Separating Your Identity From Your Legal Career [TFLP226]

In today’s podcast episode, Sarah chats with one of her one-on-one clients, Ann Marie Cowdrey. She has had a lot of experience working for regional and international law firms throughout her career. She hit a rough patch and thought it was time for a chance, so she started working with Sarah. Today, she’s sharing her experience in law and how she flipped things around.

Law School was the Best Option & a Good Skill Match

Ann Marie graduated from college in 1989, and the job market was bad. Anyone with the means (or who could get student loans) was heading to graduate school. Since she hadn’t taken any pre-med courses, law school seemed like the default choice. With no lawyers in her family, Ann Marie didn’t really know what it was like to be a lawyer, but she loved reading, analyzing, and drawing conclusions based on reading. All of those skills transferred to law school.

The convenient route to take after law school is to get into a law firm. The firms come to campus and interview students, so it’s a safe bet that you’ll get a decent paycheck. Ann Marie knew that litigation wouldn’t be her specialty, so she became a corporate attorney. She liked the work because it slowly built with the economy. There was a lot of adrenaline, and everyone worked together in person in one room. 

Ann Marie really enjoys practicing law. She enjoys the intellectual aspects and the problem-solving. Although it was a fairly stressful environment, she thrived in it for a long time. She knew she could outwork anyone and would over prepare to boost her confidence. This served her well for a long time until it didn’t. 

For many years, Ann Marie put her job first. She waited to get married and have children and thought she’s always had time. At 37, she moved in-house and thought she’d have a more normal schedule. It didn’t exactly plan out like she thought, but she did meet someone and start a family. 

The sheer exhaustion of having a child and prioritizing his needs kicked in. At the same time, the firm she had been with for close to 25 years started to get frustrating. There were some difficult personalities there, and she reached out to management but wasn’t getting any help. It made it too hard for her to continue working there.

The Moment Ann Marie Had to Make a Change

Ann Marie moved to a global international firm. Moving from the regional firm was a difficult transition, and she started right before COVID-19 hit. In her previous role, she had never lost a client. In the new role, she was expected to hit the ground running, but the phone didn’t ring. Some of her clients came over, and some didn’t. She felt disappointed in herself and that she had let the new partners down. 

Every day felt like an uphill battle. Ann Marie was trying to take on assignments and overfill projects that no one else wanted to do. A lot of the work was done with overseas clients, which led to conference calls at odd hours. She experienced a time when she was so burned out that she didn’t think she was a good lawyer anymore. Her entire life had been so intertwined with being a good lawyer that it made her feel like she wasn’t a good person anymore. 

There came a day when Ann Marie had a negative interaction with a colleague and decided right then that she was quitting. She typed up a resignation email and slept on it. The next day, she felt exactly the same, so she sent it. 

When you join a firm, you believe you’re on the same team as everyone there. Ann Marie definitely felt that way at the regional firm where she worked. People had her back. When something happens, you can rely on the others there and trust them. But if a firm finds themselves in financial distress or any kind of stress, people begin to act out. 

The Lack of Discipline with Partners is Frustrating

Ann Marie experienced this bullying behavior when her regional firm started seeing more competition locally. People were getting better job offers, and clients were getting picked off. It’s hard when you think someone has your back, and they turn on you. She saw behaviors towards junior associates and would report them, but nothing happened. She felt powerless and, in a sense, almost complicit in it.

Being empathetic, Ann Marie knew how hard it was to be an associate and handle all the demands. When people would approach her and say they were being unfairly treated, she wanted to be able to help them. It got frustrating when she would go to the managing partner or head of the department with her concerns, but nothing would change. 

Within the law firm structure, it’s a zero-sum game. Law firms don’t have assets, they have people. Those people can just walk out the door at any moment and take all their business. If a partner acts out or does something inappropriate, they are afraid to say anything because that person could just walk out the door, taking all their business and potential revenue.

Ann Marie points out that it’s not just the partners that make a firm. Those people are typically strong at bringing in business, but they can’t manage everything on their own. They need a team to operate effectively. Whenever a firm decides not to take action, they are hurting the entire team that works for that person. 

Your Job Does Not Make Up Your Identity

Many lawyers wrap their personal identities around their jobs because they spend so much time and energy in that mindset. Once Ann Marie hit her breaking point and quit, she felt an incredible release. It was one of the happiest moments of her life (besides her son, obviously.) There was a lot of time to sit with her feelings. 

