Bench + Bar of Minnesota

Want to work happier? Spend some time considering your core values


By Sarah Soucie Eyberg

The expectation is that you will respond to text messages from partners within 30 seconds.”

I was stunned, sitting in my three-month review at the first “real” lawyer job I had ever had. The partners had taken me out to lunch and were giving me rapid-fire feedback. 

“O-okay,” I stuttered. Did he say 30 seconds? There was an expectation of near-constant availability at this job. One of the partners would receive emails with internet “leads” 24/7. As soon as he received an email lead, he would forward it to an associate attorney. He would also follow up with a text message, which we were required to acknowledge as soon as we saw it. We would be expected to drop whatever we were doing and call that lead and screen them to see if they would make a good client. 

“I know you are scheduled to handle your first hearing next month,” said Partner One. “But we have serious concerns about your reliability,” finished Partner Two.

Lead calling wasn’t just an expectation during regular work hours. Or even the “expected” extended work hours for associates at the firm: 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with lunch eaten at your desk whenever possible. We were also on a rotating schedule of on-call nights and weekends. We were expected to be available to receive and call leads from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on weeknights, and from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on weekends. 

One Saturday when I had an on-call shift, I overslept. This was the infraction that made me “too unreliable” to handle the hearing. The hearing that I had already reviewed, and for which I had prepped the file, prepped the client, and written the brief. I was devastated. I always strive to do a good job in everything I attempt. I couldn’t even mount much of a counterargument at the time. I had been late for that completely ridiculous on-call shift.

I quietly started looking for other work. But I was looking during one of the worst climates for legal employment in decades. I graduated from law school in the spring of 2011. The following year, as I desperately searched for other employment, a report released by the American Bar Association took the measure of employment outcome data for my class. At the time, only 55.2 percent of 2011 grads had full-time, long-term jobs in the legal profession.1 Another 26.2 percent were “underemployed,” defined as “‘Unemployed – Seeking,’ pursuing an additional advanced degree, in a non-professional job, or employed in a short-term or part-time job.”2 To consider leaving that position without another lined up felt impossible.

Things did not get better at the firm. My stomach ached on a daily basis. Every time my phone buzzed, I jumped. Every time the partners had a closed-door meeting, I presumed I was in trouble. My cortisol levels shot through the roof, and there was very little time to recover in off-hours as I had multiple on-call shifts each week. I was not the only one suffering; the partners continued to hire new associates. None of us knew what to do or how to demand better conditions. When the attorneys in a firm can’t advocate for themselves, you are in a special kind of hell. 

After a serious conversation with my spouse—who enthusiastically supported an end to the madness—I decided to leave the firm. That Friday, I got to work well in advance of our expected 7:00 a.m. arrival. I collected my personal effects from my cubicle, left behind my firm-issued cell phone and security fob, and left a short, “effective-immediately” resignation letter on each partner’s chair.

I walked out of that building with giddy laughter bubbling in my throat and my cheeks flushed with excitement. I didn’t have a job lined up, but the weight lifted from my shoulders was incalculable. I started sleeping better, eating better, and finding more joy in life. I was more in balance, able to take care of my health and wellbeing and spend time with family and friends.

I found another position not long after. The job paid the same as my law firm job, but with a 37.5-hour work week, PTO, health insurance, retirement contributions, and disability, it felt like more than doubling my salary. My prior firm offered none of these essential benefits—and very little autonomy, despite the fact that we were all educated professionals. While the American Bar Association would have likely categorized me as “underemployed,” since the role was a non-practicing one (working in recruitment and retention for the state bar association), I was much happier. I missed client interactions and the intellectual challenges of practicing law, however, so I began to incorporate some limited client service on the side. 

Soon afterward, my husband and I decided that with two solid incomes and health benefits, we might start trying for a family. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for us to get pregnant. With twins! While my pregnancy wasn’t exactly uneventful, we all made it through, and soon we had two little babies at home. I was so grateful to be able to have three months maternity leave with Roland and Mina, even if only half of it was paid.

Our childcare upon my return to work was a combination of my mother and a part-time nanny. Despite knowing the kiddos were in good hands, it tore at my heart to leave my vulnerable babies for hours at a time. It didn’t help that I felt like a cow hooking up to the breast pump multiple times per day. I was really committed to breastfeeding, so I kept after it. Eventually, I cried leaving the house for work and cried on the commute home. I felt like I was doing a terrible job as a mother at home and as a professional at work. I was raised in a generation of “gifted and talented” kids, and no one was giving out prizes for Best Mom.

