The thought of chasing your dream can feel like an impossibility. With financial, professional and personal goals so closely tied to success as an attorney, there seems to be little opportunity to leave a traditional job in favor of something more fulfilling. But it can be done. In this article, three lawyers will reflect on how choosing a non-traditional path impacted their relationship to the profession, and their feelings about that decision.
I interviewed three very interesting people: Jim Calloway (JC) from Oklahoma, Josh Poje (JP) from Illinois, and Laura Mahr (LM) from North Carolina. Jim is the director of the Management Assistance Program at the Oklahoma Bar Association and is a legal services consultant. He’s been in law practice management for 20 years. Josh Poje is the director of ABA Law Practice & Technology Group. Josh has been with the ABA for over 10 years. Laura Mahr is the founder and principal of Conscious Legal Minds, a resilience coaching, training, and consulting firm, and she previously spent a decade practicing law.
Below, each of these leaders in their respective fields provide insight into their choice to pursue alternative careers.
Q: What major factors lead to you consider moving away from a traditional career path for lawyers?
Jim Calloway (JC): I wasn’t unhappy as a lawyer in private practice, but I did a lot of family law work and it was clear that unpleasantness, unhappiness, and dealing with so many very emotional people was going to take a toll over the years. The main reason was I had been experimenting with computers, modems, and the beginning of online services, and believed technology was going to be a major force in our future. Then I saw this ad about a new career possibility in the Oklahoma Bar Journal.
Laura Mahr (LM): In 2015, after almost 10 years as a sexual violence attorney and trainer funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, I sensed that I needed a break. At the time, I felt tired—the kind of tired that a good night’s sleep or a weekend off couldn’t cure. I didn’t understand why I was so tired, despite all of the meditation, yoga, eating well, and exercising I did. After working through my internal resistance to taking a sabbatical from practicing law, I decided to take a year off. I used the year to research and practice the most cutting-edge tools for building resilience, including experimenting with the practical applications of modern neuroscience research. After my sabbatical, I felt passionate about combining my pre-law school training as a yoga and meditation teacher with my skills as an educator and lawyer to create a business that focuses on improving the lives of lawyers… and hence, Conscious Legal Minds was born.
Josh Poje (JP): I realized near the end of law school that I wasn’t very interested in a traditional practice. I’ve always been fascinated with complex systems—that’s what drew me to the law in the first place—but the day-to-day work just wasn’t appealing. I was more interested in the legal system than being a lawyer, if that makes sense. I briefly considered pursuing a career in legislative work (I was clerking for the Uniform Law Commission at the time), but my background in technology opened a door to work for the Legal Technology Resource Center at the ABA instead, and the rest is history.
Q: How does being a lawyer in a non-traditional role affect how you think about yourself among your peers?
JC: Because I advise and work with lawyers almost every day, I still feel like a vital part of the profession. I’ve met far more lawyers and judges than I ever would have in private practice, and only very rarely do we ever have to argue about anything. Several times a month I address a group of lawyers for a luncheon meeting CLE. Plus I have many one-on-one counseling sessions with lawyers where I learn about their practices, their dreams, and their lives.
LM: When I first started my coaching and consulting business, I questioned whether I still “felt like a lawyer.” At first I wondered if I was still “on the team” if I wasn’t “in the trenches.” However, I now realize that my decade in the trenches gave me the perspective, understanding, and compassion I utilize every day to teach lawyers about mindfulness and building resilience to stress. In order to genuinely connect with lawyers coping with stress, I had to first be a lawyer under stress. In some ways I feel more like a lawyer now than ever; it is my experience practicing law that gives me the credibility to teach mindfulness and burnout prevention to other lawyers.
JP: Honestly, it was challenging. It’s hard to take a different path from your peers—as your experiences diverge, it becomes harder and harder to relate and a natural distance form. After a couple years, I found that I built a new peer group among the folks in the legal technology, practice management, and bar association space. That was tremendously rewarding on both a personal and professional level, and many of my new peers are good friends even outside of our work lives.
Q: Which aspects of practicing law in a more traditional setting were the hardest to give up?
JC: That’s easy; the courthouses and the lawyers there. I missed the activity of the courthouse, the drama of the courtrooms, and hearing the judges announce rulings after good arguments. Often you would see a lawyer you had been playing phone tag with and get something worked out in a hallway. I know other lawyers don’t have “courthouse” practices, but I was in some courthouse almost every week and was surprised at how much I missed it.
LM: When I left my job as a staff attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center, I felt the loss of no longer working on a team with other attorneys. I truly missed the collegiality and synergy of being around other “lawyer brains.” Starting my own coaching, consulting, and training business required a different skill set than lawyering; it was difficult to exchange some of the ease of being an experienced sexual assault attorney for the challenge of pioneering a new business idea.
JP: I never really practiced in a traditional setting so this is hard for me to answer. But I do sometimes regret that my path didn’t give me as many opportunities to have a direct, meaningful impact on the lives of people who need help. In my law school orientation, a local attorney spoke to us and emphasized that people turn to lawyers at pivotal (and often terrible) moments in their lives. That’s stuck with me through the years. I’m proud to be a part of a profession that’s there to help people in those moments, and sometimes regret that I’m not able to more directly assist.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job as an Alt. JD?
JC: I used to serve my clients. Now I help the lawyers in my state better serve their clients through improved practice management practices and tools. I write columns, articles, and books that lawyers everywhere can read. And I get to attend ABA TECHSHOW every year, where I meet with best legal tech minds in the profession and learn about the latest and greatest tech tools.
LM: The most rewarding aspect of my job as a resilience coach and mindfulness trainer for lawyers is the joy that comes from supporting attorneys seeking work-life balance. I am now doing what had long been my dream and passion: championing mindfulness and resilience in the practice of law. As an attorney who personally experienced aspects of burnout, it is truly fulfilling to teach lawyers how to use mindfulness and neuroscience-based tools to build resilience to stress. When conducting CLEs, I love facilitating discussions among attorneys about the stress of practicing law. There is a palpable, collective sigh of relief when the lawyers in the room feel safe enough to honestly discuss the toll that practicing law has on their health, wellness, and personal relationships. To then be able to step in and offer cutting edge tools to mitigate stress brings genuine meaning to my life.
JP: While I don’t have the opportunity to be directly of service to clients, I do feel like I have an opportunity to have a voice on the broader direction of the profession. I’ve been able to apply skills in technology, business development, and strategy to advance important causes. Ultimately, the Alt JD route provides a lot of flexibility and self-determination, which are both very important to me
Each of these attorneys took a different road to find their professional home, but each of their stories share a common thread. A careful examination of what makes you happy, understanding how your environment affects your outlook, and being open to new opportunities were instrumental in finding a fulfilling career. They all took a chance, reset their professional goals, and embarked on a new path in alternative careers.
Joyce Brafford is an attorney with an Alt JD career of her own, as the distance learning manager for Continued Legal Education at the North Carolina Bar Association. Follow Joyce on Twitter @joyce_brafford.
“Ctrl Alt Career: Reset Goals to Find Personal Success” appeared in the September 2017 online edition of the ABA’s Law Practice Today. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.