Some days were better than others for Ann Marie. She had saved up money and knew she’d be fine, but that didn’t stop the worries from happening. Ann Marie started seeing a therapist and engaged Sarah right around this time. Her days were filled with self-care, exercise classes, and spending time with her son. It was really hard work, but she needed to find herself. 

A job is not that important. It’s a paycheck. It is not who you are. But many people get so wrapped up in it that it’s difficult to tell the difference. Don’t wait until it’s too late. There are many ways to practice law while also having a life. You do not need to be in a Biglaw setting. 

The Former Lawyer Helped Ann Marie Find Her Way

Working with Sarah was helpful for Ann Marie in figuring out if she wanted to keep practicing law and just become one with herself. Sarah was able to help Ann Marie work through those feelings and validate her. So many people were questioning her choice to quit, but Sarah helped her process those thoughts and work through them. 

Ann Marie first connected with Sarah on a rough day when she typed into Google, “Why are lawyers such miserable people?” She started listening to the podcasts and felt like, finally, someone was speaking her language. Hearing Sarah’s story helped her realize that she wasn’t alone and that there were others out there having similar experiences. 

The work in the Collab and one-on-ones with Sarah helps people figure out what they want to do. Ann Marie is a perfect example of someone who has stayed in the profession but changed her circumstances to fit her lifestyle. Sarah always tells people who reach out, “There are people who work with me who ultimately decide that being a lawyer is the right fit for them. It just needs to be done in a certain way.”

Final Thoughts and Advice from Ann Marie

In addition to the work Ann Marie did with Sarah, she started going to therapy. Sarah often mentions therapy on the podcast because it’s an important tool. It helps people separate their identity and their job to give them flexibility going forward. 

Ann Marie figured out that you don’t have a fallback when everything is wrapped into your job. But when you focus on the things that you actually value, your job just isn’t that important. She was able to regain her power and sense of herself completely. 

There is hope for the younger generation of lawyers. Ann Marie thinks that people are better about staying on top of how they feel. They will be able to make significant changes and help call out the negative behaviors that have been normalized across the legal industry. 
If you are considering making a change, download the free guide, First Steps to Leaving the Law.

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'm so excited to share the conversation that I'm sharing this week. This conversation is with one of my one-on-one clients, Ann Marie Cowdrey. Ann Marie is an incredible person, has an incredible story, and I'm so excited for you to hear it.

She started out in private practice. She has been practicing for more than 30 years. She was a partner at several large law firms. We talked all about that and so many other things, including what our work together was like. I can't wait to get into it. Let's get to my conversation with Ann Marie.

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, Ann Marie, welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Hi, Sarah, glad to be here.

Sarah Cottrell: I know I always say I'm excited pretty much to have people in the podcast, but I am so excited for you to share your story on the podcast. So, Ann Marie, let's get started and have you introduce yourself to the listeners.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Hi everyone, my name is Ann Marie Cowdrey. I am, I guess you would say, a 30-plus lawyer, mostly in law firm experiences. Yes, so I've been here for a long time.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, yes. For people on the front end, Ann Marie and I have worked together and we're going to talk about that some later. But to start, I want to talk a little bit about her story, like we always do on the podcast. Ann Marie, can you tell me what made you decide to go to law school?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Wow, well, that was a long time ago. But I think I've heard a lot of Sarah's guests come on the podcast and I think I could say my story is pretty similar. I mean, I was very young, I had just graduated from college, and it was in the late 80s, early 90s, well, '89 to be exact.

I'm from Texas. The job market at that time was really bad. I would probably liken it almost to the same time period as '09, '10 after the financial crisis. There just weren't a lot of jobs out of college. So, people that could and had the means, or were able to get student loans, were going to graduate school almost across the board.

In my college, I would say 75% of the students or most of all of my friends were going to graduate school, and I would say it was mostly medical school or law school because business was really difficult and so a lot of people were not going to business school. Anyway, I hadn't taken any of the pre-med courses, plus I was just not inclined to be a doctor, so I chose law school almost probably by default.

