Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Courtney Risk back to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
I recently led a CLE titled “Planning for the Inevitable” in which I explored the importance of preparing for the unexpected, but inevitable, absences and interruptions to lawyers’ practices. My favorite slide features a picture of a local search-and-rescue team pulling out an injured hiker on a litter with the words, “Walking is hard.” That injured hiker was me, and one year since I first shared a part of this experience with you: I am grateful for the journey spurred by my unexpected broken leg.
In the spring of 2021, I was an associate in a small firm that handled a variety of litigation matters. While still recovering at home from my surgery, I found myself surrounded by boxes and boxes of discovery to review. Thousands of pages to comb through, categorize, and analyze. I slowly made my way through each box, hobbling over to the stack as I finished one box and started another.
I billed approximately 13 hours while attempting to keep my foot elevated and the swelling down. By the end, I was exhausted. I was in tremendous pain. I was missing my daughter and my then-fiancé. As I closed my laptop for the night. I cried. I asked myself, “Why?”
I had no answer.
The following day, I, again, asked myself, “Why?” I could articulate my love of litigation: the strategy, research, writing, and courtroom skills I enjoyed using. I could point to the joy I had working with my colleagues to find a good resolution for our clients’ legal troubles. I could understand the value of the knowledge I was gaining from the variety of cases I was handling. But I knew none of this was enough. I needed a change.
I jumped right into reviewing job postings and immediately found a position that I thought was tailor-made for me. I was still on crutches and wearing a boot, but I hopped in there for my interview (and scooted backwards up a flight of stairs in a suit) and killed it. On paper, this appeared to be the perfect fit. But my gut was telling me I needed to pause and reflect before jumping on this first opportunity.
I decided to trust my gut and approach this next chapter in my career differently. I reached out to a wonderful coach, Charlotte Easley, to help guide me through the process of determining what I really wanted my next chapter to look like. The exercises and homework allowed me to articulate my values, my needs, and my wants.
As I looked at my life as a whole — and not just my career — I had a life-shifting, “A-ha!” moment. After becoming a mom five years prior, my priorities had shifted, and being an attorney was no longer the most important role in my life. Mom, partner, sister, friend had all taken over as priorities. However, I was continuing to say, “I am an attorney,” and assigning much of my self-worth to the successes in my legal practice. Charlotte challenged me to explore untangling my identify from my profession to help me better align my values.
I began saying, “I practice law.” Slowly, this made space for my identity (and the measure of my own success) to encompass all the parts of my life that gave me joy. Practicing law did give me joy, but it was not the only source. In fact, when my practice dominated my life, I felt drained and uninspired. From this, I built a solid list of values, needs, and wants for my life, generally, and then, I narrowed in on my career, specifically.
I continued to apply for positions and with each interview my list was refined as I learned more about myself and what I wanted. I learned to view the process very differently than in prior career transitions. I knew I was a valuable team member (and had a resume to support it). I also understood how important finding the right fit for myself (and for the employer) was in ensuring that this would be a successful, fulfilling career move. I was not going to be able to determine if it was a good fit unless I was also interviewing them and determining if they could meet my values, needs, and wants.
From this empowered space, I obtained and gracefully declined offers that I would have likely accepted before doing the work with my coach. I trusted my gut and knew if one or more of my needs could not be met, I was not going to be happy long-term. Eventually, I received a call from Lawyers Mutual of Kentucky to interview for their newly created role as business development specialist. The position was a blend of risk management resource creation and sales that would tap into various skills I had gained through my career.
The interview process was innovative, and for my second interview, I was tasked with creating a presentation. They intentionally provided very little guidance and left it up to me to determine what route I wanted to take. In hindsight, it was important for all of us to see what path I would take with this challenge as I would face a similar set of open-ended challenges in this brand-new position. I chose to craft a 15-minute mini-CLE that explored the connection between wellness and ethics. It was exhilarating for me to combine so many skills and interests and fueled my confidence in the second round.
Throughout the process, the staff and board members were open to my questions. We had frank discussions about expectations, flexibility, growth opportunities, and more. I was honest about where I was in my journey of accepting my career as a part of my joy, and my honesty was well received. Their openness as well as their investment in the interview process communicated to me that they valued their employees and would value me — the whole me.
I could never have imagined how an easy hike one spring day would alter my career path for the better. I am grateful for the ability to articulate my values, needs, and wants and the confidence to communicate these honestly. It served me well in my career move and continues to serve me as I navigate this crazy life as a mom, wife, sister, and friend that practices law.
Courtney recently joined the Lawyers Mutual team after beginning her career in litigation. In addition to her role in client relationship management, she is focused on providing relevant risk management resources. Courtney’s experience includes litigation, both criminal and civil, as well as transactional work. She has also worked in the insurance industry, training attorneys and other officials on various legal issues. In her free time, she enjoys the outdoors with her five-year-old and her husband. (Her first hike after the broken leg was a four mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail and she continues to hike the Red River Gorge area in spite of the difficulties last spring.)