Category Archives: Transition Issues

Hiring Help: What Happens When You Work With a Life Coach?

If you’ve ever wondered whether you should hire someone to help you with your career transition, you may also have wondered what kind of help to get.  In this post, Deb Elbaum, a Boston-area life coach, explains how coaching differs from career counseling and therapy, and how one style of coaching – Co-Active Coaching – works in detail.

What’s your dream?  Whether you are a lawyer or other professional, there might come a time when you are ready to explore “What’s next?” You might crave an entirely new job or career that fills your days with more meaning and fun, for example, or you might desire more balance in your life. To help find the right path, many people work with a professional such as a career counselor, therapist, or coach. All of these professionals can provide support during a transition—and one or another can be useful at different times in the journey—yet their focus and approach usually differ. In general, career counselors help people define their strengths and interests to find a career path that’s a good fit. Therapists are especially skilled at helping people understand and resolve past and current issues that keep them stuck or dissatisfied. In contrast, life coaches—Co-Active Coaches, in particular—begin with where people are and focus on what they want to create going forward.

If you choose to work with a Co-Active Cdebelbaumoach to help you through your transition, you’ll likely encounter these questions—known as “Powerful Questions”—among those your coach will ask:

1. What do you truly want? – This is the time to dream big and imagine where you want to be in one year, or even five years. Imagine the impact that you want to have on others, your family, the environment, or the world.

2. What matters most to you? – This question helps you clarify what matters most to you — which values you are currently honoring in your life, and which values need to be honored more. When people are clear on what deeply matters most to them, taking a next step flows much easier.

3. What’s another way you could relate to this topic (for example, a job search)? – Looking at a topic through different lenses changes how you feel about that topic. Imagine, for instance, what it would be like to approach a job search as a chore such as cleaning a bathroom. Then imagine what it would be like to approach a job search as a treasure hunt with a certain promise of gold. How are they different?

4. What obstacles do you put in your way? – We all encounter obstacles that keep us from exploring or trying something new. We might come up with stories about why we can’t do something, for instance. Coaching will help you identify the obstacles holding you back and maneuver over or around them.

5. What will you do, when will you do it, and how will your coach know? – In coaching, you will keep your learning moving forward from one session to the next by pondering a question or taking action between sessions. You and your coach will agree on what you will do, your timeline for completing it, and how you will be held accountable.

Whomever you choose to work with—coach, therapist, career counselor, or other professional—be sure to bring your openness, curiosity, and motivation to the process. And keep an eye out for your treasure.

Readers, have you ever worked with a coach? What did you learn from the process?

Deb Elbaum, M.D. received her training as a Co-Active Coach from the Coaches Training Institute. She is also a Founding Fellow at the Institute of Coaching, a non-profit organization supporting research on coaching. She loves coaching individuals who are exploring “What’s next?” You can connect with her at or

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Closing the Post-Law Gender Gap

One of my wonderful new colleagues at Bentley sent me this NYTimes piece on the comprehensive efforts to help women students and faculty do better at Harvard Business School.   These included placing stenographers in classes to help uncover perhaps unintentional gender bias among professors in who they called on and coaching women students to raise their hands more assertively in class.  This got me thinking about whether certain law schools (you alumnae know which these are) should try something similar.  This might benefit graduates who go on to non-legal careers as well. 

In interviewing over a hundred former lawyers for Life After Law, I noticed certain differences between women’s and men’s post-law experiences – a qualitative gender gap.  For example, women generally face fewer social repercussions when they leave big firms in the context of having kids than men do, so they find it easier to leave firms without a clear sense of their next professional step.  But are they more inclined to leave in the first place?  (My guess: oh yeah).  Do they have different assumptions about what they can do next?   Does what and how we learn in law school affect our divergent career paths?