Sarah Cottrell: I was going to ask, had you thought about law school before realizing, "Oh, the job market's not great. I need to think about grad school," or was it really just like, "Okay, I need something to do next in grad school, and it's going to be law school"?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yeah, I did not have any lawyers in my family, so really did not know that much about what it was like to practice law. I thought about it as, “Well, I enjoy reading, analyzing, and concluding things from things I've read. Those skills translate to law school. So, law school it is. If I don't like practicing law, at least it's a good skill to have in my toolkit.”

Sarah Cottrell: Okay, so when you started practicing after going through law school, what expectation did you have for your legal career? Were you thinking, “I'm going to like this?” Were you not sure? What was your perspective at that point?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Well, I think which is the common experience with people that go to law school, the law schools make it quite convenient to basically go the law firm route. As you know, the firms come on campus, they interview you, you know you have a safe bet when you go with a law firm of a certain size, that you can either A, pay back your loans, or just simply have enough food on the table to live.

I did the standard interview process, did summer clerkships, and ended up with one of the firms that I clerked with, and was just launched. At first, I think it was very common, I knew nothing. I've signed up to be a corporate attorney with really not any business background because really, I knew from law school and through my clerkships that I simply was not suited to be a litigator.

I didn't like the adversarial nature of it. I think if you meet me, you realize I'm a very transparent person, don't like to play a lot of games. So being a litigator just wasn't going to be a good fit for me. Luckily, I realized that very early on.

Anyway, yeah, that's why I became a corporate lawyer. While the section was really slow when I started, because no surprise, the economy was really down, it slowly started to build. Then I got on that track that coincided with the Bull Market of the 90s, that, as you may remember, or maybe not, it all crashed in the early 2000s.

That was what we call the bursting of the dotcom bubble. I rode that, I guess it was eight or nine years of study, just with more than I could ever imagine doing, but really, as I remember, I just really enjoyed it. Just enjoyed the adrenaline, the way the work flowed, how you all got into a room. It was all done in person.

We didn't have the technology so you'd basically sit in a room and knock out the documents, the prospectus, or whatever you're working on until it got done. I really enjoyed it. I'll stop there.

Sarah Cottrell: I was actually going to say that your story is a little bit different from some people who come on the podcast or who I work with. Because as you said, in the early years of continuing of your practice, there were a lot of things that you liked about practicing law.

Can you talk to me a little bit about that progression over time? What do you think people need to know about that history before we start talking about more recent experiences?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yeah, I would say I fell into the category of, and I still am, I actually really enjoy practicing law. I enjoy the intellectual aspects of it. I enjoy the problem-solving. I am well suited to the job.

I thrived for a long time in, I would say, a fairly stressful environment. I always just figured I could outwork people. Even if maybe I wasn't the smartest person in the room, I could outwork somebody.

That was my competitive advantage, or I would just do more preparation. If I ever felt like I was outclassed or outsmarted, I would just overprepare and that would help me get my confidence. It served me well for a long time, but until it didn't.

Sarah Cottrell: Oh, man. I hear you. Okay. Do you want to start talking about when it started not being so helpful?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Sure, I can't really say it's one exact thing. I think it was a confluence of things, but I think I just, over time, and then I would say, gosh, I was in my early 40s when I had a child, my son, he's now 14. But I was one of those people, and I wouldn't recommend this, I postponed my personal life for my job.

Job was always first. I was one of those people that had thought, “Oh, I can wait to get married and have children when it is convenient.” I mean, it just sounds awful now. But I just thought I always had plenty of time for that. One day I woke up and I was 37 years old and I didn't have a boyfriend or anything.

I just thought, “You know what, I got to get ahead of this.” So I left my firm that I'd been with for about nine years and I went in-house and I thought, “If I go in-house, I'm going to have a more normal schedule and I'll be able to actually keep my personal appointments like going out on dates that I would typically have to cancel and move around. I'm going to make this a priority and I'm going to change my job to make that happen.”

Well, that didn't exactly play out. When I went in-house, it got to be kind of a stressful environment. It didn't actually work out the way I thought it would. Anyway, about, I guess I was in my late 30s, and I did meet a man and I had a child.

I'm no longer married to my son's father, but we got married and we had my child, Johnny. Anyway, that just introduced a whole other element, actually really needing sleep.

I think that just the sheer exhaustion factor of having a child and then also having to prioritize his needs, get him to school, and get him picked up, of course, I had outside help, but the sheer exhaustion factor kicked in.

