Be the Change and Thrive

If there’s anything in which lawyers excel, it’s surely in setting goals and achieving success. Yet, with that same fortitude and grit, we all too often launch into careers charted on paths too narrow and finite. We are well trained to identify and analyze myriad possibilities as well as to pivot without warning. Yet, almost immediately after law school, we tend to fence ourselves in to either some traditional law practice or an alternative non-practicing role. We leave little room to accommodate personal life transitions, like marriage or family, or unexpected events, like job loss or the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, we just try to work harder and longer, attempting still to traverse what at times becomes an impassible path, even for the most brave and tenacious among us. Such a rigid mindset about one’s legal career trajectory—one that resists instead of embraces change—significantly contributes to lawyers’ overall dissatisfaction, compromised well-being, and burnout.

If you are not now feeling stuck—dissatisfied, compromised, or burned out—you may very well be stuck in the future. It is all but inevitable that our legal career paths will no longer be viable to some degree when unanticipated changes occur in our lives and around us. Fortunately, lawyers do have permission to chart new paths with the tools we already have. We can meet our ever-changing needs and promote our own overall well-being. In fact, in both my own experience and in the observation of so many others, I have learned that lawyers are uniquely suited to reimagining their careers and even evolving with change. This is because law degrees are remarkably versatile, and our skillsets are highly transferrable.

By way of example, I’m sharing here my own experience with feeling stuck after resisting change to show how, when we embrace change, the resulting possibilities suit our needs and safeguard our well-being far better. 

Traditional Law Practice 

I dreamed in law school of practicing at what was then one of the most prominent family law firms in our state, if not the country. Those were the attorneys I aspired to emulate and join, and I set off on an unwavering course to make that happen. I was 36 years old. 
Believing I had no time to waste as a non-traditional graduate, I interned and externed my way to an associate attorney position at that firm, giving very little consideration to the competing demand of motherhood to a then ten-month-old baby, not to mention the mental fortitude required to practice law well. As many lawyer parents just tend to do, I worked tirelessly and without any semblance of sleep or balance between career and family. Soon enough, my own divorce followed and, just four years into my practice, I was careening straight towards utter burn out. It would take all the courage I could summon to admit that I was incapable of continuing to practice law in the way I had so diligently mapped. I was on the precipice of failing at my own well-laid plan. It was a devastating time fraught with the most fearsome of questions: what are people going to think when I fail?

Alternative Legal Roles 

When I got honest with myself and began the hard work of both inventorying my skills and interests along with considering what brings me joy and satisfaction, I discovered I could actually fail forward to a more meaningful role for me at that time—one in which I could still provide value and service to clients. Using my twelve-year construction industry background in business and first-hand understanding of what attorneys need to do their jobs well, I successfully transitioned to the role of chief operating officer at the same family law firm for several years. Then, when that firm unexpectedly dissolved, I failed forward yet again by joining a construction law firm in legal operations management, growing still more resilient, developing many more skills, and gaining countless valuable professional relationships along the way.

Returning to Traditional Law Practice

All along, I maintained my law license, knowing that when the time was right, I may still choose to return to private practice. In January 2020, I did just that by forming a partnership with a former colleague and returning to family law practice. With my daughter now almost twelve years old and a wealth of legal operations management experience, I am better equipped than ever to own a law practice and deliver legal services. It is well worth mentioning, too, that the excellent legal practice training I received from my early mentors likewise continues to serve me well. I am also getting more sleep and am more confident as a direct result of the experience I gained in other roles. Most notably, I have answered that once fearsome question: I am no longer concerned about what people may think should my legal path evolve again, having learned through these many years and transitions that all change can be reframed as an opportunity to elevate one’s legal career.

At no time is embracing change and rethinking the infinite possibilities of one’s legal career more critical to safeguarding lawyer well-being. In fact, as we continue to navigate pandemic uncertainties, the very future of the legal profession and its ability to promote access to justice will depend on how we as lawyers show up and move forward through this unprecedented time of change. I am hopeful that my story, just like the stories of so many others, will empower lawyers to move past any fear of judgment or shame to explore opportunities that enhance one’s purpose, give meaning, and promote well-being. That said, if the process of a legal career change feels daunting or you are unsure where to start, working with a life coach or attending a workshop may provide a good structure to rechart your course. Change will forever be constant; instead of resisting change, let’s support one another in pushing boundaries and reimagining success. All of our futures depend on it.

By Tara L. Smith
Tara L. Smith is a partner at Maxim Smith Family Law PLLC. She co-chairs the Minnesota Women Lawyers Alternative Legal Career Affinity Group and serves on the steering committee for the HCBA Institute for Leadership in the Legal Profession, as a member on the Fourth District Ethics Committee, and is a member on the St. Anthony Park Community Council Transportation Committee. Distinguished by a robust background in both business management and legal services, Smith is a classically trained pianist and avid supporter of the arts.
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