The twins were about 10 months old when our affordable childcare arrangement fell through. My family helped us cover while we looked at other options. Living in Minneapolis, we fortunately had daycare options in our geographical area. But childcare openings can be rare, particularly for infants—and especially for two infants at the same time. Even if we could find two infant openings, the weekly rates for infants approached $200 per infant per week. Before even taking into account the extra expenses and time it would take to get two infants to daycare day after day, my take-home pay from my full-time job would barely cover it.

My husband and I were distressed. Life with two infants and their big sister Esme, my stepdaughter, was already incredibly demanding and draining. I just could not fathom working full-time for someone else to take care of my kids. We never really entertained the idea of my husband quitting his job to stay home. Not only was I still breastfeeding, but he also made more than I did working as a lawyer at a downtown law firm.

We didn’t feel like we had much choice, but I still agonized over the decision. I had spent most of my life working to get to this point—so many hours studying and so many thousands of dollars on education. Part of me felt like I was throwing all that effort away, not to mention my identity, which up until that point had been centered on achievement and external validation educationally and professionally. It felt like a betrayal.

When I officially resigned to the executive director of the bar, with tears streaming down my face, his response shocked me: “You are doing exactly the right thing for your family.” He went on to share that his family was fortunate enough to have his wife step back from her career to take care of their family. He also said, “Your kids are only going to need you this much for so long.” That deeply resonated with me and a huge weight was lifted. 


Choosing my family over my career was the right decision for me at that point in time, yet I still struggled with my new identity. I wasn’t a “working mom,” even though I continued to handle contract hearings on the side. And I wasn’t really a “stay-at-home mom” either, because I did bring income into the home.

I continued to do the contract work through another pregnancy and the birth of my youngest child, Walter. I actually bid on a hearing just a few weeks after he was born because it was local and I would only be gone a couple hours. I generally was able to balance the demands of motherhood well while still bringing home some income. 

Eventually I was attending 15-20 hearings and driving several hundred miles per month. The money was nice, but there were significant drawbacks. Most firms I was covering hearings for had thousands of clients. By the time the client got to the hearing date, they had often been shuffled from case manager to case manager, sometimes talking to a different person every time they called for a status on their claim (when they spoke to anyone at all). They didn’t feel valued. I hated being a part of that.

I was exceptionally skilled at creating trust with the client in a short time. I often would have one pre-hearing phone call with the client, and about 45 minutes on the day of the hearing, to engender enough trust in my competence, ability, and compassion to facilitate a conversation around sensitive personal information, and figure out the best way to frame my questions to get the answers the client needed to prove their claim in front of the judge. 

I was still doing contract hearings when the covid-19 pandemic hit. Overnight, hundreds of Social Security Disability field offices and hearing centers closed their doors to the public. The next day I was supposed to appear for two hearings at our local office. I was nervous the hearings would still proceed despite the closure, so I showed up the next morning anyway, to be greeted by locked doors. I contacted the clients immediately after receiving the alert that the offices would be closed. I also attempted to reach out to the hearing office to ascertain how the hearings would move forward and to the law firm that owned the file. 

I had done everything within my power to ensure the hearings I was scheduled to attend could go forward. I had several scheduled for that first week of the shutdown, but only a few were actually held. 

One of the benefits of contract work is guaranteed income. Even if a hearing was canceled within seven days of the date, the firms would still pay me a partial fee. And if it was canceled within 24 hours, or the claimant didn’t show, I was still entitled to the full fee because I had fulfilled all of my contractual obligations by showing up prepared to go forward with the hearing.

In the first week of the shutdown, I received a notice from the entity that brokered the firm-attorney relationships that firms would no longer be paying full fees for hearings that did not go forward due to the circumstances at the hearing offices. The notice also said the new policy would apply retroactively to the beginning of the shutdown. 

I. Was. Livid. I had been working with this company for more than eight years at that point. I always faithfully fulfilled my duties under the contract. I could not believe they were imposing such an unjust policy in such an unjust way. I thought about going after them for the fees, and I felt confident I would prevail. But ultimately, at only a few thousand dollars, it wasn’t worth my time.

I was venting to my husband about the issue when I heard myself say, “I am just going to start my own firm. I am never going to be dependent on someone else for my income again!” I surprised myself with those words. My husband had told me for years I should start my own firm. I always had excuses not to do it. I traveled too much, the kids were too young, and I didn’t have enough time. The real truth was that I was too scared to fail.