Then I also, at my firm that I'd been with for gosh, at that point, it probably was closing in on 25 years, I started to get to have some frustrations there, just dealing with some difficult personalities at that firm and reaching out for help for management and just not getting any kind of help.

I guess you would call some of these people in today's parlance, you would call them aggressive types in the most favorable light, and maybe you would call them bullies in the more unfavorable light. But I was dealing with some difficult personalities that actually interfered with my ability to do my job and just made it really hard for me to continue there.

I ended up leaving my, I guess you would call it a regional firm based in Texas, and I started with a law, I guess you would call it Biglaw, a global international firm. You might be asking, or the listeners might be asking, “Are you going from the frying pan into the fire in terms of difficult personalities?” Yes and no.

But anyway, that leads to the latest chapter in how I got connected with Sarah, which is at my last firm, it was a really difficult transition. I started there right before COVID hit. I had always been busy, busy, busy, and never had to worry about where the next deal was coming from, where my next client was coming from.

Yeah, I'd had clients come and go because they were sold or whatever, but I'd never ever lost a client. I'd never experienced that and probably just because I was really lucky. I didn't appreciate that that's really not normal that you oftentimes lose clients for various reasons.

But anyway, I joined my Biglaw firm and was expecting to hit the ground running, and for two weeks, the phone just didn't ring. I mean, I think that was the case for everybody. Anyway, it really got me panicked, like, “Oh, my God, here I told people that I had all this work, even though of course I hedged it, but no one is returning my calls.”

I think I just hit the panic button. Anyway, some of my clients came over and some of them didn't for various reasons. I just thought I came and disappointed everybody. I really just felt like I disappointed myself and I disappointed my new partners. Anyway, it was not ideal.

I really felt like I was just fighting an uphill battle every day, and because my regular client work just wasn't at the same amount or volume, I felt like I had to take on a bunch of other assignments from overfill projects that nobody else wanted to do, and a lot of work overseas which had weird times that I have to be on conference calls, then, of course, I'm still having to take my son to school and still try to have some time with him in the evenings.

Anyway, I basically had a moment where I felt like, it was more than a moment, I had gotten so burned out that I didn't think I was a good lawyer. I didn't think I was a valuable person because my whole life was intertwined about with being a good lawyer and having people appreciate my work and what I bring to the table, and I didn't feel that so I felt like I wasn't a good person.

I basically had lost everything about myself that I thought was important. So one day, I came into work and I'd had an interaction with a partner that probably wasn't the worst interaction I've ever had with somebody, but it just left me feeling manipulated.

I just decided right then and there I was quitting. I typed up an email, a resignation email, typed it up, I slept on it. Well, I wasn't really sleeping very well at the time, so I'll just say I cogitated on it overnight.

The next day, I felt exactly the same so I sent it. I sent an email. It was very nice. It just said, “This is one of my proudest moments that I was elected as a partner of this firm and it's with regret that I'm hereby resigning.” Yeah, that was something that if you told me that I would do something like that, I would have told you in my normal self that you're crazy, but that's what I did.

Sarah Cottrell: There are so many things that I think are so important for people to hear. One is just I wanted to emphasize in terms of timeline and experience, so you were at the regional firm for almost a decade, you went in-house, then you went back to the regional firm you were a partner.

I think that we talk a lot on this podcast about difficult personalities, among other things. Also, some of the toxic ways that law firms function. I know that you said when you moved to the Biglaw firm, a big part of what caused you to make that move was some challenging people.

I think there's sometimes this, especially for people who are more junior for associates in law firms, there is this sense of at some point, you aren't going to be as affected by problematic people or by the system being problematic. But that isn't really the case. I think that your story illustrates that really well. Do you have anything to say about that idea experience?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yes, I do. Yes. You join a firm and you sort of of think you're on the same team with everybody. I would say at my regional firm, I really believe it was special in that for the most part, I did feel like people had my back.

But I mean, that's really the whole point of being with a firm is that you have a group of partners that have your back. So if something happens, you get into a situation, difficult situation with a client, or an issue that you can't seem to unravel, you can rely on your partners and you trust them.

Yeah, I think what happens sometimes in these firms is that, yes, people are mostly inclined to behave that way, but when a firm gets under financial distress or any kind of stress, not just financial, but in my case, what happened is this was not that long ago, but the big national firms were all coming into the Dallas market.

