Hi, I'm Sudeshna from The Abundance Psyche, and you are listening to the Not-so-Corporate podcast. Here we talk about all of the not-so-corporate things that we corporate entrepreneurs do within and outside our work.
And today I have with me the former lawyer- Sarah Cottrell. Sarah has been actually one of the major inspirations behind this podcast.
Sarah, welcome to the show. I just wanted to read a couple of lines. She's amazing. She's the founder of formula, and the host of the formula, your podcast, and she helps unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs inside her confidential program called the Former Lawyer Collaborative™. Welcome to the show. Sarah, It's so lovely to have you.
Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.
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Sarah initially, we got in touch because I felt like lawyers, and most of the folks that I tend to work with, who are consultants, both tend to have quite intense careers. But also, if I may use this word, we also tend to be “insecure overachievers”, I'm air quoting because I don't know how that will fly with folks.
Yeah, you know, it's interesting. I think it's really true. And I can only speak to my experience as a lawyer. And then, of course, the people I interviewed for the podcast and the people in my program, but law- the legal profession tends to be very focused on the procedure. This is something that I talk about a lot.
So if you've listened to me before, you might be like, “yeah, we get it.” But the thing about prestige is that essentially, you get into this cycle of making career choices because you think that it will impress someone. And in doing so, you, instead of sort of having an internal source of security and confidence, base it on externals.
So to your point, insecure overachievers, you actually are looking for validation from those external sources. And of course, the problem becomes, and again, speaking, just in sort of the lawyer space, the problem comes that you have to keep finding things that will bring you that validation, because it's coming from these external things, as opposed to something that's internal. And it's also very, like subject to change, right, based on your external circumstances. And so I think it kind of breeds this sense of insecurity, people don't necessarily think of it that way. because like you said, overachievers, high achievers, but when your sense of validation is all from outside of you, it is very insecure, because you don't have control over it. And you have to keep seeking after it.
I love that. And this is such a crucial point when folks talk about a career change and career pivots. And, you know, getting that promotion that hike...
I work in data, I work in strategy- all of the 21st-century cool jobs is where I have worked. And the reason I have worked there, apart from that I love business, and I love data is because I used to believe that if I don't work there, I'll be perceived as not smart. I feel like that's probably true for most of the folks out there. And they don't even realize it... you don't even know it till you know it.
Yeah, well, you know, it's especially so for most lawyers. In my experience, most lawyers are type A- good at school, getting the gold stars sort of personality type. And the thing about being a lawyer is that if you tell someone, you're a lawyer, there, all of these kinds of assumptions about you that are sort of like, loaded into that, like, for example, the assumption that like you're a smart person, and so it becomes thisshorthand, where if you can introduce yourself to someone "Oh, I'm a lawyer", you know, there are certain things that are being conveyed about you, whether it's like that you're smart, or that you worked hard in undergrad, three years of law school passed the bar.
And it's a little bit different places, but still, regardless, like there's this sort of progression that you have to go through To your point, I think one of the biggest struggles that lawyers have when they start thinking about doing something else is it's not just like, "Oh, I think I'll do a different job." It's like, "oh, I'm going to like divest myself from this identity that makes it easy for people to know certain things about me" and especially as gold star getting high achievers, overachievers, it can be really difficult.
And to your point, it can almost keep people from seeing some of the things, some of the dynamics that brought them to where they are, because of the fact that it's like- well, if I look at the fact that all of my life choices have been driven by what will people think of me?
That's a big, that's way beyond career, right? That's a revelation that can affect a lot of things, not just what job should I be doing?
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That is so true. You think it's a career change, or you think it's a change in your profession, but it actually is life transformation, effectively, because you are digging into that identity. So Sarah, tell me, how did you become a lawyer? How did you realize that you did not want to be a lawyer anymore?
Oh, goodness! Well, the short version of how I became a lawyer is that I went to undergrad, I double majored in international studies and Leadership Studies. And I originally thought that I wanted to go to DC to work in politics or policy.
