, and so when you do have these really human feelings of “I don't like this. I'm not happy. I don't feel fulfilled. The money isn't making me happy, isn't bringing me joy,” you feel like there's something fundamentally wrong with you.

I would say that there's an aspect of the Biglaw structure that is trying to make you feel like there's something wrong with you so that you don't question the system.

Sarah Cottrell: I was just going to say it's the vaguely cultish vibes, the “we're going to say things are a certain way” even if it's totally contrary to the experience that you're having that really everyone is having, but it's very like Wizard of Oz like, “Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain.”

At some point in the experience of working in Biglaw, you started to realize, “Oh, I actually think I want to do something else,” can you talk a little bit about how quickly you came to that realization, how long it took before you started to try to take action, what was that like?

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. It took me longer than it should have but it was probably the amount of time that I really needed. I, like many other people, just started Googling alternative careers for lawyers because I needed to just find some ray of sunshine somewhere, I needed some hope.

I actually ended up finding this podcast and after listening to just I think every single episode that had come out at that point, I finally felt like I wasn't alone. It had felt so isolating working in Biglaw and I had constantly been in that cycle that I know that other people go through who are in Biglaw of “I'm going to quit.” “Well, this isn't so bad. Maybe I’ll give it some time.” “Now things are okay. Okay, I'm not going to quit,” and then things get bad again and then you're going to quit.

I was just in this constant cyclical process until finally, I found this group of people who were saying, “Oh, I don't want to be a lawyer anymore,” or “I at least don't want to work in this type of capacity as a lawyer,” and that felt so validating. So I ended up joining the Collab. Now, also I think in classic lawyer form, I told myself I was going to do it and then I didn't because I [inaudible] work instead.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, yes. Okay, so tell me what happened next.

Kelcey Baker: Sure. I had joined the Collab and not done any of the materials for probably about six to eight months and just voyeuristically kept telling myself I was going to join and be more active and then I just didn't. Then the Guided Track was presented as an opportunity, I had heard on your podcast, I think I had gotten an email as well that you were going to open up a Guided Track which was a much more focused way to do it.

It was just a small group of people who were going to be walked through the materials and I thought, “Yep, I need this level of accountability. I need someone who's going to make me show up every week and make sure that I've made progress in this,” and so I decided to do it. I think that was in the Fall of 2022 that I did the Guided Track then. That was really when I started to finally poke my head out of the lawyer bubble.

Sarah Cottrell: Okay, so tell me more about being in the Guided Track, working through the materials, what was that like?

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. It was a really small group of people but it just felt so intimate and supportive. Seeing the same faces on a weekly basis just felt really good. It felt like I had this group of friends who were sharing the same secret with me of maybe I didn't want to be a lawyer anymore, and being able to work through the materials with this group of friends felt so much more supportive and easy than anytime I had tried to do anything on my own. Having that just weekly support group as well as the accountability just was what made the fundamental difference for me.

Sarah Cottrell: Can you talk a little bit about working through the Framework, what that is like, and anything that stands out to you about it?

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, the Framework was not anything that I had done for myself before. I had previously said, “What else can I do? What are all [inaudible] careers? Can I do anything?” and I'm so grateful for the way that the Framework is set up because it allows you to approach it in a much more thoughtful way.

I think if I had done this on my own, it would have been out of a sense of desperation and I probably would have just ended up in another job, whether it was lawyer or not, where I was just miserable because I would have approached it from a pure skills achievement type of mindset rather than values-based.

I think that the framework does such a good job of walking you through a values-based approach in a way that we don't think about as lawyers because that's not how we're taught to think. We're taught to think like “What is the law? What can apply here? Let me spot the issues,” not “What are the values here? What do we appreciate? What fills our cup?” that's not how we're taught to think as lawyers.

In the same way, that's not how I was thinking about “What else can I be doing?” Being walked through, “Oh, what are my strengths? What are my values? What are my interests?” questions that I had not posed for myself previously, it was so helpful to have my hand held in that way, be walked through in that way, and to be able to work with you and the others in the Guided Track to explore those things for myself, and to be able to speak with others as I was doing it. It didn't feel like I was in this echo chamber of my own head. I had people I could bounce thoughts off of on a weekly basis.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's so interesting because I think for so many of us who are lawyers, immediately, when we start thinking about getting out of the law, the first question that most of us ask is, “What should I do?” it's that should piece like, “Okay, I don't want to do this, so what should I do?” That's, in many cases, how most of us ended up going to law school and becoming lawyers.