They'd already come into Houston, then they started coming to Dallas. So the firms were coming in and starting to pick off the talent. Our firm was under siege and people were getting these huge offers to join brand X law firm. They weren't naive. They knew those big price tags, those big offers came with a cost in terms of having to work a lot harder because we had a pretty great deal at our firm where we worked hard, but we probably didn't work as hard as an attorney at those really big firms.

But anyway, they nevertheless had these offers, and so they said, "You need to do better by me." Anyway, the firm was just starting to get pressure that way. They wanted to keep the talent and the clients, but again, it's a zero-sum game.

I think that's what started putting pressure on people and people thinking they were better than other people because they got an offer. So they just started acting out and engaging in what I would call almost, I mean, I guess to just call it what it is, bullying behavior.

That's really hard when you're in a law firm and you think someone has your back, and then they turn on you. I guess I would say I'm a sensitive person and at some times, I would think, “I'm too sensitive. I just need to be stronger. I just need to not let things get to me.” But at the same time, being sensitive is what makes me so good as a lawyer.

Anyway, I can't help the fact that I'm sensitive, and when people are acting out, it gets to me. Especially when they act out on younger people. I would see things like that and I would not like it and I would report it, but nothing would get done.

Those things just started to eat away at me. It made the practice of law, which was once a joyful, happy thing, it started to tarnish it for me and just started to make it not fun when I would see things like this and then no one would do anything about it. Then I felt powerless and I almost felt like complicit in it.

Sarah Cottrell: Can you say a little bit more about that?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Sure. You mean just the part where I felt complicit?

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Could you just explain a little bit what you mean by that?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yeah. Well, I don't know, I felt like I had a good rapport with associates because I was the type of person that I know how hard it is to be an associate and be subject to all these demands.

Also, I think I am an empathetic person, I deeply feel things, and when people come to me and would say, “I feel like I'm being unfairly treated or abused by someone,” I feel like I have to do something. So I would go to the person, the head of the department, or in some cases, the managing partner, and say, “I think this needs to be fixed, or I think the offending partner needs severe consequences,” and nothing would happen, nothing.

So at some levels, because I'm a partner of the firm, I felt like by not being able to do anything about it, I was being complicit in that behavior. Not to say that I'm perfect, I mean, it's a stressful job and I'm sure that I've done some things that I've regretted, if I do something or say something that's inappropriate or not really inappropriate, but just aggressive, I catch myself and I try to do better.

I'm always trying to improve. I'm just trying to say that I'm not trying to say that I was always perfect in every instance. But anyway, yeah, I felt that, and it just really started to eat at me.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, I'm curious if you have any thoughts for the listeners about what it was about the structure of the law firms that resulted in when you would go and speak to someone about a problem that you saw nothing happening.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yeah, again going back to the zero-sum game. I think this is just a problem in lots of law firms and professional services businesses where we don't have assets, we have people, and people can walk out the door at any moment and take their books of business.

I think law firms, I don't think it's right, I don't think it's a correct analysis, but they view a partner that acts out or does something inappropriate as an asset, and if they potentially offend that person, hurt their feelings, or make them feel anything negative targeted at that person, even though it could be constructive, they're afraid to say that because they're afraid of that person walking out the door and taking potential revenue.

But what they don't see is that it's not just the rainmakers that make a firm, it takes a whole team. By not addressing conflict, problems, abusive behavior, you are threatening the people who have been targeted by that behavior and you need to realize that those people could leave.

Then if those people leave, the rainmaker is only as good as he or she being able to execute everything on their own. Normally, those types of people are great bringing in the business, and yeah, I mean, they have to be technically proficient, but they have a whole team to be able to do a big trial or a big corporate deal. The firm hires the firm as a team.

Anyway, I wish that firms would be a little bit more open-minded in that when they decide not to do something, not to correct something, or nip it in the bud, they're threatening the team that's under that person.

Sarah Cottrell: Hmm. Yeah. One of the things that struck me from your story, especially when you were talking about your experience at the Biglaw firm is something that comes up with a podcast so often, which is how being a lawyer, for people who are lawyers, being a lawyer and how they perceive themselves in terms of how they're functioning in their job tends to get equated with their identity and it makes it very tricky and problematic when things are not going well or when they're having a hard time.

