The real-life journey from lawyer to award winning author

I’m always on the lookout for stories from the Leave Law Behind community, of people first realizing they want to do something different to those people who take that first step and actually leave and do something else.

Here is the story of Sheila Agnew, a Leave Law Behind reader, former family law attorney and now published author. She has a compelling life story, of leaving the law … going back to it … and now finding her Unique Genius as a writer. I hope you enjoy.

 

In 2003 I was a new, lateral, commercial litigation associate at a fairly small firm in downtown Manhattan. On my first Tuesday morning, a senior partner stepped into my office:

“Welcome to the firm Susan. How are you getting on?”

“Fine,” I said.

I didn’t point out that my name wasn’t Susan. I didn’t care enough to bother.

“Wonderful,” he boomed, “we’re quiet in commercial litigation at the moment but there’s lots of work for you in matrimonial litigation. There’s a case going to trial in a few weeks.”

It was not my dream as a little girl to grow up to be a divorce lawyer.

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Thank you

I constantly receive emails from many of you. Many of them are emails simply saying thanks.

You thank me for starting this blog. It has helped you leave the law, it has helped you feel not so alone, it has helped you to motivate to make change, it has helped you to take a first step.

I love getting these emails.

And the one thing I love as much as getting the emails is replying to these emails with my own thanks.

 

Thank you

I thank you for taking the time to thank me.

I thank you for taking a baby step to just send me a note.

I thank you for providing me insight into your own personal situation.

I thank you for having the courage to ask for help and advice and where to go next.

I thank you for reading what I write, and commenting on it, providing me feedback, suggesting new ideas, and sending me resources and news for me to follow.

I thank you for being on the cutting edge of what’s possible for us unhappy,

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How to find work/life balance (really)

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While many of us want to leave the law altogether, some of us still want to consider finding a way to practice the law in a non-traditional, temporary, or part time way.

Those of us who are Moms and Dads want to know how to do this in order to be more present with their children. Those of us who are sick or disabled want to know how to do this in order to find ways to work that meet our special needs. Those of us who are just burnt out with the BigLaw lifestyle and want to leave the law want to know how to do this as a way to segue out of the law without losing a steady stream of income.

But for many of us, there has never been a real good fit between what we are looking for in an attorney job and lifestyle and what the current set of firms and organizations out there provide.

 

This is changing. 

There are now many more alternatives. To help us understand the new companies and entities that are popping up to provide lawyers and clients with a new way to do and receive legal work,

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Help

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My son is five years old and this year he discovered Star Wars.

And the main way he enjoys Star Wars is through playing with his Star Wars Lego toys.

The Ewok Attack set. The Battle on Saleucami set. The Phantom ship. The Jedi Interceptor. He loves ‘em.

And he’s actually pretty good at building them. It can be tough for a young child to fit the pieces together, and he’s gotten a lot better. He can fit the feet of figures on the Lego pieces so they stand upright, he can get the small red lights to fit on the end of the blaster guns, and he can get the spears to fit in the Gungan hands.

But some pieces still give him trouble, and one in particular bedeviled him tonight: he just couldn’t get that arm piece, with that rounded knob, to fit back into the socket of the figure’s torso.

I wanted him so badly to do it on his own. I wanted the full strength of his fine motor skills to kick in,

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Leaving the law is first about arriving back with our self

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This past Saturday night I wrote. The family was asleep. Asleep. Asleep and quiet.

We have a new dog, this great, young, big bundle of energy and the dog was asleep.

The house was quiet. I was quiet. Very quiet.

And for the first time in what had been a busy week I was really able to pause and think. I put on music that helps me think. I breathed in and out calmly and had a cup of hot tea and enjoyed the solitude and I thought. I thought and reflected. It was nice.

I walked softly around the house and looked out the window towards where the ocean would be and all there was was black sky and incoming fog, San Francisco fog, grey, fast moving, windy, chilling summer fog, coming off of the ocean and making scary whistling sounds, and whipping down our street and thrilling me with its force and numbing the City with its chill.

I walked down the hall and put the heat on.

And the heat came on and I relaxed and I thought and I tried hard to put these thoughts and ideas together into something worthy,

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The key to happiness (and leaving the law) is in helping others

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“If you want happiness for an hour—take a nap. If you want happiness for a day—go fishing. If you want happiness for a month—get married. If you want happiness for a year—inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime—help others.”