It's shifting that way of thinking, I think you can't just tell yourself, “Okay, I shouldn't think that way,” we have to have some other way of thinking about it. I think we are trained by our profession because there is such this high level of obsession with prestige. We are trained to look to someone outside of ourselves to tell us what the “right decision” is.

I'm curious what your thoughts are but I think it can be really scary to acknowledge that there isn't just one right answer because even though a lawyer can feel really frustrated if they can't figure out what they “should” do, there's some kind of security in feeling like, “But there is one right answer and if I figure it out, then I've gotten the right answer,” as opposed to like it's all a bit more amorphous than that.

Kelcey Baker: Absolutely, yeah. What should I do is a very different question than what could I do. The could is way scarier to grapple with. I think in one of our Guided Track sessions, one of the members who was in there, and this will stick with me, she had had a moment of vulnerability that she was sharing with the group about how intimidating it was but she had described it as standing in an open field and feeling like there was just this expanse of possibilities and being intimidated by that.

It was such a good way to describe it. I just felt like it's like looking at the ocean at night. It's just open. It's just vast. That can be really intimidating when you have only had the security I guess of a limited number of choices. Even as a paralegal, it wasn't, “Well, if I don't want to be a paralegal anymore, maybe I'll be a bartender, maybe I'll be a motivational speaker,” it was, “Well, I'll be a lawyer. That's what I'm supposed to do.”

If you're not a paralegal, then you're moving on in the legal industry in a law firm hierarchy. It was already very prescribed even though lawyer was not my original goal. To break out of that framework, especially when all of your colleagues and a lot of your friends, quite frankly, are lawyers too, it's so hard to imagine not doing that, not being that, and trying to explain that to other people because it's hard for them to understand too because they also have their own identities wrapped up in being lawyers.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. I think a huge piece of the experience of realizing that you don't want to be a lawyer and dealing with interactions with others which can vary wildly is being able to keep perspective on the reality that the way someone reacts to your decision actually has very little to do with you and a lot to do with whatever their view of what they “should” be doing is.

Kelcey Baker: Absolutely, yeah. In the Guided Track, I believe one of our exercises was “Tell somebody that you don't want to be a lawyer anymore,” and for me, it was my mom which felt like an easy thing to say, to tell but if it had needed to be my co-workers, my professional network, or former colleagues, that would have been much harder, much, much harder because people react really differently.

Depending on who it is, depending on the person, and however much weight they've given to you being a lawyer, it can be a really intimidating scary thing to say, “This isn't fulfilling. I want to do something else.”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It requires a lot of honesty to be able to admit to yourself, “I did this thing because of what I thought it would make other people think about me,” or “I'm scared to leave this thing because I'm scared of what other people will think about me,” which is an almost universal experience, at least in my experience with the lawyers who I've worked with, which is again, the plug for therapy that we need to have in basically every episode, this is one of the many reasons why I talk so much about lawyers seeing a therapist because it is very normal to care what other people think.

We're social creatures, we live in community, I am not advocating just don't care about what anyone thinks or anyone's reactions but for the most part, I think those of us who became lawyers through both our own experiences and the way the profession is very much get conditioned to put an enormous weight on what other people are going to think about the decisions that we make.

If you think you can unpack that without therapy, good luck to you person who's listening because that's one of many things that I think go into the experience of really being able to actually access “What is it that I actually want to do?”

Kelcey Baker: Absolutely, yeah. I could not agree more with everything that you just said. Even when I started the Guided Track, I don't know if you'll remember, I do because it was a real moment of hubris for me, that I had said, “I'm not that worried about not being a lawyer anymore. I don't really see myself as struggling with that loss of identity.”

Honestly, it took me to get all the way through the Guided Track and many months of therapy to realize that's not true. I really struggled with the idea of not being a lawyer anymore. Even though this was not something I had planned from the age of five years old, still, even though I always told myself, “This isn't who I am. This isn't what I want to do. I never want to be in Biglaw,” the idea of leaving my high-paying Biglaw job and the idea of not practicing as an attorney anymore, that was so scary in a way that I didn't even realize. So yeah, another plug for therapy.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think there are so many lawyers who would, and literally no judgment to be clear because I talk about what I know on this podcast, but there are so many lawyers who would choose their own misery over doing something that they think other people would judge them for.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Cottrell: Every decision is complex but for various different reasons, many of us who became lawyers would actively choose to do something that is harming us emotionally, mentally, and physically over making a decision that would cause people to judge us. By people, I basically mean other lawyers who are still like, “Being a lawyer is the thing to do,” and that's something that takes a good bit of unraveling.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, it takes a lot. Well, or even just going to law school or even people who aren't lawyers. People are impressed when you say you're an attorney even if they're not an attorney. It only gets progressively more entrenched the further you get into your career because, again, your colleagues are lawyers, your former colleagues are lawyers, your friends are lawyers, your friends’ spouses are lawyers, everybody's a lawyer, and so much of what lawyers think is impressive is impressive especially, and maybe only, to other lawyers.