I know you mentioned that, because of the various factors and the way that the big firm was handling the problems, or shall we say not handling the problems, you got to this place where you felt like you weren't a good lawyer, you weren't a good person. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that experience and what you think people should know about anything related to that?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yes. Yes. I had completely wrapped my identity around my job just because I spent so much time at it and I just wanted to be the best lawyer I could be for my clients, for my firm, for my colleagues.

I just put too much emphasis on it. So then when I got to the breaking point where I felt like I wasn't a good lawyer, I needed to just quit, at first, when I sent my resignation, I felt this incredible release like, “Oh, my God, this feels so great. Why didn't I do this sooner?”

It was almost like the biggest happy moment of my life. Well, besides of course my son, but it just felt amazing. I guess I had a waiting period, but once I was released from my firm, I really had a hard time because I was still doing some work for some of my clients, but I had just a lot of downtime and a lot of time to just sit with my feelings.

Some of them weren't so great, just worrying about the future. I mean, that's what we lawyers do all the time. Yes, I'd save money up and I was going to be fine, but just worrying about things. Then I just always was so used to having every day filled that having a lot of downtime for me was really not great.

Some days, I would not be very good. I guess I would say I was feeling really depressed at times that I wasn't going to find something that fulfilled me, at least fulfilled my days like the law jobs did. But I just knew those weren't healthy environments for me.

Anyway, I have really had to work hard and just sit with my feelings. I started going to a therapist regularly. I engaged you. I just started filling my days with self-care, with going to exercise classes to picking up my son every day and trying to enjoy the new time that I had to spend with him.

Anyway, I just slowly had to find myself again. It was really, really hard work, but that was probably the most valuable outcome of my crisis that as painful as it was, I'm so grateful that it happened because otherwise, I would have probably just done what a lot of Biglaw firm lawyers do and get to the point of retirement and realize that I had not spent time on myself and my loved ones like I should and developing my own interest and developing relationships outside of work, all those things.

The job is just not that important, it is just a paycheck. It is not your life. It is not you. But I had just gotten so wrapped up in it and for so long that it was just a really difficult transition for me. But it needed to happen and I'm just so grateful it happened in my mid-50s and not in my mid-60s.

I have to say it's only you that's going to be harmed by that because when you turn 65 and you retire at the law firm and you basically tell the law firm, “This is the only thing I know how to do, so I need to keep my office and I need to keep all my stuff. I want to keep practicing," you know what the answer is that they're going to tell you? “Well, you should have developed more interests while you were working.”

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Yeah. There are a lot of stories that I know about partners in large law firms who hit the mandatory retirement age for their firm and will still continue to come into the office because they don't really know what else to do, which like you said, I think it makes sense when you are in a job that is so all-consuming in terms of your time that you literally don't have time for other things.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: No, and the firm enjoys that while you're extremely productive, but then when you get to the point when you're closing in retirement and your body and your mind just don't work at that same level, then they're like, "Okay, you go figure that out now."

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, it's a grim picture.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: It's a grim picture. It's grim. Yeah. Don't follow my lead. Don't wait till it's too late. These big firms make you believe that they're the only answer to be able to practice law at its highest level and be basically on the major leagues like in the sports, using a sports analogy.

But as I learned, there are so many ways, not just a Biglaw firm setting where you can practice law at a very high level and also have life and have time to do the things you need to do to nourish yourself so you can keep working at a high level.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that there is this, and I know you and I have talked about this, but there is definitely a propaganda, internal propaganda campaign that goes on, especially in larger law firms where there is this sense of like, “Everything else is beneath us. This is the pinnacle and the undisputed pinnacle.”

There truly are so many different types of options. But I think especially when you're in a role where you're so busy, so much of your time is taken up, it's really hard to even step back and get a perspective to be able to reflect on “Do I actually think this is accurate? Is this something that is an immutable truth in the world?”

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yes. I mean, that's why I feel like me quitting, even though it confused a lot of people like, “Why are you quitting?” I had to quit to be able to figure out if I, A, wanted to keep practicing law and B, just become one with myself. I mean, that's where you came in and you really were so incredibly helpful just to validate my feelings because I was really beating myself up like, "Gosh, I was at the top of my game, supposedly, and I just walked away from it all. I'm such an idiot."