– Chinese proverb

I received an email from a reader last week. The subject line read “Thank you”. She wrote in to tell me that ever since law school she knew the law wasn’t for her. She did not enjoy law school, but nonetheless still finished. And she has been miserable in her few years practicing. She did not like the work of being a lawyer and she and her boss did not connect in a meaningful way.

So she just quit. Gave notice. Gone.

And she spent that day reading Leave Law Behind and it has calmed her down and let her know she wasn’t alone and made her feel like a real live person again and she wanted to thank me for that.

 

Helping others

I have received many emails like this over the years.

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The horns blare and the drums beat and your power is now limitless

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Okay, quick test. What is 9X9?

5X3?

7X6?

8X8?

13X8?

Pretty easy those first four multiplication questions, but that last one, hmm. Had to think about it, didn’t you. Here’s how I finally figured it out: 13 times 10 is 130, and 8 is 2 less than 10, so I’ll subtract 13 X 2 which is 26, and so then 130 minus 26 is … 104? Right?

Yes, it is 104, but why did it take so much longer to get 104 than it did to get 81, and 15 and 42, and 64?

Because 81, 15, 42 and 64 have been “imprinted” in our sub-consciousness. Whenever we learned multiplication in our respective formative years, this pattern and knowledge was repeated and repeated and repeated to us so that it was imprinted into our sub-consciousness. We just know it. It’s fact.

But we only went up to twelve. 12 X 12? Sure, 144.

But 13 X 8? 13 X 5? 15 X 14? 16 X 17?

We didn’t learn these. These weren’t repeated. These weren’t imprinted.

Why?

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Only when I was really honest with myself did I realize why I had to leave the law

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The main reason why I left the law is because I wasn’t really that good at it. I’m not looking for pity or using this as an excuse. I’m just being honest with myself. The skills that were required in my practice of the law as in-house counsel – attention to minute detail, detailed contract review, compliance, human resources and employment law, to name a few – were not skills I was very proficient at or possessed in great quantity.

Nor did I really enjoy my practice of the law. I didn’t enjoy always having to be the “adult in the room”, ensuring that any actions and projects and proposals and promotions put forward by Sales, Biz Dev and Customer Support were in line with our company policies, our partner agreements or regulations. I didn’t enjoy always having to react to an event and put out fires; I wanted to invent and brainstorm and be tasked with creating new things for the business … and not having to ensure our current initiatives were in compliance.

Of course these were my unique experiences, and everyone has their own take on their practice of the law and enjoys or is frustrated by their practice of it in their own way.

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8 things I wish I knew when I decided to leave the law

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This blog is almost four years old. The spirit and adventure of Leave Law Behind began in 2004, when I myself left the law for good. And it started to really take shape in earnest in the summer of 2009, when I was asked by the career services office of my alma mater, UC Hastings, to participate in a speakers series around “alternative legal careers”.

2009 was deep in the recession, and what I thought would be a lightly attended affair turned out to be an almost packed room. To prepare, I had put together a short slide presentation called “Leave Law Behind” (my wife’s idea). I spoke of the issues that caused me to want to leave the law, the ways I built up my personal courage to do so, how I actually took that first step and my exploration of my own Unique Genius. I gave some pointers and ideas of next steps. I spoke with people one-on-one for almost an hour afterwards. The pain and anxiety and desire to leave the law were palpable in that room. I knew there was a need here, and I wanted to help. Leave Law Behind was born.

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If you are a lawyer battling depression, you may want to read this

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My friend, Dan Lukasik, who runs the Lawyers with Depression website, asked me to post some information on his up-coming webinar “Getting Work Done While Depressed”, coming up on Friday, February 7th, 2014 at 3 p.m. Eastern time. Here is more from Dan.

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If you’re a lawyer that struggles with depression, you’re not alone.  Studies show that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate twice (20%) that of the general population.  When put in perspective, that means that 240,000 of this country’s 1.2 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now.

These findings are not about sadness, the blues or even burnout, but true clinical depression.  According to the Mayo Clinic, to be diagnosed with major depression by a health care professional you need to have some of the following symptoms most of the day, every day:

Feelings of sadness, emptiness or unhappiness

Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters

Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, such as sex

Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much

Tiredness or lack of energy,

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