For what it’s worth …

My original plan was to go quietly and fade into obscurity from the legal industry at the end of May 2022. Instead, I chose to follow Bill’s advice (he is full of good advice). Bill suggested I write an article about why I’m choosing to retire from legal. Here you have it, along with some parting words of encouragement I’d like to share with you.

I’m following the values of my heart and mind …

If you read my “16 Lessons” post from last summer, you know I’ve been on a journey as a digital nomad.

Last year, I relinquished most of my possessions to travel the world as a single mom, working and schooling remotely as we went. In that article, I promised to end my nomadic lifestyle “whenever I fall in love with a person and/or a place.” Post 247 (under Lesson 15).  In 2021, I experienced life in seven countries. I truly liked every place I explored for different reasons, though I would be hard-pressed to pick any one of those places to put down roots. However, I did fall in love with a man and that love has metaphorically grounded me (we still travel!). He is the partner with whom I believe I can build an interesting, joyful, and successful life.

… to build a successful partnership and other communities

When it comes to law firm partnerships, I wish more of them invested in defining and living by their values and purpose. Many firms grow without establishing this foundation, instead growing based on what seems convenient, around whatever complementary practice areas or geographies or rainmakers they believe will help them “grow.”

Alas, when partners’ values are not aligned and they speak of “growth,” their meanings and goals often differ: Some partners want to focus on growing revenues. For others, it’s profits, or headcount, or reputation of certain practices, or an individual client, or industries, etc. It’s important for partners to be clear about what they want to grow and why. Otherwise, individuals find themselves prioritizing different things, scattering rather than focusing their scarce resources.

When partners fail to cultivate shared values and purpose, the business defaults to a transactional view of growth (i.e., business convenience), which deflates some of the intrinsic motivation around coming together as partners. There are costs associated with that loss. Intrinsically motivated people produce tangible and intangible benefits for individuals and organizations. If more partners built their law firms around shared values and definitions of success, they’d be more effective at achieving those very successes. 

Partnerships are one type of community. Other communities are found among family, neighbors, circles of friends, professional networks, affinity groups, and more. I believe the most successful communities of any type are based on shared values and purpose.

Partners who share values and purpose have an easier time innovating and growing together

My partner and I share the core value of community and a purpose of contributing to constructive communities.

In this next phase of our lives, we want to see what elements of community we can foster when we combine our mutual interests and our complementary and diverse experiences and resources. This commitment might lead us to work in affordable housing or simply to help deepen the communal connections in our town.

Making a shift

As I shift from law firm management consulting to community development, the nature of my work has changed (a little), but my values have not. And, just because I’ve left the legal industry doesn’t mean it’s lost to me. The experience I’ve gained over a dozen years working in legal will be useful to my life partner and me in our work ahead. This next phase requires us to draw from everything we’ve experienced to date. For instance, in addition to the qualifications he brings to the table:

  • We might need advice from my network of attorneys who specialize in areas such as real estate and land use; water rights; ADA compliance; project finance; and tax incentives. 
  • My education (B.S. in environmental science; M.P.S. in law firm management; accreditation in organizational culture) can help me think through the environmental and social implications of housing design and other collaborative strategies. 
  • I can combine my professional experience in organizational culture, strategy, and leadership; my personal experience as an organizer and facilitator of communities of diverse thinkers (from hosting interesting mixes of people at dinner parties, to facilitating workshops and serving as a peer mediator, to leading the Thinkers’ Club from 2020-2022, which now boasts over 1,600 diverse members); and
  • My personal interest in philosophy, co-housing, travel, sustainable living, and cultural anthropology to explore the viability of various approaches to affordability and sustainability.

Major life changes are exciting if you choose to embrace them

The timing of my career pivot might seem a little odd to those of you who know me. I feel like I am leaving this industry at a high point, on the verge of going even higher… but so be it.

Though I’m certainly leaving good opportunities on the table as I transition from this industry, I have no regrets. Effective strategies are as much about deciding which opportunities to decline as which to pursue. I look forward to experiencing different and sometimes surprising opportunities in my life ahead as I go through new doors.

Besides, what may feel like a major change may not be after all … 

Each of us already has the information and tools that we need to make many changes available to us. Therefore, when you think about it, what seems like a major change may be a mere shift or pivot.  Whatever you’ve learned in the past, you can apply to whatever you do next, whether those things are directly related or not.