If you're listed in an article, if you get published in a certain way, if you are ranked by some of these publications, who cares? Lawyers do. If you told just some person on the street that you got named as the top 10 on this lawyer’s list, they'd be like, “Great, good for you,” but it's seen as very prestigious to other lawyers. When that's your echo chamber, that's your world. That's who you judge yourself based upon.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Okay, Kelcey, what do you want people to know about where you are, how things are going post the Guided Track, anything else about your experience with Former Lawyer? That's a lot of questions so take your pick.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. I finished the Guided Track and after that, I was like, “Okay, I need to leave my job and I also need to figure out a timeline for when.” That was working in conjunction with starting therapy. Also, my therapist was like, “You need to pick a date.”

What ended up happening was I had initially said six months. That feels like enough time to save up money and really think about what I want to do next, start looking for other things, and consider a bridge job. Work was getting just progressively crazier and crazier. There were some internal things happening within the department that the drama was ramping up we'll say. My anxiety at that point was just through the roof.

Rather than the six-month mark, I said, “Okay, let me back it down to five months,” and then it became four months. I just kept moving the timeline up further and further. Then there was one night that was just pivotal. I was getting just an immense amount of pressure from the partners on this project to an insane degree, which I won't go into now but I wasn't sleeping, I was barely eating, I was just working all the time.

There was one night when I actually ended up waking myself up in the middle of the night because I had grabbed my phone in my sleep and started to dial 911. If that's not a literal wakeup call, I don't know what else is. But it was such a scary moment of waking out out of asleep with my phone in my hand and the 911 operator being like, “Hello? Is anybody there?”

After I had explained, “This was an error, please don't send the police to my house,” that was just an actual turning point for me. I thought, “Okay, my body, my subconscious, my consciousness is just sending me the most extreme signal I could possibly think of to say you need to get out of there.”

I ended up putting in my notice the following week and just said, “I can't do this anymore.” It had come to the point for me that I could not even focus on what was next because the present situation and the present toxicity of my environment had just become so extreme that I had no room to breathe.

With the support from friends and Collab members, you, my therapist, my mom, and my husband, I just made the decision to take space for myself to be able to finally think about what was next and not try to do it surreptitiously or in between all of my billable hours.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, which is very common that people make a decision. I know I've talked about this in the podcast before but there is a point where your nervous system is in such a state of shutdown or activation that expecting yourself to be able to make thoughtful considered decisions is just not compatible with “Hey, I'm in constant fight or flight, and my system is full of cortisol and adrenaline.”

Of course, I recognize that not everyone has the ability to make that type of decision but it is very common that I work with people who take some break because of the fact that if you're in a toxic environment, which frankly, if you work in Biglaw, my personal opinion is that you almost certainly are in a toxic environment, if you work in a law firm, there's a high possibility, a significant possibility, and it is very hard to make thoughtful considered decisions when you are in such an activating environment.

Kelcey Baker: Right. At that point, you can't even make thoughtful decisions about what you're going to have for dinner, much less what's your next step in your career and how you're going to improve the quality of your life. Those decisions are much more profound.

I would agree with that. I personally think that if you're in Biglaw, you are probably in a toxic environment and maybe it's affecting you to a different degree than it affects other people. But certainly, you're in fight-or-flight response mode almost constantly. That's just the name of the game.

I do also want to recognize that not everybody is in a position to just be able to quit. I was certainly not at the point of my goal for my savings when I did that but I do recognize that because I was working in Biglaw, because I had a larger salary, and because I had already set this six-month original timeline for myself, I was aggressively saving as much money as I possibly could.

I had that luxury of yeah, it wasn't ideal, it was not nearly as much as I had wanted to have in my savings to be able to quit a job without anything lined up, but it had just gotten to the point where I thought my mental health is more important than this and if I need to, I will go wait tables because I'd rather be a barista, a waitress, or a bartender than do this, and that was the decision I ended up making.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It makes sense. Okay, Kelcey, what would you like people to know, if anything, more about that experience? Also, can you talk a little bit about now that you've been in the Collab for a while, you've experienced the Guided Track, what do you think someone who's thinking about the Collab needs to know or what would you tell them?