And then I realized, that whole realm was not actually where I wanted to spend my time. And it was like, "Oh, well, I've taken a lot of these types of courses. And I like to research and writing. And so I guess, like being a lawyer, that makes sense."
And, you know, this is a very common story for a lot of people. In an episode of my podcast that I released this week, the guest was a sociology major. And he said that's basically a degree in unemployment. That's why he ended up going to law school. And something along those lines is very common- some combination of people told people that they are good at arguing, people like research and writing that was me or just like, not knowing what they wanted to do when they graduated from their undergraduate program, which was also pretty much me.
I mean, no one was like, "Oh, going to law school- what a terrible life choice." And so I actually went to law school thinking that I wanted to teach law. And then I got to law school and realize, like, "Oh, yeah, no legal scholarship is really terrible. And I do not want to spend my whole life doing this."
But I was there, and I never really considered seriously not continuing. It was just like, "Okay, well, I should pivot and research and writing, okay, litigation, like trial work that involves research and writing. And so I'm gonna go do that."
And I graduated from law school in 2008. So this was like back in the heyday, where jobs were very plentiful in the legal profession. And so I had a summer offer, and I, like ended up going to big law. And then I got there and was like, What have I done? In part because I do not like conflict, which, spoiler alert, if you don't like conflict, being a litigator, is not it's not enjoyable. And for me, I think one of the biggest realizations of that time working in big law was up to that point. In my life, I had made most of my decisions, including my career decisions on this like, "Well, can I do it? Okay, I can, so I should."
And coming to the point of realizing, like, "Oh, I actually can do a lot more like I have the capability to do many things like just making a decision about what I should do based on what I am capable of doing is actually not a very helpful decision-making matrix as an adult."
Coming to my career, yeah, I was like, super miserable, and realize I wanted out and I ended up taking a job at a legal publishing company. That was in Houston, which is where we lived at the time, which was a wonderful year of like, I call it my year of vacation. It was super mellow, and exactly what I needed after the experience of big law. At a certain point, I realized, "Okay, I need something a little bit snappier."
And so I ended up moving to a state appellate court as a staff attorney, which was pretty much like my dream lawyer job. And I was there for six years, largely because I wanted to pay off my student Before I left, but the fact that it was my dream job, and it's still like a dream wear job, to the extent such a thing existed. And it still wasn't something I wanted to do long term for me, it was very much like, "Okay, this is not for me."
And so in 2018 wheat, my husband and I, both went to law school, so we paid off our combined student loans, and then I left.
And you couldn't be happier!
You don't even realize how stifling certain environments are until you aren't in them anymore. You know, one of the things I talk a lot about a lot with my clients is the fact that like, within the legal profession, there are these stories that you tell yourself about nothing else could ever be as satisfying, even if I left for something else, it would be just as bad or whatever. Lots of things that that you realize, and you sort of getting outside of the lawyer bubble, is not true. And it's so much better.
This is so, so true!
Sarah, like when you are in that network of peers who are quite high achieving, you tend to want things because of the collective. And you are ultimately the average of the five people you spend time with the most.
So, you know, there was this time when I really got into designer handbags. I'm not a posh designer person! I don't even wear makeup most days. But I got very much into designer handbags. And then when I left that environment, I just realized this was just not me, this was something that I had acquired because I thought that to belong there, I needed to be like that. And that just is so stifling, like you said.
And what you say is so profound- if you do all of the things that you are capable of doing, and of course, you're capable of doing anything, who will do the things that you want to do?
You are capable of doing anything, but I think it's more fun to do the things that you really do want to do and you care about doing. And I always sort of plotted back to, personally, the life of least regrets- how do I make sure that at 80, I would have said that, okay, I don't have any regrets. I don't want to have the "could haves, should haves". None of that!