Before I worked in the legal industry, I worked in the apparel industry in NYC. Honestly, I can draw plenty of connections between fashion and law. For starters:

  • Bespoke suits vs. custom contracts, anyone? 
  • Law firms handle the legal needs of fashion companies. 
  • Many attorneys appreciate a good suit (those you wear as well as those you litigate – ha!)
  • In the apparel industry, I learned how to use Excel pivot tables to analyze fabric shipments and garment orders. Those same pivot table skills allowed me to be ahead of the curve when I worked with law firms to create creative pricing structures and matter budgets. If I hadn’t worked in apparel, I might not have had a leg up in legal at the time I did.

As with apparel and legal, there’s a lot of exchange and overlap between the legal field and community development. That’s why I wrote above that “as I shift from law firm management to community development, the nature of my work has changed (a little)…”  Many of the skills and tools I’ve used to work with law firm leaders and their firms will transfer to other types of community development and management work.  

Choose to change, or change will choose you

If you’re wondering how you might pivot into a new role, to a new employer (or to becoming self-employed), or to a new industry, it’s not that complicated. Simply assess what you currently have to work with and look for common threads and connections throughout your history. This includes your network, education, professional and personal experiences, and interests, plus your current and desired personal situations.

Two paragraphs ago, you saw how I made connections between my past and present selves along these attributes. If you performed the same exercise and reviewed how you’ve changed and not changed over time, what would you find?

Here’s an analogy between epigenetics and making a pivot in one’s lifestyle, career, or simply changing one’s mind: We have all this raw material (DNA) within us, yet we express different genes at different times in our lives. Similarly, we can stop expressing one part of ourselves, and begin to express another part to achieve a different life experience which will, like a feedback loop, change us further.

Not only can you change, but you are indeed always changing whether you want to or not! How much or little you take a proactive approach to shape your personal S-Curve is up to you. See Post 223 (me discussing the opportunities inherent in the gig economy). Personally, I like to think I’m choosing to be out there surfing my personal S-Curve like it’s the ride of my life … because it is!

The graphic below is a nice illustration of the cycle available to us all. 

Source: Whitney Johnson, “Throw Your Life a Curve,” Harv Bus Rev, Sept 3, 2012

Some of my favorite advice: Life happens when we show up 

I’m not sure whether I picked up those words somewhere, or formed the paradigm based on my own experiences. Regardless, time and time again, I’ve been propelled forward by living by those words.

Here are a few examples, from 2017 alone, of pretty fantastic opportunities that resulted when I chose to “show up” for life a little impulsively in big ways:

  • Before applying to grad school at The George Washington University, I asked several current students and alumni of the Masters in Law Firm Management program to meet with me for lunch or dinner. This required me to fly to different parts of the US on my own time and dime. All worth it, though! Those people provided me with great encouragement and a solid foundation for growing my professional network. 
  • At that time, CLOC was still in its early years. I was a paralegal at a law firm. The firm would not pay for me to attend. However, I felt so strongly about going, that I paid my own way. It was expensive for me then, but worth it! I came back from that experience energized with fresh insights about a multitude of pressures law firms would soon be facing. I used this information to pitch (and win) a new director-level role for myself at a different law firm that wanted to actively prepare for those client-driven pressures. 
  • Joe Altonji, LawVision

    Then, Bill Henderson posted an invitation on LinkedIn for anyone to attend his student presentations. I flew from Cleveland to Chicago to be there. I think I traveled farther than anyone. But showing up to that event changed my career yet again in an unexpected and delightful way. Sitting next to me in the audience that evening was Joe Altonji, who ultimately invited me to join his consulting firm LawVision as a result of that fortuitous chance meeting. Working with LawVision opened tremendous opportunities for me to work with a wide variety of law firms in North America and beyond and to expand my knowledge and experience of the business and culture of law firms.

If my experiences haven’t inspired you to show up for life and grab it by the horns (or even if they have), I highly recommend Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day (2017) by Roman Krznarik.

My parting words to you

Thank you for being my trail buddies along this part of my journey. I wish you well in your own journeys ahead, whatever paths you take. Stay curious. Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourselves at any point and at many points! Most importantly, I wish you – however you define them – success in life, continued growth, a sense of meaningful community, love, and JOY.

Editor’s note:  I am very grateful that Yvonne took the time to write out the above reflections.  Lots to think about.  Thus, it’s not surprising that Yvonne’s final post required the creation of a new content category, Values and Purpose. Hopefully, Yvonne is paving the way for others, as values and purpose should be the foundation of everything we do.  For the memorable beginning of Yvonne’s journey on Legal Evolution, see Post 222.