I really felt like I had done something that I shouldn't have done, because that was the reaction I was getting from people. But when I worked with you, Sarah, and then just through therapy, I realized it had to be done. It had to, because I wouldn't have had the time or space to really evaluate what I wanted to do.

I feel like I did that work with you. I've made a conscious choice to go back into the practice of law but in a way where I'm true to myself and protecting myself first and foremost. I'm not going to ever go down that other path that they sell you as the way you have to go to be excellent.

Sarah Cottrell: I love that. That's so good. Okay, so, Ann Marie, for someone who's listening and is thinking, “Oh, I've thought about working with Sarah. I wonder what it's like,” what would you tell them?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: I know we're getting close to our time, but the way I found you was incredibly hilarious.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes, please.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: I think I was having one of those bad days in my kitchen, deep in my thoughts, or whatever. I don't even really know how to describe it. One of those dark days, and I typed into the computer in Google, “Why are lawyers such miserable people?”

Sarah Cottrell: Oh, my gosh.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: I don't know how the Google search algorithms work, but you came up,, and I started listening to your podcasts, and oh, my God, I couldn't stop. It was like everything you said rang true to me.

I remember there was one podcast that you and your husband did together, and it was especially meaningful to me because you both were telling about your experience in Biglaw and just how it seemed to not align with your values, how you both walked away, and how you were so much more fulfilled after doing that.

I was just like, “Yes, yes, yes, I want that, I want that.” Anyway, I think I contacted you shortly after that and just said, “I just want someone to talk to who understands what I've been through.” Therapists are good, but they aren't lawyers. I don't know of many that have been through that and do therapy, but maybe that's a niche.

But anyway, you guys really, you, Sarah, understand the rigamarole that goes on and why it can be extremely damaging to certain types of people. You helped me realize my feelings were valid and I wasn't being too sensitive. I wasn't overreacting. I wasn't doing all the things I shouldn't do. I was actually doing something extremely mature.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. First of all, I love that so much. It makes me so happy. It's hard to describe the experience of working in a toxic law firm to people who don't share that experience sometimes, in the same way that it can be, and I know we talk on the podcast a lot about, or lately about narcissism and narcissistic systems, but in the same way that it can be hard for someone who has an experience in a relationship with a narcissist or a narcissistic family to describe to people outside of that relationship or that family structure what it feels like on the inside.

I think there are a lot of parallels for lawyers with the experience of being in an unhealthy organization. So I'm so glad, I'm so glad that the website came up for why are lawyers so miserable because I think there are so many people who are asking themselves, so many lawyers who are asking themselves some variation of that question.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yeah, and you guys could really put an identity on these issues where I certainly wasn't able to. I wasn't able to diagnose what was happening. I knew it didn't feel right to me, but I just couldn't put my finger on it. I was thinking, "Oh, I'm just too sensitive or I need to--" But you know, after 30 years of being too sensitive, I think I finally earned my right to be sensitive.

Sarah Cottrell: Maybe there's a different problem at play.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yeah, and that's where you were really able to pull me out of where I was getting stuck and realize that I have so much to bring to the table and the fact that I wasn't being appreciated in my various roles meant that I just needed to change roles. It was that simple.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. It's hard to think about doing that without judgment, I think, for most lawyers. You mentioned that you are still practicing law and I think that that's really important for people to hear also because one of the things that I'm doing in my work, whether it's with people one-on-one or the Collab, however, the idea is to help people figure out what it is that they want to be doing, and of course, obviously, as a former lawyer, The Former Lawyer Podcast, there is a focus on doing things outside of the law.

But I always tell people, “There are people who work with me who ultimately decide that being a lawyer is the right fit for them. It just needs to be done in a certain way.” I think that your experience is such a good example of that, where you were able to identify the things that you liked about it and then the things that were not a good fit. It helps you be able to identify what it is that you want to be looking for.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yeah. I mean, your job, Sarah, and this held true for me, is not to convince me not to be a lawyer.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, exactly.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: I think I put some double negatives there. You were not trying to tell me that I needed to become a former lawyer. You were just saying, “Let's really analyze this like a lawyer, and figure out if you really want to pivot to something else.” And you know what? I may. I may.

Right now, I'm happy doing what I'm doing and I seem to be adding value to my clients. But it's not so all-consuming and I can actually enjoy things and do things that I kept postponing because I thought, “Oh, when I finish this deal, then I'll do that.”