But now I didn’t have any of the old excuses to fall back on. During the shutdown, there was no travel, and I stopped bidding for hearings. There weren’t any extracurricular activities to run my children to and from. The fear was still there (is still there), but I didn’t let it hold me back. I got to work.

While law school does a good job of teaching you how to think, write, and speak like a lawyer, it does not teach you how to start and run a successful law firm. I did not have much business background, so I sought out business coaching to make sure I was making the right moves for my firm and joined the Lawyerist.

One of the foundational exercises the Lawyerist coaches ask participants to complete involves drafting a mission statement, vision statement, and core values for your law firm. I was resistant to this work, mostly because I was unsure of where to start. I had never examined my own core values before. I knew values I was raised with. “After your health and your family, what is the most important thing?” my father would regularly ask us. “A GOOD EDUCATION,” we would chime in, loudly. But this is the first time I was really testing my values—and broadcasting them to others to examine and critically evaluate.

I realized I had already been living my values without even thinking about it. The law firm was such a bad fit for me because there was no work/life balance for employees and I was not treated with respect as a professional. I agonized about leaving full-time work because I value achievement and success very highly, but not as highly as I value my family. There is nothing I wouldn’t give up for my family, and I married a partner who feels the same way—one of the many strengths of our relationship. I was furious with the actions of the contract hearings company because I value loyalty and integrity so much, both in myself and in others.

The pandemic acted as a crucible for my core values. Not only did I build my firm from the ground up using those core values, but I also used those core values to scrutinize the rest of my life, professionally and personally. I looked at where I was spending my energy and resources and whether those organizations and endeavors made good on promises of diversity and equity and whether they advocated for the status quo or led the charge for progress.

I went through the process of formally defining my firm’s core values. As someone who cares passionately about a lot of things, this was a challenge. There are worksheets out in the ether with a list of values to choose from, and that can be a good place to start, but it was not exhaustive. A business’s core values should reflect the firm culture and how it’s made known to others. It should also inform the firm’s priorities and how it will meet challenges.

I also realized my core values should have meaning beyond simply sounding good on paper. My core values would be intertwined within my workflows and systems, informing my marketing strategy and how I deliver client services. I needed to be able to define what each core value means to my business, and how I implement it in my operations. 

One of my business’s core values is “straight dealing,” meaning we are transparent with our clients. In order to live that core value through my business, I am direct with clients about the strengths and weaknesses of their cases. I clearly set their expectations for our services from the initial consultation to the conclusion of the matter. We regularly provide case-status updates and employ automation tools to streamline communications. 

One benefit of going through these exercises for my business is that it provided me with the tools to evaluate my core values for my personal life. Once I had clarity on those values, I realized that every major event in my professional life thus far, and especially my response to those events, was informed by my core values.

That icky feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I went into the office during that first law job was my gut telling me I was out of alignment with my core values. If I had better clarity on how important work-life balance was to me at the time I interviewed for that job, I could have asked about the firm’s expectation for hours worked and “seat time.” It would have made it easier to walk away from a job where management was focused more on exploiting associate labor than developing professionals to practice.

If I had had better clarity on just how important children and family were to me—much more so than career aspirations—I would have felt more secure in my decision to step back from my career to raise my kids when they were very small. 

If I had known how important a reputation for competency and excellence was to me earlier on, I would have understood why I was suffering during contract work and I may have had the confidence in myself to start my business sooner. 

In the years since I began my business and defined many of these values (and others—including quality work, access to justice, and professional excellence), I have achieved more job satisfaction and fulfillment than I thought possible. Knowing my core values has helped me to know which opportunities to undertake and which to decline. It has even helped me reevaluate relationships with individuals and organizations and focus my energies where they matter most. Defining my core values has allowed me to become progressively more authentic in every area of my life. I can do this because I know what is important to me and I am confident in my ability to make the right choices. I am free to be me. 

SARAH SOUCIE EYBERG is a law firm owner practicing Social Security Disability law and a two-time Amazon best-selling author. She lives in Coon Rapids with her husband and children. She serves on several MSBA section councils and the Board of Governors, as well as the Well-Being Committee. 



1 Lynch, Patrick J., et al. “Class Of 2011 Legal Employment and Underemployment Numbers Are In and Far Worse Than Expected,” Law School Transparency, 6/15/2012.

2 Id.

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