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. I think the most important thing that the Collab provides is just validation because it's a very specific type of validation that it's really hard to come by from anywhere else. It's hard for your family to understand if they're not lawyers especially. It's hard for your friends to understand if they're not lawyers especially. It's hard for your lawyer friends to understand because they're lawyers.

To be able to have that kind of support network of other people from all over, not just in one geographic location, not just in one work environment, to be able to meet people in the Collab who were in totally different places in their career in the country, in different work environments, different ages, different genders, ethnic backgrounds, and everything else, to all have this collective experience of saying, “These things we find to be problematic or unfulfilling,” and “You're not alone in how you feel or you're not alone in your experience,” that is what I think really gave me the strength honestly to be able to consider getting out of this type of toxic and abusive work environment.

Whether it's the Collab, the Guided Track, or doing one-on-one coaching, whatever format I think is right for a person comes down to how they work individually. For me, the Guided Track was awesome because it had that level of accountability and intimate community.

But I would say for anybody who is looking at the Collab, looking at the Guided Track, or coaching, the best part about this particular group is that it's all people who have gone through probably what you've gone through, or a form of it, a better form of it or a worse form of it but people who can relate to say, “Yeah, I understand you,” and to know that they understand you in a way that maybe nobody else can understand you because they've also gone through it or are going through it.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. That makes me really happy. Okay, here's one more question that I have for you because, of course, joining the Collab, doing the Guided Track, working with me one-on-one, all of those things cost money, progressively more money as you go, move up the track or whatever.

I think for a lot of lawyers who are thinking about doing work with me at any of those levels, that can be really daunting and I really understand that. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts for people who are thinking about the money piece of it and are feeling some kind of way, what, if anything, would you say to them?

Kelcey Baker: Yeah. I don't think that it's not valid to think about the cost of all of that. I think for me, it became easier, and I would almost say more necessary as I steeped further and further in my misery so it just became more worth it for me to be like, “I don't even care how much it costs. I need to feel better.” That was part of it for me.

I think too, originally, this is full transparency, I had started with the Collab because it was less of a cost investment and I thought, “I can do this on my own. Let me start with something that's like lower-tiered pricing than say the Guided Track,” and then again, work got in the way, I wasn't able to focus on it like I wanted to, and then as time went on, it was six to eight months later, and I was even more miserable, and then I thought, “Okay, this just needs to be more intensive for me in terms of in experience,” and so it was absolutely worth the investment for me to do that further.

I would say in a similar way to the Collab and the Guided Track, similar with therapy, I understand that therapy can be a daunting cost for some people but it's a similar sense of it's an investment in yourself.

Doing the Guided Track and therapy at the same time when I was trying to save money to quit my job was not cheap and it was definitely a part of my monthly budget but I still don't have any regrets having done it because I think the community and the validation was just well worth it, absolutely well worth it.

Because, again, as lawyers, we have been so trained to think a certain way and to approach things in very specific ways that really does not serve us when trying to consider, “What do I do if I'm not a lawyer? Who am I if I'm not a lawyer?” in no way, shape, or form does law school or the practice of law prepare you to consider those questions for yourself.

I think it's worth having a helping hand and this community, this validation, and this accountability as you're working through those types of questions. Because the same way that as lawyers, we all felt like it was worth the investment in law school to learn how to think like a lawyer, I think this is a way to invest in ourselves to think like a former lawyer.

Sarah Cottrell: Yay! Okay, Kelcey, as we're coming to the end of this conversation, is there anything else that you would like people to know about your story or your experience?

Kelcey Baker: I think just that I want people to know that they're not alone. I thought even from a young age that I was so original, special, and a unique snowflake, what I've come to learn is that it's a pretty typical textbook-gifted kid, an overachiever, went to law school, and then realized she made a huge mistake, and so it's okay to be that way and it's okay to have ended up as that person.

Now having left my Biglaw job months, probably coming up on a year by the time this will have aired, no regrets. Money cannot bring you happiness, safety, or security if there's so much stress and anxiety and you're just in this constant toxic environment. If this is not fulfilling, you're not a failure, you're probably a normal person with a real personality. That's why you feel this way.

Sarah Cottrell: Oh, so true, so true. Okay, Kelcey, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story today. I really appreciate it.

Kelcey Baker: Yeah, of course, I'm so happy to have been able to speak today with you.

Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening. If you are thinking about leaving the law but aren't sure where to start, make sure that you download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at Have a great week.