But then of course that never came so I'm able to pursue interests and actually meet with people just for pure social. So who knows what doors that's going to open just because I have more time?

I think oh, my gosh, I listened to Adrian, one of your clients who did a recent podcast, and just loved everything she said, but I really loved how she said that the practice of law made her universe so much smaller. That was a really good description, it just makes your world so small, but when you flip it on its head, every day gets bigger and bigger and more and more fulfilling. That's what I was able to do with your help.

Sarah Cottrell: I think it's so helpful for people to hear the reality that I think making a pivot feels so much less overwhelming when your job isn't everything to you. I think considering a pivot when it literally just takes up so many hours in the day, but also the things that we talk about in terms of identity, it's not just a question of “Maybe I will take on a different role,” it's like, “Maybe I will become a different person.”

This is one of the many reasons why I'm always plugging therapy on the podcast, but having the ability to separate, as you've talked about, your identity, who you are, and all of those things from your job, ultimately gives you so much more flexibility going forward. One, because you know yourself more, but also because it doesn't feel as elemental to the core of who you are.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Yes, it allows you to retain your power.

Sarah Cottrell: I love that so much. Can you describe a little bit more what you mean by that?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: When everything is wrapped into your job, you don't have a fallback. But when your focus is on the things that you really value, then your job just isn't that important. Yes, of course, we have to do a good job. We have to satisfy the demands of the job that we're in no matter what. But if it becomes too much, only you have the power to control that.

For me, I had totally lost my power. So when I flipped it on my head and was willing to just walk away from it, I completely regained my power and I was able to regain the sense of myself.

Now I'm not advocating for people to quit because I was in a different situation than I know a lot of people are in, and I was fortunate, I'd worked for over 30 years and I'd saved money over the course of my 30 years. Probably could be a little bit better saving money, but I saved money and not everybody has the luxury of quitting.

But anyway, there still are ways to regain your power really just through a mindset that you're willing to walk away because really, your health, your mental and physical health, and feeling good are fundamental. That was really the trigger for me when I realized that it had gone too far is that it was affecting both of those aspects.

I wasn't sleeping well. My nervous system was just on complete overload. Luckily, I guess not luckily, but I'd had a mental health episode after the birth of my son so I knew the signs of when it had gone too far.

When you're not sleeping, even when you are exhausted, that means your nervous system is on overload. That's not a good outcome. That was the telltale sign for me was just the inability to sleep when I was exhausted.

Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I know there are so many lawyers who have challenges with sleep that stem from the fact that the job is overwhelming, can be overwhelming to the nervous system. Okay. Ann Marie, as we're getting to the end of our conversation, is there anything else that you would like to share or talk through that we haven't touched on yet?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Well, gosh, we talked about a lot of things. I think we've covered all the bases, but I don't know. I think I told you, Sarah, the reason I wanted to come onto the podcast is not to let a good crisis go to waste. And I really did have a crisis, a personal crisis.

I hope people don't have to go through what I went through. Actually, looking back on it now, I'm glad I went through it, but don't let it happen like that like what had happened to me if you can avoid it. Stay on top of the way you feel.

Actually, I think the younger generation of lawyers is really good at that. I think that's fabulous. I came up in the system where in the generation of, “You're lucky to have a job and you just have to put up with all sorts of crazy behavior because that's what we had to do,” well, I'm telling you, that's ridiculous.

Stop. I think that the younger generation is really going to make great changes in that. I encourage them to do so. I encourage them to stand up and to call out this behavior that just seems to be normalized across the legal industry, accounting industries, all professional service industries, just needs to stop. It's childish, it's immature, and if clients knew that people acted that, they'd fire all of us.

Sarah Cottrell: Oh, my gosh, literally yes to all the things. I'm just sitting over here, just nodding. Yes, 100%. Okay, Ann Marie, if people want to connect with you, where can they find you online?

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Well, I don't have any website. My email is probably the best, and it's my last name, [email protected].

Sarah Cottrell: Perfect. Okay, thank you so, so, so much for joining me today, sharing your story, and all of the insight from your experience. I really, really appreciate it.

Ann Marie Cowdrey: Well, it's the least I can do after all you've done for me. It's my pleasure.

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.