You know, I don't know how it is with the people who you've worked with. But for lawyers, one of the things that I have to do the most is actually helping them see that they actually can do more than be a lawyer. Because the number of people who come to me or I talked to or just who I've known, and in my own life as a lawyer, who genuinely believes there's nothing else they're qualified for, there's nothing else they could do. And it is shockingly high when you consider what people have had to go through in order to become a lawyer.
But there again, you know, I think there are a couple of reasons for this. To go back to the issue of prestige, I think that people in their own minds, they so build up certain skills, which are like, the skills that they need, specifically in their job as a lawyer and see those as like, so important that they complete, they aren't able to to see their other skills or to see how their skills could apply in other ways or to even imagine a world in which they'll do something different.
And so like you said, and I completely agree with you, you can pretty much do almost anything but a lot of lawyers need to actually get to the point where they can see and believe that because they don't come to me believing that that's true.
I couldn't agree more. And I think what I have seen working with my clients and typically these would be management and strategy consultants who are quite, either - very technical and they think without their technical skills, they are not much, which is not true.
The other lot are strategy consultants and think that they don't really have any other skills than Excel so they don't have any hard skills. So well, I tend to tell people that your biggest skill is that you can problem-solve on the fly. People underestimate that skill so much. But I think that is something that is so powerful that you put yourself in a situation and you can figure out what needs to be done within hours, probably, if not earlier. So, I think that's a pretty incredible skill that folks have.
And I think, from my experience with lawyers, and I tend to talk a lot to lawyers, because of all of the contracts, etc., like that we do and they are so phenomenally good at, without understanding the technicality. distilling the information out and putting it on paper and I would be like, "wow, you got there really, really fast." And not many people have that skill.
It's so interesting that you say that, because I, it just makes me recall a conversation that I just had a couple of days ago, where I was talking with a lawyer, and they basically said, they do very, very high-level work in terms of the complexity, the speed, what's at stake. And they were "Oh, I think anyone could do this job!"
Like, I don't think I'm particularly gifted and very much downplaying and seeing themselves as, "Oh, I just do these things. But that's not particularly special. That doesn't require any particular skill."
And to your point, like, there are so many skills that you develop really are applicable in lots of other circumstances- communication, client service, distilling complex issues, or complex problems complex, a lot of information into like a very discreet nugget.
And it's because you live in a world where that's what everyone does, you see it as just a baseline, and you don't actually see it as a skill. You just see it as like, well. That's just how everyone is.
I couldn't agree more with you to take a segway from that into how you left law. Sarah, what did you find the hardest thing about leaving being a lawyer?
Oh, gosh, where do I even begin? Well, first, I will say that, like all of the things that I talked about, what is hard for lawyers, in general, is 95%, originally based in my own experience.
So you know, coming to understand how much of my career decision making had been driven by what I thought I should do, and how to assert how it looks, the identity piece of giving up that, why I'm a lawyer, and what does that mean about me?
That's a huge challenge! Four years of undergrad, three years of law school, a summer to study and pass the bar, and then you start work as a lawyer, and you basically know, nothing about actually practising law. So then you're, learning on the fly in practice.
And at least in the States, you also, in most cases, we have massive student loans. So I had a partial scholarship to law school, and I still had, well, my husband and I combined, we both had partial scholarships and still come combined, we had like over $300,000 in law school loan, which is basically like, a mortgage, except it's on your life, blood, sweat and tears.
It's not actually like, you know, and so a lot of people struggle with that idea of- if I walk away, am I just throwing all of that in the trash? And, you know, I think, for me, there was that piece of it, too. So sunk costs, and the identity piece.
This is why I always highly recommend therapy, to pretty much everyone, really just in general, but also specifically for lawyers. Those were the pieces that, for me, were the most challenging.
And I think also, the two other things we're dealing with how risk-averse I was because I'm naturally risk-averse, that's just my personality. And then I became a lawyer where all I was trained to do is like, be paranoid about all the worst-case scenarios and see all of the potential risks.
