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 Paulina Proper to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
Most of us lawyers in the MothersEsquire sisterhood can be described as smart, capable, organized, tenacious, hard-working, caring, passionate, stubborn, detail-oriented, resilient women.
But also: risk-averse.
Anticipating and managing risk is what we do every day as lawyers. The legal profession also tends to reward conservatism and staying the course (hello, partner track). As moms, we seek stability to support our families. Many of us settle for good-enough jobs. We shoot down dreams of an unconventional law practice or a more-balanced work life. We put our heads down and grind, trusting that our hard work will be rewarded. We stay in practice areas that we developed in an earlier period of our lives (often, the pre-kids one) that may no longer fit who we are today, but we feel we are in too deep to make a change.
When risk aversion collides with a poor career fit, the result is unhappiness.
Changing firms, moving in-house, or in or out of a government position can address the problem for some of us (or mask it for a while). But for others, more dramatic measures may be required. Those of us who are chronically dissatisfied with our jobs but want to remain in the legal profession owe it to ourselves to consider radical reinvention.
As moms, we’ve heard the parenting adage in reference to young children: “The days are long, but the years are short.” I offer this variation for us as lawyers: “Our legal careers are long, but our lives are short.”
There is enough time in our legal careers to reinvent ourselves as attorneys, and even to do so multiple times. We can add practice areas or change them completely. We can let go of litigation or embrace it. We can develop a fully transactional practice after years spent in court. We are armed with law degrees and bar registration cards, and we are smart and resilient, and all the qualities in between. A legal career can be satisfying, engaging, and (appropriately) lucrative. Life is too short, and we work too hard to remain unhappy in a profession that holds as many opportunities as law.
It took me too long to learn this lesson. I came up as a transactional attorney, working primarily on business and commercial real estate deals. My first law firm associate position introduced me to the idea that successful, prestigious lawyers stay in their lanes. My fellow associates and I quickly fell in line, reaching higher and higher for the brass ring in our chosen (or default?) practice area. However, things did not click for me, no matter how hard I worked or how successful I was in my practice area. I moved to different firms and then in-house, but there was no fundamental change. It seemed easier to stay on the well-worn path. I started wondering “is that all there is?” constantly.
As it turned out, that was not all there is for me. While law continued to be frustrating, two wonderful little boys joined our family. The infusion of child joy into my life was amazing, and it highlighted the lack of joy in my legal career. Caring for my babies was work with a purpose, with joy, with flow — a concept I had read about, of course, but never experienced in my work life. Once I felt it, I did not want to let it go. So, many years after law school, I finally found the will to seek it out in my work.
I am now on the other side, having reinvented my legal career entirely. With my amazing law school classmate and business partner, I own an intellectual property law firm. I love what I do, the service we provide to our clients, and the business we have built. The dread I used to feel each morning when heading to my office has been completely replaced by excitement and anticipation for the day’s work. This life is something I did not remotely imagine back at my first job.
I say this as humbly and sincerely as I can: I am not unique. I follow in the footsteps of many badass lawyer moms, who, through grit and determination, shaped their legal careers into exactly what works for them. The key is to pay attention to both mind and spirit — and then to gently explore whatever feedback you discover. If you do determine that it is time to disrupt, reinvent, and take the leap, following are a few tips to consider.
Tips For A Successful Legal Reinvention
- Take Action: Keep taking action. Don’t let analysis become a hurdle to moving forward. Any missteps (see #6) can be corrected, and any plans (see #8) can be modified.
- Say Goodbye: You are retiring early from the first phase of your legal career. Expect mixed feelings — there may be grief, doubt, and fear mixed in with all the excitement.
- Find the Flow: The key is finding passion and flow. Keep your mind open and be ready for surprises. Ask yourself: Who are the lawyers you get along with? What topics would you read about outside of work? How do you want the working hours of your life to feel?
- Educate Yourself: Consider how much education you may need to succeed in your new path. This can take the form of everything from new software, to CLEs, to an additional degree.
- Social Media and Networking: Join groups, find lawyers sharing their stories, and reach out to lawyers you find inspiring. Their experiences can be goldmines of information and motivation.
- Embrace Missteps: You will not get it all right out of the gate. Embrace that the journey may look like a series of pivots rather than a straight line.
- Mind Over Matter: Believe in yourself, your skills, and your capacity to adapt. It is possible. Whatever it is you might be daring to dream, it is possible.
- Plan, Plan, Plan: Lay out your goals, action items, and contingency plans. Play with the variables. Look at your finances. Also lay out your timeline. You may have to bide your time, or make small steps toward your goal, rather than a full leap forward. (But also, see #1.)
Paulina Proper is the co-founder and co-managing partner of District Trademark, a boutique intellectual property law firm. District Trademark is based in Washington, D.C. and Denver, Colorado. She is the proud mom of two boys, who love to ask her about the history of their favorite brands. When not lawyering or mom-ing, she is practicing yoga. You can learn more about District Trademark at district-trademark.com.