We all know the stats about women lawyers in firms, including the persistent fact that women make up 50% of junior associates but only 15-18% of equity partners.  But maybe we can come up with ideas for potential law school reform by extrapolating from our own collective experiences about the post-law gender gap.   Here are some of my personal data points:

  • I found it easier to leave a high-paying, high-status law firm partnership than some of my male colleagues who were equally unhappy because I had a broader personal definition of success.  By the time I left, I no longer thought that money would buy happiness for my family or myself. 
  • Taking my wildly generous 12-week maternity leave created a meaningful space away from the firm.  While I didn’t come up with any great new career ideas on 2-3 hours of sleep a night, I did come to believe that some kind of non-legal career was generally possible and increasingly appealing.  Weekends and vacations had never created enough time for that to sink in.
  • I wasn’t great at firm politics when I practiced law.  I understood that mentors and sponsors could make a difference, but my male colleagues seemed to fit right into the system while I was still studying it.  It wasn’t until after I left my big firm that I learned to network effectively.  If I had understood the process and power of networking earlier in my career (say, in law school), I might have made partner sooner than I did. I also might have left sooner than I did. 

Readers, what would you add to this list?  Has your experience in law, and/or leaving law, been affected by gender?  Is that necessarily a bad thing?  Do you think law schools should be re-engineered in any way to reduce gender bias?  Let’s talk.

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Seven Suggestions for Faking It At Work

Someone asked me a great question the other day.  “I’m having a hard time staying engaged at the office,” she explained.  “I want to leave, but I’m not sure what to do next.  How do I keep up the appearance that I’m still interested in practicing law while I figure out my next move?”

This in-between stage is hard in so many ways.  It can be hard to force yourself to work on cases when you no longer care about the outcome.  It can be hard to make yourself meet your billable hour minimum when you find the work dull and unrewarding.  It can be hard to act happy, or at least not to growl at people, when you desperately want to do something else.  Here are seven strategies for the summer of your discontent.

  1.  Budget time for your own career search.  Figure out what time you can afford to spend on figuring out your next steps, whether that is an hour a day or a few hours a month.  Then be accountable to yourself for that time.  Put it on your calendar, even if you have to disguise it as an “appointment” in case other people have calendar access.  Not sure where to start with those next steps?  Start here.  Or here.
  2. Start thinking of your law job achievements as potential talking points for your next career, and your clients as potential references.   Will you be able to show the parallels, for example, between your next victory in court and your general success in achieving certain outcomes?  Will your clients be so pleased with the level of customer service they receive that they can speak well of you to future employers?
  3. Connect with online sources of support for leaving the law, including (of course) this one.   Reading about other people’s career changes can be inspiring.  If you’re thinking of starting your own business, you may enjoy reading some of the profiles at The Story ExchangeiRelaunch also has great “success stories” of people who have relaunched their careers after taking time off.
  4. If you don’t yet know what you want to do next, start researching people whose careers you may want to learn more about.  If your law school offers alumni counseling – or if you are still in law school – ask whether the school keeps a database of the growing number of alumni who are in non-traditional legal jobs.  Sharing a law school connection can be a great springboard toward an informational interview.
  5. If you already know what you want to do next, but haven’t left yet, develop a specific benchmark for leaving.  Will it be when you have set aside x dollars for your new business?  Three weeks (or three hours) after you cash your next bonus check?  After you finish the next closing?  Give some thought to the turning point that makes the most sense for you.  Waiting until you just can’t take it any more is not an advisable strategy for many, many reasons.
  6. Be mindful that you are still an Officer of the Court, with an ethical obligation to your clients, etc., until the day you give notice (and maybe after that as well – would ethicists care to opine?).  Nobody wants their legal career to end with disbarment.
  7. On the most frustrating days, start (or continue) drafting your “goodbye cruel firm” departure letter.  On your home computer.  Never send it.

Readers, what helps you cope with the in-between stages of leaving the law?


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Baby Steps Toward Your Post-Law Career

While I was giving a talk last week, an audience member asked a great question.  “I’m not sure I want to leave my job,” she said, “but I’m not sure I can make a change, either.  I’m tired.  What do you recommend to people who don’t have as much energy as you do?”  It’s sad but true that I get so excited talking about post-law careers that I often forget how draining it can feel to come home at the end of a long day of doing something you dislike. 

No matter how little time or energy you have, there are several ways to take baby steps – small yet actually productive – toward a possible career change.  As an ex-lawyer, I feel the need to categorize them:baby steps

  1.  The Daily Question.
  2. The Minor Adjustment.
  3. The Perfect Work.

The Daily Question:   Sometimes, asking yourself a single question on a regular basis can help spark ideas that lead to your next great career.  Mary-Alice Brady, an ex-lawyer turned award-winning entrepreneur, found it helpful to answer this question at the end of every day: “What did I enjoy today and what was a challenge to me?”  A career coach had asked her to keep track of her answers.  You don’t need a career coach, however, to see progress from your answers to that question over time.  You just need a notebook.