And when you step off that very organized path, as a lawyer to who knows what's next, that can feel the unknown. I think I and almost all lawyers, over weigh, the risk of the unknown, even if the known is really bad, and you're super unhappy, and it's soul-crushing. There's something about it being a known quantity that makes it feel safer than the sort of stepping onto a path where you don't know the next step.
And then the last thing for me that was a challenge was like, when I first started thinking about leaving, I really felt like why just need to find that. This wasn't the exact right thing for me, I thought this was going to be my life. But I now know it isn't.
So I just need to figure out what the perfect next step is- the perfect next job, like the job that I will do forever. That is not this. But is like the thing and sort of coming to the point of realizing like, that puts so much pressure on that next step, whatever it is, right? Like it just was putting so like to feel like this decision is like going to be the thing that I have to live with for the rest of my life, which, in retrospect doesn't make sense, because I was in a position where I was moving away from the thing that I thought like, this is the thing I'm going to do. But I find a lot of lawyers, they feel like they have one do-over. And that was something that I experienced you like, Okay, this didn't work, I get one do-over and I have to pick the perfect next thing. And being able to say "No, I just need to pick the next right thing for now" as opposed to, for now until into perpetuity.
Exactly. And in fact, one of the podcast episodes I recorded in fact, last week had this bit that people tend to think that I have to know where I want to be right now.
And since starting your own entrepreneurial venture, Sarah, what is the thing that you have found the hardest that you did not anticipate would be hard,
The thing I found the hardest that I knew would be hard for me is like selling the marketing because I came into it without training. And it's still very much comes from this place of like wanting to help- let me help you. I know what it's like." I did not have really any sort of sales experience. So so that was a piece of it. It's a skill, like anything else, you just have to learn and you have to practice, but I just had done really nothing like that before.
The hardest thing that I didn't expect- I feel like I should have expected this. As an entrepreneur, there are always like 17 different things that you could be doing, right now. And at least for me, so I work part-time I'm with my kids the rest of the time, they're two and five. So I basically I'm working three days a week, we were talking before we started recording, but until recently, I literally did every single thing, like all the things in my business.
And there are only so many things you can do for me,but because of my personality, there's always that sense of- but I should be doing this, and I could be doing this and I should be doing this. And being able to be comfortable with the fact that I am a human being with limits. And like, yes, if I was five people then like maybe I could, you know, do all of these other things, but just being able to be okay with the fact that there are always things that could be done that are not going to be done. I should have expected that because like Hello, I mean, that's sort of the whole deal. that's been happening forever. But I didn't anticipate how true that would be as an entrepreneur, because you love your work and you love your business, and you want to help people and like being able to be okay with your limits. That has been the hardest thing for me that I didn't anticipate.
I can't even begin to say- there are so many things that just don't get done that I know, like, for example, a couple of tabs on my website wasn't working for the last few months. No one noticed it. Probably there was a lot of bounces on the website. But you know, we have to live with all of that. But ruthless prioritization is the name of the game, I guess.
Yeah, yeah. And I think the other thing is the, actually, there are two things and they're kind of related to other things that I didn't totally anticipate one was- how you no matter how much you do, you've experienced, you still feel like you like barely know what you're doing. And you're just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing if it sticks.
I think I felt like so I've been doing this now for a little over 18 months. And I think I felt like at some point, I'm going to feel like I know what I'm doing. Right. Like at some point, like you would see other people sort of farther along in the business journey and think like, Oh, they must really feel like Yeah, I like I have it together and you do build confidence in different areas. But there's still a large part of entrepreneurship that's just experimenting, and also being okay with the fact that that so much of entrepreneurship is experimenting, that was and is still difficult for me again, because of my personality and my training as a lawyer. Lawyers are not really into experimentation. It's like you have precedence, you have legal precedence or you have this way you've done this contract before you do it the same way because it's the safe way. And I think I wasn't prepared for how much being an entrepreneur would wake up parts of my personality, that we're not actually really required to be awake to as a lawyer.
Oh, my God, I so hear you in that. And yeah, you're so right. Entrepreneurship somehow opens up parts of us that we did not even know existed. I didn't even realize, Oh, I can sell. But now that's one thing I've done, which is great. And I think if you are even remotely interested in learning new things, I think entrepreneurship is pretty incredible, in the way that it always keeps you on your toes. So...
Yeah. Yeah, it is. I, I totally agree. I always had this story in my head, from a young age that like, I wasn't creative. It's interesting looking back, because like, I did take art classes. I played piano- things that now I look at. And I'm like, obviously, those things are creative, right. But I wasn't super gifted at playing the piano. I wasn't this super gifted artist. I think, in part because of the environment I was in, and in part, because of my own personality, it was "Well, if I'm not exceptional in whatever area, then I'm not that thing. So I'm not creative, because I'm not going to become like the next great painter or whatever.
And I'm just realizing, in building this business, and putting together the podcast, and as I said, I literally do all the things. So and I mean, to be clear, I'm not saying that I necessarily do them all to the level of someone who specializes in those things. But, doing the graphics, writing the emails, like doing the podcast of putting together social media, like, all of those things are creative. But it just is in my head that creativity was a very specific thing. It was basically being artistic, and being talented at being artistic.
And so in this time while building this business, I've also started doing things like. I got an adult colouring book, which maybe that's like very stereotypical pandemic 2020. But, you know, I'm like a very mediocre colour-er. I'm not doing it because I'm like, this thing is going to like, turn into some whatever. It's just something different to do. And I realized that I just didn't think of doing stuff like that before. Because of this narrative of "Oh, I'm not creative".
You're so right. Like, what is creativity? I guess that itself is something like I love to spend my time in definitions because data is something that I do. And data is all about definitions. And I tend to get really into the definitions of - what is creativity? And you're so right, like, creativity is so much more than just being artistic.
On that note, Sarah, what is the one Not-so-Corporate thing that you do? Or you have always done that had impact on both your career and your life in business?
I really like being outside. And it's interesting. So after law school, my husband and I moved to Houston, Texas, which we love in many ways, but the weather was very... well, it's basically built on the swamp. So swamp-like. And I grew up in Pennsylvania, which has the stereotypical four seasons.
And I really missed the landscape and just that experience of the Four Seasons, the rhythm of the year, and actually so back in 2019, so a year after I quit and at the same time, basically, that I was starting this business, we decided after 11 years in Houston to move back. Well, I say back, for me, it was back to Pennsylvania with our kids For a lot of different reasons, firstly, to be closer to family, but also like just to be in a place that for us was like, more enjoyable in terms of being outdoors.
And for me, it was like, sort of returning to that, as the location of the physical location of growing up. And being here has been so wonderful, especially in the year of the pandemic, where we were at home a lot. And we still are having those four seasons, being able to walk outside and feel like the air the way the air felt, in my growing up years, it would never have occurred to me, in 2008, when I was graduating from law school to do something as big as moving 1500 plus miles, cross country, just and it wasn't just but in part, just because my environment mattered to me, it was very much I would at that point was very much in the mind over matter.
So yeah, that's probably one of the things that has been the most inspiring for me. And also, I think really indicative of how much growth has occurred since the time that I graduated from law school and embarked on the path of being a lawyer.
Amazing, well done to you on that. That's incredible. And I think that probably just being in that location where you spent your childhood probably helps you even be more childlike in absorbing information, making decisions that are not necessarily to do with to use your words, prestige, and what other people think. But because of you...
I think it's like as you develop, like, learning to listen to yourself is a skill that you develop and like a muscle that you have to exercise. And the more that you do it, the more that you're able to. And for me, moving, into this sort of environment where right now it's spring and the daffodils are exploding everywhere. And all the flowering trees in law a lot. Just it makes me so happy.