The Minor Adjustment:   Is there some relatively small change you could make that might lead to a big difference in your job satisfaction?  Susannah Baruch, for example, switched from policymaking to policy consulting.  Becoming a consultant allowed her to keep her substantive focus on a field she loves – reproductive health policy – and get a more flexible schedule, allowing her more time with her sons.

The Perfect Work:  Take a moment to think about the following question.  If you could design your perfect job, what would it look like?  What kind of things would you do?  What kind of people would you work with?  Where would you work?  What kinds of matters would you work on?  Creating a crazily idealistic job description might not be so crazy after all.  In fact, sketching out your dream job may help give you some new ideas about your next steps.  Dreaming is the precursor to doing. 

What other baby steps are you taking?  What small moves might help you find work that fits you better?

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Bridging The Gap: How to Frame Non-Law Jobs On Your Resume

Let’s say it’s been a while since you practiced law, and you’re not sure you want to go back to it.  You’ve gotten some non-legal experience under your belt, either paid or unpaid.  How should you deal with it on your resume?  Hide it, or flaunt it?  My advice is to flaunt it by framing it carefully to show off your portable talents and skills. 

Let me show you what I mean.  On Monday, two people gave me resumes.  One came in my actual home mailbox, hand delivered by an out-of work lawyer who would “love to work with my firm” but who must not know that I help people leave their law careers.  His research skills aside, what stood about his resume was the yawning gap between his last job (in 2011) and now.  Even if I had a job open, I wouldn‘t give it to someone whose resume sparked so many questions at first glance.

The other resume also came from someone who hasn’t practiced law in a while.  I knew more of her story because I counseled her a few weeks ago.  This dynamic young woman had taken a job with a social service agency immediately after law school.  She deferred the bar exam while she set up and ran a legal services clinic for the agency’s clients.  The funding fell through after a year, leaving her out of work and seven months from the next bar exam.   So she started a new a business with her husband.  Their dog grooming boutique is now doing quite well, but it’s not what she wants to do for the rest of her life.  She has a passion for helping people, and wants to use her training toward that goal.  I advised her to showcase, rather than hide, her entrepreneurial experience on her resume.    

Here’s an excerpt from her new resume entry:

Founder/Co-Owner: Founded a boutique retail store with a focus on canine health. Conducted significant research and developed a network of canine professionals, including veterinarians, dog behaviorists, professional photography and local animal rescue organizations to create a unique business in the area served.  Designed website and built a strong customer base through various channels, including social media networks and targeted mailings.

This entry serves her well.  It shows off her initiative and drive, especially when paired with her previous job creating the legal services clinic.  It highlights her research, marketing, and collaborative skills, and shows tangible results, which any career counselor will tell you is a great way to rev up your resume.

Explaining non-traditional work experience is important, and not just because it fills suspicious gaps.  It’s important because it gives you another opportunity to shine.  Writing up your non-legal experience focuses potential employers’ attention on the experience, skills, and results that make you an attractive candidate and a valuable hire – no matter what you plan to do next.


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What’s Harder to Leave: Money or Status?

When lawyers, especially those in big firms, think about doing something else, the first question that comes up is almost always this:  how would I make enough money doing anything else?  Those fabulous associate salaries are easy to get used to, especially when you have debt.  For newer lawyers, the money question matters mostly because of debt – whether it’s the $240,000 of law school debt that many people graduate with, or the mortgage they took on when they settled into their new jobs.  For lawyers who have been in practice a bit longer, the money question may have more to do with their kids’  school tuition or the “lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed.”  It gets a lot harder to justify those gorgeous suits and handbags, or the lease on the Lotus, on the salaries that most college graduates earn.

But is it harder to give up the money or the status that comes with being a lawyer?   In general, it’s pretty easy to feel good about yourself at a cocktail party where the conversation stays superficial.    Isn’t it nice to be able to impress people with the three little words, “I’m a lawyer”?  Being a lawyer – any kind of lawyer – gives you a certain status that can come in handy, say, with the parents of the person you may hope to marry.  If you come from a lower-income family, as I do, your family may also take a certain pride in telling people what you do.   Moving from law to a different profession usually results in some sense that the ground is shifting under you in large part because you no longer have that quick status signifier to fall back on – at least, not immediately.

What do you think the hardest part of leaving the law is:  the likely drop in income, or the change in status?




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iRelaunching in Law

One of the most generous people I know – and one of the best resources for unhappy lawyers – is Carol Fishman Cohen, the co-founder (with Vivian Steir Rabin) of iRelaunch.    iRelaunch helps people restart, reconfigure, and reboot their careers after they have taken time off from work, whether it has been one year or 20.   They run a dizzying series of conferences, mentoring circles, and other programs that help people who have been out of the workforce figure out their next steps.

I met Carol while I was figuring out my own career relaunch a few years ago, and read her book “Back on the Career Track.”  After she introduced me to Golden Seeds, the angel investing network where I now serve as the Executive Director, she gave me the chance to speak at an iRelaunch conference about what had become my own successful career revamp.

Lawyers, you won’t be at all surprised to learn, make up a big part of the iRelaunch audience.  Many of them have gone from Big Law to home to Big Law again, but many of them have relaunched in an entirely different direction.  Carol and Vivian tell the stories of many of these lawyers in the “Relaunching in Law” section of their site, which is here.

The Relaunching Lawyers list is a great place to start reading about other lawyers who have taken time off, reconsidered, and rebooted.

What will your relaunch story be?

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Why Do So Many Women Leave Private Practice Before Making Partner?

The drop is dramatic: at least half of all new associates at large law firms are women, yet women make up less than 15% of equity partners at those same law firms. Nothing, to my knowledge, suggests that women are rejected in partnership evaluations more often than men, which suggests that women leave on their own steam more often than men. I’ve seen this myself, both inside the firms I worked for and among the women I have mentored since leaving big firm practice. The traditional explanations run along these lines:

  • Women find it harder than men to integrate work and family in workplaces that discourage efficiency, such as those that  measure service primarily by hours billed
  • Women are less willing than men to want to continue putting in the kind of time required of senior big firm lawyers because they define themselves more holistically;
  • Women find it culturally easier to leave firms, especially once they have their second child, then men do.  Motherhood provides them with social “cover” that fatherhood does not, at least not yet.
  • Big firms are still, in general, relatively sexist institutions whose basic structures renders the HR departments less effective in addressing sexism than they might be in different organizations.

What do you think of these explanations? Total BS? Valid in your view? Somewhere in between? What are we leaving out?

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What Else Can You Do With Your J.D.?

Life After Law is a blog about alternative careers for lawyers, and a launchpad for Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have, to be published in September 2013 by Bibliomotion.  We discuss what you can do with a law degree aside from traditional big-firm practice.  Are you sitting in your fancy office, trying to figure out what else is out there?  Are you still in or considering law school, and not sure whether you’ll enjoy what you do when you graduate?  Have you already made the leap from your old practice to something more interesting?  What do you think are the joys and challenges of finding nontraditional work after law school?  I want to hear all of your stories.

My story is this: After Harvard College and Harvard Law School, I spent twelve years working my way up in large law firms, ultimately making partnership in a well-known international firm.  I was a litigator, focusing on intellectual property and working on all kinds of commercial law cases.  I slept with my Blackberry, but not exclusively.  I earned a ridiculous salary and felt outwardly successful, but I struggled constantly with the question of whether I was on the right path.  Part of the struggle was whether it was foolish to even consider happiness as a personal goal, when it seemed to me that so few people were genuinely happy at work.  I was lucky, I felt, to have a high-paying, high-status job that I finally believed I could do well and to have clients that I liked.  Eventually, the change I was experiencing inside manifested itself outside.  After I gave birth to my daughter in 2008, I left my partnership – with no real plan other than to spend time with my adorable child.  In retrospect, this might not have been the best planned exit: leaving a lucrative job in a recession, a month before my husband was to be RIFfed at his – but it was the best risk I ever took.

Fast forward to now: I am the Executive Director in Boston of Golden Seeds, the third most active angel investor network in the country.  I teach advanced business law at Bentley University to undergraduates and MBA students.  Because both are part-time jobs, I spend at least one weekday with my daughter.   I take every opportunity I get to mentor people who are considering a change in their legal career.  My dream is to share the principles and practices that led me here, and to help everyone who thinks there might be more to life that a law practice that saps their soul.  Because there absolutely is.

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